Celebrate Civil Rights Activist Minoru Yasui’s 100th Birthday

Minoru Yasui
Minoru Yasui

This Saturday, April 30 at 2 p.m., JANM will present a special event titled Civil Rights Today: The Legacy of Minoru Yasui. Featuring a variety of speakers as well as an excerpt from the documentary film Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice, the event commemorates what would have been the renowned civil rights activist’s 100th birthday, as well as the 74th anniversary of his voluntary arrest in protest against Executive Order 9066. The event is currently sold out. If you were not able to get a ticket, you can still celebrate his birthday by reflecting on his life and work.

Minoru “Min” Yasui was a young Nisei attorney in Oregon during World War II when he violated the military curfew imposed upon all persons of Japanese ancestry in order to bring a test case to court. He lost that case in the US Supreme Court, but nearly 40 years later he reopened it as part of the coram nobis litigation brought by young Sansei attorneys in 1983. Yasui’s criminal conviction was overturned by the federal court in 1986, and two years later, Congress finally acknowledged the government’s mistake with the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Recognized posthumously by President Obama with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, Yasui was not only a key player in two different eras of struggle, but also an outspoken, deeply committed activist all his life, working tirelessly for the human and civil rights of all people.

Yasui’s life and activism are well documented. You can read his full biography in the Densho Encyclopedia. Visit the Minoru Yasui Tribute Project to learn more about the upcoming tribute event and various related activities. On JANM’s Discover Nikkei website, there are a number of first-person essays about Yasui, including a remembrance by his daughter Holly Yasui, an account of the making of the documentary film, and a reflection on Yasui’s legacy by Gil Asakawa. Finally, at the JANM Store, you can pick up a copy of the book The Japanese American Cases: The Rule of Law in Time of War, which tells the story of four brave Nisei who stood up to challenge the legality of Japanese American incarceration—Yasui, Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu, and Mitsuye Endo.

Film Examines Chinese Immigrant History from Women’s Perspectives

This past Saturday, in honor of Women’s History Month, JANM held a screening of the new documentary film, To Climb a Gold Mountain. The film recounts key moments in the history of Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles, with an emphasis on the experiences of Chinese women. Extensive commentary from writers and historians (including past JANM guest speaker Lisa See) is used to tell the stories, along with period stock footage, vintage photographs, and—in the case of a 19th-century prostitute about whom very little is known—a gripping reenactment.

Anna May Wong. Photo: Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Anna May Wong. Photo: Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
The film begins on a dark note, recounting the squalid and abusive conditions endured by the first female Chinese immigrants, who primarily served as prostitutes for the bachelor society of Chinese men that worked to build the railroads. Conditions slowly improved as laws changed to allow these men to start families in the U.S.

The rise of the filmmaking industry comes into play next as the life of Anna May Wong, a talented and charismatic actress who pioneered Asian American representation in popular media, is examined. In spite of her widely acknowledged abilities, Wong suffered a bitter disappointment when she lost the lead role in the landmark 1937 production of The Good Earth to Caucasian actress Luise Rainer, who, along with lead actor Paul Muni, played the role in “yellowface.”

The appearance of the glamorous, articulate, Wellesley-educated Soong Mei-ling, who became a world power player when she married Chinese president Chiang Kai-Shek, signifies a historic shift in U.S.-China relations as well as a significant shift in how Chinese people were viewed by the American public. The film ends on a positive and reaffirming note with a profile of Judy Chu, the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress, who states unequivocally her continuing belief in the American dream.

U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu. Photo courtesy of chu.house.gov.
U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu. Photo courtesy of chu.house.gov.

The screening was followed by a Q&A with producer and co-director Rebecca Hu, who was brought on to the project by the film’s director and executive producer, Alex Azmi. As a Chinese Canadian, the topic of the film resonated with Hu, but she did not know about most of the women being profiled. Thus, the making of the film was an educational experience for her. She noted that the issues highlighted in the film—such as discrimination against Asians and lack of visibility in the media—are still relevant today, and drew a parallel with recent discussions about the lack of diversity in the Academy Awards.

