Coming to New York City on October 18, 19, and 20, and Orange County on November 10 is Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience.
This documentary, a co-production between JANM’s Watase Media Arts Center and KCET for the series ARTBOUND, explores five second generation Japanese American artists—Ruth Asawa, George Nakashima, Isamu Noguchi, Gyo Obata, and S. Neil Fujita—following the ways in which their camp experiences impacted their lives, influenced their art, and sent them on trajectories that eventually led to their changing the face of American culture with their immense talents.
The film will screen three times as a part of the Architecture & Design Film Festival at the Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas in New York City.
Showtimes are Friday, October 18 at 9:15 p.m.; Saturday, October 19 at 7 p.m.; and Sunday, October 20 at 1:30 p.m. Q&A with Mira Nakashima (furniture designer and daughter of George Nakashima), Kenji Fujita (artist and son of S. Neil Fujita), and filmmaker Akira Boch will follow the Friday night screening.
Masters of Modern Design will also screen in Orange County on Sunday, November 10 at 12:30 p.m. at the Orange County Buddhist Church. A Q&A with the filmmakers will follow. This is a free event, but please rsvp to: email@example.com.
Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience is available on DVD at the JANM Store. JANM members receive 10% discount!
With No-No Boy: A Multimedia Concert, Julian Saporiti and Erin Aoyama seek to illuminate the Asian American experience through Saporiti’s original songs, which are performed against a backdrop of projections featuring archival photographs and moving images. The result is an immersive experience connecting the diverse but interconnected histories of World War II Japanese incarceration, southeast Asian emigration, and hyphenated identities.
The seeds of the No-No Boy project were sown while Saporiti was living in Laramie, Wyoming, for graduate school. He made several trips to the Heart Mountain concentration camp in the northwestern part of the state, where the US government had incarcerated more than 10,000 people of Japanese ancestry during the war. These visits had a profound impact on him. Saporiti began interviewing camp survivors and researching the music that was performed in the camps. The No-No Boy project was later born from those interviews and Saporiti’s thinking about his own displaced family of Vietnamese refugees.
Saporiti went on to enroll at Brown University in Rhode Island to complete a doctorate. There he met Erin Aoyama, also a Ph.D. student. For the project, Aoyama draws from her academic research on the parallels between Japanese American incarceration and the experiences of African Americans in the Jim Crow South. Aoyama’s work with No-No Boy is also profoundly personal. Her grandmother was incarcerated in the Heart Mountain concentration camp during the war.
The music they create unmistakably draws from the storytelling traditions of folk and country music. However, there are indie-rock tendencies mixed in. This makes sense considering that in the early 2000s, Saporiti found critical acclaim as the singer of the Berklee-trained indie-rock group The Young Republic. Lyrically, No-No Boy’s songs are sharp and pointed commentaries on identity politics, privilege, academia, and history, delivering what NPR has called, “revisionist subversion.” For example, in Two Candles Dancing in the Dark they weave a story inspired by Aoyama’s grandmother about the joy of finding romance inside an American concentration camp while stressing the horrors of Executive Order 9066, which cleared the way for the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Nonetheless, there is a purposeful buoyancy to the songs that acts as a counterbalance to the serious topics they tackle. With this dose of levity, the music is enjoyable on its face as modern American music and doesn’t require in-depth historical or cultural knowledge to appreciate it.
See No-No Boy: A Multimedia Concert at JANM on Saturday, November 3 in the Tateuchi Democracy Forum. Make sure to stay after the show for a Q&A with the band. Included with museum admission. RSVPs are recommended; you can sign up here.
Our Man in Tokyo (The Ballad of Shin Miyata) is my short documentary about the struggles and obsessions of Shin Miyata, a Tokyo-based record label owner and promoter who specializes in the difficult task of distributing Chicano music in Japan.
Shin’s goal has always been to bring authentic and diverse representations of Chicano and Latinx culture to Japan. He has done so with a purity of intention that hasn’t brought him financial gain, but has instead delivered a wealth of understanding that has educated, enlightened, and actually changed the lives of many people.
