The Impact of John Okada on American Literature

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.

Born 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 Japanese communications.

In No-No 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 federal prison.

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.


Frank Abe and Greg Robinson

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


Year of Boar Fun Facts

This past weekend JANM welcomed over 4,000 people to our Oshogatsu Family Festival. Oshogatsu means “new year” in Japanese and in the Japanese cycle of zodiac signs, 2019 is the year of the boar. People born in the years 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, and 2007, and now 2019 all fall under the year of the boar.

Among Asian countries, Japan is unique because it is the only one that celebrates the new year on January 1, like Western countries do. Japan started celebrating on January 1 in 1873, when the Meiji government decided to adopt the Gregorian calendar insteadof the lunisolar calendars they had used previously. During this time in thelate nineteenth century, Japan was consciously moving from an isolated feudalsociety to one taking on more Western-style norms.

In Buddhism, legend has it that the Buddha summoned all animals to meet with him before his departure from earth, but only twelve animals came to say goodbye. Rewarding the animals who came to him, he named a year after each one of them, and that is how the zodiac came about. Their years were given in the order they arrived. Because in the legend the boar was the last to arrive at Buddha’s meeting, it gained the reputation for being lazy.

However, being lazy is a misnomer. According to experts in the Japanese zodiac, people born in the year of the boar are said to be loyal, diligent, generous, optimistic, and honest. Boars love the company of others, and their outgoing nature is charming to other people. They also prioritize family and friends while having a great sense of responsibility. Famous people born in the year of the boar include Hillary Clinton, Thomas Jefferson, David Bowie, Ricky Martin, Alfred Hitchcock, Elvis Presley, Winona Ryder, Lupita Nyong’o, Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the Dalai Lama. If you’re a boar, consider yourself in good company!

Our Oshogatsu Family Festival is over (thank you to everyone who attended!) but you can still celebrate the year of the boar at the JANM Store. For all things boar-ing (not!), check janmstore.com. Products include a t-shirt designed by character designer and storyboard artist RidgeHirano featuring a boar romping in wisteria. Don’t wear t-shirts? You can still show your love for the boar with a handy tote bag. For the little ones, we have this plush boar made by Hansa Toys. Hansa Toys are known for their meticulously hand-crafted and realistic stuffed animals, and this boar is no exception. Happy shopping, and we wish you a wonderful year of the boar!

Highlights of 2018

Fun at the 2018 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. 

Another fulfilling year is about to come to a close. JANM presented many significant exhibitions and interesting events in 2018—here’s a look back at some of the highlights.

Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection.

In January Contested Histories: Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection showcased a collection of arts and crafts Japanese Americans made while incarcerated at American concentration camps during World War II, along with a large number of photographs taken in the camps. Saved from the auction block through the action of Japanese American community leaders throughout the country, the collection serves as a testament to the creative spirit enduring in even the darkest of times. A pop-up version of this is now touring the country. Viewers are asked to contribute any information they have about the objects and the people depicted in the photos.

Opening day of hapa.me– 15 years of the hapa project. Photo by Steve Fujimoto.

The Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo exhibition, which opened in 2017 but continued into the first two months of 2018, highlighted the experiences of artists of Japanese ancestry born, raised, or living in either Latin America or predominantly Latin American neighborhoods of Southern California. The show examined the complexities surrounding identity and how the concepts of homeland and cosmopolitanism inform the creativity and aesthetics of this hybrid culture. Continuing on the topic of cultural identity, JANM opened hapa.me– 15 years of the hapa project in April. In this exhibition by artist Kip Fulbeck, photographs from his 2006 exhibition Kip Fulbeck: Part Asian, 100% Hapa were paired with new portraiture of the same individuals. The subjects of the photographs identify as hapa—of mixed Asian/Pacific Islander descent. The photographs were accompanied by each subject’s responses to the question, “What are you?”

Reception for the re-imagined section of Common Ground: The Heart of Community.

In August, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of its signing, two original pages of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, on loan from the National Archives, were displayed along with the pen that President Ronald Reagan used to sign it. This Act formally apologized for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and paid monetary reparations to surviving victims of America’s concentration camps. This law came after many years of hard-fought battles and activism by the Japanese American community. Also marking the thirtieth anniversary of the signing, JANM re-imagined a section of its core exhibition Common Ground: The Heart of Community to include more information about the redress movement.   

