Introducing Mark Robbins

JANM recently hired Mark Robbins as the museum’s new Community and Government Relations Officer. To help introduce Mark to the greater JANM community, we conducted the following brief interview.

New JANM staff member Mark Robbins, right, attends the Go For Broke National Education Center's 14th Annual Evening of Aloha Gala Dinner with his wife, Iryll Robbins-Umel, center. At left is keynote speaker and pioneering Asian American athlete Natalie Nakase.
New JANM staff member Mark Robbins, right, attends the Go For Broke National Education Center’s 14th Annual Evening of Aloha Gala Dinner with his wife, Iryll Robbins-Umel, center. At left is keynote speaker and pioneering Asian American athlete Natalie Nakase.

JANM: What led you to come to work for the museum?

Mark Robbins: The mission of the museum appealed to me greatly. I was impressed by how JANM aims to tell the full Japanese American story, in all its shades and complexities. As a hapa and a fourth-generation Japanese American, I saw joining the JANM staff as an opportunity to contribute to something important while learning more about my own family’s history. I was also excited about all of JANM’s programs—the performances, workshops, film screenings, panels, and so on. It’s a vibrant institution that offers so much to its visitors and tests the boundaries of what a museum can be.

JANM: How do you visualize your role at the museum?

MR: Right now, I have a lot to learn, both in terms of the history of Little Tokyo and the various efforts underway at JANM. I see my role, though, as helping the museum be an informed and valuable partner in the community. While we are a national museum, Little Tokyo is in our DNA. Helping to preserve the health and distinct character of Little Tokyo is critical to our mission and our future. I will also play a role in the museum’s government relations, identifying federal grant opportunities for the museum, and working with our Young Professionals Network.

JANM: Can you tell us about your education and work history prior to joining the museum?

MR: I studied Communication and Political Science as an undergraduate at Stanford and went to law school at UCLA. I worked in Washington, DC, for about seven years as a policy advisor in the offices of the late Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska and former Governor of Alaska Sean Parnell. I then moved back to Los Angeles and held temporary positions as an attorney for Legal Aid in Compton before the opportunity with JANM came up.

JANM: You were born in Alaska. Can you tell us about your experience growing up there?

MR: I grew up on Kodiak Island, which is located in the Gulf of Alaska. In addition to its huge brown bears, Kodiak is known for its fishing. My father ran a commercial fishing boat for about 40 years there, catching cod, halibut, and salmon. That was our family business, and my older brother and I worked on the boat in the summers to earn money for school.

JANM: What have been your most memorable experiences so far at the museum?

MR: There have been many. Bringing my family (including my wife, young daughter, and mother) to the Natsumatsuri Family Festival in August was definitely a highlight. We had a large and energetic crowd on hand for the event and I was happy to have three generations of my family share the experience. I have also appreciated spending time with our volunteers, several of whom have committed their time and effort to the museum for decades. Their spirit and enthusiasm are inspiring and a constant reminder of why what we do here is so important. More recently, I’ve been getting to know our New Leadership Advisory Council. They are an impressive group and I’m excited about what we can accomplish together.

Diary of a Nisei Week Princess, Part 3: The Big Event!

Camryn Sugita, now officially a Princess of the 2015 Nisei Week Court, continues her account of her adventures. If you missed her earlier Princess Diary entries, you can still catch up on Part 1 and Part 2.

The 2015 Nisei Week Court at Coronation. Photo by John Fujinami.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court at Coronation. Photo by John Fujinami.

 

After we were officially announced as Nisei Week Queen Candidates, we still had a few more events, trainings, and dance rehearsals to attend before Coronation—our big night and the start of Nisei Week. The dress rehearsal the day before Coronation felt surreal; in less than 24 hours, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center’s (JACCC) Aratani Theatre would be filled with hundreds of people and only one of us would be crowned as Nisei Week Queen.

The Queen Candidates perform an odori dance in kimonos. Photo by John Fujinami.
The Queen Candidates perform an odori dance in kimonos. Photo by John Fujinami.

 

I could barely sleep that night because I was so worried that I might drop my fans during the odori dance, forget a line in my speech, fall down the steps during the modern dance, or choke on my Q&A. Surprisingly, I wasn’t that nervous for our private, one-on-one interviews with the judges, which took place before the public ceremony. Each of us spent five minutes with all of them, during which they could ask us anything. At this time, we also voted for Miss Tomodachi (the Nisei Week equivalent of Miss Congeniality).