The documentary was made in conjunction with JANM’s exhibition, Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo. Like the art that was featured in the exhibition, Shin’s work provides a prime example of the intersectionality of Japanese and Latinx cultures and artistic collaborations.
As we were planning our first screening in Tokyo, set for April 7 at an event space called Hare-Mame, Shin was nervous. Not only was he reluctant about promoting a screening of a film about himself, he was also worried that not many people would show up.
He wanted to add more entertainment—more films, maybe even a band. We decided to include Tad Nakamura’s poignant short doc about a little-known slice of Los Angeles’ Crenshaw District, Breakfast at Tak’s, plus a few of Shin’s favorite DJ’s—the Trasmundo crew and DJ Holiday.
Regardless of the additional entertainment, when the night of the event arrived, Hare-Mame was packed to the gills. It was full of Shin’s friends and followers, all eager to watch the documentary about him.
As the film played, the crowd’s reaction was amazing to see. It was much different from audiences in LA and Mexico City, the two cities where the film had previously screened. I don’t know if it was because of cultural differences or personal knowledge of Shin, but the Japanese audience burst into laughter at unexpected moments and actually cheered (!) during a section of the film where other audiences had remained silent.
As the credits rolled, they erupted into a sustained applause—not just for the film, but also for Shin himself, who has impacted their lives in a deeply meaningful way for many years by introducing them to the art, culture, and politics of Chicanos and Latinxs from the US. It was an acknowledgement of all the tireless work he has done for Chicano/Latinx artists and the people of Japan.
Many people thanked me afterwards for telling Shin’s story, but I was just grateful that they had shown up and were open to Shin’s mission of cultural understanding and unity. As I write this, I know that he is already on to a new project—searching for the next band to take to Japan, digging up a long-forgotten album to re-release, or planning another live event. His struggle continues and countless people are better off for it.
Naomi Hirahara, the acclaimed author of the Mas Arai mysteries, is coming to the Japanese American National Museum on March 17. She will be discussing and reading from her most recent book, Hiroshima Boy, the last in a series of seven mystery novels featuring the Japanese gardener detective. The following is an excerpt of a new article by Kimiko Medlock about the book and Hirahara on JANM’s Discover Nikkei website.
In this final installment of Mas Arai’s adventures, the sleuth is getting older. His friend Haruo has died, and he travels to Japan to deliver Haruo’s ashes to his family on the small island of Ino near Hiroshima. Mas originally plans to hand his friend’s ashes over to his family, turn around and return immediately to the States—but as so often happens, his best-laid plans go awry when he discovers the body of a young boy floating in the island harbor, and returns to his room to find his friend’s ashes missing. Mas decides to stay on the island to solve the twin mysteries of the murder and the missing ashes.
Critics are praising Hiroshima Boy as “a wonderful finale to a fine mystery series,” and many also continue to ask whether Hirahara will change her mind and bring back the much-beloved Mas Arai down the road. But the author herself spoke with Discover Nikkei, and she is satisfied with the series’ close. Hiroshima Boy, the title a reference to both the murder victim in the story and to the protagonist himself, is a fitting end as it brings Mas back to his roots. “I knew that the last mystery needed to be in Hiroshima,” Hirahara said in our interview. Readers learn in Mas’s very first case, Summer of the Big Bachi, that Mas’s experience growing up in wartime Hiroshima and surviving the atomic bomb form a large part of his identity, so it is appropriate that his last escapade brings him full circle back to the source of those memories.
Hiroshima was a difficult place to set a mystery tale, however. The author herself is not intimately familiar with the prefecture, nor with how the comparatively less transparent police force operates in Japan. The setting thus presented a sizable challenge to Hirahara’s research and writing process. “I knew that the last mystery needed to be in Hiroshima,” she says, “but I was wary about writing a novel set in a place I have visited, but is not my home.”
To find out how Hirahara solved this challenge, read the full article here.
The author discussion with Naomi Hirahara on March 17 starts at 2 p.m. It is included with JANM admission but RSVPs are recommended.
