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.

Spanish-Language Tour of Little Tokyo Opens More Doors of Understanding

Monica Cruz and Sergio Holguin. Photo by Richard Watanabe.

The Little Tokyo Walking Tour is one of many public programs offered by the Japanese American National Museum. In conjunction with JANM’s latest exhibition, Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, visitors will soon be able to tour the Little Tokyo Historic District with an experienced Spanish-speaking docent. To gain more insight into this new offering, JANM Visitor Services Associate Sergio Holguin sat down with Monica Cruz, the docent who will lead the tour, for a brief discussion.

Author’s note: In this discussion, “Latino” is shorthand for a larger, mixed identity/ies. Both parties use the term to refer to persons of Mexican, Mexican-American, Latin American, and mixed Hispanic descent. The term is not used to describe those who significantly identify with specific indigenous identities or those who represent themselves as “Chicano.” “Latino” is used for the sake of brevity, and should not be misconstrued as a reductive gesture. If there are any questions or concerns, please feel free to comment below.

Sergio Holguin: Tell me about yourself and the work you do with JANM.

Monica Cruz: I’ve been a member of the museum for about five years, and a volunteer for three. I’ve worked in a variety of capacities: Visitor Services, when they need me; leading the Little Tokyo Walking Tour (I was trained as a docent); and now I’m a part of the group that helps out at the HNRC (Hirasaki National Resource Center).

SH: As a Mexican-American, I tend to get a lot of puzzled looks from folks coming in, even after seven years of working here. As a non-Japanese person like me, how did you get involved with the Japanese American community?

MC: To make the story short, my late husband was Japanese American, the first generation in his family to be born in the United States.

SH: So he was Shin-Nisei [a child of Japanese immigrants who arrived in the US after World War II]?

MC: Yes, we were both actually born in the US territory of Puerto Rico and moved to California for work. When he passed, I decided to stay close to the Japanese American community here, in celebration of his memory. I started volunteering with the different temples, and also got involved in Obon season, when they remember the dead—kind of like Día de los Muertos for us Latinos. I became a member of the museum because of all the programs they offer, and I saw the need for volunteers at that point, and I wanted to be a part of that as well.

SH: I like that you brought up Obon, because that’s actually how I was first drawn to visit Little Tokyo years ago. There’s a lot of overlap between cultures—not just Mexican, Latino, and Japanese culture, but other cultures as well. Remembering and honoring the dead, responsibility to family, and public service—those are very universal human traits. It’s important that we celebrate intersections of identity. What are some of your thoughts and hopes for the very first Little Tokyo Walking Tour en Español?

MC: I think that Transpacific Borderlands and this tour both provide opportunities to increase our knowledge and understanding overall, with a particular focus on the mix between cultures. We can each say that we have gone through similar changes—moving from a different country to here, learning new cultures, and learning new things as part of joining “the American Dream.” I think that opening doors of understanding for people who may not be comfortable with English, but are still an important part of the community, can help with that.

I would like others to discover and fall in love with Little Tokyo the way I did. I think if we offer the tours in Spanish and other languages as well, we can share our experience with others while growing as a group and bringing new stories and experiences into the museum.

SH: Absolutely, and that’s the museum’s mission: to share Japanese American stories to celebrate America’s cultural diversity and encourage others to share their own stories. If we’re able to talk with one another along those lines, the more rigid lines between communities start to melt away.

MC: I think that’s the part I enjoy the most: when people who begin the tour being quiet or shy actually open up and start sharing their life stories. Because even though this is the Japanese American National Museum, I think that the general idea of being an immigrant or coming from an immigrant background is something we share with others.

SH: It’s always fun to hear where people are from—whether it’s France, Osaka, or even El Sereno—and what brought them to Little Tokyo, because that in turn informs and becomes part of your experience.

MC: Yes. The stories that people tell me, I can sometimes include on my Little Tokyo tours. For example, someone once noted that the Brunswig Square building looks a lot like Los Angeles City Hall, so I did some research and found out they were designed by the same architect. Even if you have led the tour many times, the perspective of other people can still open new doors.