Hu also shared the good news that To Climb Gold Mountain has been picked up by PBS SoCal. A shorter version of the film that screened at JANM on Saturday—cut to fit PBS’s guidelines—will air beginning on May 17.

To find out more about this film, visit the website, which includes a fascinating gallery of notable Chinese American women, including many who are not featured in the film.

2016 Community Day of Remembrance

Over the past few months, I have had the pleasure of participating on the planning committee for the 2016 Los Angeles Day of Remembrance program. I joined representatives from the Japanese American Citizens League (Pacific Southwest District), the Manzanar Committee, Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, and others at JANM to organize the annual event which gathers members of the community to reflect on the enduring legacy of Executive Order 9066. That directive, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, authorized the forced removal and incarceration of over 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II.

JANM-2016-Day-of-Remembrance-MaythaAlhassen-photoBenFuruta
Maytha Alhassen addresses the audience at the 2016 Community Day of Remembrance. Photo by Ben Furuta.

 

The program was held last Saturday before a standing room only crowd at JANM’s Aratani Central Hall. Entitled Is It 1942 Again? Overcoming Our Fears and Upholding Constitutional Rights for All, the program honored the courage and perseverance of the women, men, and children who were incarcerated during World War II, while challenging the audience to apply the lessons of Japanese American history in today’s context. Following recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, American Muslims, Sikhs, South Asians, Arab Americans, and refugees attempting to enter the United States have been the target of hateful acts and caustic rhetoric—a chilling echo of the Japanese American experience during World War II.

A distinguished set of speakers eloquently addressed this year’s theme. They included: event emcees Bruce Embrey (Manzanar Committee) and traci ishigo (Japanese American Citizens League); JANM Vice President of Operations and Art Director Clement Hanami; Anthony Marsh of the American Friends Service Committee, an organization that courageously opposed the World War II incarceration; and Maytha Alhassen, a Syrian Muslim American Provost PhD Fellow in American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.

Congresswoman Judy Chu warned the audience, “Because of the Japanese American camps, we know just how far the country can go if we let hysteria and scapegoating get their way.”  She continued, “Let us make sure that what happened to Japanese Americans never happens to anyone again in this country.”

Congresswoman Judy Chu speaking at the 2016 Community Day of Remembraance
Congresswoman Judy Chu. Photo by Ben Furuta.

 

But no voice was more essential to the program than that of longtime JANM docent and Heart Mountain camp survivor Bill Shishima. Bill recalled his early childhood years spent near Olvera Street in downtown LA, and the grocery store and hotel his father operated there before being forced to leave them behind during World War II. Bill’s vivid description of the years that followed transported the audience to the foul-smelling horse stables of Santa Anita Race Track, where Bill’s grandparents stayed, and to the incessant dust storms of Bill’s eventual home, Heart Mountain camp. One by one, Bill recounted the traumas and indignities of everyday camp life—the degrading lack of privacy, the barbed wire fences and armed guards, the confusing and ominous loyalty questionnaire, and the promising student body president who volunteered for military service to prove his patriotism and was then killed in Europe.

Bill concluded his remarks by reminding the audience of the “fragility of civil liberties in a time of crisis, and the importance of remaining vigilant in protecting the rights and freedoms of all.” He received a well-deserved standing ovation.

JANM-2016-Day-of-Remembrance-BillShishima-photoRichardMurakami
Bill Shishima. Photo by Richard Murakami.

Girl Scout Creates Patch Program to Raise Awareness of WWII Japanese American Incarceration

Ambassador Girl Scout Lauren Wong sits in front of JANM's Common Ground exhibition.
Ambassador Girl Scout Lauren Wong sits in front
of JANM’s Common Ground exhibition.

