Seeing the Sights of Little Tokyo

The entrance to the Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple.

In 1884, a Japanese sailor named Hamanosuke Shigeta jumped ship in San Diego and eventually made his way to downtown Los Angeles, where he opened an American-style cafe. The opening of Kame Restaurant—the first known Japanese-owned business in Los Angeles, signaled the beginning of what is now known as Little Tokyo. Before World War II, Little Tokyo was thriving and grew to be the largest Japanese community in the United States. This area is steeped in history and every month JANM docents lead walking tours of the neighborhood to explore both popular and lesser-known gems of this bustling neighborhood.

One of the stops on the tour is the original Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, at 119 North Central Avenue. Built in 1925 by Japanese immigrants, and originally named the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, the building was the first structure in Los Angeles designed specifically to house a Buddhist place of worship. In 1942, the building was used as a gathering place for people of Japanese ancestry to board buses as they were forcibly removed to American concentration camps during World War II. Reverend Julius Goldwater, one of the first non-Japanese Buddhist ministers in America, did not face removal and allowed people in the community to store their belongings in the building while they were incarcerated.

With no congregation, the temple closed down. However, in 1944 the Providence Missionary Baptist Association converted part of the building into a Christian center and began offering sermons. The Association’s stay was only temporary, though. When the war ended in 1945 Goldwater notified the Baptist Association that their lease could not be renewed as he expected many of his congregation members to return home. The temple then reopened and served as a hostel for many of those returning from the camps who found that their homes had been lost. The building eventually fell into disrepair after the temple moved to a new location in 1969 and it was sold to the City of Los Angeles in 1973. Destined to be torn down for new development, the building was spared when the City of Los Angeles supported its use as a museum site. In 1992, the Japanese American National Museum opened in the renovated historic building.

People of Japanese ancestry board buses in front of Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple as they were forcibly removed to American concentration camps. 1942. Photo by Jack Iwata. Japanese American National Museum, gift of Jack and Peggy Iwata.

The architecture of the ornate building draws inspiration from a temple in Kyoto, Japan, and combines Japanese and Middle Eastern motifs in its striking façade. The Middle Eastern influence stems from the architectural movement called Egyptian Revival. This style of architecture first came to prominence in the late 18th century. But after the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, Egyptian influences saw a renewed wave of popularity around the world. Also, Egyptian themes had become an essential part of the Art Deco movement in the 1920s.

This building’s entrance is on the plaza across from the Japanese American National Museum’s Pavilion building. The cement canopy (karahafu) over the entrance replicates the imperial gateway of the associated Mother Temple in Kyoto, Japan. The characteristic shape is the undulating curve at the top of the entrance. This design is common in traditional Japanese architecture, including castles, Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines. Kara means “noble” or “elegant” and this architectural element is often added to places that are considered important or grand.

The original Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple is only one of several stops on the JANM docent-led walking tours of Little Tokyo that engage visitors beyond the walls of the museum and introduce them to a unique and diverse community. Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong Los Angeles resident, you’ll learn surprising details about the people, historic architecture, and community spirit of this colorful neighborhood. Museum admission is included with the fee for the tour, so be sure to see JANM’s current exhibitions afterward.

Tours take place on the last Saturday of every month, weather permitting. Comfortable walking shoes are recommended. To sign up for our next walking tour please visit janm.org

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.

An Interview with Toy Designer and Collector Mark Nagata

Left to Right: Bullmark Mirrorman Darklon, soft red Ultraman, and glow-in-the-dark Bullmark Zazan

Our newest exhibition, Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey through the World of Japanese Toys opens on Saturday, September 15 and showcases hundreds of dazzling vintage and contemporary Japanese vinyl toys, providing a feast for the eyes and the imagination! Kaiju translates to “strange creature” in English but has come to mean “monster” or “giant monster” referring to the creatures that inhabited the postwar movie and television screens of Japan. The advent of these monsters brought about the creation of characters to combat them—hence the emergence of pop-culture heroes like Ultraman and Kamen Rider. Drawing from the extensive vinyl toy collection of Mark Nagata, the exhibition also demonstrates how Nagata’s pursuit of these Japanese toys took him on an unexpected journey that brought new realizations about his cultural identity as an American of Japanese ancestry.