SH: Tell us more about what your tour en Español will be like.

MC: It depends on the needs of the group. Sometimes people are here for school, so certain kinds of information are more important for them. But I do want everyone to be familiar with the area so that even after the tour they are able to go and find their own adventure. We only have two hours to condense decades of living in Little Tokyo! As time moves forward, we get different types of people moving into the area. I don’t expect everyone to sit down and read up on all the history, but I do expect them to go and have an adventure!

Museum admission is included with the fee for the tour, so after lunch, I encourage people to come visit the museum. I feel that JANM is the spine of the whole Little Tokyo experience, not only because it’s the Japanese American National Museum, but because it tells you the story from the beginning, when the Japanese first began migrating to the United States.

Monica Cruz will be leading a tour of Little Tokyo in Spanish on February 10 at 10:15 a.m. You can purchase tickets for the tour here. Visitor Services staff at the front desk are always happy to answer questions about the tour or any of our other public programs.

Sergio Holguin is a Visitor Services Associate at JANM. Formerly a volunteer docent, Holguin strives to share his personal story as a means of encouraging discussions of contemporary identity within a shared American history. You can read about his journey on Discover Nikkei.

An Interview with Filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña

Renee Tajima-Peña

Renee Tajima-Peña is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and professor of Asian American Studies at UCLA. Her documentary projects focus on immigrant communities, race, gender, and social justice, and have included Calavera Highway, Skate Manzanar, Labor Women, My America…or Honk if You Love Buddha, and the highly influential Who Killed Vincent Chin? Tajima-Peña has been deeply involved in the Asian American independent film community as an activist, writer, and filmmaker. She was the director at Asian Cine-Vision in New York and a founding member of the Center for Asian American Media (formerly the National Asian American Telecommunications Association).

On January 27, JANM is honored to welcome Tajima-Peña as the curator and host of Unsettled: Two Films of Japanese Peru. Presented in conjunction with the exhibition Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, the program will feature screenings of Kaori Flores Yonekura’s Nikkei (2011) and Ann Kaneko’s Against the Grain (2008), the latter of which includes interviews with exhibiting artist Eduardo Tokeshi. Following the screening, Tajima-Peña will moderate a discussion and audience Q&A with Kaneko and Tokeshi.

Through an email interview, Tajima-Peña shared some thoughts on the program, cultural hybridity, the immigrant experience, Asian diasporas, indie film, and other topics.

A still from Kaori Flores Yonekura’s film, Nikkei.

JANM: How did you come to be involved with this program? I know that your work deals generally with themes of Asian diaspora, but do you also have a particular connection to Peru or Peruvian filmmaking?

Renee Tajima-Peña: The exhibition’s project manager, Claudia Sobral, asked me to put together a program of films in conjunction with JANM’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA exhibition. I don’t have a direct connection to Peru itself. But I was raised here in LA, which is so deeply a Latinx city, and my family is mixed race—my husband is Mexican American and my son was raised in both cultures. That’s not just me; cultural hybridity is baked into the Nikkei and the Asian American experience because of immigration patterns and the ways people of color have always lived in close proximity—going to school together, working together, mobilizing together, sharing histories of empire as well as the marker of race. Falling in love. So my work as a filmmaker has always crossed those kinds of borders. I’ve collaborated with Latinx filmmakers to make several documentaries about that experience. The most recent was No Más Bebés, co-produced by Virginia Espino, which is about Mexican American women who were sterilized at LA County-USC Medical Center during the 1970s.

JANM: Could you share some of your thought process in choosing these particular films and filmmakers to feature in Unsettled? How do they complement one another?

RTP: I was really interested in looking at the Japanese diaspora in the Americas. When I first became a filmmaker in the 1980s, I saw the Brazilian director Tizuka Yamasaki’s feature Gaijin, which was inspired by her own immigrant grandmother’s story of landing on a coffee plantation in Brazil. A few years later, I saw Kayo Hatta’s Picture Bride, set on a Hawai’i sugar cane plantation. Japanese immigrants shared the same story, the same struggles, the same spirit—only different destinations.

