On September 12, 2023, the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), Little Tokyo Historical Society (LTHS), and other Little Tokyo partners celebrated the upcoming 100th anniversary of JANM’s Historic Building with a new plaque and street signs marking the building’s significance and its City of Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument designation.
JANM’s Director of Collections Management and Access and Curator, Kristen Hayashi, welcomed the group and introduced Michael Okamura, president of the Little Tokyo Historical Society, who spoke about the LTHS’s efforts to raise the visibility of historic sites throughout Little Tokyo, including the Koyasan Buddhist Temple, the Kame Restaurant, the Finale Club, Sei Fujii and J. Marion Wright Memorial Lantern, Toyo Miyatake Way, Reverend Howard Toriumi Plaza, and the Aoyama Tree.
“You could tell that throughout Little Tokyo these are significant. We honor these legacy people who were before us and it’s very important. When you walk throughout Little Tokyo please take a moment and absorb all these people and the naming sites,” said Okamura.
Rev. William Briones of Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple then spoke about how the site played an important role in the spiritual and social life of the community.
“It was a place of spiritual refuge, community, a playground for the children, a place to grieve for their loved ones, and to find joy in the joining of two people. And who could forget the iconic picture that Archie Miyatake took? The backdrop of one of the assembly points from which local Issei and Nisei were sent to the camp. Today we are truly honored for this recognition and even though a lot of people don’t know the history of this, there are so many fond and wonderful memories of this temple. Thank you for this recognition,” said Briones. Afterward, both of them unveiled the new signs on 1st Street that now mark the historic site.
The Historic Building was designed by local architect Edgar Cline and built in 1925 as the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist temple. In 1985, the newly incorporated JANM signed a fifty-year lease with the City of Los Angeles to renovate the temple and convert it into a museum. The renovation was conceived by a consortium of eight Japanese American architects: Marcia Chiono, David Kikuchi, Shigeru Masumoto, Yoshio Nishimoto, Frank Sata, Takashi Shida, George Shinmo, and Robert Uyeda. In 1986 it was designated as City of Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument 313. In 1992 JANM opened its doors to the public with 23,800 square feet of space for exhibitions, collections, and public programs.
“JANM’s Historic Building is our oldest and largest artifact on our campus. It is hallowed ground, a site of conscience, and a gathering place for civic engagement and social justice. The plaque and street signs not only commemorate the Historic Building’s history in the Japanese American community but also expands the public’s understanding of its significance to the history of Los Angeles and the US. Commemorating the building’s history ensures that past injustices will never be repeated and that diverse voices will be heard now and into the future,” said Ann Burroughs, President and CEO of JANM.
Principal City Planner and Manager for the City of Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources, Ken Bernstein, praised the new plaque and street signs for raising the visibility of the historic site in Little Tokyo.
“Our historic buildings anchor us in an ever changing city. They really provide a meaningful connection to our collective memory—that bridge between past, present, and future. Thanks to you, the historic designation and enhanced visibility through the street sign and the plaque will continue to allow the Little Tokyo community to connect to its rich heritage and really use that rich heritage as a way of continuing to promote the vitality of the Little Tokyo community.”
Actor, activist, JANM Trustee, and Board Chair Emeritus, George Takei, joined Burroughs and Bernstein to unveil the bronze plaque, now installed at the building’s historic entrance.
Hayashi closed the ceremony by noting the significance of the ceremony and the power of place that JANM’s Historic Building has on its own and in relation to JANM’s Pavilion.
“These places matter to us and our community and we want people to know about its significance; that’s why we have this ceremony today. We could’ve just mounted the plaque but instead we really wanted people to know that it’s here. Several people have pointed out that there are several generations of people here today to witness this moment and it’s so fitting because as you turn around and you look towards JANM’s Pavilion, the architects of the Pavilion really wanted us to reflect on our past. Our past is what guides our present and future. It’s symbolic of who’s represented here. We have several generations here to carry on the legacy of those who have come before us in Little Tokyo.”
A special surprise performance by the children of Nishi Daycare charmed the audience of fifty who gathered in the plaza for the celebration.
