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.

Reading Your Way through the 2018 Oshogatsu Family Festival

Happy New Year! We hope everyone had a fun and relaxing holiday. Here at JANM, we’re excited to kick off 2018 with our annual Oshogatsu Family Festival, one of the biggest and most beloved JANM Free Family Day events. This year’s festival, taking place on Sunday, January 7, features readings, demonstrations, and book signings inspired by no fewer than four wonderful children’s and young adult books—three are hot off the press, and two revolve around dogs, the Asian zodiac animal of 2018. Who says the written word is dead? Read on for details on the featured publications!

At 11:30 a.m., join Santa Fe–based artist Joel Nakamura as he reads from and signs his new children’s book, I Dreamed I Was a Dog. Known for mixing motifs from folk and tribal art to create a uniquely infectious vision, Nakamura has won numerous awards for his commercial illustration work. His new book, inspired by his own dreams, depicts a young boy’s dreams of transforming into a variety of animals and transportation vehicles. Filled with the artist’s signature fantastical, eye-popping imagery, I Dreamed I Was a Dog is sure to delight young eyes. Says Nakamura: “JANM has been a big part of our family, so it is a great honor to participate in an event and share my book. Goes well with the Year of the Dog too.” You can also read an in-depth article about Nakamura and his work on Discover Nikkei.

The next book may very well bring tears to your eyes. At 12:30 p.m., one of our volunteers will read Yoshito Wayne Osaki’s My Dog Teny, an autobiographical tale about the author’s own dog, whom he had to leave behind when he was incarcerated at Tule Lake concentration camp as a child. After the war, Osaki went on to a long career as an architect, helping to rebuild many Japanese American communities, but he never forgot about his beloved dog Teny. Illustrated by Felicia Hoshino, this bittersweet children’s book ends on an affirmative note. Best of all, a portion of the sales proceeds go toward rescuing dogs!

Finally, fans of graphic novel superstar Stan Sakai will rejoice as he presents a drawing demonstration followed by a book signing at 1 p.m. Sakai is best known as the creator of Usagi Yojimbo, a rabbit ronin who roams through a historically accurate feudal Japan, getting into a variety of adventures along the way. It’s hard to believe that the award-winning Usagi Yojimbo comic was first created in 1984; after a whopping 33 years in business, the graphic tales are as fresh and popular as ever. There are several in-depth profiles of Sakai, a longtime friend of the museum, and his creations on Discover Nikkei; the most recent one is by curator and historian Meher McArthur.

Sakai’s two latest publications are Usagi Yojimbo Vol. 31: The Hell Screen and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/Usagi Yojimbo. The former is the most recent collection of Usagi Yojimbo stories, featuring a battle with a mythical kappa monster as well as an encounter with a ghastly painting known only as the Hell Screen. The latter is the first TMNT/Usagi crossover comic in 20 years; the handsome hardcover edition includes many extras, including a reprint of the first crossover comic, sketches and notes from the artist, and collaborative cover art with Sergio Aragones, Kevin Eastman, and others. Please note that seating for this event is limited; interested guests must sign up at the information table.

For a complete Oshogatsu schedule, visit janm.org/oshogatsufest2018. All of the above books are available for purchase at the JANM Store and janmstore.com. As always, members receive a 10% discount. Happy reading!

From Moth to Cloth: Learn to Reel Silk by Hand This Weekend

Glennis Dolce holds silkworms that she raised. They are almost ready to spin cocoons.
All photos courtesy of Glennis Dolce.

This weekend, Glennis Dolce will be leading an exciting new two-day workshop called From Moth to Cloth, which explores the Japanese tradition of silkworm rearing. Participants will work with actual silk cocoons, learning how to reel thread using a traditional silk reeling device (zakuri) and make silk hankies (mawata) out of them.

Legend has it that silk was first discovered in China in 2460 BC by the Empress Xi Ling Shi, who was drinking tea under a mulberry tree one day when a cocoon fell into her cup and began to unravel. She became fascinated with the shimmering thread and proceeded to study it. She soon learned how to cultivate silkworms, reel their thread, and weave beautiful garments out of the material. Silk clothing became the province of royalty for many years, before the popularity of the material slowly became more widespread, eventually reaching across the globe. Empress Xi Ling Shi is now honored as the goddess of silk.

