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!

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.

 

Highlights from the Little Tokyo Sushi Graze

Edible Adventures at Sushi Go 55

Is it uncivilized to use soy sauce? Should extra wasabi be added? Recently, travel agent and food enthusiast Roxana Lewis led a “sushi graze” edition of our Edible Adventures walking tour series in Little Tokyo, this time starting with a “Sushi 101 class.” Lewis explained that adding wasabi or soy sauce depends on the restaurant and the chef. However, she stressed that when using soy sauce, one should lightly dip only the fish to avoid having the rice ball fall apart. Attendees also learned some surprising sushi history. Enthusiasts may find it hard to imagine sushi ever existing without rice. However, beginning in the fourth century in many parts of Asia, salted raw fish was wrapped in rice and held in storage for months. When the rice fermented, it acted as a preservative but was discarded before the fish was eaten.

Sushi was introduced to Japan in the ninth century. It became popular as Buddhism spread throughout the country; the Buddhist practice of refraining from eating meat meant that many Japanese began eating fish as a dietary staple. Vinegar was eventually used as a preservative instead of rice and this change led to the uniquely Japanese version of sushi that is eaten today.  A rice ball and a small portion of raw fish (known as nigiri sushi) need very little preparation, so by the 1800s, it was a popular choice with roadside vendors and a big hit with busy workers who didn’t have time to sit down for a meal.

After the short history lesson, attendees enjoyed a small feast at the restaurant Sushi Go 55. The sushi served at this restaurant reflects the same style that emerged as a favorite fast-food option in nineteenth century Japan. Made to order piece by piece, attendees watched as the chef’s hands moved in perfect rhythm as he assembled balls of rice and affixed fish to them with the exact amount of wasabi. In the past few centuries, not much has changed in the making of this style of food. While enjoying sushi at this restaurant, one could close their eyes and feel a direct connection to Japan and the past.

A chef prepares sushi

While sushi is a pillar of Japanese cuisine, the history of the delicacy in the United States is an ever-evolving one. When first introduced, Americans had a difficult time warming up to the idea that raw fish could be something tasty. The creation of the California roll in the late 1960s helped change American perceptions. First created by a Japanese chef in Los Angeles (according to some), the California roll features crab, avocado, and cucumber, making it more suitable to the American palate. It’s often then rolled “inside out,” meaning the rice is on the outside. The next stop on the tour exemplified this American take on sushi. At the Ebisu Tavern, “caterpillar” and “spider” rolls which featured ingredients like battered soft-shell crab and spicy mayonnaise were served to showcase the evolution of westernized sushi.

The Edible Adventure offered more than just learning about sushi. Between stops Lewis recounted tidbits touching on the history of Little Tokyo. She pointed out Buddhist temples and explained their architecture, showed participants the former sites of trailblazing restaurants now gone and noted how the area has changed through the generations. The tour ended back at JANM. Museum admission was included with the tour and attendees then spent time taking in the current exhibitions. Don’t miss the next Edible Adventure—you can stay up to date on all of JANM’s events by visiting janm.org/events. You can also sign up to receive our monthly Exhibitions & Events email with all the latest information.

What to Expect at Natsumatsuri 2018

JANM is counting down the days to our Natsumatsuri Family Festival! Join us in celebrating the summer season on Saturday, August 18, for a full day of fun: crafts, bubble making, taiko performances, bon odori dances, tea ceremonies, live music, and so much more. Best of all, admission to this annual celebration and the museum will be free all day.

As in years past, we are excited to bring the Okinawan dango booth back to JANM. Always a crowd favorite, Okinawan dango (also known as saataa andaagii, which translates to “deep fried sugar”) are small Japanese donuts fried to crispy perfection on the outside with a deliciously fluffy inside. Popular at summer obon festivals in the West, these traditional treats will only be available while supplies last, so come early!

After you’ve enjoyed some snacks, we have two taiko performances for your entertainment. A cornerstone of Japanese American summer festivals, the taiko drum is a crowd-pleasing loud Japanese instrument. Use of this instrument during festivals dates back as far as the sixth century. Today, taiko refers to a broad range of instruments and ensembles in a practice that transcends cultural, stylistic, and geographical boundaries.