What was it like to grow up behind barbed wire? JANM’s exhibition, Don’t Fence Me In: Coming of Age in America’s Concentration Camps, explores the experiences of Japanese American youth confronting the injustice of being imprisoned in World War II concentration camps while embarking on the universal journey of adolescence. Preteens, teenagers, and young adults danced with one another, listened to jazz and big band music, and formed musical groups of their own that performed regularly in camp.
Swing dance, which developed alongside jazz music, was started by African American dancers at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York. Musicians such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and Chick Webb all performed at the ballroom. The ballroom’s anti-discrimination policy created a unique environment for diversity and creativity. The Savoy Ballroom and swing dancing was also featured at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. From there, swing dance and music spread across the country throughout the 1930s, including in Los Angeles.
Swing dancing was so popular among youth that a group of young dancers interrupted Los Angeles City Hall council members to invite them to a swing dance contest at the Gilmore Stadium on September 11, 1938. The following year, the Palomar Ballroom hosted the Jitterbug Championships and the finalists (from twenty states and six countries) danced for cash prizes to live music from the Artie Shaw and Ken Baker Orchestras in front of thousands of people at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as part of the International Jitterbug Championships on June 18, 1939.
During World War II, young Nisei like George Yoshida who enjoyed big band music continued to do so when they were forcibly removed from their homes. According to his book, Reminiscing in Swingtime, incarcerees created big bands such as the Densoneers or D-Elevens, Down Beats, Jive Bombers, Jivesters, Music Makers, Pomonans, Poston Camp #2 Band, Rhythm Kings, Rhythmaires, Savoy Four, Stardusters, and Starlight Serenaders in the temporary detention centers and concentration camps.
Nisei like sisters Yuri Long and Sumiko Hughes were a part of social clubs that would also participate in swing dancing. Long and Hughes, who are both featured in the Don’t Fence Me In audio tour on Bloomberg Connects, talked about how much they enjoyed swing dancing as part of their social club, Just Us Girls (the JUGs), in the Manzanar concentration camp. The JUGs were made up of the youngest girls, followed by the Forget-Me-Nots and the Moderneers.
“They call us wild because at the dances, the JUGs were always very popular, and the guys would come and ask them to dance. And they jitterbug. They were on the dance floor all the time. And some of the other club girls were sort of off on the side. They didn’t get asked as much. And they didn’t jitterbug. And they used to jitterbug wild. They would throw them under their legs,” recalled Hughes.
Bob Wada, who was also featured in the Don’t Fence Me In audio tour, recalled knowing where all of the dances were at the Poston incarceration camp because the blocks within camp kept a running log.
“A lot of the blocks had their own dances. So we had our own. They weren’t, like, out of control dances, they were good. People didn’t crash dances. Our block had a dance and they invited a few friends that would come. That’s about the only thing we did socially,” he said.
Some incarcerees even had their own musical equipment made in camp. Two Nisei, one of which may have been Sadaichi Tanioka, made a turntable for Henry Nomura so that he could play music for his own enjoyment and for others in the firebreaks and at block dances at the Manzanar concentration camp.
Handmade dance bids—paper booklets featuring an illustration of the event on the cover—were popular, complete with blank lines for dance partners to sign their name. Many of the dance bids in Don’t Fence Me In were donated by Karen Nagao. Her mother-in-law, Ruth (née Higa) Nagao, was incarcerated in the Pomona temporary detention center and the Heart Mountain concentration camp. While working as a crop picker and nurse’s aide at Heart Mountain, Nagao participated in many events including plays and dances. Her collection of dance bids commemorated block dances and special events like, a New Year’s Eve Dance, a Valentine’s Dance, and a Coronation Ball.
To celebrate big band music, JANM created a Don’t Fence Me In playlist of popular songs from the 1940s and hosted a two-part public program, From Barbed Wire to Boogie Woogie, on June 17, 2023.
From Barbed Wire to Boogie Woogie kicked off with a conversation between dance preservationist Rusty Frank and Rohwer concentration camp survivors, artists, and performers, June Aochi Berk and Takayo Tsubouchi Fischer. Berk and Fischer met at the Rohwer when they were ten years old and have been friends ever since. While incarcerated at Rohwer, they were too young to attend the dances but they were attuned to the fashion of the times and taught themselves how to dance.