After being kept secret in China for hundreds of years, the silk making process finally found its way to Japan, with various sources dating its arrival between 200 and 400 AD. By the eighth century AD, sericulture was thriving there, with Gumma Prefecture rising to become the country’s principal silk producing region. During the 20th century, the silk industry experienced ups and downs; the advent of industrialization, the invention of nylon, and the popularization of Western tastes finally brought about a decline in the global silk market at the end of the 1970s. Silk remains, however, an important and popular fine fabric, and fascination with the process of sericulture continues.

This old photo, which likely dates back to the 1880s,
depicts a woman in Japan reeling silk on a zakuri.

We asked Dolce, who has traveled to Japan many times to learn about this subject, what silk production there is like today. This is what she told us: “While sericulture in the past was a cottage industry widely practiced by Japanese small-scale farmers in their homes, today there are improved techniques that even small-scale sericulturists practice that allow them to produce large numbers of cocoons. Regional sericulture groups hatch and raise large numbers of silkworms in laboratory-style settings with perfect environmental conditions, and deliver the silkworms to farmers once they have reached their third instar, allowing farmers to finish the process (feeding with fresh mulberry leaf) and the cocooning. This allows farmers to produce up to four readings in a single season. Most of these sericulturists are small-scale operations, with the farmer living near or on the same property.”

A bale of reeled raw silk, ready to ship to weaving facilities.
This photo was taken at the Usui filature mill in Japan.

“Most commercial silk cocoons come from India and China these days,” Dolce added. “Japan’s production is rather specialized, focusing on domestic and high-end silk. I don’t think they export any silk cocoons at all. I believe that Japanese cocoons are almost exclusively reeled and used in Japan.”

This weekend, try your own hand at reeling silk, making mawata, and crafting and dyeing with silk cocoons. Sign up for From Moth to Cloth here. For inspiration, check out Glennis Dolce’s favorite silkworm website, Wormspit. You can also read about the history of sericulture in California, brought over by Japanese immigrants in the 19th century. And if you can read Japanese, you can learn about Dolce’s teacher in Japan here.

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.

Welcome the Holidays with JANM!

It’s hard to believe, but the holidays are now upon us. Thanksgiving is only a week away, and after that, it will be just a few short weeks until Christmas.

The JANM Store is always a great place to shop for the holidays, but this year the store has even more on offer than usual. Read on for details on all of our upcoming store events, which provide unique shopping options for all gift hunters.

This coming weekend (November 18–19), the JANM Store is hosting a Pre-Holiday Trunk Show featuring beautiful scarves, shawls, and accessories from Japanese textiles company NUNO and elegant, one-of-a-kind jewelry from LA–based designer Hisano Shepherd. Read our fascinating interview with Hisano, then come and peruse special products that you won’t find anywhere else. JANM members receive a 10% discount!

Then on November 24–26 (Thanksgiving weekend!), it will be time for our annual Holiday MADness (Member Appreciation Days) weekend, when all JANM members get a 20% discount at the JANM Store, janmstore.com, and other participating museum stores. Click here for complete details.

This year’s edition of Holiday MADness will be packed with special extras. On Saturday, November 25, Citron Clothing returns for another trunk show featuring their stylish and timeless apparel, made from the finest fabrics. (Note: member discounts do not apply to Citron products.)

And on Sunday, November 26, the JANM Store will be a proud participant in the Museum Store Association’s first ever Museum Store Sunday, a global event designed to highlight the unique retail experiences that only museum stores can provide. To celebrate, the store will be extending a 10% discount to anyone who shows a valid membership card from any museum, not just those participating in Holiday MADness. In addition, we will welcome award-winning children’s book author Allen Say at 2 p.m. for a book signing to celebrate the release of his new book, Silent Days, Silent Dreams. Members and Holiday MADness participants, purchase your copy at the store that weekend and get 20% off the cover price!