At the big event, we were introduced by our Mistress and Master of Ceremonies, Tamlyn Tomita and David Ono. We all walked onto the stage in our kimonos to perform the opening odori dance with folding fans. Hearing the loud cheers helped calm my nerves and I couldn’t help but crack a smile. I am glad to say that I did not drop my fans.

Camryn gives her speech. Photo by John Fujinami.
Camryn gives her speech.
Photo by John Fujinami.
Next it was time for Verbal Communication Skills; each of us had to give a two-minute speech on a topic of our choice. I chose to talk about being adopted as a baby from Toda, Saitama, Japan by a loving Japanese American family and then growing up in Torrance. While I was in college, I studied abroad for a year in Tokyo, where I was able to learn about my roots firsthand. This speech was the first time I openly shared my adoption story, and I couldn’t have been happier to do it on stage in front of my friends, family, and community.

After our speeches were over, we had to change into our modern dance costumes while Kyodo Taiko performed and the judges and visiting dignitaries were introduced. We performed an elaborate choreographed routine to “Sparkling Diamonds” from Moulin Rouge—and that wasn’t all! We were joined on stage by special guests that included 2015 Nisei Week Foundation President Terry Hara, JACCC Director of Marketing and Development Helen Ota, and 2004 Nisei Week Queen Nikki Kodama, to name just a few, and we all closed out the sequence by dancing to Pitbull’s “Celebrate” from Penguins of Madagascar. It was definitely a performance to remember.

"75 Years Strong" production number performed by the 2015 Queen Candidates. Photo by John Fujinami.
“75 Years Strong” production number performed by the 2015 Queen Candidates.
Photo by John Fujinami.
"75 Years Strong." Photo by John Fujinami.
“75 Years Strong.” Photo by John Fujinami.

 

After the intermission, it was time to get down to serious business—the evening gown walk, followed by the question and answer session. Each candidate was interviewed individually while the others were swept away into a soundproof room. David and Tamlyn warmed us up with random funny questions before posing the same serious question to each of us, which I will paraphrase here: “The Nisei generation made its mark in significant ways. In the future, what do you think your generation will be known for?” In my answer, I paid respect to the contributions of the Nisei and then I challenged the audience to join with me in sharing their stories and giving back to the Japanese American community.

The 2014 Nisei Week Court bids a fond farewell. Photo by John Fujinami.
The 2014 Nisei Week Court bids a fond farewell. Photo by John Fujinami.

 

After the 2014 Nisei Week Queen and Court came on stage to bid their final, official farewell, it was time to announce the outcome of the evening’s competition. The first person to be named was our Miss Tomodachi, Karen Mizoguchi. Next was the First Princess, Veronica Ota. And finally, Sara Hutter was named as Queen! Michelle Hanabusa, Kelsey Kwong, Tamara Teragawa, and I were crowned as Princesses. I am so honored to be given the opportunity to represent the community, and proud of myself for taking on this challenge.

Karen Mizoguchi is named Miss Tomodatchi. Photo by John Fujinami.
Karen Mizoguchi is named Miss Tomodatchi. Photo by John Fujinami.
Veronica Ota is announced as First Princess. Photo by John Fujinami.
Veronica Ota is announced as First Princess. Photo by John Fujinami.
Sara Hutter is crowned as Queen. Photo by John Fujinami.
Sara Hutter is crowned as Queen. Photo by John Fujinami.

 

But Coronation was just the beginning for us! After such a whirlwind day, we had to be up bright and early the next morning to begin our official visits as a court to establishments in Little Tokyo and elsewhere in downtown Los Angeles. Throughout the week we stayed at the DoubleTree Hotel and paid visits to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors office, Sushi Gen, Southern California Flower Market, Keiro Senior HealthCare, and of course, the Japanese American National Museum, among other places. We also met with community leaders and posed for many photos—every day was jam-packed!

One of my favorite visits was to Little Tokyo Nutrition Services, where we ate lunch with some of the senior citizens who live in Little Tokyo Towers. I love being able to learn more about this community and meet some of the many people who keep its spirit alive.

The 2015 Nisei Week Court rides in the Grand Parade. Photo by Richard Watanabe.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court rides in the Grand Parade. Photo by Richard Watanabe.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court participates in the Ondo dance and Closing Ceremony. Photo by John Fujinami.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court participates in the Ondo dance and Closing Ceremony.
Photo by John Fujinami.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court, with 2015 Nisei Week Foundation President Terry Hara and a community member, poses in front of the 2015 Nebuta float, designed especially for this year's parade by master Nebuta float artist Hiroo Takenami. Photo by John Fujinami.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court, with 2015 Nisei Week Foundation President Terry Hara and a community member, poses in front of the 2015 Nebuta float, designed especially for this year’s parade by master Nebuta float artist Hiroo Takenami. Photo by John Fujinami.
Photo by Richard Watanabe.
Photo by Richard Watanabe.