“I used to love looking at the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs,” said Fischer.
“I made my mother buy me white majorette boots, a skirt, and a top. And my brother had to have pachuco pants so he could be in style in camp,” recalled Berk. “We would stand around and watch the big kids dance and we’d go home and copy them. That’s how we learned to dance. My brother always wore his pachuco hat all the time and I would look to see who was dancing with him.”
From Barbed Wire to Boogie Woogie then transitioned to the All Camps Swing Dance with live music from the Fabulous Esquires Big Band and custom dance bids for guests. After Frank led a beginner swing dance lesson for all ages, the Fabulous Esquires played popular tunes from the 1940s like “Don’t Fence Me In,” “Moonlight Serenade,” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (which Berk sang in Japanese). Together, the conversation and dance offered all generations the opportunity to connect through music, movement, and immersive history.
Don’t Fence Me Inis now on view through October 1, 2023. Swing by JANM to see it for yourself this summer and shop the exhibition’s collection at the JANM Store!
These days, stopping by a gas station or taking your car to a service center may be seen as a necessary inconvenience but once upon a time, gas and service stations could be like informal neighborhood hubs: a place to stop and chat, even if only for the few minutes it took to top off your gas, check your oil, etc.
This was especially true in Southern California where countless Japanese Americans ran stations through the region. If you grew up here, chances are, you remember a few of your favorite stations. Some of you may even remember the names of the people who used to run them.
If all you remember is the intersection where the station is or was, that’s useful to us. If you remember the name of the station and/or the name(s) of the Japanese American owner(s), even better.
We’re also interested in seeing any photos that people may have of those stations and the people who worked there.
Please fill out this form to submit your response. We’ll use this information to create a database and interactive map of all the gas/service stations in the region, based on all your replies. Thank you!
JANM examined Japanese American history through the lens of Little Tokyo by exploring how this historic cultural, residential, and business hub for the Southern California Japanese American community transformed over the course of its history. The workshop explored how historical events, legislation, and the community impact this landmark site and the people who are a part of it.
Teachers learned about immigration to the area and the establishment of Japanese stores, restaurants, religious, and cultural institutions in the early half of the 20th century, through the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, a period in which the neighborhood was known as Bronzeville and was home to African Americans from the Deep South who had arrived in Los Angeles seeking wartime employment. Post-war issues around resettlement, eminent domain, redress and reparations, and gentrification; and the present-day challenges and triumphs involved in preserving the history and culture of the area while moving the community forward were also examined.
This was great! The first person testimonies in particular will be something I [will] never forget, and I feel lucky that I get to bring those narratives to my students in the coming year.
In addition to showcasing the history of this neighborhood and the Japanese American community through JANM’s collection and exhibitions, we are grateful for the many perspectives contributed by scholars, community members, artists, activists, and educators.
The teachers heard from speakers representing organizations including Little Tokyo Community Council, Little Tokyo Historical Society, Visual Communications, and Facing History and Ourselves; artists Dan Kwong, Cog•nate Collective, and TT Takemoto; JANM scholars, educators, and visiting scholars, Dr. Hillary Jenks, and Dr. Mitchell Maki; and many JANM volunteers and community members who shared very impactful first-person experiences and reflections.
My knowledge of the Japanese American experience has grown tremendously and I feel more confident using language, accessing resources, and teaching about the incarceration as well as the resilience of the community then and now.
There are many threads that make up the very strong fabric of Little Tokyo and we learned so much from all the voices who offered their expertise and shared their experiences.
Little Tokyo: How History Shapes a Community Across Generations was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this workshop do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
In observance of the anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, JANM will be closed Tuesday, August 10, 2021.
This legislation reflects the Museum’s commitment to empower history for social justice. The Civil Liberties Act was signed into law on that day by President Ronald Reagan, issuing a formal Presidential apology and symbolic payment of $20,000 of restitution to persons of Japanese ancestry (two-thirds were US citizens) forcibly removed from the West Coast.