For Transpacific Borderlands, I landed on Peru because of the films themselves. Ann Kaneko and Kaori Flores Yonekura are women directors who take up that search for the Japanese experience and identity in Latin America. I was really interested in the way they both contextualized how Nikkei lives intersected with the politics of Peru, but during different eras. Kaori’s film Nikkei traces her family’s history of migration to Peru and Venezuela from before World War II, while Ann’s Against the Grain brings the story to the Fujimori regime of the 1990s. I was fascinated by the tension and complexity evoked in pairing those two films.

Eduardo Tokeshi, Bandera Uno, 1985, latex on canvas. Photo courtesy of the artist.

JANM: If you have seen Transpacific Borderlands, could you share your impressions of the exhibition? Do any of the works particularly speak to you?

RTP: Yes, I went to the opening, and I was astonished by how rich that visual culture is. I guess I should’ve known, but you really have to see it and get lost in it. I’d seen Eduardo Tokeshi’s work and his interviews in Against the Grain, so I was excited to see his work face-to-face. There’s a lot in his story that is familiar to me as a Japanese American—the cultural duality, being marginalized. But being Japanese while Peru was governed by an oppressive dictator who was also Japanese, brings a whole different layer to Tokeshi’s story and his art. I can’t believe our luck that he’s actually going to be at the screening!

JANM: Your work has taken on a range of social issues that involve immigrant and diasporic populations. Are there or have there been any issues involving Asian populations in Latin America that have caught your interest?

RTP: I always remember a story my friend, the filmmaker Lourdes Portillo, told me about an elderly Japanese guy in her hometown of Chihuahua, Mexico, who swaggered around town dressed like an admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy replete with a saber and medals. What was he doing there? Was he deranged? Was he an apparition? As a filmmaker, those simple questions—What are they doing there? What happened to them?—open up all kinds of possibilities, real or imagined.

Here’s another story. A few years ago, my son was involved with a youth workshop at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute on the Japanese American concentration camps. We’d been working with Randall Fujimoto, the educational game designer, on using Minecraft to teach that history. The kids researched Executive Order 9066 and the camps, and then used Minecraft to build their own virtual replicas. It was a very mixed group of kids, and most weren’t Japanese or Asian American.

At the end of the summer the kids presented their projects, and a lot of their families came. I noticed this older Latina woman in tears, standing with her grandson who was one of the workshop students. She told me she grew up in Peru, and her best friend was Japanese. One day during the 1940s, her friend disappeared. It wasn’t until years later that she discovered the family had been incarcerated, I think at Crystal City, Texas. Seventy years later, she still grieved for her friend.

JANM: As a connoisseur of indie film in addition to being a noted filmmaker yourself, do you have any tips for additional Latin American films or filmmakers that we should check out?

RTP: Tizuka Yamasaki continues to make films and television programs in Brazil. One of the artists in Transpacific Borderlands, Shinpei Takeda, makes films about Japanese Mexicans. One of my former students, Elizabeth Cabrera, has been working on a film about the mystery of her great-grandfather, a Japanese immigrant in Baja California who vanished around the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Unsettled: Two Films of Japanese Peru is free with museum admission. RSVPs are recommended here.

Eaton Collection Display Seeks Answers and Provides Inspiration

One of the postcard-size watercolors on view as part of Contested Histories: Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection.

On Sunday, JANM opened Contested Histories: Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection, a special display of art and craft objects created by Japanese Americans during their World War II incarceration in American concentration camps. These are the same artifacts that dedicated Japanese American community leaders and activists saved from a controversial attempt at a public auction in 2015. The collection now resides at JANM for safekeeping, and has been conserved, photographed, and catalogued with key support from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites grant program.