Hiroshima Boy and other Mas Arai by Naomi Hirahara are available for purchase at janmstore.com.
Naomi Hirahara fans will want to check out Trouble on Temple Street: An Officer Ellie Rush Mystery, available exclusively on Discover Nikkei. LAPD bicycle cop Ellie Rush, first introduced in Murder on Bamboo Lane (Berkley), returns in this special serial. Chapters 1–7 are online now, with new chapters released on the 4th of each month through August.
Many news items come across the desk of the editor here at the First and Central blog. As busy as we’ve been over the last few months with the opening of JANM’s major new exhibition, Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, and various other developments, we haven’t had the chance to share as many of these as we’d like. Following, therefore, is a roundup of notable news items from the last few months. If you missed any of them, here’s your chance to catch up!
Little Tokyo Has Been Named a California Cultural District
Our own neighborhood of Little Tokyo was named one of 14 California Cultural Districts by the California Arts Council. A new initiative in its first year of operation, the Cultural District designation is designed to “grow and sustain authentic grassroots arts and cultural opportunities, increas[e] the visibility of local artists and community participation in local arts and culture, and promot[e] socioeconomic and ethnic diversity.” The districts are also intended to play a conscious role in tackling issues of artist displacement.
A Cultural District is defined as a “well-defined geographic area with a high concentration of cultural resources and activities.” The designation comes with benefits, such as technical assistance, peer-to-peer exchanges, and access to branding materials and promotional strategy. Per state legislation, each of the districts will hold the designation for five years.
We couldn’t be prouder of our district, which joins other vibrant cultural centers throughout California such as the Eureka Cultural Arts District and Balboa Park in San Diego. To see the complete list of 14 districts, click here. To read more about the initiative, click here.
Wonder Woman Confronts Japanese American Incarceration in New DC Comic
Wonder Woman is looming large in popular entertainment these days. The blockbuster action movie starring Gal Gadot was a huge hit earlier this year, and a sequel is in the works. A smaller film called Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which explores the origins of the classic comic book character, was just released last month.
The staff at JANM was thrilled, therefore, to learn that a new digital comic book has come out that imagines Wonder Woman fighting, and even helping to prevent, the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The series, titled Bombshells United, is written by Marguerite Bennett and illustrated by Marguerite Sauvage. Bennett decided to write the story after noticing that her cousins’ American history textbooks failed to mention the incarceration. Angered by the erasure, she set about doing her research, reading books like Farewell to Manzanar and No-No Boy, and paying visits to JANM (!) and the Manzanar National Historic Site.
The resulting story focuses on a group of ordinary Japanese American girls who hatch a plan to halt one of the trains going to camp. Bennett chooses to make them the heroes of the story, with some help from Wonder Woman. Although the story is a fantasy, many of the details are historically accurate. Bennett plans to continue exploring a variety of WWII and postwar stories in this series, even looking at intergenerational struggles between the Issei and Nisei.
Read an interview with Marguerite Bennett here. Purchase the comic books here.
Another Exclusive Naomi Hirahara Serial Now on Discover Nikkei
Everyone’s favorite JA mystery writer is at it again. Our Discover Nikkei project, which has hosted several exclusive serials by Naomi Hirahara, is especially thrilled this time to serve as the publisher of Trouble on Temple Street, the third installment in the Ellie Rush detective series. This installment, which follows two published book installments, will be published as an online serial, with new chapters coming out monthly.
Ellie, an LAPD bicycle cop who has been on the force for two years, finds herself in the middle of a Little Tokyo murder case that may potentially involve the people she loves most: her family. Will she be able to connect the dots before the killer harms her aunt, who is deputy chief of the LAPD? Where will Ellie’s allegiance fall—to the truth, or to family loyalty? The serial launched on September 4 and will continue through next August. Read the first two chapters now!
I have a friend in Tokyo. His name is Shin Miyata. For the past 17 years, Shin has been running an independent music label called Barrio Gold Records. He primarily distributes groups from across Latin America, but his specialty is Chicano music from East Los Angeles. He also brings bands from East LA to Japan to perform live.