The World War II incarceration of 120,000 people at remote concentration camps by the U.S. government was without due process, or evidence of wrongdoing. For more than a century, Asians were considered “outsiders” in the U.S. The Civil Liberties Act acknowledged this dark chapter of history was driven “largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
To learn more about the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, here are a few resources:
This summer, Getty Marrow undergraduate interns from JANM, La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, and the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles collaborated to create a collections-based project tasked with answering the question:
How have immigrants and subsequent generations shaped what it means to be American?
The initial goal of the project was to highlight the agency of immigrants in shaping American identity. However, the interns’ submissions suggested that the answer to this specific question would not fully encapsulate the American experience of immigrants and their descendants. As a result, each intern approached this question from a different perspective and highlighted an artifact that touched upon different facets of the American experience and identity. In this post, Shelby Ottengheime and Jose Quirarte explore the complexity of “American identity” through ways that Japanese Americans preserved traditional Japanese values and institutions during World War II.
More specifically, Shelby and Jose selected items that demonstrate the ways in which Japanese Americans persevered while they were incarcerated during World War II by channeling the spirit of gaman—“persevering with dignity and fortitude.” Shelby highlighted a variety of craft items from JANM’s Eaton Collection and argued that the items reveal that gaman is integral to the Japanese American experience and that it manifested itself through various facets of their American experience. Jose highlighted a butsudan (Buddhist altar) made in the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming between 1942-1945, and argued that it symbolized that Japanese immigrants and their children preserved their cultural values despite American oppression.
Assortment of Pendants and Rings
Contributed by: Shelby Ottengheime, Japanese American National Museum
When reflecting on Japanese American history, a single word encapsulates generations of experiences, and that word is “gaman.” Though a seemingly simple expression, to the Japanese American community, it is a defining aspect. Gaman is translated as “to persevere with dignity and fortitude.” This cultural value is not only what enabled the Japanese American community to persevere through their injustices, but it has come to define what it means to be an American for them as well. In fact, it is so integral to Japanese American life that it even manifests itself in their actions, mottos, and art.
The Japanese American way of life has been historically characterized by hardship and adversity. As immigrants and laborers in the early 20th century, the Japanese came to the US in pursuit of the infamous American dream. However, discriminatory laws and social prejudice made it difficult for Issei’s (first generations Japanese Americans) to establish a home. Regardless of such hardships, like the fact that Issei were not legally allowed to own land, they persevered and built what they could with what they had.
The struggles that affected Japanese immigrants and subsequent generations are uniquely different from those experienced by any other immigrant community in US history and have ultimately shaped the Japanese American experience. This is referring to Executive Order 9066, which forcibly incarcerated all individuals living on the West Coast who were as little as 1/16th Japanese. Despite having done nothing wrong—there was “not a single documented act of espionage, sabotage, or treasonable activity by any American of Japanese descent”—over 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans were forced into concentration camps (Stone 1096). Fueled exclusively by prejudiced fear, E.O. 9066 was reasoned to protect Americans, however, those who were interned were US Citizens, and were effectively denied their rights simply because they were of Japanese ancestry.
With only a week’s notice, these Japanese Americans were forced from their homes and sent to desolate, barren concentration camps. Scared to be even more vilified and viewed as Japanese sympathizers, Japanese Americans complied with the US government and went to camp. Though they did not protest, that does not mean they went willingly, instead, they chose to gaman and persevere through the injustices that faced them. Each incarceree was allowed to bring a minimal amount of belongings, but they had no idea where they would be going or for how long they would be gone. As a result, Japanese Americans abandoned most of their possessions or left them in the care of neighbors. When they arrived at the concentration camps they were confronted with barbed wire, armed guards, a barren climate, poorly built living facilities, and an astounding lack of privacy. Even the food resembled nothing of home, offering no comfort to the incarcerees. However, one of the ways in which Japanese Americans were able to cope with their degrading and humiliating situation, was to create art. This artwork embodied their strength and their ability to persevere in an existence where they no longer had autonomy.
These visual representations of gaman reflect the indomitable resilience of Japanese Americans, and a large variety of the artwork was collected by Allen H. Eaton during World War II. Some of the pieces within the collection were mentioned in his book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire, which highlighted the art production by Japanese Americans while also pointing out that their constitutional rights were violated through their forced removal from the West Coast. However, years after Eaton died, in April of 2015, a family friend of Eaton’s tried to sell the collection at auction. This caused serious outrage across the Japanese American community, and through activism efforts, the insensitive sale of the “Eaton Collection” was stopped and alternatively transferred to the Japanese American National Museum.