Growing up in California, Mark Nagata was a fan of Disneyland, comic books, and classic Japanese television shows, movies, and toys. These influences inspired his creativity and spurred his initial interest in drawing and art. After attending the Academy of Art College in San Francisco during the late 1980s, Nagata embarked on a 10-year-plus journey as a freelance commercial illustrator. In 2001, Mark transitioned from illustration to co-founding Super 7 magazine, a publication dedicated to vintage and art vinyl toys. Through his work on the magazine, Nagata combined his passion for Japanese vinyl toys with his artwork. It was during this period that Nagata founded the Max Toy Company in 2005 to produce vinyl kaiju and hero toys. Fast-forward to today, and not much has changed for this toy designer, painter, illustrator, and collector. We caught up with Nagata via email to ask him a few questions.

JANM: What is your favorite kaiju toy of all time?

Mark Nagata: To be honest, my favorite kaiju toy is actually a hero toy. It’s an Ultraman figure, made of soft red vinyl, produced by a Japanese company called Bullmark in the 1970s. Ultraman is my favorite hero and when I discovered that there was a very rare variation of this figure, the hunt was on. During one of my trips to Tokyo in search of toys, I actually found one but the price was very expensive. Even though my fellow toy friends were willing to let me borrow the money, sadly I had to pass on the chance to obtain it. For the next month after returning home, I couldn’t stop thinking of the figure. So, I decided to sell off a bunch of toys and contacted a dealer in Japan to see if the figure was still there for sale. Luckily, it was and they helped me to purchase it. Because the figure is fragile and expensive, I requested that they carefully wrap and pack the figure in a sturdy box and declare the full insurance amount when shipping it.

I waited what seemed like weeks for the figure to arrive. To my complete horror, the mailman handed me a shoe box that was partially opened, and inside the figure was barely wrapped in one piece of newspaper! I quickly examined the figure to make sure it was not broken and luckily it was in perfect condition. As I was throwing out the box, I glanced at the shipping label and once again was shocked to see that the declared insurance value was $5.00, not the value of $5,000! The story has a happy ending, but to this day I keep thinking of how lucky I was that it made it to me in one piece!

Marusan Talking Ultraman

JANM: Where was the most unique place you bought a kaiju toy?

MN: Not really the most unique place, but I think using a fax machine to order toys from Japan was unique. Before email and the internet (yes, that long ago) I would buy toys via the fax machine. A dealer from Japan would fax me in the middle of the night (it was his daytime) with various toy offers. The next day I would circle what I wanted and fax it back to him. I’d still have to wait for another fax to me with payment information. Once I got the totals I had to get a postal money order and mail the payment to him. I’d wait a month for a box to arrive and sometimes a toy would be sold out by the time he got payment. In that case, I would end up with a credit with the dealer.

There was much more work involved to obtain Japanese toys back in those days. Now, with the internet, toy buyers can get a ”fix“ instantly. To me, the fun has been taken out of the searching and hunting process for these toys.

JANM: What is your favorite piece featured in the exhibition?

MN: I know I will get asked this question and to be honest it’s like picking your favorite child! In no particular order for the heroes: the Bullmark Red Ultraman figure, Marusan Talking Ultraman figure, and Ultraman costume. For kaiju figures, I would say the glow in the dark Bullmark Zazan figure, Bandai Barom One Doruge figure, and Bullmark Mirrorman Darklon figure.

Join Mark Nagata on Saturday, September 15, at 2:00 p.m., for a conversation with Marusan toy company President Eiji Kaminaga about kaiju toy history, the world of Japanese toy collecting, and their companies’ histories. (The Marusan toy company created some of the first vinyl kaiju and hero toys of the 1960s and these toys make up a significant part of Nagata’s collection). The conversation will be moderated by Brad Warner, who worked for 15 years at Tsuburaya Productions, the makers of the Ultraman television shows.

Following the discussion, Mark Nagata will sign copies of Toy Karma, an accompanying book by and about Nagata, as well as a 13″ x 19″ print (10″ x 17″ image size) featuring a kaiju and hero image by toy photographer Brian McCarty, who will also be signing the print. The book is $24.95 and the print is $50. Both can be purchased the day of the event. RSVP here.