Opening night of Kaiju vs Heroes. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada. 

In the autumn, JANM opened Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey through the World of Japanese Toys and Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit; both are currently on display. Kaiju vs Heroes showcases the vintage and contemporary Japanese vinyl toy collection of Mark Nagata and demonstrates how something as seemingly insignificant as a child’s plaything can help inspire an exploration of one’s identity. Gambatte! features modern and historical photographs documenting the stories of Japanese Americans who were forcibly incarcerated during World War II. Large-format contemporary photos taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Paul Kitagaki Jr. are displayed next to images shot 75 years ago by such noted photographers as Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and others; each pairing features the same individuals, or their direct descendants, as the subject matter.

The 2018 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. 

In addition to exhibitions, JANM hosted several public programs throughout 2018 that were a hit with the community. Highlights included artist Shinpei Takeda’s talk about his work in Transpacific Borderlands, a film screening of the original Godzilla movie, and, of course, the Natsumatsuri Family Festival. The summer festival featured fun for all ages, including crafts, music, tea ceremonies, and taiko drums. More recently, JAMN hosted a staged reading of Velina Hasu Houston’s play Little Women (A Multicultural Transposition). This re-imagination of Alcott’s classic novel presented the story of four Japanese American sisters living in post-war Los Angeles. 

Members received priority seating at the 2018 Natsumatsuri Family Festival.

JANM members receive benefits at many of our events and exhibitions. These include invitations to exhibition openings and reduced-price tickets to events. Membership at the museum also includes invitations to Members’Only Learning at Lunch sessions at which  JANM Collection Unit staff talk about recently acquired objects and other treasures we hold. Members also receive priority seating and access to express lines at family festivals. Think about becoming a member today!

We hope to see you in 2019!

Here’s to a great year. We hope to see you for JANM’s Oshogatsu Family Festival on January 6, 2019, as we celebrate the New Year and the Year of Boar with crafts, food, cultural activities, and performances! The NewYear, or Oshogatsu, is one of Japan’s most popular and important holidays. During this celebration, people in Japan spend time with friends and relatives and enjoy special holiday dishes. We will be offering lucky zaru soba (cold buckwheat noodles) and osechi ryori (traditional new year foods), while supplies last. We’ll also present two taiko-infused mochitsuki, the beloved new year tradition of pounding of rice to make mochi. That’s just a small sampling of what’s in store for the day. You can find the complete schedule here.

See you in 2019!

Spend the Day at Our 2019 Oshogatsu Family Festival

Come celebrate the Year of the Boar at the 2019 Oshogatsu Family Festival at the Japanese American National Museum on January 6! Activities will run from 11a.m. to 5 p.m. and admission is free. Whether you enjoy traditional Japanese new year foods, art, or live performances, bring the whole family for a day full of cultural activities!


Calligrapher’s dance performance

There are a number of things available to do all day long. For the youngest attendees, there will be a scavenger hunt around the museum. Find all the items and win a prize! Crafty kids (and adults) can head over to Ruthie’s Origami Corner to learn the art of paper folding and make their own origami boars. Everyone can strike a pose with some props at the Nerdbot photo booth.

Of course, what Year of the Boar festival would be complete without a pig pen? Here’s the twist: at the Oshogatsu Family Festival, the pen is made up entirely of plushie pigs and boars. This is one pig pen where you’ll want your kids to jump right in! The coloring station is there, too.Also  open all day is the Toddler Room, where the littlest festival-goers can play with people their own size while supervised by an accompanying adult.


mochitsuki (rice pounding)

Traditional activities will be at designated times so be sure to plan for the ones you’re interested in. Early in the day (11:30 a.m.) and again at 1 p.m., catch a live collaborative performance from Kuniharu Yoshida and Walter Nishinaka that combines the calligrapher’s dance performance and taiko beats. Foodies can enjoy build-your-own sample-size soba noodle bowls from 11a.m. to 3 p.m. Kids, and kids-at-heart, won’t want to miss the demonstration of the ancient art of candy sculpting, with finished pieces given away as raffle prizes for kids. From noon to 4:30 p.m. there will be a tasting of traditional Japanese new year foods, osechiryori, which includes sweets and vegetables. And don’t miss the mochitsuki (rice pounding) demonstrations (2 p.m. and 4 p.m.); make sure you stay to the end for yummy mochi samples.