 

Stay tuned to First & Central for more Nisei Week Princess adventures in the months to come, including an exciting trip to Japan!

Interview with the Curators of Jidai: Timeless Works of Samurai Art

Tanaka School, tachi koshirae with a design of dragonflies and family crest, 1800s. Wood, lacquer, iron, gold, and silver.
Tanaka School, tachi koshirae with a design of dragonflies and family crest, 1800s.
Wood, lacquer, iron, gold, and silver.

 

Currently on view in JANM’s lobby as part of this month’s Nisei Week celebrations, Jidai: Timeless Works of Samurai Art presents rare and historically significant samurai artifacts dating as far back as the Kamakura Period (AD 1185–1333) in Japan. We interviewed curators Darin S. Furukawa, an artist, educator, and samurai arts specialist; and Michael Yamasaki, founder of Japanese sword dealer tetsugendo.com and the only non-Japanese national to win the All Japan Sword Appraisal Championship, to get insight into this special display.

JANM: Can you both explain how you became such impassioned connoisseurs of Japanese swords and samurai artifacts? What is it that appeals to you about these objects?

Michael Yamasaki: My grandfather took me to see those classic samurai movies that most Issei and Nisei went to see at places like the old Kokusai Theatre in Los Angeles. Since then, I have wanted to own real Japanese swords and practice swordsmanship. I bought my first sword when I was 13, and that was just the tip of the iceberg—there was so much more to learn. The artistry and history grabbed me and has never let me go.

Darin S. Furukawa: I, too, can blame those old samurai flicks, along with parents who always filled the house with Japanese or Japanese-themed art. I was lucky enough to have Mike teach me about Japanese swords and fittings not too long ago (my knowledge base is still very much a work in progress), and I have found that these objects really speak to me. I feel the need to protect and preserve them. I actually feel ill when I see a piece that was treasured for centuries get destroyed by one generation’s neglect or misuse. That’s why I love to put on exhibitions like Jidai—to showcase not just the beauty of the objects, but also the care and dedication of the generations of responsible custodians who kept them in such excellent condition.

JANM: What are your favorite samurai movies?

MY: Seven Samurai and Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior are two of my favorites, and of course the Zatoichi films for humor!

DF: Seven Samurai for the story. Ran for the visuals. Kill Bill: Volume 1 for Sonny Chiba, Uma Thurman, copious amounts of blood, and a great soundtrack!

Musashi Miyamoto, tsuba with a design of two sea cucumbers, 1600s, iron.
Musashi Miyamoto, tsuba with a design of two sea cucumbers, 1600s, iron.

JANM: From what I understand, Musashi Miyamoto (c. 1584–c. 1645) is a near-legendary samurai, considered Japan’s greatest swordsman. Jidai features a tsuba (sword guard) that was made by him. How did you get a hold of this item?

DF: Before I let Mike answer that, I just have to say that Miyamoto was so much more than a master swordsman. He was an artist, philosopher, strategist, and author of the Book of Five Rings (a martial arts classic that is a must-read for everyone). He was such a rock star that my son’s middle name is Musashi.

MY: This tsuba was in the hands of an old collector. It took much effort and enticement to get him to release this piece. Miyamoto’s sword guards, as well as anything that he made while in retirement, are very rare and have a special place in our efforts to collect and preserve Japanese samurai artifacts.

JANM: Another special piece in the display is a tanto (dagger) that was forged by a Japanese American while incarcerated at Manzanar. Please tell us what you know about “Kyuhan” Kageyama and how he came to forge this tanto.

MY: When I first purchased the tanto by Kyuhan, I had no idea who he was; in fact, it was hard to properly read his name, which is an adopted artisan’s name. From what I was able to glean, Kyuhan was a true Japanese sword enthusiast—a collector and a scholar, not just a hobbyist. He later became one of the more serious members of Nihon Token Hozon Kai—the first Japanese sword club in America, founded by Nikkei in Los Angeles. There has been speculation that the dagger was made with the same equipment used to make farming tools in camp. Of course, his work would have been done in secret, as it is highly illegal to make weapons in a federal prison. This just showed how important this aspect of his culture was to him.

JANM: Besides these two artifacts, what else in Jidai should visitors be sure not to miss?