Nisei Naysayer: The Memoir of Militant Japanese American Journalist Jimmie Omura

Japanese American journalist James “Jimmie” Matasumoto Omura was one of the most outspoken dissidents against the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. In brash and biting newspaper articles, Omura often criticized leaders in the Nikkei community for what he thought was their complicity concerning the actions of the United States government. While very strident in his criticism of forced incarceration, Omura also often wrote about his ire towards the US government’s decision to draft imprisoned Nisei into military service without addressing the violation of their human rights. As well, Omura was one of the first Japanese Americans to seek government redress for violations of civil liberties after World War II.

In his vividly written memoir scheduled for release on August 28, Nisei Naysayer: The Memoir of Militant Japanese American Journalist Jimmie Omura, he talks about being one of the most vocal Japanese American activists during and after World War II and how his critiques in Japanese American newspapers often meant being shunned by the Nikkei community. The main impetus for writing the memoir, Omura said, was to correct the ”cockeyed history to which Japanese America has been exposed.” He also writes about his early years on Bainbridge Island in Washington, the summers he spent working in the salmon canneries of Alaska, how hard it was to find work during the Great Depression, as well as how his early journalism career took him to San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Jimmie Omura on the Liberty Calling program on KLZ radio, Denver, Colorado, October 12, 1947. In the first of two broadcasts on Japanese Americans’ problems in Denver, the Rocky Shimpo editor discussed discrimination faced by Nikkei in employment, education, and housing. In contrast, the second broadcast’s featured speaker, Colorado Times publisher Fred Kaihara, maintained that discrimination in no way hampered Denver’s Japanese American community. Omura Papers, Green Library, Stanford University.

Edited and with an introduction by historian Art Hansen, and with contributions from Asian American activists and writers Frank Chin, Yosh Kuromiya, and Frank Abe, Nisei Naysayer provides an essential, firsthand account of Japanese American wartime resistance.

Omura passed away in 1994, but Hansen, who is also professor emeritus of History and Asian American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, will be at JANM on August 25 at 2 p.m. to discuss the book and Omura’s life and work. Here we share a brief excerpt from a recently published Discover Nikkei article that goes more into detail about Omura.

Jimmie Omura was born in Washington in 1912, and later moved to Los Angeles. As a young man, he chose to pursue a career as a journalist. His star rose quickly in the journalism scene of the early 1930s while editing a variety of Nikkei publications. In these early days, he was not afraid to speak his mind. His publication the New World Daily gained critical acclaim for its elegant writing, but he also incited the ire of Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) supporters by criticizing its leadership. The JACL was already a powerful political influence on the West Coast at the time, and even in this pre-war period, its stature was not to be taken lightly.

When Omura continued to speak his mind into the 1940s, criticism of him began to escalate. The war was raging, and the JACL was no longer an organization that sought to promote the people and culture of varying regions within Japan. The JACL now had the responsibility to represent the entire Japanese American population. Because of this, the JACL became a force that had the ear of the national government. However, the JACL was divided in condemning the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans and did not fully use its voice to help prevent this atrocity.

Read the rest of this article at DiscoverNikkei.org

The discussion with Art Hansen is included with JANM admission but RSVPs are recommended. Reserve your seat now!

Lots to Do in Little Tokyo This Weekend!

JANM volunteers in the Nisei Week Grand Parade.

The 2018 Nisei Week Festival is in full swing! One of Los Angeles’ oldest ethnic festivals it offers the opportunity for people of all backgrounds to celebrate Japanese heritage and culture. Though named for second-generation Japanese Americans, Nisei Week is no longer specifically for Nisei, nor is this event contained within a single week. This year’s celebration actually started last weekend, but you can still check out some great events such as the Day-Lee Foods World Gyoza Eating Championship, the Rubik’s Cube Open, a car show, and the closing ceremony!

The theme for this year’s Festival is “Generations,” which pays tribute not only to the legacies of those who helped to build the local Japanese American community, but also to the contributions of Yonsei (fourth generation), Gosei (fifth generation), and all future generations. This theme also is a call for all generations to stand together and ensure that the success of Little Tokyo, Nisei Week, and the Japanese American community continues well into the future.