It’s a thrilling experience to examine the display, which has been meticulously laid out in the museum’s Hirasaki National Resource Center (HNRC). The entire collection consists of over 450 pieces, most of which are historic photographs—copies of these photographs are collected in a series of thick binders labeled by location. All of the three-dimensional objects, which include wood carvings, jewelry, and pins, along with most of the original two-dimensional objects, such as paintings and watercolors, are on display. Some that were too fragile for display, such as the calligraphic scrolls, appear in facsimile form.

The first thing one notices when exploring the collection is the exquisitely high quality of the craftsmanship that went into these artifacts. The carved wood panels as well as the watercolors, both of which depict classical scenes from nature, rival items seen in art galleries and expensive antique stores. The second realization that occurs is how resourceful and creative these prisoners were while enduring remote and rugged conditions; the beautifully carved furniture and nameplates, fashioned out of scrap and scavenged wood, added personal and homey touches to otherwise bare-bones camp barracks.

Very little is known about the individual items in the collection. Who made it? Which camp did it come out of? Where are the creators today? A case full of rings and pendants made from semi-precious stones brings up the question, where did these stones come from? Eaton, author of the 1952 book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps, acquired much of this collection from inmates who passed them on when they learned he was working on the book. Now, the questions they pose are up to us to answer.

Facsimiles of ink scrolls from the Eaton Collection.

Contested Histories exists in large part as a fact-finding mission: the public, particularly camp survivors and their families, are invited to review its contents and assist our staff in putting the missing pieces of the puzzle back together. Forms are provided as part of the exhibition for interested parties to write down what they know. After its exhibition at JANM, the display will go on tour to diverse locations and venues, including museums and community spaces across the country, where it is hoped that more people with connections to the artifacts will come forward and share their stories.

Even if you are not a camp survivor, the Eaton Collection is eminently worth seeing as a testament to the ongoing resilience and creativity of the human spirit, even during the bleakest of times. For those who may not be able to see the collection in person, you can always visit our Flickr page of comprehensive, high-quality photographs (taken prior to conservation), where visitors can share information via the comment field beneath each image.

Celebrate the Holidays in Little Tokyo

Committee members prepare for the 11th annual Christmas Cheer fundraising program at the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) office in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, California, October 3, 1958. Photograph by Toyo Miyatake Studio. Published in the Rafu Shimpo, December 5, 1958. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of the Alan Miyatake Family.

The Japanese American National Museum sits in the heart of Little Tokyo, a fact that we who work at the museum have always been very proud of. Rich in history and yet filled with hip stores, cafes, and restaurants, the neighborhood dynamically bridges past and present, offering a memorable experience for shoppers, diners, and history buffs alike.

The holidays are a great time to come to Little Tokyo, and Go Little Tokyo has come up with this handy Holiday Guide to help you sort through all the choices. You can download it from their website to get a head start on planning, or you can just pick one up when you’re in the neighborhood. We have a stack of them at our front desk!

New Year’s is a big deal here in Little Tokyo, so be sure to check out some of the festivities that will be happening nearby. Again, Go Little Tokyo has helpfully assembled an online calendar for your convenience. And of course, don’t forget about JANM’s own annual Oshogatsu Family Festival on Sunday, January 7—one of the museum’s biggest and most beloved family day events!

As if you needed any more incentive, Go Little Tokyo is also holding a FREE DRAWING for a gift basket filled with $250 worth of treasures from Little Tokyo. To enter, just make a purchase at any of our neighborhood stores or restaurants between now and January 31, 2018. Snap a photo of your receipt and email it to info@golittletokyo.com. One entry per receipt from a Little Tokyo business. We can’t tell you what’s in the rest of the basket, but we can whet your appetite with the contribution from the JANM Store, pictured below.

The Go Little Tokyo gift basket contains not one but TWO of these Usagi Yojimbo tea cups, featuring the iconic Stan Sakai character, from the JANM Store and janmstore.com.

Happy holidays and see you soon!

Transpacific Borderlands Artist Shizu Saldamando Pays Tribute to Camp Survivors in Upcoming Craft Workshop

Shizu Saldamando, Ozzie and Grace, 2014. Colored pencil and spray paint on paper.
All images courtesy of the artist.