DF: The beauty of Jidai is that there’s something for everyone. For guests who are just looking for beautiful artwork, we have two cases dedicated to sword fittings. The sword guards, in particular, are spectacular, and show a wide variety of materials, techniques, and design motifs; there are rolling waves, peacocks, and a Christian cross that would have been hidden when mounted, as practicing Christianity was an offense punishable by death. For those interested in the martial arts aspects, we have 3 blades bearing test cut inscriptions (meaning they were tested on multiple human bodies). Those who are familiar with the way technology altered the battlefield should check out the amazing matchlock wall cannon, as well as a helmet that has three bullet test marks on it. In short, I’m sure all of our guests will find something they like, but they should take the time to explore it all!

The curators will give a public lecture about Jidai at 2 p.m. on Saturday, August 15, in JANM’s Democracy Forum. Attendance is expected to be high; doors will open at 1:30 p.m. and early arrival is recommended. Jidai will remain on view through August 30.

Diary of a Nisei Week Princess, Part 2: The Making of a Princess

One of JANM’s own staff members, Events Assistant Camryn Sugita, was selected as a queen candidate for the 2015 Nisei Week Japanese Festival, representing the Gardena Evening Optimist (GEO) club. She has agreed to do a series of occasional blog posts about her experience, offering insight into the Nisei Week Court process and what it means for the princesses and the community at large. Read her first entry here.

Camryn Sugita, center, is crowned Miss GEO 2015. Surrounding her are four members of the GEO club, along with 2014 Nisei Week Princess Tiffany Hashimoto (left) and 2008 Nisei Week Queen Jill Hiraizumi (right).
Camryn Sugita, center, is crowned Miss GEO 2015. Surrounding her are four members of the GEO club, along with 2014 Nisei Week Princess Tiffany Hashimoto (left) and 2008 Nisei Week Queen Jill Hiraizumi (right).

 

A couple of days after I submitted my application, I received an email confirming my interview. The interview only lasted 30 minutes with a panel of six interviewers. I was told I would hear back the next day about whether or not I was selected.

After what seemed like the longest day of my life, I finally received an email at 4 p.m. The first two lines read, “Thank you so much for taking the time to apply and interview for the Miss GEO candidate position. It was very nice interviewing you and getting to know you.” I immediately thought I hadn’t been selected.

Then in the second paragraph it stated, “You were selected as the 2015 Miss GEO!” My jaw dropped and I screamed, which probably wasn’t a good idea since I was working at JANM’s front desk at the time. I couldn’t wait to tell my family, friends, and co-workers, who had all encouraged me throughout the interview process. A week later, I had my crowning at Cherrystones restaurant in Gardena, where I was able to meet members of GEO and give my first, very rough, speech. It was a night to remember!

The 2015 Nisei Week Court at queen candidate Michelle Hanabusa's crowning as Miss Western Los Angeles at the Venice Hongwanji Obon Festival.
The 2015 Nisei Week Court at queen candidate Michelle Hanabusa’s crowning as Miss Western Los Angeles at the Venice Hongwanji Obon Festival.

 

At the end of April, I attended the Nisei Week Queen Candidate orientation with my parents, where I met the other girls and our advisors, the Queen and Court Program Committee. Less than a week later, we had our first training session: kimono rehearsal, in which we learned how to properly put on, walk in, and fold a yukata (casual summer kimono). Some of us had a hard time at first, but now we can all put them on with ease.

Since June, we’ve been meeting at least three times a week for various classes and trainings. The sessions are three to four hours long and have included odori (Japanese dance) rehearsals, modern dance classes, etiquette training, professional development, and a variety of cultural lessons. Many hours are devoted to practicing our introductions and learning to walk properly in heels. My favorites, however, are the cultural lessons. The first one was in basic karate—by the end of the lesson, we were each able to break a board in half!

All of these classes prepared us well for our first big event—the Nisei Week Japanese Festival Opening Ceremony on July 19. At this official kickoff, we all gave our introductions and were presented as candidates for Nisei Week Queen. But the fun doesn’t stop there! We still have lots of trainings to go before Nisei Week.

Nisei Week takes place August 15–23. The new Nisei Week Queen will be selected at the coronation ceremony on August 15. Who will be crowned? Visit niseiweek.org for more information, and stay tuned to this blog for more diary entries!

Marié Digby’s Colorful Pop Music Helps Launch JANM’s New Summer Night Concerts

Irish-Japanese American singer-songwriter Marié Digby is just one of the artists featured in JANM’s new Summer Night Concerts series, launching on July 30. Digby is a Los Angeles native who vaulted to fame after her acoustic cover version of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” went viral on YouTube. We conducted this email interview to learn more about her music and her perspective as an Asian American musician.