On Saturday, August 18, you can see the spectacle that is the 12th Annual Day-Lee Foods World Gyoza Eating Championship—the West Coast’s premiere eating competition. Major League Eating’s top competitors will once again try to devour as many gyoza as they can in 10 minutes. Last year, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut reclaimed his title, consuming 377 gyoza in competition. Geoffrey Esper took second place with 317, while Matt “The Megatoad” Stonie came in third with 291. Chestnut still holds the current world record, which he set in 2014 by eating 384 Day-Lee Foods gyoza in 10 minutes. Will this be the year a new world record is set?

JANM will also be joining the fun on Saturday, August 18, with our annual Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., the event is free and offers all kinds of fun for the whole family, including crafts, bubble making, taiko performances, tea ceremonies, live music, and so much more.

Our paper hats are a JANM tradition!

One of your first stops at the Natsumatsuri Family Festival should be at our crafts area. Our paper hats are a JANM tradition and we love seeing all the creative and unique ways visitors fashion their hats. You can also decorate some snazzy sunglasses to keep your eyes in the shade this summer. Then make your way to see our resident origami expert, Ruthie Kitagawa. Learn to fold a paper lantern, a colorful summer festival decoration!

When the little ones need a rest from all the festivities, they can go with mom or dad to check out our toddler roomDisney’s Big Hero 6 will be playing all day. Because we love Nisei Week, adults can receive half off general admission to the museum today, and all the rest of the days of Nisei Week. Just say “Nisei Week” when you arrive. But remember: Natsumatsuri Family Festival is free for everyone!

We hope to see you this weekend in Little Tokyo for all of the fun and traditions the neighborhood has to offer!

Learn more at Niseiweek.org and janm.org/Natsumatsuri2018

Looking Back at the Civil Liberties Act of 1988

President Ronald Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

August marks the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. With its passage, the US government formally apologized for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Furthermore, with this formal apology, the law called for monetary reparations to surviving victims of America’s concentration camps. This law came after many, many years of hard-fought battles and activism by the Japanese American community.

To recognize this anniversary, we reimagined the final gallery of our Common Ground: The Heart of Community exhibition to place an even stronger emphasis on the redress movement, its influences, and its accomplishments. Opening to the public on August 4, among the artifacts newly on display is the pen that President Ronald Reagan used to sign the Act, on loan for a year from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Also debuting in the gallery are two original pages of the Act. These include the page bearing President Reagan’s signature, as well as those of Congressmen Spark Matsunaga and, Norman Mineta, who is now Chair of JANM’s Board of Trustees. These pages are on loan to us from the National Archives and Records Administration for only a limited time, through September 23.

The anniversary seems a fitting time to share this excerpt from President Reagan’s speech given at the time of signing the bill into law.

The Members of Congress and distinguished guests, my fellow Americans, we gather here today to right a grave wrong. More than 40 years ago, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in makeshift internment camps. This action was taken without trial, without jury. It was based solely on race, for these 120,000 were Americans of Japanese descent.

Yes, the nation was then at war, struggling for its survival, and it’s not for us today to pass judgment upon those who may have made mistakes while engaged in that great struggle. Yet we must recognize that the internment of Japanese-Americans was just that: a mistake. For throughout the war, Japanese-Americans in the tens of thousands remained utterly loyal to the United States. Indeed, scores of Japanese-Americans volunteered for our Armed Forces, many stepping forward in the internment camps themselves. The 442d Regimental Combat Team, made up entirely of Japanese-Americans, served with immense distinction to defend this nation, their nation. Yet back at home, the soldiers’ families were being denied the very freedom for which so many of the soldiers themselves were laying down their lives.

Congressman Norman Mineta, with us today, was 10 years old when his family was interned. In the Congressman’s words: “My own family was sent first to Santa Anita Racetrack. We showered in the horse paddocks. Some families lived in converted stables, others in hastily thrown together barracks. We were then moved to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where our entire family lived in one small room of a rude tar paper barrack.” Like so many tens of thousands of others, the members of the Mineta family lived in those conditions not for a matter of weeks or months but for three long years.

The legislation that I am about to sign provides for a restitution payment to each of the 60,000 surviving Japanese-Americans of the 120,000 who were relocated or detained. Yet no payment can make up for those lost years. So, what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.

You can read a full transcript of Reagan’s speech here. Also, here’s a video of the President’s speech and the signing ceremony at which Norman Mineta (and others), were present:

 

 

There are still a few seats available for this Saturday’s conversation with Mineta and Dr. Mitchell T. Maki, President and CEO of Go For Broke National Education Center and lead author of Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Achieved Redress. Be sure to RSVP here.