Born to parents of Japanese and Mexican descent, Shizu Saldamando creates exquisite drawings in which she investigates the variety of social constructs and subcultures seen in Los Angeles’ backyard parties, dance clubs, music shows, hang-out spots, and art receptions. By focusing on the subtle details that define different scenes, she captures the unexpected influences at work in America’s social spaces. Saldamando’s work is currently on view at JANM as part of the exhibition Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo.

This Saturday, December 2, Saldamando will be giving a Members Only Artist Talk as well as leading a craft workshop titled Paper Flowers from the Camp Archives. We sat down with her via email to learn more about her family background, what shaped her practice as an artist, and how she came to develop her paper flowers workshop, which pays tribute to one of the ways that her family—and others—found to deal with the trauma of the World War II Japanese American incarceration.

JANM: I’ve read that your mom is a community organizer and your dad is a human rights lawyer. Your family life must have been filled with social and political awareness and dialogue. Do you think that influenced your artwork?

Shizu Saldamando: Growing up in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1980s, I was very much influenced by my parents’ work as well as by the Chicano art centers in the area, all of whom were heavily informed by activism, the United Farm Workers, the Central American wars that were happening at that time, and other pressing issues of the day. It was the era of Reaganomics and the Cold War, so a lot of the artwork that was being produced in my neighborhood was heavily loaded and spoke about human rights and issues affecting low-income and immigrant communities—the same issues we are dealing with today.

JANM: The Japanese side of your family was incarcerated during World War II. How did that history influence you growing up?

SS: My mom helped develop a curriculum for the schools in San Francisco that taught about the Japanese American concentration camps, so I was able to make connections between their experience and that of other immigrant communities. I saw the various ways that immigrants and people of color are easily scapegoated and targeted in order to further whatever agenda the current administration is seeking to implement. In my community, I was exposed to artists who used their work to re-contextualize and assert an alternative narrative to what was playing on the news, and that was very influential.

In my own practice now, a lot of my work is not overtly political in that there are not many slogans or protests signs. However, I choose to depict friends and family who occupy a space outside of mainstream circles and who consciously construct their own creative communities. These people are the legacy of many historical struggles; they have, out of the need for survival, created their own supportive spaces.

Shizu Saldamando, Raquel’s Lunchbox, 2017. Graphite and spray paint on wood.

JANM: Yes, you’ve said that your art is about “subculture and perseverance.” Perseverance, of course, is one of the cornerstone themes of Japanese culture and Japanese American history, as embodied in the popular saying gaman (“bear the unbearable with patience and dignity”). Can you talk some more about your experiences with subcultures?

SS: In the mid-1990s, I moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA’s art school. There, I was also very influenced by many different musical scenes. Every week, I would go to various punk shows and dance clubs that would be playing anything from gothic industrial music, rock en español, punk, or British pop. Being part of these different scenes in Los Angeles was very special in that most of the people who inhabited them were Chicano/of Mexican descent. There was always a large queer presence as well. Being politically conscious and active was a given within these scenes, especially in the ’90s, so they became very comfortable places for me to inhabit. I made a lot of friends and chose to depict them in my artwork.

I like to think of the community of Japanese Americans who survived the camps as their own subculture as well. They are such a specific group of people, who all went through this awful historical trauma together, and whose descendants carry that weight whether they like to admit it or not. I know for a fact that my own family members who survived the camps all suffer different forms of PTSD in some way or another. Their coping mechanisms differ but I like to recognize one that is always close to my heart: communal crafting.

JANM: Was this the inspiration behind your upcoming workshop on paper flowers?

SS: Yes. Being very influenced by my aunt’s crafting circles and the different projects that she and her friends created, I thought it would be nice to give a nod to her and the communal crafting that happened at the camps. She was only a child when she was incarcerated in the camp at Rohwer, Arkansas, so I’m not sure if she worked with the same flower patterns I’ll be using in my class, but I still think of this workshop as an homage to her and her love of craft.

Paper flower wreaths from Shizu Saldamando’s workshop at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality, May 2016. Visible behind them are instructions from a Woolworth’s catalog that was found at Manzanar.