Two talented taiko groups will get hearts racing. San Fernando Valley Taiko takes the stage at 11:15 a.m. in Aratani Central Hall for a performance and interactive taiko demonstration. Founded by two collegiate taiko experts, San Fernando Valley Taiko offers weekly classes for every skill level at the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center. If you miss that first taiko display, have no fear. At 4:15 p.m., on our Children’s Courtyard, Los Angeles’ very own TAIKOPROJECT will close the day’s festivities. A modern American taiko group, they put on powerful shows that combine traditional forms with innovative aesthetics. The group has appeared at the Academy Awards and the Grammy Awards, among others.

Taiko drummers perform at Natsumatsuri 2016. (Photo credit: Steve Fujimoto)

Between the taiko performances, Masayo Young will lead three traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, at 12:00 p.m., 1:30 p.m., and 2:30 p.m. Born and raised in Osaka, Young has practiced these ancient rituals for decades. The quiet performances require a focused and meditative sense of control that place value in the process of mindfully preparing and serving matcha tea. The number of participants for each ceremony will be limited, so sign up early to make sure you get a serving of tea with traditional sweets. Sign-up sheets will be available at the museum survey table.

 

At 2:45 p.m., say aloha to Kaulana Ka Hale Kula O Na Pua O Ka Aina in Aratani Central Hall. Since 1999, the group has preserved and shared Native Hawaiian and Polynesian cultures. With learning at the center of their practice, they teach many of their haumana (students) how to make their own implements, attire, and leis. Families are invited to hula alongside them during their set, so come ready to dance.

A group of dancers from Kaulana Ka Hale Kula O Na Pua O Ka Aina perform.

Natsumatsuri Family Festival 2018 will be fun for all ages, from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Free for everyone, JANM invites families to enjoy the entire day, with even more activities including origami workshops, jazz performances, and a scavenger hunt. JANM members get perks throughout the day, including reserved seating and express lines, so join or renew today! More information about all of our Natsumatsuri activities is available on our website.

This Summer, See Masumi Hayashi’s Work in Glendale

Now through July 8, 2018, three pieces from the JANM permanent collection by artist Masumi Hayashi are on view at ReflectSpace Gallery at the Downtown Central Library in Glendale. The photocollages, from Hayashi’s “American Concentration Camps” series, are presented as part of the library’s exhibition entitled Accused of No Crime: Japanese Incarceration in America, which weaves a personal narrative through photographs, art, and film to highlight stories of Japanese Americans forced into concentration camps during World War II. Hayahsi’s work is presented alongside pieces from Mona Higuchi and Paul Kitaguki as well as archival images from Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, among others. Admission to the library is free. More information about the display can be found here.

Gila River Camp, where Hayashi was born.
Gila River Relocation Camp, Foundations, 1990, panoramic photo collage. 22″x 56″

Born in the Gila River War Relocation Camp in Rivers, Arizona, just after the war ended, Hayashi spent her childhood in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, where she worked at her parents’ neighborhood market. She briefly attended UCLA before moving to Florida to be with her husband, who had joined the Navy. Hayashi later enrolled at Florida State University where she earned both her BA and MFA.

In 1982, Hayashi joined the Cleveland State University faculty as Professor of Photography. While at CSU, Hayashi received awards and fellowships from a number of institutions, including the Ohio Arts Council, the Civil Liberties Educational Fund, and Arts Midwest. She worked at the university until her death in 2006.

Hayashi developed a systematic photographic style that involved taking multiple exposures of a single subject and assembling them into large panoramic scenes that could be six feet across or larger. She is probably best known for her series “American Concentration Camps,” which centered on the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II.

According to the artist’s statement in 1997, preserved on her online museum’s website, “The viewer can instantly see a 360-degree panoramic view which would otherwise circle around her, thus the viewer becomes both prisoner and guard within the photograph’s memory.” Her work is often described as eliciting contradictory sensations. Former JANM curator Karin Higa in 2003 noted that there is a “suggestion of dysfunction between what you see and what you know—what you can’t find out” in her work. The “American Concentration Camps” series is no different, moving viewers to take in both the beauty of the landscape and the memory of what happened there as well as that which can never be known about either. As Hayashi once remarked, “What we’re living with is not always on the surface.”