As a special treat, artist Mark Nagata will be giving a talk at 12:30 p.m. about his latest special edition sofubi toy figure—an homage to the character played by Gerald Okamura in the movie Big Trouble in Little China. Nagata and Okamura will then sign toy figures and special prints of the toy’s header art. Fair warning: there are only 45 toys available for purchase so act fast. You’ll also want to buy a fukubukuro (lucky grab bag) while you’re in the store.

Throughout the day, JANM members receive special perks such as reserved seating at performances and artist talks, express lines, and extra raffle tickets. Join today!

Food, Identity, and the New Year

The new year is right around the corner, and in America, many celebrate with a bottle of champagne, party hats, and a kiss at midnight. However, in many cultures and countries, new year celebrations are all about spending time with family to feast on traditional foods to start the year off right. These customary meals are designed to bring in luck, health, and happiness before and after the clock strikes twelve.

For Japanese Americans, there is a mix of traditions and foods that celebrate the new year. Over at DiscoverNikkei.com, in an article entitled Of Food and Identity: My Grandmother’s New Years, a fourth-generation Japanese American thinks about spending the holiday with his grandmother as a way to draw his family together and to preserve their cultural identities. Here’s an excerpt from the piece.

For as long as I can remember, New Years was exciting not just because of the delicious food I’d get to eat, but because it was one of the only times I truly felt Japanese. As a fourth generation Japanese American who grew up in a predominantly non-Asian community, I rarely had the opportunity to eat Japanese food, much less experience the culture. However, New Years was one of the few times my family and I could grow closer to our heritage, if only for a moment.

My grandmother’s preparations always began with a trip to our local Japanese market, as she made it a point to cook as many of the traditional foods as possible, rather than settling for a pre-made sushi or bento set. Walking up and down the aisles, I became acquainted with a host of Japanese ingredients that I would rarely if ever see otherwise. Bags of dried shiitake mushrooms, furry sato imo potatoes, and long stalks of gobo went into the cart, along with fish roe, kamaboko, and pale, oblong lotus roots, to name a few.

Step two was always the sashimi. Though not technically a traditional New Years ingredient, sashimi had somehow made its way into the workings of my grandmother’s New Years and was now an indispensable part of the feast to come. I distinctly remember early mornings in her car, still half asleep, heading downtown to Pacific Fresh Fish on 6thStreet to pick up cuts of tuna, hamachi (yellowtail), and tako (octopus) for sashimi. Once back home, the fish went into the fridge while the rest of the preparations got underway.

You can read the whole article at DiscoverNikkei.com. Discover Nikkei is a website that celebrates cultural diversity and explores both global and local identities. The project connects generations and communities by sharing stories and perspectives of the Nikkei, people of Japanese descent who have migrated and settled throughout the world.

Holiday Shopping in Little Tokyo!

Put together that shopping list, and let’s get going. It’s holiday season! This year, Go Little Tokyo—a community-led effort aimed at highlighting the unique cultural programs, community events, and dining and shopping experiences found in Little Tokyo—can help you knock out your shopping chores with its convenient Holiday Guide. You can download it from their website, or you can pick one up when you’re in theneighborhood—including at JANM. Items in the Holiday Guide were hand-selected by the team at Go Little Tokyo as standout products, things they’d love to receive themselves. With the guide as your guide, you’re sure to finish off a good portion of your list while visiting one of the most interesting and vibrant neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

Included is a stainless steel wallet, with custom embossing of the traditional Japanese asanoha (hemp) pattern, from the JANM Store. A JANM exclusive, this wallet is made of fabric incorporating eight-five percent post-consumer recycled stainless steel, which provides RFID blocking protection for credit cards. It has a silver ballistic nylon spine and is thin and lightweight—perfect for someone who delights in extraordinary accessories.

The guide features ideas at all price points from a plethora of JANM’sneighbors. And to make your Little Tokyo shopping even more enticing, Go LittleTokyo is holding a drawing in which you can win a gift basket filled with $250worth of great stuff from local businesses. To enter, purchase items at any little Tokyo shops or restaurants between now and January 31, 2019. Then take a photo of your receipt and email it to info@golittletokyo.com. (One entry per receipt from a Little Tokyo business.) Each gift you cross off your list in little Tokyo means you might take home a big gift for yourself!