JANM: I understand that your research on this topic actually stretches back several years. Tell us how it all came about.

SS: One day, I was walking through JANM’s Common Ground exhibition and I heard one of the volunteer docents talking about how, in the photos of funerals at the camps, the funeral wreaths were actually made out of paper. Real flowers were not available at the camps since most of them were located in harsh, remote environments. When people passed away, the community would come together and make paper flowers for the funerals.

Later, I was asked to make an altar for Día de los Muertos and I chose to do a piece in honor of my aunt’s husband, who had been incarcerated at Manzanar and passed away around 2000. I decided to make a paper flower wreath as a nod to camp tradition. I wanted it to be historically accurate, so I made a research appointment with one of the archivists at JANM. The archivist provided me with a huge amount of material. She wheeled in carts of flowers made out of scrap wood, flowers made out of shells, flowers made out of pipe cleaners, you name it, along with several files full of information.

Among those was a book that documented the excavation of the gravesites at Manzanar, providing a complete rundown of all the people who passed away there, how they died, and what was found at their gravesites. There were photos of wire remnants that were once paper flower stems, photos of broken glass jars that once held paper flower bouquets, and photos of people making flowers in the camps. In addition, she found a small catalog insert from an old Woolworth’s catalog that was an instruction manual on how to make paper roses. I made copies of that manual and used it to make the wreath for my altar.

I keep revisiting this project in different forms. When I was invited to participate in the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality in May 2016, I chose to do an interactive wreath-making workshop to call attention to the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment that is running rampant with our current administration. Tragically, the paper flower project remains pertinent and timely not only because of the current political climate but because now, so many camp survivors are passing on and taking that history with them. I think it’s important to keep their legacy alive and always in our minds.

There are still a few spaces left for Shizu Saldamando’s flower-making workshop on Saturday, December 2. If you are a JANM member, you can also sign up for the Members Only Artist Talk she is giving earlier that day. Visit janm.org for more info and to RSVP.

Also check out JANM’s short video on Saldamando’s practice, made to accompany the Transpacific Borderlands exhibition.

CONTRA-TIEMPO is an Exciting Addition to JANM’s Free Family Day

CONTRA-TIEMPO. Photo by Steve Wylie.

CONTRA-TIEMPO Urban Latin Dance Theater employs dance as a vehicle for social change, thoughtfully combining education, community, and cultural history to create a unique space for expression. Based in Los Angeles, they tour nationally but are also committed to fostering relationships within their local community.

Because of their dedication to their craft and more importantly, to community, I thought they would be an amazing fit for JANM’s upcoming Free Family Day on November 11. Titled “We Love LA,” this event will be held in conjunction with our current exhibition, Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Sao Paulo, and will celebrate Los Angeles’s diverse mix of cultures.

CONTRA-TIEMPO. Photo by Kerville Cosmo Jack.

A multilingual, multicultural, and multigenerational organization, CONTRA-TIEMPO was founded in 2005 by Ana Maria Alvarez. Alvarez studied choreography at UCLA and had just completed her MFA thesis, in which she looked at dance as a form of social resistance. CONTRA-TIEMPO erases divisions between art and activism by creating a space for dialogue both verbally and through movement—specifically urban Latin dance, salsa, Afro-Cuban, hip hop, and contemporary dance. The group also communicates history through dance.

CONTRA-TIEMPO has developed an extensive education program, which includes a year-round pre-professional program for high school youth (Futuro Junior Company), in-school residencies, and a summer program (Futuro Summer Dance Intensive) that focuses on leadership development, movement workshops, and community building strategies. Since the establishment of these programs, several of their students have gone on to join CONTRA-TIEMPO’s professional group.

Student ballerinas being taught by Ana Maria Alvarez.
Photo courtesy of BAM/DanceMotion USA.

Community engagement is a core value for this organization. Every week, they offer Sabor Sessions, drop-in community dance classes at Community Coalition in South LA, where people of all ages and abilities can learn new forms of dance, gain confidence, and get to know one another.