Nobody else in Japan is doing this kind of work.
I met Shin back in 2000, when I had the opportunity to go with the band Quetzal to Tokyo to document their tour. I learned that Shin had lived in the East LA neighborhood of City Terrace as a college student in the mid-1980s, doing a study-abroad home stay. He had been deeply inspired by Chicano books, films, and music—specifically 1970s bands like El Chicano and Tierra—and he had come to LA because he wanted to experience the Chicano culture first hand. He even took Chicano Studies classes at East LA College.
On a recent visit to Los Angeles, Shin told me that it was his dream to bring over musicians from Japan so they could perform with musicians from East LA. Specifically, he wanted to bring Japanese musicians that play different types of Latin music. He believed that audiences would appreciate the heart and soul they put into the music, and that it would be amazing to see this sort of collaboration.
The Japanese American National Museum, located in Little Tokyo just across the bridge from Boyle Heights and East LA, would be the perfect venue. Shin would curate the event, drawing on some of the many Chicano bands he has worked with, and also selecting musicians from Japan to participate. The event would celebrate his work as a cultural ambassador while also encouraging unity and collaboration during a time of great political and ideological division worldwide.
Each of the featured artists has benefited from Shin’s work, but they also share a deep affection for him. He has worked to create cultural exchanges and understanding between East LA and Japan for many years, and in doing so, has built a strong network of loyal friends.
Along with all of this incredible music, the Okamoto Kitchen food truck will be there, along with a beer garden by Angel City Brewery. Concertgoers will also be able to check out the exhibitions inside the museum till 8 p.m.
Transpacific Musiclands is supported by Los Angeles County Arts Commission. It is
held in conjunction with the exhibition Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, which is part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles, taking place from September 2017 through January 2018 at more than 70 cultural institutions across Southern California. Pacific Standard Time is an initiative of the Getty. The presenting sponsor is Bank of America.
Asian American Comic-Con presented a Summit on Art, Action, and the Future at JANM on July 15. Below, JANM summer intern in public programs and media arts Leighton Kotaro Okada contributes a photo recap of the event.
The first Asian American Comic-Con, held in 2009 in New York City, marked the birth of new discussions in Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) communities. Eight years later, the Comic-Con has returned to address new developments in APIA media production and representation.
On Saturday, July 15, 2017, dozens of artists, comic fans, bloggers, movie lovers, writers, actors, “Trekkies,” and activists gathered at JANM under the common theme of APIA pop culture. Panels and roundtable discussions touched on various hot topics, including diversity, Asian American women in the film industry, and more. Panelists came from all over the country and represented a range of diverse opinions and experiences, each bringing a unique point of view and novel ideas on the future of APIAs in media.
A roundtable titled “Woman Warriors: Reimagining Asian Female Heroes” gathered actresses, writers, and producers to discuss the advancement of APIA women in the film industry. Topics such as dragon lady and martial arts stereotypes, fighting for rich and novel roles, and the difficulties of working as both an APIA and a woman in the industry came up while answering questions such as “What should we expect in a rich, textured, powerful, and provocative APIA heroine?” and “What’s worked, what hasn’t, and why has it taken so damned long?”
A highlight of the event was legendary actor and activist George Takei receiving the first-ever Excelsior Award for Art in the Service of Activism. Takei was especially happy to receive the award in the same building where he was married. He then joined author, culture critic, and New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei curator Jeff Yang and Angry Asian Man founder Phil Yu for a special live recording of a They Call Us Bruce podcast. The three talked about Star Trek, politics, and married life, ending with a discussion of “the good, the bad, and the OH MYYY of being George Takei.” Takei’s infectiously hearty laugh and constant joking kept the crowd roaring with laughter.
Asian American Comic-Con’s Summit on Art, Action, and the Future was organized, emceed, and moderated by Nerds of Color editor-in-chief Keith Chow and Jeff Yang in cooperation with the Japanese American National Museum.
Leighton Kotaro Okada majors in East Asian Languages and Cultures with minors in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and Songwriting at USC.