The pieces within the Eaton Collection were not created by professional artists. The artwork produced by untrained incarcerees reflected the life and sentiments of the average Japanese American. It also showcased their artistic ingenuity and how “gaman” expressed itself within their art. Though art supplies were limited, Japanese Americans made do. They utilized their surroundings, finding colorful stones to set into rings and jewelry; onion strings to weave into patterns on cigarette cases; and excess wood from the hastily built barracks, which were shaped into complex carvings, depicting beautiful sakura trees with handsome cranes. These works not only helped the Japanese endure through their incarceration experience, but the artwork themselves directly mirror the Japanese American way of life and can be seen as a metaphor for the Japanese themselves. Both the Japanese and the wood plank were dismissed and seen as having no worth. However, with gaman, an object that has been discarded can transform and be seen as something beautiful and of value to society. This very aspect has come to define the Japanese American experience.
Not only was gaman apparent in their artwork, but that resilience continued to shape all aspects of Japanese American life and define what it meant for them to be an American. During World War II, many of the young men in camp enlisted in the US Army, choosing to fight overseas while their family members were still incarcerated. Their hope was to prove their “Americanness” and loyalty by fighting for their country: the United States of America. These Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) were assigned to the 442nd Infantry Regiment, an almost entirely Japanese American battalion. Their motto “Go for Broke” was an extension of the Japanese gaman-mentality. The unit’s fortitude and success reflected this value of perseverance, and against all odds, the 442nd became the most decorated combat unit in the history of the US military. The cultural value of perseverance and honorable endurance has defined the Japanese American life since their initial immigration to the US. Facing hardship, prejudice, and blatant governmental acts of racism, Japanese Americans have continually used gaman to persevere. Gaman has become so instilled in the Japanese American identity that it expresses itself in multiple aspects of their culture; in their art, their mottos, and it even continues to mold their lives and values today. Ultimately, gaman has come to define the Japanese American experience and shaped what it means for them to be an American.
Contributed by: Jose Quirarte, Japanese American National Museum
The butsudan is a Buddhist altar often found in temples and homes. Shinzaburo & Gentaro Nishiura handrafted this particular butsudan during World War II at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming. It is composed of the gokuden (“Palace Hall”), shumiden (“Sumeru Throne”), and the naijin, or inner area. The gokuden is the large wooden cabinet that houses the gohonzon, or “principle object of reverence,” and includes the two wooden doors that fold center outward and back. The shumiden is the large wooden pedestal that the gokuden sits on, and the naijin includes three altars: the center altar which houses the gohonzon, and the altars on the left and right which house scrolls depicting significant Buddhist figures.
Shinzaburo & Gentaro Nishiura were two carpenters from San Jose, California who were imprisoned at the Heart Mountain concentration camp. Before the war, the Nishiura brothers were responsible for constructing many buildings for the Japanese American community in San Jose, and the greater Santa Clara area. The Nishiura brothers continued their contributions to the Japanese American community in camp by working in the Heart Mountain cabinet shop. In 1943, with the blessing of Reverend Chikaro Aso, the Nishiura brothers installed their handcrafted butsudan in the Block-8 Buddhist Church of Heart Mountain. Through the efforts of Reverend Aso, the butsudan found its way to the Gilroy Buddhist Church in Gilroy, CA, and was eventually donated to JANM by the Gilroy Buddhist Community Hall in 2001.
The creation and use of this butsudan in one of America’s concentration camps is a prime example symbol of the perseverance of the Japanese American spirit during their years of incarceration. On one hand, The practice of Buddhism provided a sense of normalcy for some Japanese Americans through the chaos surrounding their removal and incarceration. On the other, the creation of this butsudan in camp signified the importance of Japanese values and the way Japanese Americans preserved them. Due to Japanese Americans only being allowed to bring to camp what they could carry, many of them only brought the necessities. In order to continue to practice their faith, the Nishiura brothers showed their ingenuity by creating their own religious items out of the materials they had at their disposal. As a result, the artistry from within the barbed wire fences of camp are a symbol in and of themselves of Japanese American resilience during World War II.