Sound like fun? Join CONTRA-TIEMPO dance instructors Jannet Galdamez and Samad Raheem Guerra for a very special JANM Sabor Session this Saturday, November 11, from 2–3 p.m. as part of our JANM Free Family Day. Come learn salsa suelta and Cuban comparsa with us! No dance experience, only an open heart and willingness to move.

Andie Kimura recently took on the position of Education and Public Programs Assistant at JANM. Her responsibilities include organizing JANM’s Free Family Day programs.

ICYMI: Recent News Roundup

A panel from Chapter 3 of Bombshells United. Courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Many news items come across the desk of the editor here at the First and Central blog. As busy as we’ve been over the last few months with the opening of JANM’s major new exhibition, Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, and various other developments, we haven’t had the chance to share as many of these as we’d like. Following, therefore, is a roundup of notable news items from the last few months. If you missed any of them, here’s your chance to catch up!

Little Tokyo Has Been Named a California Cultural District

Our own neighborhood of Little Tokyo was named one of 14 California Cultural Districts by the California Arts Council. A new initiative in its first year of operation, the Cultural District designation is designed to “grow and sustain authentic grassroots arts and cultural opportunities, increas[e] the visibility of local artists and community participation in local arts and culture, and promot[e] socioeconomic and ethnic diversity.” The districts are also intended to play a conscious role in tackling issues of artist displacement.

A Cultural District is defined as a “well-defined geographic area with a high concentration of cultural resources and activities.” The designation comes with benefits, such as technical assistance, peer-to-peer exchanges, and access to branding materials and promotional strategy. Per state legislation, each of the districts will hold the designation for five years.

We couldn’t be prouder of our district, which joins other vibrant cultural centers throughout California such as the Eureka Cultural Arts District and Balboa Park in San Diego. To see the complete list of 14 districts, click here. To read more about the initiative, click here.

Wonder Woman Confronts Japanese American Incarceration in New DC Comic

Wonder Woman is looming large in popular entertainment these days. The blockbuster action movie starring Gal Gadot was a huge hit earlier this year, and a sequel is in the works. A smaller film called Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which explores the origins of the classic comic book character, was just released last month.

The staff at JANM was thrilled, therefore, to learn that a new digital comic book has come out that imagines Wonder Woman fighting, and even helping to prevent, the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The series, titled Bombshells United, is written by Marguerite Bennett and illustrated by Marguerite Sauvage. Bennett decided to write the story after noticing that her cousins’ American history textbooks failed to mention the incarceration. Angered by the erasure, she set about doing her research, reading books like Farewell to Manzanar and No-No Boy, and paying visits to JANM (!) and the Manzanar National Historic Site.

The resulting story focuses on a group of ordinary Japanese American girls who hatch a plan to halt one of the trains going to camp. Bennett chooses to make them the heroes of the story, with some help from Wonder Woman. Although the story is a fantasy, many of the details are historically accurate. Bennett plans to continue exploring a variety of WWII and postwar stories in this series, even looking at intergenerational struggles between the Issei and Nisei.

Read an interview with Marguerite Bennett here. Purchase the comic books here.

Another Exclusive Naomi Hirahara Serial Now on Discover Nikkei

Everyone’s favorite JA mystery writer is at it again. Our Discover Nikkei project, which has hosted several exclusive serials by Naomi Hirahara, is especially thrilled this time to serve as the publisher of Trouble on Temple Street, the third installment in the Ellie Rush detective series. This installment, which follows two published book installments, will be published as an online serial, with new chapters coming out monthly.

Ellie, an LAPD bicycle cop who has been on the force for two years, finds herself in the middle of a Little Tokyo murder case that may potentially involve the people she loves most: her family. Will she be able to connect the dots before the killer harms her aunt, who is deputy chief of the LAPD? Where will Ellie’s allegiance fall—to the truth, or to family loyalty? The serial launched on September 4 and will continue through next August. Read the first two chapters now!