April 29, 2017, marked the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles Uprising, also known as the Rodney King riots. Films have been made and essays have been written to commemorate this anniversary, and throughout the city, a variety of talks and panel discussions over the last month have attempted to grapple with the legacy of this major event and examine how far we’ve come since then.
On May 11, JANM was pleased to present, in partnership with Asian American Journalists Association-Los Angeles and PBS SoCal, a film screening and discussion titled K-TOWN ’92 Reporters: Who Gets to Tell the Story? K-TOWN ’92 Reporters is a recently completed short documentary by Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Grace Lee. The film, which can be viewed on the PBS website, captures the reflections of three Los Angeles Times reporters of color who covered the Uprising, with a particular focus on under-reported perspectives in the Korean-American community.
Although the film is only 15 minutes long, it delivers a powerful impact by revealing some of the racial dynamics that were at play not only on the streets of LA, but in its newsrooms as well. Reporter Tammerlin Drummond, who is African American, recalls being stuck at a sleepy bureau in the suburbs of Orange County until the Uprising prompted the Times editors to send all of their reporters of color to South Central LA. Similarly, Hector Tobar remembers feeling excited to work on a major piece about the Uprising, only to be told to focus on Latino looters. John Lee recalls prowling the streets of Koreatown with Drummond after curfew, when chaos ruled and police were nowhere to be found. As a dark-complected Korean American, he feared that he and Drummond might be shot at by Korean store owners.
The screening was preceded by a speech from Angela Oh, a former trial lawyer and a second-generation Korean American. Oh opened with a participatory qigong exercise and did not mince words as she described a dysfunctional judicial system that did not deliver justice and a complex city in which many people, while occupying the same space, lived entirely different inner lives. Following the Uprising, Oh traveled the country for three years giving talks, encountering many frightened Korean Americans and a general public who had no idea who Koreans were. This led her to view the Uprising as Koreans’ “sorrowful introduction to the consciousness of the American mainstream public—the price of initiation into race relations.”
Following the screening, Oliver Wang, Associate Professor of Sociology at CSU Long Beach, moderated a panel discussion with filmmaker Grace Lee; former LA Times reporter John Lee; Victoria Kim, who currently covers Koreatown for the LA Times; Wendy Carrillo, a journalist and activist who just completed an unsuccessful run for California’s 34th Congressional District; and Joanne Griffith, Senior Producer at American Public Media’s Marketplace Weekend.
Wang began by asking Grace Lee what prompted her to make this film, when so many films on the subject are already out there. She responded that after 20 years of watching coverage of the Uprising, she saw the same narratives emerging over and over—narratives that did not include the perspectives she heard from the Korean American community. John Lee later echoed this sentiment, saying that while Koreans and Blacks were portrayed in the media as bitter enemies, the reality was that most of them got along with each other. Kim brought up the example of Young Ok Lee, also known as “Mama,” a beloved Korean shopkeeper whose store at the corner of 8th Street and Western Avenue was left alone throughout the riots because she was like a mother to the entire neighborhood.
As each person on the panel discussed his or her own background and how they were affected by the Uprising, it became clear that there are as many perspectives on the event as there are people. The one thing they all have in common is the deep and lasting impression the event left on each of them.
Carrillo was 11 when the Uprising happened. Her parents had fled the civil war in El Salvador, bringing her into the country with them illegally. The family watched coverage of the Uprising together on Spanish-language TV and discussed how much it reminded them of the situation back in their home country. At school, Carrillo’s class wrote get well letters to Reginald Denny. Years later, she would be the last reporter to interview Rodney King, only two days before his death. She said he felt guilty about the riots every day of his life, even though they were obviously not his fault.
As a person of African background who grew up in Britain and moved to LA as an adult, Griffith had trouble figuring out African American identity, which was alternately represented overseas by The Cosby Show and the Rodney King riots. She also recalled a comical incident that happened while she was waiting for a Metro Red Line train in Hollywood—a passerby heard her British accent and asked if she was auditioning for a part.