Marié Digby
Marié Digby
JANM: How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it?

Marié Digby: I would say it’s like an apple! The skin is vibrant and colorful, the meat of the fruit is storytelling and emotions, and at the core is pop music.

JANM: Who or what are your biggest influences?

MD: I’m a kid of the nineties so most of my biggest influences are bands and artists from that era. I grew up on Björk, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Poe. So many amazing artists!

JANM: What inspired you to do your own acoustic version of “Umbrella”?

MD: I had just started uploading cover videos on YouTube. I was always on the lookout for new songs on the radio—preferably, heavily produced songs that I felt still had an amazing core structure, which I could then break down to just vocal and guitar/piano. When I heard “Umbrella” in my car for the first time, I knew it would probably sound great stripped down.

JANM: There’s a wonderful quote in your bio: “I love watching people, and songs come out of that. When I have an experience that moves me, I can’t sit still until I’ve written the song.” Can you give us an example of an experience that moved you to write a song?

MD: What’s funny is, when I have a really positive/happy experience, I rarely feel like the first thing I want to do is sit down with my guitar and write a song! It always seems to be the more tragic, heartbreaking, soul-shaking events. As an example, I once wrote a song about all of the different people I’ve seen and met who pass through Los Angeles, in the hopes of becoming a star. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking to see the transformations I often witness. This city from afar is full of hopes and dreams but when you’re actually in it, it can really eat you up alive.

JANM: Do you identify as an Asian American artist? Or, put another way, do you feel that your identity as an Asian American influences your artistic practice, and if so, how?

MD: I absolutely do! When I first started out, I never considered the fact that my ethnicity might play an important role in my being an artist. When I started posting videos, I noticed that the majority of the comments were coming from Asians, in all different parts of the world! I love being half Asian. I am so proud to represent not only my Japanese culture, but a quickly growing group of hapa kids in America.

JANM: Besides JANM’s Summer Night Concert, do you have any exciting plans or upcoming gigs you’d like to tell our readers about?

MD: The most exciting project on my calendar right now is a new album I’m creating with Tom Rothrock, who produced my first album, Unfold. We’ll be working on it later this fall. It will be my first full-length independent release, after making four other albums with the help of record labels. But I believe with the help of my amazing fans, it just might be my best album yet!

Marié Digby will perform as part of JANM’s first Summer Night Concert on July 30, along with Priska and headlining act Magnetic North and Taiyo Na. Kogi BBQ, Arroy Food Truck, and Frach’s Fried Ice Cream will be on site, along with a beer garden sponsored by JANM’s Young Professionals Network. Join us again on August 27 for an evening with Paul Dateh, Mike Gao, and Go Yama. All concerts are FREE.

How Good Luck Saved The Curse of Quon Gwon

Scene from The Curse of Quon Gwon. The Violet Marion Collection. Courtesy of Arthur Dong.
Scene from The Curse of Quon Gwon. The Violet Wong
Collection. Courtesy of Arthur Dong.

 

On May 13, in honor of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, JANM will present The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West. This is the earliest known example of a film made by an Asian American. It is also one of the earliest films to be directed by a woman, Marion Wong. Wong involved her family in many aspects of the production, both in front of and behind the camera. Now nearly 100 years old, The Curse has seen better days. But the fact that it can be viewed at all by audiences today is a tale of good fortune.

Arthur Dong is an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker. Back in 2005, he was hard at work on a project titled Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films. During the course of his research, Arthur learned of the existence of some reels of film from a title he had not previously heard of: The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West. Following his source’s instructions, Arthur went to a building near San Francisco International Airport. There he found two reels of original 35mm nitrate negative film—the actual film that was in the camera when the movie was made in 1916 and 1917—and a 16mm print that was likely made in the 1950s or 60s. This was an incredibly exciting find. “But scary!” recalls Arthur.

Violet Wong in The Curse of Quon Gwon. The Violet Marion Collection. Courtesy of Arthur Dong.
Violet Wong in The Curse of Quon Gwon.
The Violet Wong Collection.
Courtesy of Arthur Dong.

Nitrate film was commonly used in the early days of moviemaking and up until about 1951. It is now understood to be highly unstable and extremely flammable. Proper storage and careful handling are required to maintain its integrity and prevent combustion. Nitrate burns at a temperature even higher than gasoline and once ignited, it is extremely difficult to extinguish because the combustion process produces its own oxygen. It also produces highly poisonous fumes.