Manzanar Relocation Camp, Monument, 1995, panoramic photo collage, 48″x 80″

Don’t miss the opportunity to see Hayashi’s work and all of Accused of No Crime.

Breaking the Fast with #VigilantLOVE

On May 24, 2018, the Japanese American National Museum was honored to support and participate in the #VigilantLOVE 3rd Annual Bridging Communities Iftar—the evening meal that breaks each day’s fast during Ramadan—held at the Centenary United Methodist Church. As a new staff member in the Education Unit at JANM, I was excited to attend the event with a few colleagues to learn more about #VigilantLOVE and the Little Tokyo community.

Place setting at the #VigilantLOVE iftar.

According to its website, #VigilantLOVE is a healing and arts-driven organization that counters mainstream narratives of insularity, building upon the legacy of Muslim American and Japanese American solidarity since 9/11. As someone new not only to JANM, but also to Los Angeles and the West Coast, this solidarity is one that I was not aware of until starting at the museum. But it is one that makes perfect sense when considering the shared commitments to fighting against hate, battling racism, and standing up for constitutional rights that again seem imperiled in our country.

Already in my short time at JANM, seemingly disparate aspects of my identity, both personal and professional, have converged in unexpected and exciting ways. I was raised Muslim, and by my own choice wore the hijab from grade three through my first semester of college. I have fasted for Ramadan in the past, but it has been many years since I have attended a community Iftar event. I never would have thought that my professional work, at a Japanese American organization no less, would have provided the opportunity for me to connect with this part of myself again.

The event itself was also a very unique mix of elements, from speakers to poetry reading to reflective breaths of gratitude to fundraising. In learning a little more about #VigilantLOVE, the confluence of these, again, seemingly disparate elements fit perfectly into their organizing model, which “integrates grassroots organizing, policy advocacy, political education, the arts, and healing practices within the culture of everything we do.”

Origami note containing words to make poetry.

My favorite part of the night was the short collective poetry activity attendees were invited to participate in. Since I’m an educator, perhaps this is not too surprising but I loved that everyone was invited to collaboratively create something with the others at their table. Each table had a small gold or silver origami envelope containing various cut-out words; our job was to create a haiku using words from our envelope. Our JANM table struggled a bit (we needed to make sure the number of syllables in each line was correct!), but eventually came up with this:

side by side building

wakeful unshakeable friends

create strengthen home

Our poem, and the night as a whole, reminded me of the importance of community—of friends —in building the world we want to see. Despite mainstream rhetoric of insularity and isolationism, where people focus on the issues that divide us, this event helped us to remember the beauty of the multicultural, multifaceted world in which we live.

Collaborative haiku.

 

A Visit to Otomisan, the Last Japanese Restaurant in Boyle Heights

Owner Yayoi Watanabe greets customers at the counter.

The history of Otomisan Restaurant in Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights neighborhood is well documented in the press. It was first opened in 1956 as Otomi Café, by a couple who are remembered today only as Mr. and Mrs. Seto. At that time, Boyle Heights was a melting pot of diverse, working-class immigrant groups that included Jews, Russians, Armenians, Japanese, and Mexicans. The Japanese had begun spilling over from nearby Little Tokyo in the 1920s, at the same time that a critical mass of Jewish migration turned the neighborhood into the largest Jewish enclave west of Chicago. In its early years, Otomi Café was just one of many Japanese establishments in the multiethnic community.

A Los Angeles Times profile from 2007 offers this account of the restaurant’s bustling business during its first decade: “During the weekends, Japanese people from the neighborhood and throughout LA would have prefectural meetings during picnics at places like Griffith Park and Elysian Park. The restaurant would make bento box lunches, hundreds of them, for the meetings.” The clientele was mostly Japanese then, and there was often a wait to get into the tiny eatery.

Inside Otomisan, shortly after the lunch rush.