Happy shopping!

Little Women (A Multicultural Transposition)

Inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s classic American novel published in 1869, the play Little Women (A Multicultural Transposition) features four sisters and their Japanese American family living in post-World War II Los Angeles. Playwright Velina Hasu Houston keeps the names and personalities of the original March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—but in this tale, they are the Mayeda sisters. The novel and play have noticeable parallels, with the March and Mayeda families facing many of the same types of troubles. However, Houston’s transposition adds a dimension of racial prejudice that the March family never had to consider.

The Mayeda sisters and their mother, Marmee, move in with their Aunt Ming after spending time during the war in an American concentration camp in Colorado. Their father, Makoto, is a war hero, but he returned from the war with post-traumatic stress disorder and a drinking problem. In the recently integrated Los Angeles neighborhood to which they return, they find much-appreciated diversity in their African American neighbor, Mr. Lawrence, who is a retired hematologist, and his half-Italian grandson, Laurie. Aunt Ming, however, feels that her “old money” status is above the “new money” status of her new neighbors. Thus, Houston reveals how prejudice is present even among different minorities that have each had injustice wrought upon them.

Completing Houston’s diverse cast are Mr. Bhat, Laurie’s tutor from Calcutta, and Professor Briones from Mexico City, Jo meets on her journey to New York in act two of the play. The supporting male characters in the play including Laurie, Mr. Bhat, and Professor Briones, each take an interest in one of the Mayeda sisters. However, the drama is heightened when Beth, the shyest of the four, has an unfortunate accident, which sends the whole family into a panic. The audience will remain captivated throughout the conflict, climax, and conclusion of the play.

There have been many adaptations of Alcott’s Little Women, but Houston’s depiction of the classic is unlike any other. This time period was significant for Japanese Americans and many others seeking to overcome the racial prejudices of World War II. Houston successfully depicts how the story of Little Women can be any family’s story, and yet in this particular version, there’s much more being said about the simmering social strife that is right beneath the surface.

Vanessa Hasu Houston

Houston is a professor of dramatic writing at the University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts. She is also a well-known writer with many produced commissions, both in theater and opera. She is a Fulbright Scholar, and her current projects are with the Los Angeles Opera, The Pasadena Playhouse, Theatre Works (Palo Alto), Playwrights’ Arena/Center Theatre Group, Now Africa Playwrights’ Festival, and National Public Radio. One of her most famous plays to date is Tea, which is an internationally presented play about the experiences of Japanese women.

See Little Women (A Multicultural Transposition) at JANM on Saturday, December 15 in the Tateuchi Democracy Forum. Members are invited to an exclusive pre-event reception with Velina Hasu Houston. RSVP HERE

Highlights from JANM Free Family Days: Superheroes!

Striking a heroic pose!

In celebration of real-life heroes as well as the fictional characters of our Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey through the World of Japanese Toys exhibition, JANM welcomed more than 1,100 visitors on November 11, 2018, for a free family day of fun.

Young and old alike designed their own masks.

Upon entering the museum, visitors were welcomed by our staff and many jumped right into the crafts offered. Inspired by o Kaiju vs Heroes, our hero and kaiju mask-making activity was very popular! Children delighted in keeping their heroic secret identities under wraps.

Sho Tokyo Kendo of LA Minobusan Beikoku Betsuin delivering a captivating demonstration.

Aratani Central Hall hosted some of the most impressive performances of the day. Children gathered around–and  a few were invited on stage–to experience kendo, a traditional Japanese martial art that uses swords and protective armor. It was a sight to behold as athletes from Sho Tokyo Kendo of LA Minobusan Beikoku Betsuin charged at each other, followed by the clash of their shinai (slats of bamboo tied together and used for practice, in place of a Japanese sword).

Kizuna Taiko, a group made up of children and adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities and their parents and siblings from the Japanese Speaking Parents Association of Children with Challenges (JSPACC).

Ukuleles for Little Tokyo playing their songs.