Arthur knew the danger that nitrate posed. He contacted the Academy Film Archive, part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the organization that presents the annual Academy Awards). One of the archive’s intrepid experts agreed to drive up to San Francisco and bring The Curse back to Los Angeles for inspection and restoration. In addition to making safer film-based copies for long-term protection, the Academy Film Archive transferred all of the found material to video. (The original nitrate is now safely stored, as is the 16mm print.)

The two nitrate reels and some additional scenes depicted in the print are by no means the entire movie. Arthur and Academy archivists believe there were originally seven or eight reels; the ones found were numbered four and seven. So, what JANM will present is an incomplete movie. Despite this, one can easily follow at least some of the story, even though the film is silent and devoid of title cards. (The musical score is one that Arthur commissioned in 2010.) Regardless, the joy of seeing The Curse, which utilizes Chinese actors and Chinese interior décor, lies not in its plot but in its provenance. For Arthur, the film demonstrates “the contributions of Chinese Americans in the formative years of America’s film industry.”

Marion Wong and Violet Wong acting in a lost scene from The Curse of Quon Gwon. The Marion Wong Collection. Courtesy of Arthur Dong.
Marion Wong and Violet Wong acting in a lost scene from The Curse of Quon Gwon. The Marion Wong Collection. Courtesy of Arthur Dong.

 

Each year, the Librarian of Congress and its National Film Preservation Board (NFPB) select 25 films for the National Film Registry to showcase the range and diversity of American film heritage and to increase awareness of the need for preservation. There are currently 650 films on the registry, each deemed to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Thanks to Arthur’s nomination while serving on the NFPB, The Curse was placed on the registry in 2006.

Come see The Curse of Quon Gwon on May 13 and learn more about it from Arthur Dong and Mai-Lon Gittelsohn and Dr. Greg Mark, two descendants of Violet Wong, Marion Wong’s sister-in-law who stars as the film’s heroine.

Diary of a Nisei Week Princess, Part 1: How It All Began

One of JANM’s own staff members, Events Assistant Camryn Sugita, is a candidate for the 2015 Nisei Week Court. She has agreed to do a series of occasional blog posts about her experience, offering insight into the Nisei Week Court and what it means for the princesses and the community at large.

Mrs. Ito presents Nisei Week Queen Stella Nakadate with a card, California, September 7, 1955. Photo by Toyo Miyatake Studio. Collection Japanese American National Museum, Gift of the Alan Miyatake Family.
Mrs. Ito presents Nisei Week Queen Stella Nakadate with a card, California, September 7, 1955. Photo by Toyo Miyatake Studio. Collection Japanese American National Museum, Gift of the Alan Miyatake Family.
I always knew about Nisei Week growing up. As a Japanese American in Los Angeles, it was just one of those things you grew up going to. I remember seeing the Nisei Week Court featured in the Rafu Shimpo, sitting on a float in the parade, wearing beautiful dresses and crowns. I never thought that one day, I would be doing that.

I was working at JANM on a busy Saturday when I bumped into an old friend’s mom. She didn’t even recognize me at first. We chatted and caught up with one another, then toward the end of our conversation, she said, “You should apply for Nisei Week Court! You would be the perfect candidate!” The idea caught me so off guard that the only reaction I could come up with was to reject it. I kept saying, “I don’t know, I don’t think so,” but she wasn’t backing down. She insisted on putting me in touch with a former Nisei Week princess. By the end of the conversation, I was saying “I’ll think about it.”

And I really did think about it. All I knew about Nisei Week Court was what I remembered from childhood, so I did some research and spoke with two former Nisei Week princesses about their experiences. I discovered that being part of the court meant so much more than just sitting on a float in a beautiful dress; for 74 years, they have acted as representatives of the Los Angeles Japanese American community, helping to promote its image and build positive relationships worldwide. Members of the court receive training in public speaking, etiquette, and Japanese history and culture; they also have opportunities to travel to different cities, meeting all kinds of people and learning to be leaders of their community.

It quickly became apparent to me that becoming a Nisei Week princess is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as well as an extreme honor. I became really inspired and excited to apply for the position, and hoped that I would be able to get an interview.

Visual Communications Evolves with the Times

Founded in 1970, Visual Communications (VC) was the first nonprofit organization in the country dedicated to supporting the creation, presentation, and preservation of media works by Asian Pacific American people. On the eve of the 31st edition of their Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, taking place April 23–30, we checked in with Francis Cullado, VC’s Interim Executive Director, and Milton Liu, VC’s Director of Programs and Artist Services, about the state of Asian Pacific American media arts today.