In the early 1970s, the Setos sold the restaurant to a Mr. and Mrs. Seino, who changed its name to Otomisan. By that time, the neighborhood’s demographics were beginning to shift. Many of the various immigrant groups had moved on, and Boyle Heights began to emerge as a predominantly Mexican American community. Then, in the early 2000s, Mr. Seino passed away, and Otomisan closed down for six months. In addition to being the owner, he had been the sole cook. His widow seemed to be on the verge of giving up the place.

Yayoi Watanabe, the owner of a nearby dry cleaner, had other ideas. She felt it was important to maintain a Japanese presence, keep up a Japanese tradition, in the neighborhood. She convinced Mrs. Seino to sell the restaurant to her, and she has been running it ever since.

Just a few of the objects that decorate the walls and counters.

A group of JANM staffers recently paid a visit to this historic restaurant. It still sits in its original location on First Street near Soto. The place is remarkably small; there are only three booths and a handful of stools at a short bar. Walking into it does feel like going back in time; the furnishings look original, and vintage pictures and knickknacks are pleasantly cluttered everywhere. Watanabe was working behind the counter, as she always does. Behind her in the small kitchen, a lone cook filled all the orders.

We ordered from the menu of classic Japanese comfort dishes: tempura, beef cutlet, chirashi bowl, oyakodon, croquettes, soba noodles. The amiable Watanabe confirmed that the offerings had not changed much since the 1950s; the most recent addition was probably the curry, and that happened in the 1970s. She wanted to stay as close to the original offerings as possible. When our entrees came, we all marveled at how good the food was and how home-cooked it tasted. It felt like we were hanging out in our grandmother’s kitchen—the most nourishing of places. A steady flow of people came in and out of the place while we were there, some looking like they were regulars. The clientele was diverse: Mexican, Japanese, Caucasian.

A combo platter with their famous tempura and a tasty beef cutlet.

When asked if she had any news for our readers, Watanabe thought of her impending hire of a second cook, which is indeed significant given the restaurant’s long history of operating with just one. Perhaps the real news here, however, is simply that Otomisan still stands, serving comforting and authentic Japanese diner food to a diverse clientele much as it always has, even as the world around it continues to change.

Otomisan is located at 2506-1/2 East 1st Street in Boyle Heights.

To learn more about the history of this neighborhood, be sure to visit the archival site for JANM’s 2002 exhibition, The Power of Place: Boyle Heights Project.

Until next time!

This Year’s Day of Remembrance Considers the 30th Anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988

Signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 by President Ronald Reagan, 1988. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Norman Y. Mineta.

On Saturday, February 17, JANM will present the 2018 Day of Remembrance in partnership with Go for Broke National Education Center, Japanese American Citizens League-Pacific Southwest District, the Manzanar Committee, Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, Nikkei Progressives, OCA-Greater Los Angeles, and Progressive Asian Network for Action (PANA). This year’s theme is “The Civil Liberties Act of 1988: The Victory and the Unfinished Business.”

In addition to marking the 76th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, an act that led to the forced evacuation and mass incarceration of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II, this year’s Day of Remembrance also commemorates the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the legislation that provided a formal apology from the US government and monetary reparations to survivors of the incarceration. Years in the making, this landmark legislation went a long way toward providing vindication and closure for the Japanese American community. Over 82,500 survivors received the President’s apology and the token monetary compensation provided by the CLA.

Today, however, we again find ourselves living in a climate of fear and scapegoating, in which several different immigrant populations have become vulnerable to unfair targeting. At this year’s event, we hope to strengthen our collective voice as we strive to prevent a repeat of what happened to Japanese Americans 76 years ago. Featured speakers will include Alan Nishio, community activist and founding member of National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (now Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress), who will speak about the importance of the Civil Liberties Act, what it did not accomplish, and its ongoing relevance today. The DOR program will also continue its tradition of paying tribute to the Issei and Nisei generations.

Admission to this event and to the museum are both pay-what-you-wish on this day. Last year’s event drew standing-room-only crowds, so RSVPs for this year’s Day of Remembrance are strongly encouraged. For updates on the day’s program, please visit janm.org or the Facebook event page.