These examples demonstrate that the craft items made in camp are themselves symbolic of the American experience, and the resilience and resistance of immigrants against systematic discrimination and oppression. As Shelby mentioned, most of the crafts made in camp were not made by professional artists. The craft items that Shelby highlighted in the Eaton Collection, were mostly made of material that the prisoners could find and turn either into a useful tool or art. Not only are the crafts representative of the Japanese value of gaman, but the creation of crafts, tools, and religious items in an environment of immense discrimination and oppression reveals a symbolic theme of the American immigrant experience: that immigrants often have to survive the harsh conditions of America by using whatever is at their disposal.
The fact that this butsudan was made in one of America’s concentration camps demonstrated that Japanese Americans held onto traditional institutions and values, and were intent on preserving them. The elegant looking materials that were used to craft the butsudan made it clear that the butsudan was a significant religious relic. Furthermore, in contrast to the crafts in the Eaton Collection, the butsudan was crafted by highly trained professionals who had a history of preserving Japanese institutions and contributing to the Japanese community in Santa Clara County. The butsudan itself speaks to the larger American immigrant experience as immigrant populations attempted to integrate their own culture into their lives in America. Rather than assimilating or converting to Christianity, practicing Buddhists, within the walls of a concentration camp that “otherized” them and implied they were dangerous, maintained their religious values and actively crafted a traditional altar.
The fact that Japanese Americans were able to preserve their traditions and institutions despite being imprisoned in America’s concentration camps reveals the complexity of the “American identity.” Shelby’s application of how the Japanese value of gaman was reflected in Japanese American craftsmanship made in camp, and Jose’s example of the butsudan demonstrate that Japanese values and cultural touchstones were essential to the identity of Japanese American prisoners. As a result, Japanese American identity was a blend of both their traditional culture and the values of American society. Japanese Americans did not totally assimilate or abandon their culture in America’s “melting pot.” Instead, they preserved their values and institutions in a new amalgamated and complex “American identity.”
Food Fancies, by Evelyn Kimura, was a column in the Topaz Saturday Times about all things food. In the wake of forced incarceration, Japanese Americans used what little resources they had to make some of their favorite meals. According to Kimura, the key to at-home cooking was simplicity. (And don’t use up all the coal for everyone in the barracks.)
Camp cooking is a legacy that has been passed down to many of us through the generations. Growing up, I knew that shoyu hotdogs and rice meant that Mom was tired. While we spend our current hours social-distancing and rationing food, we can call upon the lessons from those who came before us.
Homemade noodles, courtesy of Mrs. J Yanagizawa of 14-1-A
Ingredients: 1 1/2 cups of flour 1 egg Fresh vegetables of your choice 1 can bouillon or broth
Mix flour and egg (or you can substitute water). Let stand all day until hard.
Roll flat and cut into strips.
Then begin soup mixture by boiling fresh vegetables of your choice.
Add 1 can of bouillon (broth) to vegetables and allow to simmer for 20 minutes.
Boil soup and noodles for another 15 minutes.
If ready made noodles are being used, boil them before adding to the soup.
We plan to share more camp recipes, so check back for more. We hope you try out this recipe. And please let us know if you do!
Thanks to Emily Anderson who came across this recipe while searching through the World War II camp newspapers on the Densho Digital Repository as part of her research for an upcoming JANM exhibition. The full issue can be found here (Densho, Courtesy of the family of Itaru and Shizuko Ina).