Fresh Off the Boat panel at the 2014 Conference for Creative Content (C3), with with moderator Amy Hill (actor), Randall Park (star), Nahnatchka Khan (showrunner), Melvin Mar (executive producer), and Samie Kim Falvey (Executive Vice President, Comedy Development, ABC).
Fresh Off the Boat panel at the 2014 Conference for Creative Content (C3), with
moderator Amy Hill (actor), Randall Park (star), Nahnatchka Khan (showrunner), Melvin Mar (executive producer), and Samie Kim Falvey (Executive Vice President, Comedy Development, ABC). Photo courtesy Visual Communications.

 

JANM: The world of media arts has changed so much since 1970, and of course, VC has evolved along with it. What would you say are the most significant developments or changes that have occurred at VC in the last 10 years or so?

Francis Cullado: Widespread technological advances have empowered more people to become creative artists. At VC, we’ve developed our programs to utilize new technologies and processes to create digital stories. Gone are the days of expensive media, and with greater accessibility, we can create programs to capture and nurture digital storytellers.

Milton Liu: The media landscape has changed drastically in the last 10 years. Now, you can shoot a film on your iPhone and upload content directly to your YouTube/Vimeo page. Because of this, we’ve seen a surge of content that’s available through non-traditional channels, and a decrease in audiences for movie theaters and appointment television. For this reason, VC continues to focus on diverse year-round programs, such as the Armed with a Camera Fellowship for emerging artists and the Digital Histories program of short films created by senior citizens.

The Conference for Creative Content (C3), the premier entertainment media conference that happens as part of the annual festival, delves into a myriad of traditional and nontraditional topics with leading content creators and executives. For instance, past panels have included Sustaining Your Online Audience, Writing for Diverse Characters in TV, and Transitioning from Film to Video Games. Media continues to evolve and we understand the need for Visual Communications to remain at the forefront of this change.

Opening night at the 2014 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Photo courtesy Visual Communications.
Opening night at the 2014 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
Photo courtesy Visual Communications.

 

JANM: APA visibility in the media seems to be growing steadily, getting a big boost recently with the hit TV show, Fresh Off the Boat. What do you think are the important next steps for the community in terms of building and maintaining media presence?

ML: The next steps for the community are to keep pressing to have APAs not only in front of the camera, but behind it. Furthermore, the percentage of APA actors, writers and directors in TV and film still doesn’t come close to matching the percentage of APAs in the American population. Keep fighting to have APAs represented! People of color make up huge audiences that spend our money on film and TV—speak with your wallet!

FC: Keep supporting APAs in media, and keep demanding more! To quote our fellow staffer Abraham Ferrer, for every production highlighting Asian Americans “that crows about diverse casting, there are at least 20 more in which people of color simply don’t exist.” The discourse that Fresh Off the Boat has created and will continue to create has many complexities that revolve around race, ethnicity, and culture, and that’s great. But just because we’ve progressed to a point that is different from where we started, it doesn’t mean that it’s where we want and/or need to be.

For more information about Visual Communications and the upcoming Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, please visit vconline.org.

Toyo Miyatake’s Camera Captured Japanese American History

Little Tokyo is filled with public art, from street murals to commemorative statues. JANM Development Assistant Esther Shin explores one of those works.

Toyo Miyatake's Camera, a public artwork by Nobuho Nagasawa. Photo: Esther Shin.
Toyo Miyatake’s Camera, a public artwork by Nobuho Nagasawa. Photo: Esther Shin.

 

Toyo Miyatake’s Camera, a bronze sculpture by artist Nobuho Nagasawa, stands just outside of JANM’s Historic Building. Made in 1993, it is an outsized replica of an actual camera that belonged to the Japanese American photographer. In the evening, the camera projects slides of Miyatake’s photography onto a window of the Historic Building.

Toyo Miyatake established a photo studio in Little Tokyo in 1923. He became known for his photographs documenting the early Japanese American community. During World War II, Miyatake was imprisoned at the Manzanar incarceration camp along with 10,000 other Japanese Americans. He had to leave behind his home and studio, but he managed to smuggle a camera lens into the camp and constructed a camera body from wood. With this camera he secretly documented the community’s daily life behind barbed wire; the photographs from this period have become important documents of this tragic episode in American history.

A well-known photograph taken by Toyo Miyatake at Manzanar concentration camp. Courtesy of Alan Miyatake, Toyo Miyatake Studio.
A well-known photograph by Toyo Miyatake, taken at Manzanar concentration camp. Courtesy Alan Miyatake, Toyo Miyatake Studio.