 

My name is Lauren Wong. I am an Ambassador Girl Scout with Troop 881, based at the Orange County Buddhist Church in Anaheim, California, and a candidate for the Girl Scout Gold Award. This award is similar to the Eagle Scout rank in Boy Scouts; it is the highest award a Girl Scout can earn. Applying for it is a seven-step process that begins with identifying a global issue and ends with creating a project that educates, inspires, and promotes awareness of that issue. For my Gold Award application, I have created a special Girl Scout patch program for the Japanese American National Museum.

Since I was little, my grandmother has told me stories of her incarceration at Tule Lake concentration camp, inspiring my passion for learning more about my Japanese American history. Students do not generally get the opportunity to learn about the mistreatment of Japanese Americans during World War II, as it is often overlooked in history classes. Even today, many of my school friends do not know about the camps. My goal is to educate the general public and inspire them to appreciate the lives they have today and not let history repeat itself.

Girl Scout patch for those who complete Lauren Wong's Common Ground curriculum. Designed by Lauren Wong.
Girl Scout patch for those who complete Lauren Wong’s Common Ground curriculum. Designed by Lauren Wong.

 

I have created an educational tool called Experience the Past, available in three separate worksheets geared toward elementary school students, middle school students, and high school students/adults. The worksheets, which can be requested at JANM’s front desk, are designed to accompany a visit to the museum’s core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community. They pose questions and suggest exercises that are designed to help visitors identify with the exhibition, think more deeply about what they’re seeing, connect it with aspects of contemporary life, and converse with others about their experience.

At the end of their visit, participants who complete a worksheet earn a custom patch that I created. Through this program, I hope to spread awareness of the history of Japanese American incarceration, which is important not just to Japanese American history, but to American history as a whole.

Tickets are still available for two upcoming Girl Scout programs at JANM. On January 9 and 16, current Girl Scouts are invited to take a private tour of Giant Robot Biennale 4, followed by a zine-making workshop with exhibiting artist Yumi Sakugawa. For more details and to register, visit janm.org.

JANM’s Board of Trustees Convenes in New York City

JANM board members listen as Clifford Chanin, Vice President for Education and Public Programs at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, points out features of the outdoor memorial. Photo by Nicole Miyahara.
JANM board members listen as Clifford Chanin, Vice President for Education and Public Programs at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, points out features of the outdoor memorial. Photo by Nicole Miyahara.

 

Members of JANM’s Board of Trustees, Board of Governors, and staff traveled to New York City for a weekend-long offsite meeting of the Board of Trustees at the end of October. It was a welcome opportunity to escape the hot temperatures in Los Angeles for the cool autumn weather in New York. Most of the weekend was devoted to taking care of business, but time was also set aside for relaxing, networking, and catching up.

The social highlight was the Saturday afternoon reception, held at the Nippon Club in Midtown. In addition to JANM board members, distinguished guests included Yosuke Honjo, CEO and President, Ito En (North America); Masahide Enoki, Vice President, Ito En; Sugu Mike, Executive Chairman, MUFG Union Bank; Yumi Higashi, Vice President of Corporate Communications, MUFG Union Bank; and Osamu Honda, Director General of the Japan Foundation, New York. Delicious food and beverages were enjoyed by all.

A carved wood plate by Henry Sugimoto, now part of the museum's permanent collection. Photo by Nicole Miyahara.
A carved wood plate by Henry Sugimoto, now part of the museum’s permanent collection. Photo by Nicole Miyahara.

At the reception, JANM announced a major gift from the estate of artist Henry Sugimoto, generously made by his daughter Madeleine. The artworks and artifacts span Sugimoto’s entire career and include 240 oil paintings and more than 200 watercolors. This acquisition makes the Sugimoto Collection, which comprises over 700 works of art, the largest collection of paintings at JANM.