Finally, last but not least, we are celebrating Hello Kitty’s birthday all month with special discounts of up to 40% on selected Hello Kitty products. Perfect for stocking stuffers!

Enjoy your holiday shopping and please be mindful of our Holiday Shipping Deadlines.

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.

Jewelry Designer Hisano Shepherd Takes Pearls to the Next Level

The award-winning ruby pendant from Hisano Shepherd’s Grotto Collection.
All photos courtesy of little h jewelry.

Hisano Shepherd has made a name for herself as an innovative designer of contemporary jewelry. Born in Japan but raised in both Tokyo and Los Angeles, Shepherd has had a passion for jewelry since she was a child, leading her to complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees in metalsmithing and jewelry making. She then worked her way up from the bottom of the jewelry industry, going from polishing and fixing costume jewelry to eventually making a mark with her own designs. Today, her unique and eye-catching work is making waves throughout the fine jewelry market.

On Saturday, November 18, Shepherd’s jewelry will be featured in the JANM Store’s Pre-Holiday Trunk Show. We caught up with the designer via email to ask her a few questions about her practice.

JANM: Your jewelry designs are very unique. Where do you get your inspiration?

Hisano Shepherd: When I launched little h jewelry in 2012, I made it my mission to reinvent the pearl. The pearl jewelry I saw in the market at the time was too classical in style and bored me. I began experimenting with the silhouettes of pearls and also began cutting pearls. My Pearl Geode collection was inspired by the naturally formed geodes that I saw at the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase. When I cut the pearl in half and cleaned out the interior, I knew that I would be able to encrust gemstones to mimic the appearance of a geode.

JANM: Why are you particularly interested in pearls?

HS: My husband and I run a pearl jewelry company. I am the Chief Creative Officer and we travel around the world buying pearls. Because I source the pearls myself, I get to really cherry-pick the color, shape, size, and overtones. The more I learn about pearls the more I’m drawn in. Pearls cannot be created without great partnership between human and nature. I love the organic way they are grown and their variety of organic shapes.

As an artist, I also find it helpful to limit my medium. I challenged myself to only make jewelry with pearls, and I was able to carve out a niche position in the modern jewelry industry.

A pair of green emerald earrings with Tahitian pearls from little h’s
new Spiral Collection, available in spring 2018.

JANM: As a child, you split your time between LA and Tokyo. Do you feel that Japanese culture and aesthetics were a significant influence on you?

HS: Yes, absolutely! The culture is reflected in how I work. I can sit quietly for hours on end and concentrate on setting the stones and designing new collections. I think it came naturally for me. I’ve been taught to work hard and be diligent by my parents and grandparents.

Even though some of my pieces are ornate and colorful, I am drawn to simplicity and clean lines. It’s very aligned with Japanese aesthetics of expressing beauty with a minimalistic view.

JANM: How would you describe your own jewelry style? Tell us about some of your favorite pieces that you like to wear.

HS: I wear pearls every day, whether they are from little h or not. I like to layer them with thin, simple diamond jewelry, but pearls are always the focus.

My favorite little h piece is my ruby Grotto Collection pendant, for which I won an award from the Cultured Pearl Association of America. It was the first Grotto piece I made and I just love the soft bluish white color of the pearl with the contrasting bright red of the rubies.

My favorite pearl is a natural conch pearl. I have a pink conch pearl pendant that my husband gave me when we got married.

JANM: Are there any new projects or pursuits on the horizon that you’d like to tell us about?

HS: I am always pushing the boundaries and constantly experimenting with pearls. My latest collection is the Spiral Collection, which will be available in spring 2018. I was inspired by the circular lines formed by baroque pearls. I carved radially along the grooves of these circles and set small stones all around the indentation. It’s a bit more bold and masculine than my other collections and I love it. Depending on the piece, it reminds me of a halo, an aura, or even a scar. Sometimes the most artistic ideas can come from something grotesque. I take such ideas and make them into beautiful jewelry. I am enjoying the possibilities of expanding this collection.

Check out Hisano Shepherd’s stunning designs in person at the JANM Store’s Pre-Holiday Trunk Show on Saturday, November 18.