 

Nagasawa’s sculpture is my favorite public artwork in Little Tokyo. Although it is relatively small and modest, it speaks loudly and is rich in meaning. I see it as a symbol of remembrance, underscoring the importance of looking back and reflecting on what has happened in the Japanese American community—not only during the incarceration of U.S. citizens during WWII, but in the years before as well. I appreciate the fact that the images projected by the installation include darker moments from our history alongside special events and celebrations that were dear to the community before the war—such as the 1932 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and the Nisei Week parade of 1939—because all of these moments, bright or dark, are part of the Japanese American story.

It is fitting that the sculpture is located on the plaza of the museum, and faces the Historic Building. It stands on the spot of a former WWII reporting site, where hundreds of Japanese Americans boarded buses to be taken to incarceration camps. It is also located across the way from JANM’s Pavilion building, where the permanent exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community—which chronicles 130 years of Japanese American history—is displayed.

To explore more works of public art in Little Tokyo, sign up for JANM’s Edible Adventures: Public Art and the Sweets of Little Tokyo tour on March 28.

East West Players Offers a Platform for New Work by Asian American Writers

JANM has a long history of collaborating with East West Players, the nation’s leading Asian American theater troupe. Among other activities, the museum is proud to host A Writer’s Gallery, a semi-regular reading of new works by Asian American playwrights. On Thursday, March 19, East West Players will present a reading of Giovanni Ortega’s Iyakan Blues (The Criers), a comedy about a group of women who work as professional criers—people who are paid to weep at funerals.

ewp-writers-gallery-logo

On the eve of this latest collaboration, JANM reached out to Snehal Desai, Artistic Associate/Literary Manager at East West Players, and Giovanni Ortega, playwright, to find out more about the series and about Ortega’s play.

JANM: JANM began hosting A Writer’s Gallery way back in 1996. It now occurs roughly semi-annually. Snehal, can you talk about the significance of the series, and how it came about?

Snehal Desai: Lately, the series has functioned as an incubator—a place for the development of works we are considering as part of our season at East West Players. It is immensely helpful for our playwrights to have workshop time to develop their plays and then have a public reading of it, followed by a talkback. We have found that these readings really bring the community and audiences into the process of premiering a new work. The Tateuchi Democracy Forum is a perfect space for this kind of reading and the conversation that follows afterwards.

JANM: How do you go about selecting the writers who get featured?

SD: The writers and the works get selected in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are tied to exhibitions that are being presented at JANM, or they are inspired by dialogues currently happening in the community. Other times, a writer with whom we have a relationship will bring us a play that they are developing and want to read publicly.

Giovanni Ortega. Image courtesy of the artist.
Giovanni Ortega.
Image courtesy of the artist.

JANM: Giovanni, is professional crying really a thing?

Giovanni Ortega: Professional crying is actually a real thing in different countries. It is still done in Chinese, Sardinian, Irish, and Middle Eastern societies, just to name a few. Mourners from Chongqing, China, and Taiwan were recently on the news. The 1993 Indian film Rudaali featured a character who cried at funerals, and going back further, there were professional mourners in Honoré de Balzac’s 1835 novel, Le Père Goriot. The basic concept behind crying at funerals is to allow the person who passed to have a good welcome on the other side. The extent of the wails and cries also shows the reverence and respect this person had while living.

JANM: What inspired you to write Iyakan Blues (The Criers)? Did you draw from personal experience?

GO: The initial inspiration for the play was the women in my family. I was raised by my two grandmothers, and then my mom after I moved to the U.S. [from the Philippines] when I was a teen. Growing up, I was always surrounded and influenced not only by my lolas (grandmas) but also their sisters and my aunts. They were all strong-willed women who had very distinct opinions about life.

Regardless of whatever adversity, burdens, and struggles they had to endure to survive, the underlying force was laughter to get through it all. I witnessed that this was their tool in survival, regardless of how difficult it got. One of my earliest memories was going to the wake of my Lolo [Grandpa] Tute, where tears and laughter went hand in hand. Having such experiences allowed me to realize that I can use the theme of death as a means to laugh, and writing this play was a great opportunity to do so.

There are also very few stories about the Filipino diaspora. There is so much more to our country than Imelda, beaches, karaoke, dancing, pancit [Filipino noodles], and poverty. Ours is a rich culture, not unlike the U.S. in its mixture of race, religion, and cultures. My own heritage being Chinoy (Filipino and Chinese) as well as Spanish and Native American is a testament to our variety. I wanted to share different perspectives that people have in regards to what being Filipino is.