Maggie Wetherbee, JANM Collections Manager, made a special trip to New York to bring one of her favorite Sugimoto pieces to the reception for guests to see. It is a carved wood plate created by the artist in the 1980s; it depicts Madeleine Sugimoto at age six, sitting in front of the mess hall at “Jerome Camp” in Arkansas, where the Sugimoto family was incarcerated, in 1943. The tags attached to her and the pieces of luggage surrounding her bore their family number, so that they could be returned to their assigned barrack if they were separated from her parents. Attendees were very excited and appreciative to see this piece up close, and were able to ask Wetherbee additional questions about the collection.

Dr. Greg Kimura, JANM’s President and CEO, gave a short presentation on the latest happenings at the museum, including exhibitions, educational tours, and new technology. Representative Mark Takano of the 41st Congressional District, a longtime supporter of the museum, spoke about what JANM means to him. He mentioned that Riverside City College, which is part of his district, holds a major collection of works by artist Mine Okubo; JANM also has a significant number of works by Okubo in its permanent collection. Rep. Takano also promised to assist JANM in bringing its recent exhibition, Before They Were Heroes: Sus Ito’s World War II Images, to a prominent venue in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Greg Kimura, JANM's President and CEO, gives a short presentation about the latest happenings at the museum. Photo by Nicole Miyahara.
Dr. Greg Kimura, JANM’s President and CEO, gives a short presentation about the latest happenings at the museum. Photo by Nicole Miyahara.

 

In addition to the meetings and reception, some board members and their family and friends elected to visit the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, located on the former site of the World Trade Center. The group was given a guided tour by the museum’s founding President and CEO, Joseph C. Daniels, and Vice President for Education and Public Programs Clifford Chanin. In addition to being a deeply moving experience, the intimate tour was an opportunity to build a partnership with an institution with which JANM shares a common mission of commemorating a national tragedy and promoting the messages of hope, transcendence, and tolerance that come out of it.

Another highlight of our trip was enjoying some delicious meals at Hasaki and Sakagura, two restaurants owned by Bon Yagi and his daughter Sakura Yagi, who are longtime friends of the museum. We highly recommend visiting either or both of these establishments the next time you are in New York.

A Closer Look at the Civilian Exclusion Order

Civilian Exclusion Order on display in the JANM galleries.
Civilian Exclusion Order on display in the JANM galleries.

It’s Media Literacy Week and when our friends over at the Center for Media Literacy encouraged us to think about media literacy, two pieces from our core exhibition Common Ground: The Heart of Community came to mind.

The Civilian Exclusion Order poster, which announced the evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry, is seen at left. The full text can be read here. Take a close look at this document and consider some of the euphemistic words used by the government—”non-alien,” “evacuation,” and “temporary residence.”

In 1942, these posters were placed in public areas all along the West Coast of the United States. With an average of seven days’ notice, thousands of individuals of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated in American concentration camps without due process. Many of these individuals were United States citizens. They could only bring with them what they could carry and their lives were irreversibly disrupted.

Qris Yamashita's silkscreen poster, Redress/Reparations Now!/Little Tokyo. Photo by Gary Ono.
Qris Yamashita’s silkscreen poster, Redress/Reparations Now!/Little Tokyo. Photo by Gary Ono.

In 1983, the artist Qris Yamashita created a silkscreen poster titled Redress/Reparations Now!/Little Tokyo. Inspired by the Civilian Exclusion Order, this work looks critically at the language used, and makes notes to draw our attention to certain words and phrases, helping us to consider what they really mean.

Yamashita’s work points out that the phrase “non-alien” really meant U.S. citizens. The United States government gathered and imprisoned its own citizens based on the fact that they were of Japanese descent. The government also stated that it would provide “temporary residence” elsewhere. As it turned out, the citizens were first held in horse stables that had been transformed into temporary detention centers, and then transported to hastily built barracks in remote, barren areas.

Detail of Qris Yamashita's Redress/Reparations Now!/Little Tokyo. Photo by Gary Ono.
Detail of Qris Yamashita’s Redress/Reparations Now!/Little Tokyo. Photo by Gary Ono.
Detail of Qris Yamashita's Redress/Reparations Now!/Little Tokyo. Photo by Gary Ono.
Detail of Qris Yamashita’s Redress/Reparations Now!/Little Tokyo. Photo by Gary Ono.