“Transpacific Musiclands” Celebrates Japanese/Latinx Cultural Exchange and Collaboration

I have a friend in Tokyo. His name is Shin Miyata. For the past 17 years, Shin has been running an independent music label called Barrio Gold Records. He primarily distributes groups from across Latin America, but his specialty is Chicano music from East Los Angeles. He also brings bands from East LA to Japan to perform live.

Nobody else in Japan is doing this kind of work.

I met Shin back in 2000, when I had the opportunity to go with the band Quetzal to Tokyo to document their tour. I learned that Shin had lived in the East LA neighborhood of City Terrace as a college student in the mid-1980s, doing a study-abroad home stay. He had been deeply inspired by Chicano books, films, and music—specifically 1970s bands like El Chicano and Tierra—and he had come to LA because he wanted to experience the Chicano culture first hand. He even took Chicano Studies classes at East LA College.

Shin Miyata. Photo by Rafael Cardenas.

On a recent visit to Los Angeles, Shin told me that it was his dream to bring over musicians from Japan so they could perform with musicians from East LA. Specifically, he wanted to bring Japanese musicians that play different types of Latin music. He believed that audiences would appreciate the heart and soul they put into the music, and that it would be amazing to see this sort of collaboration.

Thus, the idea for Transpacific Musiclands was born.

The Japanese American National Museum, located in Little Tokyo just across the bridge from Boyle Heights and East LA, would be the perfect venue. Shin would curate the event, drawing on some of the many Chicano bands he has worked with, and also selecting musicians from Japan to participate. The event would celebrate his work as a cultural ambassador while also encouraging unity and collaboration during a time of great political and ideological division worldwide.

Held in conjunction with the groundbreaking exhibition Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, Transpacific Musiclands will take over the JANM plaza on Saturday, October 14, 5–9:30pm. Featured acts will include Quetzal, El Haru Kuroi, and La Chamba. Conjunto J, a group from Osaka that plays Mexican border music, will join in, along with Tex Nakamura, East LA Taiko, and poets Luis J. Rodriguez and Ruben Funkahuatl Guevara. There will be DJ sets by Gomez Comes Alive and the man himself, Shin Miyata.

Each of the featured artists has benefited from Shin’s work, but they also share a deep affection for him. He has worked to create cultural exchanges and understanding between East LA and Japan for many years, and in doing so, has built a strong network of loyal friends.

Along with all of this incredible music, the Okamoto Kitchen food truck will be there, along with a beer garden by Angel City Brewery. Concertgoers will also be able to check out the exhibitions inside the museum till 8 p.m.

You can get your tickets right HERE.

Transpacific Musiclands is supported by Los Angeles County Arts Commission. It is
held in conjunction with the exhibition
Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, which is part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles, taking place from September 2017 through January 2018 at more than 70 cultural institutions across Southern California. Pacific Standard Time is an initiative of the Getty. The presenting sponsor is Bank of America.

The Wonderful World of Washi

Rolls of washi on display in Kamakura, Japan. Photo by Alex Watson via Flickr.

On Saturday, September 9, JANM will premiere a new jewelry workshop titled The World of Washi. Led by Reiko Nakano, this introductory class will teach participants about washi, a traditional Japanese handmade decorative paper, and how to apply it onto a variety of wooden shapes to create jewelry.

Washi, which literally means “Japanese paper,” dates back to the seventh century, when paper was first brought to Japan from China by Buddhist monks. The Japanese quickly developed their own methods for making paper, using fibers from three plants native to Japan: kozo (mulberry), gampi, and mitsumata. The handmade process was passed down from generation to generation, and the quality of the paper, which was stronger and more versatile than its Chinese predecessor, became highly renowned and sought after. By the late 19th century, there were more than 100,000 families in Japan making washi.

As demand for paper grew, machine-made papers from the West grew in popularity, and handmade production of washi declined. By 1983, there were less than 500 papermaking families left in Japan. Washi, however, remains an important and cherished part of traditional Japanese culture; it is still used in religious ceremonies, and can be seen in a variety of applications from fine books and artworks to stationery and crafts.