Despite passing away in 1971 at just 47 years old, John Okada’s brief life carries a lasting impact on American literature to this day. Acclaimed as a pioneering Japanese American novelist, Okada’s only novel, No-No Boy, gives an unflinching look into the cruel treatment and aftermath that individuals of Japanese descent in America experienced following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and during World War II. The first of its kind, Okada’s book broke the veil of silence that fell over most of those incarcerated during the war; this master work of fiction pushed back the shadow cast over Japanese Americans during and after WWII.
in 1923, Okada was a student at the University of Washington when Japan bombed
Pearl Harbor in 1941. His studies were put on hold when he and his family were incarcerated
at the Minidoka concentration camp in 1942, along with thousands of other
American citizens. After completing a loyalty questionnaire, Okada was released
from camp to join the United States Air Force as a translator for intercepted
Boy, Ichiro, the protagonist, is also faced with a loyalty questionnaire. For
question 27, “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States
on combat duty, wherever ordered?,” and question 28, “Will you swear
unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend
the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and
forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any
other foreign government, power, or organization?,” Ichiro answers “no,” dooming
himself to two years in an American concentration camp and two more years in
The story follows Ichiro through his attempts to regain a somewhat normal life after his release. The reader meets other Japanese American characters who were impacted in various ways by the incarceration camps and vicious treatment endured during the war. Ichiro’s friend Freddie, coping with his unjust incarceration, turns to a life of partying. In contrast, a man Ichiro befriends named Kenji, who lost most of his leg while fighting in the war after passing the loyalty questionnaire, held no ill feelings towards the military, America, or those who chose not to serve. Others in the book express different feelings about the war and its outcome, including Ichiro’s own mother, who is in deep denial for most of the book. Things take a dramatic turn when she realizes that Japan lost the war and she can never return to her home country or be accepted in America. Despite these troubled characters, the story retains a message of hope with the idea that Ichiro does not have to succumb to his deep-rooted pain and instead can take life into his own hands and transcend the demons that haunt him.
John Okada created a window of understanding into a group of people that suffered due to the actions of others. His work lives on as a warning of what can come from blaming our own citizens for the actions of those we are in conflict with. that misplaced blame can harm generations and breed deep divisions in our country, damaging our social fabric from the inside out. The painfully truthful work that is No-No Boy lives on as both a beautifully written and tragic piece that gave a voice to a generation while also opening doors to similiar works.
On Saturday, February 2, join us for the Los Angeles launch of the book John Okada: The Life and Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy. Frank Abe, a journalist and producer of the PBS documentary Conscience and the Constitution, and Greg Robinson, professor of history at Université du Québec a Montréal, who edited John Okada (with Floyd Cheung) will be on hand to discuss the first full-length examination of Okada’s development as a writer. Moderating the discussion will be Brian Niiya, Content Director of Densho.org, an organization whose mission is to preserve the testimonies of Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated during World War II. Book signing to follow.
In 1884, a Japanese sailor named Hamanosuke Shigeta jumped ship in San Diego and eventually made his way to downtown Los Angeles, where he opened an American-style cafe. The opening of Kame Restaurant—the first known Japanese-owned business in Los Angeles, signaled the beginning of what is now known as Little Tokyo. Before World War II, Little Tokyo was thriving and grew to be the largest Japanese community in the United States. This area is steeped in history and every month JANM docents lead walking tours of the neighborhood to explore both popular and lesser-known gems of this bustling neighborhood.
One of the stops on the tour is the original Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, at 119 North Central Avenue. Built in 1925 by Japanese immigrants, and originally named the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, the building was the first structure in Los Angeles designed specifically to house a Buddhist place of worship. In 1942, the building was used as a gathering place for people of Japanese ancestry to board buses as they were forcibly removed to American concentration camps during World War II. Reverend Julius Goldwater, one of the first non-Japanese Buddhist ministers in America, did not face removal and allowed people in the community to store their belongings in the building while they were incarcerated.
With no congregation, the temple closed down. However, in 1944 the Providence Missionary Baptist Association converted part of the building into a Christian center and began offering sermons. The Association’s stay was only temporary, though. When the war ended in 1945 Goldwater notified the Baptist Association that their lease could not be renewed as he expected many of his congregation members to return home. The temple then reopened and served as a hostel for many of those returning from the camps who found that their homes had been lost. The building eventually fell into disrepair after the temple moved to a new location in 1969 and it was sold to the City of Los Angeles in 1973. Destined to be torn down for new development, the building was spared when the City of Los Angeles supported its use as a museum site. In 1992, the Japanese American National Museum opened in the renovated historic building.