Kim was seven years old in 1992 and living with her family in South Korea. She recalls having no concept of race relations or what it meant to be an immigrant, since everyone in Korea was Korean. Having no concept of the Korean American experience, people there referred to the Uprising as “the black riots.” Kim had to learn everything after the fact. In 2012, she worked on 20th-anniversary coverage for the LA Times, at which time she chose to profile “Mama.”
(JANM also had a unique and indelible experience with the Uprising. In April 1992, the museum was preparing to open its doors for the first time, with a dedication ceremony scheduled for April 30—the day after the Rodney King verdict. As chaos ensued, grand plans for an outdoor ceremony had to be scrapped. Rather than being disappointed, however, then-Executive Director Irene Hirano Inouye took this confluence of events as a sign and an opportunity for JANM to reconfirm and strengthen its mission. In her dedication speech to 400 guests and media representatives, now crammed inside the museum, Hirano Inouye noted “the need for continued education, multicultural understanding, and stronger linkages between ethnic communities in the United States.” When the museum opened to the public on May 15, representatives from a wide array of LA’s community organizations were invited.)
The panel was asked how far they think the city, and American society in general, has come since the Uprising. Carrillo thinks things are actually worse now—the repetitive 24-hour news cycle still focuses on sensationalistic reporting, which numbs the public. Griffith said that they agonized over what to cover when she worked at KPCC. She stressed that newsrooms must be more diverse and cover communities from the inside out, not from the outside in. Kim speculated that at one time, white men gathered in rooms to set the news agenda; now at least, they are forced to reckon with what’s trending on Twitter. Web analytics reveal which stories get the most views and comments, which has changed the face of journalism.
K-TOWN ’92 Reporters was actually produced as part of ktown92.com, an interactive web archive that explores the 1992 Los Angeles Riots through the lens of greater Koreatown. With a mix of archival news footage, new interviews, and other media, ktown92.com invites users to create their own unique documentary experience and to hear poignant stories that were overlooked by the media coverage of the day. Together with the film, the web archive aims to disrupt the Uprising’s master narrative by empowering people to construct their own.
New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei, which has been on view for a little over a month now, features a cornucopia of fascinating artifacts from the life of the noted actor, activist, and longtime friend and supporter of the Japanese American National Museum.
The exhibition, whose format was inspired by Takei’s role on the iconic Star Trek television and film series, is divided into five “voyages” exploring the many aspects of Takei’s life: his childhood spent in a World War II incarceration camp; his rise in Hollywood as a pioneering Asian American actor; his civic engagement and community activism; his groundbreaking all-APIA Broadway musical, Allegiance; and his current status as a social media icon.
George and his husband, Brad, have been collecting and organizing their various possessions for years. The 200 artifacts that are currently on view in New Frontiers represent just a small portion of The George & Brad Takei Collection, which was donated to JANM last year and is still being processed as we speak. During a recent Members Only Learning at Lunch event, Collections Manager Maggie Wetherbee regaled an enthusiastic audience with tales of the 300 boxes and nearly 200 framed objects that she and her team collected from the Takei home. The exclusive gathering focused on a selection of objects that did not make it into the exhibition.
These included Boy Scout photos from George’s childhood, a personal scrapbook that George himself put together, samples of fan mail he has received, and a copy of the script for the January 15, 1987, episode of Miami Vice, on which George was a guest star. Wetherbee also shared a number of interesting stories that she heard during the process of reviewing the items at the Takei house.
If you have not yet seen the exhibition, we offer a few highlights in this blog post, along with a bonus image that was taken at the Learning at Lunch event. Note that another Learning at Lunch event will take place on June 3 and will also spotlight items from The George & Brad Takei Collection that did not make it into New Frontiers. If you are not yet a member, click here for information on how to join and enjoy great benefits like this one.
This weekend, JANM opens New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. Drawing on the George & Brad Takei Collection of personal artifacts, which was recently gifted to the museum, New Frontiers explores the life and career of the pioneering actor, activist, and social media icon. The exhibition begins with Takei’s incarceration at the Rohwer and Tule Lake concentration camps as a child during World War II and moves through his career as a Japanese American actor in Hollywood, his public service appointments, his coming out as a gay man, his activism on behalf of both the Japanese American and LGBTQ communities, and his wild popularity as a social media figure. In the process, New Frontiers provides a unique window onto American history and culture in the 20th and 21st centuries.