 

There is far more to explore in both of these pieces so feel free to take a closer look. The next time you’re in downtown Los Angeles, come to the Japanese American National Museum and see Common Ground: The Heart of Community to learn more about this period in our country’s history.

For more about the Civilian Exclusion Order as it relates to Executive Order 9066, read this past blog post that explains the difference between the two.

Executive Order 9066 vs. Civilian Exclusion Order

Saturday afternoon shoppers in San Francisco's Chinatown read a Civilian Exclusion Order in this 1942 photograph. National Records and Archives Administration. Photograph by Dorothea Lange.
Saturday afternoon shoppers in San Francisco’s Chinatown read a Civilian Exclusion Order in this 1942 photograph. National Records and Archives Administration.
Photograph by Dorothea Lange.

In Japanese American history, Executive Order 9066 and the Civilian Exclusion Orders are often confused with one another; many people mistakenly believe that they are the same thing. In fact, they are two different decrees that acted in concert to legitimize government-sanctioned racism during World War II.

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This two-page, typewritten order was simply designed, in broad strokes, to give the Secretary of War the power to establish designated military areas from which people could be evacuated as he saw fit:

I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.

Executive Order 9066 is what opened the door for the exclusion and removal of all people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast and into World War II American concentration camps. This was then put into action by a series of Civilian Exclusion Orders.

Posted on signs in large, bold lettering, the orders appeared first in Bainbridge Island, Washington, on March 24, 1942 and were subsequently posted all along the West Coast of the United States. This series of sequential orders issued by the Western Defense Command and Fourth Army Wartime Civil Control Administration informed people of Japanese ancestry that they were required to pack up, leave their homes, and report to designated locations.

National Records and Archives Administration. Photograph by Dorothea Lange.
National Records and Archives Administration. Photograph by Dorothea Lange.

 

Following is a key excerpt from one of the orders:

Pursuant to the provisions of Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34, this Headquarters, dated May 3, 1942, all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above area by 12 o’clock noon, P. W. T., Sunday, May 9, 1942.

Note the highly strategic use of language in this paragraph. The persons to be rounded up are both “alien and non-alien”—these words are used instead of the designations “citizen and non-citizen.” Imagine the reaction these orders might have generated among the general populace, had they in fact made plain that that the government’s intention was to incarcerate persons who were citizens of the United States.

By the same token, the order states that all persons of Japanese ancestry are to be “evacuated”—a word commonly used during natural disasters, when citizens are evacuated from an area for their own safety. History has made it clear that it was in fact the safety of non-Japanese Americans that prompted these extreme actions from the U.S. government.

These egregious instances of legalized racism have since been widely recognized and officially apologized for by the government. February 19, 1942—the date President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066—is now annually commemorated as a “Day of Remembrance” by Japanese Americans and all people interested in the protection of civil liberties.

“Life in Camp” Display Offers Insight into Food Services in World War II Camps

Henry Sugimoto, Our Mess Hall (1942), oil on canvas. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Madeleine Sugimoto and Naomi Tagawa.
Henry Sugimoto, Our Mess Hall (1942), oil on canvas. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Madeleine Sugimoto and Naomi Tagawa.

 

After a bustling final weekend, Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty has come to an end. JANM is now in the process of de-installing that show in preparation for the next two exhibitions on our schedule—Sugar/Islands: Finding Okinawa in Hawai’i—The Art of Laura Kina and Emily Hanako Momohara, opening July 11, and Before They Were Heroes: Sus Ito’s World War II Images, opening July 14.

Common Ground: The Heart of Community, our core exhibition telling the Japanese American story, remains on view during this time. And if you happen to be in the museum on a Tuesday, Thursday (afternoon only), Saturday, or Sunday, you can also see a special temporary display in the Hirasaki National Resource Center. Building on the theme of “Life in Camp,” the display focuses on mess halls and food services in the concentration camps where 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II.