Kizuna Taiko filled Aratani Central Hall with its thunderous sounds. A physically demanding discipline, taiko is often described as a performance of dance as well as drumming. Kizuna Taiko’s incredible athleticism, driving rhythms, and meditative melodies left the audience inspired and energized. Earlier in the afternoon, families enjoyed traditional songs by Ukuleles for Little Tokyo. Their sounds were a festive addition to a fun-filled day of physical activities and crafts.

An artist from Taylor Entertainment creates a caricature.

Maya proudly displays her superhero cape.

Children sat attentively as an artist from Taylor Entertainment turned them into superheroes by drawing their caricatures. Many families also spent time perfecting a superhero cape with unique designs and color combinations. Kids enjoyed donning their creations and striking a pose.

Our friends from Terasaki Budokan playing some basketball.

On our plaza, families expended some energy by getting in some slam dunks and long distance shots at our temporary basketball courts.

Volunteers getting into the heroic spirit.

It was a truly joyful and memorable JANM Free Family Day, and we hope to see many of the same guests at our 2019 Oshogatsu Family Festival. On Sunday, January 6, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., ring in the New Year and celebrate the Year of the Boar with more fun arts and crafts, food, cultural activities, and exciting performances! There will be a traditional mochitsuki (Japanese rice pounding ritual) performance by Kodama Taiko, candy sculptures by Shan the Candyman, Fukubukuro (lucky grab bags) at the JANM Store, and so much more. Check our janm.org for more information about the Oshogatsu Family Festival and other upcoming events at JANM.

 

The Sights and Sounds of JANM Free Family Day

Ukuleles for Little Tokyo

On Saturday, November 10, join us for a JANM Free Family Day! The crafts, performances, and other activities will be inspired by real-life heroes and the fictional characters seen in our current exhibition, Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey through the World of Japanese Toys.

Our doors open at 11 a.m., and at 11:30 a.m. we’ll have a performance from Ukuleles for Little Tokyo. This organization engages Japanese and Japanese American seniors by providing free ukulele instruction in Japanese and English. Between 1885 and 1925, more than 200,000 Japanese had immigrated to Hawaii to work on sugarcane plantations. Many of these Japanese immigrants discovered the ukulele in Hawaii and adopted it as their own, making the instrument a common bond that helps hold together the culture of America, Hawaii, and Japan.

Draw a hero character!

After saying aloha to Ukuleles for Little Tokyo, join artist and art educator Sylvia Lopez for a superhero drawing workshop. From 12 p.m.–12:45 p.m. and 1:15 p.m.–2 p.m., create a hero character by first learning to quickly draw a basic human form. If drawing a hero character isn’t enough, from 12 p.m.–3 p.m. an artist from Taylor Entertainment will create a superhero caricatures of kid visitors!

You also don’t want to miss a demonstration from Sho Tokyo Kendo of LA Minobusan Beikoku Betsuin starting at 12:30 p.m. Experience a captivating exhibition of kendo, a traditional Japanese martial art that utilizes bamboo swords and protective armor. The practice of kendo stems from kenjutsu, a catch-all term used to describe all forms of Japanese swordsmanship. The formal kendo exercises known as kata (specific movements of a martial art) were developed several centuries ago as kenjutsu practice for warriors and are still studied today.

Members of Kizuna Taiko

Guaranteed to be inspiring is Kizuna Taiko, performing at 3 p.m. This group is made up of children and adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities, and their parents and siblings, from the Japanese Speaking Parents Association of Children with Challenges (JSPACC). Taiko is a traditional form of Japanese percussion using a variety of drums, some very large. Taiko playing is loud, hard, and fast, and involves choreographed movement that mirrors Japanese martial arts.

WizStars!

Wrapping up the day’s festivities is WizStars. A hip-hop dance ensemble featuring individuals with developmental or intellectual disabilities and their parents or siblings from the JSPACC, WizStar will perform from 3:30 p.m.–3:45 p.m. The museum will close at 5:00 p.m., so you will still have time after the day’s activities to check out the Kaiju vs Heroes exhibition and its amazing array of vintage and contemporary Japanese vinyl toys.

Please also set aside a few minutes during the day to write a letter of appreciation to a veteran, to be delivered by Operation Gratitude. Expressions of thanks make a lasting impression on those who have served in uniform.

JANM members get perks throughout the day, including reserved seating, so join or renew today! More information about the day is available on our website.

 

The Roots of No-No Boy

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.