New Frontiers is curated by noted author, journalist, and cultural critic Jeff Yang. We sat down with Yang via email to talk about the exhibition and his curatorial process.
JANM: Why George Takei, and why now?
Jeff Yang: George’s life has been extraordinary, and it has placed him at the center of some of the most critical changes in American society and culture: from the injustice of the Japanese American incarceration during WWII, through the fight for marriage equality, the struggle to overcome Hollywood stereotypes, the push to own our creative voice as Asian Americans, and the transformative rise of social media. In many of these circumstances, he wasn’t just a witness but a prime mover. These facts alone would make him an exceptional individual to explore through the lens of history. But, at 79 years old, George has never been more active, more outspoken, or more relevant. The changes we’ve seen over just the past six months have underscored the narratives in George’s life and made it clear that we still have many lessons to learn from the experiences he’s had.
JANM: How did you come to be the curator of this exhibition?
JY: I’ve known George for many years, having written about popular culture and Asian American issues since the late 1980s. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid, and since becoming an adult, I’ve had the fortune of befriending him as well. I’d curated another large and complicated pop culture exhibit for JANM in 2013 (Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in US Comics, 1942–1986) and I suppose George, and the powers-that-be at JANM, thought my experience and POV were a good fit for this historic show.
JANM: What is your biggest goal for this exhibition?
JY: I want people to get a unique lens on the last 80 years of American history and to learn, especially now, how our rights have been won and protected through the years and why it’s critical to remember how we’ve fought for them. And also to have a great time! Visitors should expect to have an experience that we hope will make them want to come back again—with friends.
JANM: We understand you’ve been combing through a lot of George’s personal possessions. Which ones have you found particularly intriguing, and why?
JY: The process of curation has been exhausting because of the sheer volume of items we have available! George and his husband Brad have donated virtually everything in a lifetime of collecting to the museum—over 100 boxes of amazing stuff, and it has taken a year just to sort through everything. There were personal Takei family memorabilia from the camps; early images from Asian American—or, as they called it then, “Oriental”—Hollywood; behind-the-scenes artifacts and personal notes from Star Trek, the Broadway musical Allegiance, and George’s many other roles and works; intimate correspondence and mementos from Brad and George’s wedding and life together; and iconic merchandise and one-of-a-kind fan art given to George over the years. We are also doing our best to make the exhibition richly interactive and contextual; there’s a ton to learn from it even if you’re not a Star Trek fan.
As for my personal favorite item? I think it’s probably the pocket “casting directory” of Hollywood’s Asian/Pacific actors dating back to the 1950s. It shows some familiar faces and many more obscure ones, all presented with stereotypical one-liners that underscores how Hollywood saw them. Things have certainly changed since then—but not as much as we might have hoped!
JANM: What gave you the idea to produce a comic book in conjunction with the exhibition?
JY: We realized early on that any catalog for an exhibition of George’s unique life would need to be highly visual, and to weave memory and imagination. The graphic novel form was ideal for that! So Excelsior: The Many Lives of George Takei is your guide through the exhibition in comic book format. We’re also putting together a graphic anthology of stories inspired by George’s life and the issues he has engaged throughout it, called (like the exhibition) New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. The latter is more like a catalog for the exhibition, but done in an eclectic comic book format. Unbound Philanthropy is generously funding that project.
JANM: Has working on New Frontiers changed any of your opinions on popular culture or APIA history?
JY: It’s made me realize how much has changed over the past 80 years—how we as APIAs have moved from the fringes to the center of popular culture, and how popular culture has moved from the fringes to the center of society. And George has been a significant part of that.
Join us on Sunday, March 12, for the public opening ofNew Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. There will also be an Upper Level Members’ Reception on Saturday, March 11, at 7 p.m., with an opportunity to meet George, Brad, and Jeff personally. For information on becoming an upper level member, please visit this page.