Specially selected items from JANM’s extensive permanent collection comprise this exhibit. Featured is an evocative 1942 painting by Henry Sugimoto titled Our Mess Hall. A multigenerational group—an elderly woman, two mothers and their children, and a young man—is seen dining at a large table. The mothers try to feed their children, one of whom refuses his food, while the young man hungrily gulps down a bowl of rice. This close-cropped scene is punctuated by two signs prominently hung on the wall behind them—one reads “No second serving!” while the other reminds them “Milk for children and sick people only.”

The painting captures the busy, crowded feel of a mess hall, while reminding viewers that strict rations were in effect. This fact is reinforced by artifacts installed in a nearby display case, which include facsimiles of actual daily menus distributed in the camps, along with memos reducing rice allocations in response to serious shortages. Also included are a bowl and utensils salvaged from various camps.

In addition to the Sugimoto painting, the exhibit features a 1944 still life by Sadayuki Uno and a photograph of Japanese American farm workers at Manzanar camp, taken by Ansel Adams in 1942. Taken together, these artworks and artifacts offer an authentic look at the distribution and consumption of food in the WWII camps.

Pilgrimages to WWII American Concentration Camp Sites Starting in April

Entrance to Rohwer concentration camp. Photo: Richard Murakami.
Entrance to Rohwer concentration camp in Arkansas. Photo: Richard Murakami.

 

During World War II, the U.S. government forcibly removed Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast without due process. Most of them were sent to one of ten concentration camps located throughout the United States: Amache, Gila River, Heart Mountain, Jerome, Manzanar, Minidoka, Poston, Rohwer, Topaz, and Tule Lake, as they are commonly referred to. The War Relocation Authority selected these locations because they were remote, owned by the federal government, and often near rail lines.

For many years after the war, Japanese Americans did their best to get on with their post-camp lives, preferring not to dwell on the unpleasant experience of incarceration. As the years passed however, the community became more interested in grappling with this part of its history. Trips back to the camps began, with some organizing group pilgrimages to facilitate the experience.

Pilgrimage to Amache concentration camp in Colorado. Photo: Tracy Kumono.
Pilgrimage to Amache concentration camp in Colorado. Photo: Tracy Kumono.

 

Now, more than seventy years after resettlement, there has evolved what could be called a pilgrimage season. The 2015 “season” begins in April and ends in August. Following is a complete schedule with links to more information about each of the organized pilgrimages, including registration and fees.

Pilgrimage to Manzanar (California): April 25, 2015
Pilgrimage to Amache (Colorado): May 16, 2015
Pilgrimage to Minidoka (Idaho): June 25–28, 2015
Pilgrimage to Heart Mountain (Wyoming): August 21–22, 2015
Tule Lake (California) hosts pilgrimages every other year; the next one is scheduled for July 2016.

These are the five sites that have regular pilgrimages; we encourage you to visit the others as well. With the exception of the Gila River camp in Arizona, permits are not required. In February, President Obama recognized Honouliuli in Hawai`i as a National Monument, so perhaps Hawai`i will one day be added as part of the pilgrimage season.

A family returns to the site of their former barrack at Amache. Photo: Tracy Kumono.
A family returns to the site of their former barrack at Amache. Photo: Tracy Kumono.

 

No matter who you are—whether you were incarcerated or not, whether you are of Japanese descent or not—you might consider visiting one of the former camp sites. There is nothing like standing there, feeling the air, seeing the mountains, sensing the scorching heat or the bitter cold. It is definitely worth a visit, even though they are remote and the conditions are harsh; in fact, that is the point.