A Vegetarian’s Guide to Dining in Little Tokyo: Going Vegan, Part 2

Rakkan’s vegan gyoza is very tasty and comes with a unique tomato salsa for extra flavor.
All photos by Sylvia Lopez.

Last week, we looked at some great choices for a filling vegan lunch in Little Tokyo. Today, we will explore vegan options in noodles and desserts!

359 East First Street

Rakkan Ramen is one of the newest restaurants to open up on First Street, just steps away from JANM, and they have some stiff competition. They are one of four ramen spots on that block alone! However, I think they give themselves a strong edge with their wide array of vegan-friendly options.

On the menu, you will find avocado sashimi, an avocado and tofu bowl (they had me at “avocado”), and a vegan gyoza, which is fried without being oily and has a delightful crispiness to it. In addition to all this, they also offer vegan ramen! Now, this is a big deal to me as ramen traditionally features broth made from pork or fish, and noodles made with eggs. As an amateur home cook, I know that you can get some of that umami flavor from kombu and dried shiitake, so it’s always great to see restaurants consider plant-based broths.

The Bekko Ramen at Rakkan.

At Rakkan, they will even provide a laminated card listing their ingredients, allowing curious guests with food aversions to order with some peace of mind. For vegans, you can order the Pearl, Bekko, or Ruby ramen. I had the Bekko, which had a savory miso broth, chewy wheat-based noodles, slices of bamboo shoot and mushroom, cubes of tofu, and fresh chopped scallions. The only thing that left me baffled was the slice of tomato included as a topping, but I’m nitpicking at this point because overall, I was impressed! Ramen is such a comfort food to me and while many think that vegetarians should be content with a salad, Rakkan has demonstrated that variety and substance are possible.

Bonus Tips for Noodle Lovers

For people with wheat sensitivity, there are also gluten-free noodles available at Rakkan. Don’t forget to also try My Ramen Bar’s vegetarian ramen, which features spinach noodles. And if you’re in the mood for a thicker noodle, Kagura, located inside the Japanese Village Plaza, also offers vegan and vegetarian soups—my favorite is their veggie udon.

PB&J or coconut? Which one to choose?!

Café Dulce
134 Japanese Village Plaza, Building E

While I did talk about Café Dulce in my first Vegetarian Little Tokyo blog entry, I come back to it with important news: they now offer vegan donuts! I repeat, DONUTS! This is kind of a big deal considering the fact that I often walk into the JANM staff lounge and see a pink box full of donuts that I could never eat, and can only stare longingly at. When I found out Café Dulce was offering vegan donuts, I was immediately on the case.

Because a staff member at the café is vegan, the owners decided to introduce two new donuts that are made without eggs or butter: the peanut butter and jelly donut and the coconut donut. Both are delicious, flavorful, and sweet without tasting like pure sugar. The PB&J was surprisingly refined; I was expecting a slathering of conventional peanut butter, but instead, you get a raised donut sliced in half, sealed together with just the right amount of jelly, and topped with crushed peanuts. The coconut donut is also raised, topped with a generous amount of thinly sliced coconut shreds, and drizzled with chocolate and nuts. Pair one of these donuts with Café Dulce’s signature coffee or tea, and you’re set for a break time treat!

The vegan coconut donut pairs well with Café Dulce’s signature drinks.

Bonus Tips for Sweet Tooths

Now let’s say you’re in the mood for something sweet, yet more representative of traditional Japanese culture. Head on over to Mitsuru Café, also located inside the Village Plaza. Here you can pick up a mitarashi dango—a sweet rice ball skewer topped with a warm, sugary soy glaze. You can also go to Fugetsu-Do (Little Tokyo’s oldest business!) on First Street, not too far from the plaza, and find a wide variety of mochi and manju that are crafted onsite.

Be sure to check out my other two blog posts (here and here) to learn more about vegetarian dining choices in Little Tokyo!

You can take a real-life vegetarian tour of Little Tokyo this Saturday, October 21, when our intrepid volunteer Roxane Lewis leads Edible Adventures: Vegetarian Little Tokyo. Purchase your tickets here.