The architecture of the ornate building draws inspiration from a temple in Kyoto, Japan, and combines Japanese and Middle Eastern motifs in its striking façade. The Middle Eastern influence stems from the architectural movement called Egyptian Revival. This style of architecture first came to prominence in the late 18th century. But after the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, Egyptian influences saw a renewed wave of popularity around the world. Also, Egyptian themes had become an essential part of the Art Deco movement in the 1920s.
This building’s entrance is on the plaza across from the Japanese American National Museum’s Pavilion building. The cement canopy (karahafu) over the entrance replicates the imperial gateway of the associated Mother Temple in Kyoto, Japan. The characteristic shape is the undulating curve at the top of the entrance. This design is common in traditional Japanese architecture, including castles, Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines. Kara means “noble” or “elegant” and this architectural element is often added to places that are considered important or grand.
The original Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple is only one of several stops on the JANM docent-led walking tours of Little Tokyo that engage visitors beyond the walls of the museum and introduce them to a unique and diverse community. Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong Los Angeles resident, you’ll learn surprising details about the people, historic architecture, and community spirit of this colorful neighborhood. Museum admission is included with the fee for the tour, so be sure to see JANM’s current exhibitions afterward.
Tours take place on the last Saturday of every month, weather permitting. Comfortable walking shoes are recommended. To sign up for our next walking tour please visit janm.org
Is it uncivilized to use soy sauce? Should extra wasabi be added? Recently, travel agent and food enthusiast Roxana Lewis led a “sushi graze” edition of our Edible Adventures walking tour series in Little Tokyo, this time starting with a “Sushi 101 class.” Lewis explained that adding wasabi or soy sauce depends on the restaurant and the chef. However, she stressed that when using soy sauce, one should lightly dip only the fish to avoid having the rice ball fall apart. Attendees also learned some surprising sushi history. Enthusiasts may find it hard to imagine sushi ever existing without rice. However, beginning in the fourth century in many parts of Asia, salted raw fish was wrapped in rice and held in storage for months. When the rice fermented, it acted as a preservative but was discarded before the fish was eaten.
Sushi was introduced to Japan in the ninth century. It became popular as Buddhism spread throughout the country; the Buddhist practice of refraining from eating meat meant that many Japanese began eating fish as a dietary staple. Vinegar was eventually used as a preservative instead of rice and this change led to the uniquely Japanese version of sushi that is eaten today. A rice ball and a small portion of raw fish (known as nigiri sushi) need very little preparation, so by the 1800s, it was a popular choice with roadside vendors and a big hit with busy workers who didn’t have time to sit down for a meal.
After the short history lesson, attendees enjoyed a small feast at the restaurant Sushi Go 55. The sushi served at this restaurant reflects the same style that emerged as a favorite fast-food option in nineteenth century Japan. Made to order piece by piece, attendees watched as the chef’s hands moved in perfect rhythm as he assembled balls of rice and affixed fish to them with the exact amount of wasabi. In the past few centuries, not much has changed in the making of this style of food. While enjoying sushi at this restaurant, one could close their eyes and feel a direct connection to Japan and the past.
While sushi is a pillar of Japanese cuisine, the history of the delicacy in the United States is an ever-evolving one. When first introduced, Americans had a difficult time warming up to the idea that raw fish could be something tasty. The creation of the California roll in the late 1960s helped change American perceptions. First created by a Japanese chef in Los Angeles (according to some), the California roll features crab, avocado, and cucumber, making it more suitable to the American palate. It’s often then rolled “inside out,” meaning the rice is on the outside. The next stop on the tour exemplified this American take on sushi. At the Ebisu Tavern, “caterpillar” and “spider” rolls which featured ingredients like battered soft-shell crab and spicy mayonnaise were served to showcase the evolution of westernized sushi.
The Edible Adventure offered more than just learning about sushi. Between stops Lewis recounted tidbits touching on the history of Little Tokyo. She pointed out Buddhist temples and explained their architecture, showed participants the former sites of trailblazing restaurants now gone and noted how the area has changed through the generations. The tour ended back at JANM. Museum admission was included with the tour and attendees then spent time taking in the current exhibitions. Don’t miss the next Edible Adventure—you can stay up to date on all of JANM’s events by visiting janm.org/events. You can also sign up to receive our monthly Exhibitions & Events email with all the latest information.