A Visit from the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

JANM docent Bill Shishima, left, led a tour of Common Ground: The Heart of Community for visiting staff members from the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. From left to right: Piotr Kowalik, Dr. Kamila Dąbrowska, Łucja Koch, Monika Sadkowska, and Ewe Chomicka. (Monika Koszyńska also travelled to Los Angeles with the group but was under the weather on the day of the JANM visit.)
JANM docent Bill Shishima, left, led a tour of Common Ground: The Heart of Community for visiting staff members from the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. From left to right: Piotr Kowalik, Dr. Kamila Dąbrowska, Łucja Koch, Monika Sadkowska, and Ewe Chomicka. (Monika Koszyńska also travelled to Los Angeles with the group but was under the weather on the day of the JANM visit.)
All photos by Leslie Unger.

 

Two weeks shy of her one-year anniversary at the Japanese American National Museum, Director of Marketing and Communications Leslie Unger had one of the most interesting days of her over-two-decades-long professional career. Read about it below!

On February 11, JANM was honored to host a group of visitors from the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. They had traveled from Warsaw to visit several institutions in San Francisco and Los Angeles, primarily to learn about education department practices and activities. I tagged along with JANM staff members Clement Hanami, Allyson Nakamoto, Christy Sakamoto, and Lynn Yamasaki, knowing that this would be a memorable opportunity for cultural exchange. I was not disappointed.

POLIN is a new museum, opened in April 2013. Its core exhibition depicting the 1,000-year history of Polish Jews was opened at the end of October 2014. Over the course of the exhibition’s first three days, some 15,000 people visited. That’s a remarkable figure and I can only believe that it speaks to an essential need that POLIN is filling for Poland, for those of Jewish heritage and non-Jews alike.

In addition to learning about the history of Poland and Polish Jews, as well as how the POLIN Museum came into existence, I was fascinated by some of the concepts and themes that the Warsaw museum and JANM share, including notions of identity and citizenship, and how to represent a proud people scarred by immeasurable tragedy.

JANM Vice President of Operations and Art Director Clement Hanami gives the guests a behind-the-scenes look at our collection. From left to right: Hanami, Monika Sadkowska, Dr. Kamila Dąbrowska, Łucja Koch, Ewe Chomicka, and Piotr Kowalik.
JANM Vice President of Operations and Art Director Clement Hanami gives the guests a behind-the-scenes look at our collection. From left to right: Hanami, Monika Sadkowska, Dr. Kamila Dąbrowska, Łucja Koch, Ewe Chomicka, and Piotr Kowalik.

 

There was a very interesting discussion about the phrase “concentration camps.” This is terminology that JANM and others use in reference to what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II rather than other more euphemistic wording. Of course, “concentration camps” is also the terminology most often used to describe where Jews were sent and where so many of them perished during the war. And it is the context of the Holocaust that has brought an additional level of meaning to the phrase for many people.

When we told our Polish visitors that JANM uses “concentration camps,” I could see each of them experience a moment of discomfort. As someone of Jewish heritage, I had felt the same internal shudder the first time I heard the words used at JANM. But as I became more familiar with the story of Japanese Americans and focused more specifically on the actual meaning of the words themselves and not on additional connotations that have evolved, I became more comfortable. I shared this personal experience with our guests, and they too were able to speak more objectively about this powerful phrase and how it has in fact been used in numerous other situations, before and after WWII.

Although JANM’s Fighting for Democracy exhibition is temporarily closed to the public while we make improvements to the space, we were able to bring the POLIN visitors in for a quick look. Pictured here is Monika Sadkowska.
Although JANM’s Fighting for Democracy exhibition is temporarily closed to the public while we make improvements to the space, we were able to bring the POLIN visitors in for a quick look. Pictured here is Monika Sadkowska.

 

Perhaps one of the most memorable things articulated by our guests was that Jews are integral to the story of Poland and vice versa, and that the POLIN Museum tries to portray this symbiotic relationship as well as how Jews were and are part of the historical context of the larger geographic region. As one of them said: “The story of the Jews is presented to inspire respect for diversity.”

You could not write a statement that more closely mirrors the mission of JANM. The stories of Polish Jews and Japanese Americans are not the same. But in the span of just a few hours, I was emphatically reminded of how there is so much more that the human race shares than what might divide it.