Mini Hina Rabbits in a Washi Tube — one of several washi-based products available at The JANM Store and janmstore.com.
Reiko Nakano, a lifelong teacher, discovered what she likes to call “the wonderful world of washi” on her trips to Japan. “Being made from three different plant fibers, washi is natural and resilient,” she enthuses. “It is the perfect medium for calligraphers and designers, who decorate it with historical patterns and modern motifs.”

Nakano discovered that washi is also great for making jewelry because it’s so adaptable. “Washi can cover any surface: round wooden beads, cardboard trays, glass pendants, steel plumbing tools, cork coasters,” she says. Her class on September 9 will focus on making a souvenir washi pendant necklace using wooden beads; in the process, participants will learn techniques of looping and wrapping, how to make an adjustable knot, and how to lacquer washi projects. Another class on December 16 will utilize plumbing hardware, like washers.

Washi is acclaimed for having properties like no other paper: it is strong, light, acid-free, translucent, and uniquely textured. It also absorbs inks and dyes well, and resists creasing and tearing. Nakano is excited to share its possibilities. “With a few simple tools, some ‘tricks of the trade,’ and a lot of patience, anyone can enter the wonderful world of washi.”

This workshop is made possible in part by a grant from the City of Los Angeles, Department of Cultural Affairs. For more information and to register, click here for September 9 and here for December 16.

Asian American Comic-Con’s Summit on Art, Action, and the Future

Asian American Comic-Con presented a Summit on Art, Action, and the Future at JANM on July 15. Below, JANM summer intern in public programs and media arts Leighton Kotaro Okada contributes a photo recap of the event.

A roundtable discusses the advancement of APIA women in the film industry.
All photos by Leighton Kotaro Okada.

The first Asian American Comic-Con, held in 2009 in New York City, marked the birth of new discussions in Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) communities. Eight years later, the Comic-Con has returned to address new developments in APIA media production and representation.

JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs with George Takei, Keith Chow, and Jeff Yang.

On Saturday, July 15, 2017, dozens of artists, comic fans, bloggers, movie lovers, writers, actors, “Trekkies,” and activists gathered at JANM under the common theme of APIA pop culture. Panels and roundtable discussions touched on various hot topics, including diversity, Asian American women in the film industry, and more. Panelists came from all over the country and represented a range of diverse opinions and experiences, each bringing a unique point of view and novel ideas on the future of APIAs in media.

Phil Yu, Keith Chow, George Takei, and Jeff Yang gather for a selfie at the event’s conclusion.

A roundtable titled “Woman Warriors: Reimagining Asian Female Heroes” gathered actresses, writers, and producers to discuss the advancement of APIA women in the film industry. Topics such as dragon lady and martial arts stereotypes, fighting for rich and novel roles, and the difficulties of working as both an APIA and a woman in the industry came up while answering questions such as “What should we expect in a rich, textured, powerful, and provocative APIA heroine?” and “What’s worked, what hasn’t, and why has it taken so damned long?”

George Takei receives the Excelsior Award for Art in the Service of Activism.

A highlight of the event was legendary actor and activist George Takei receiving the first-ever Excelsior Award for Art in the Service of Activism. Takei was especially happy to receive the award in the same building where he was married. He then joined author, culture critic, and New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei curator Jeff Yang and Angry Asian Man founder Phil Yu for a special live recording of a They Call Us Bruce podcast. The three talked about Star Trek, politics, and married life, ending with a discussion of “the good, the bad, and the OH MYYY of being George Takei.” Takei’s infectiously hearty laugh and constant joking kept the crowd roaring with laughter.

George Takei, Jeff Yang, and Phil Yu tape an episode of the podcast They Call Us Bruce.

Asian American Comic-Con’s Summit on Art, Action, and the Future was organized, emceed, and moderated by Nerds of Color editor-in-chief Keith Chow and Jeff Yang in cooperation with the Japanese American National Museum.

Leighton Kotaro Okada majors in East Asian Languages and Cultures with minors in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and Songwriting at USC.