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.

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.

 

Kodomo no Hi Learning at Lunch

In conjunction with Kodomo no Hi—Children’s Day—in Japan, the JANM Collections Unit presented a Members Only Learning at Lunch session on Saturday, May 5. A group of artifacts from the collection, including Boy’s Day Festival in May, was shared with members. The watercolor painting is one of several donated to JANM in 2002 by Charlotte Opler Sagoff. While the other pieces donated at the time are signed and dated by the artist, this painting alone is not, leaving some uncertainty about its origins. It is stylistically similar to a number of the others donated from Sagoff, making its identification as close to positive as our collections team believes to be possible.

Boy’s Day Festival in May, 1945

Sagoff taught high school at the Tule Lake incarceration camp while her husband, Marvin Opler, was stationed there for three years as a government anthropologist, social psychologist, and community analyst. Unlike other anthropologists the government assigned to camps, Opler was critical of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. As Minoru Kiyota notes in Beyond Loyalty: The Story of a Kibei, “Opler regarded the residents of Tule Lake as essentially normal human beings, while [Tule Lake Director Raymond] Best considered them fanatics.” Historian Peter Suzuki holds up Opler as a model for the positive influence anthropologists could have had on the War Relocation Authority.

Opler further criticized the segregation of “loyal” and “disloyal” internees at Tule Lake, and showed a respect for Japanese culture that went against the mores of the time. Sagoff enrolled their son in the Japanese nursery camp at Tule Lake, making him the only white student. Opler’s willingness to think of the Tule Lake prisoners as real, normal people perhaps stemmed from his ability to situate their culture within a wider worldview. He likened the prisoners’ renewed interest in Japanese traditions to when Plains Indians returned to the Ghost Dance religion, calling both reclamations and affirmations of identities too long sublimated to colonizers. Opler had in fact begun his anthropological career observing Native Americans, alongside his brother Morris, in New Mexico. (While Opler was assigned to Tule Lake, Morris was stationed at Manzanar.)

While at Tule Lake, Opler appreciated the artistic work of those imprisoned. According to Sagoff, he hired artist Dick Toshiki Hamaoka to draw representations of life at Tule Lake because they were unable to afford photographers. Boy’s Day Festival in May, with koinobori in the air, barracks housing, and residents going about their daily lives, is plausibly one such work. According to Sagoff, Hamaoka was 17 at the time he was commissioned and was a cartoonist for his high school newspaper. By her account, after the war, Hamaoka repatriated to Japan.

WRA records indicate that there was a Toshiki D. Hamaoka, a kibei Nisei, from Los Angeles at Tule Lake. However, those records show him to be 25 years of age at the time Sagoff would have known him. Moreover, the WRA shows him as being married, with previous military service, and indicate that he was sent first to Santa Anita and then to the Amache camp (also referred to as the Granada camp) in Colorado. A Bulletin from Granada, Colorado, dated October 21, 1942, corroborates all of this: “Alice Misaye Ouye and Richard Toshiki Hamaoka were married at the Lamar courthouse Thursday. The couple, formerly of Santa Anita, were accompanied by Police Chief Stanley Adams. They now reside at 11G-12F.” The couple was moved to Tule Lake in 1943, perhaps because of responses to the loyalty questionnaire. Final Accountability Records show the Hamaokas arriving at there from Granada in September 1943 and leaving for Japan on Christmas Day 1945. Regardless of his age, WRA records list Hamaoka’s qualified occupation as “artist” and “photographer.”

If Boy’s Day Festival in May is indeed by Hamaoka, it may well be one of his final completed piece before repatriating to Japan.

JANM members look at Hamaoka’s watercolor at a Members Only event on May 5th.

Opportunities to view and hear about artifacts from the JANM Collection, like this Members Only Learning at Lunch event, are a great benefit of membership. Join or renew today!

Our Man in Tokyo (The Ballad of Shin Miyata)

There’s nothing quite like a hometown crowd.

Our Man in Tokyo (The Ballad of Shin Miyata) is my short documentary about the struggles and obsessions of Shin Miyata, a Tokyo-based record label owner and promoter who specializes in the difficult task of distributing Chicano music in Japan.

Shin’s goal has always been to bring authentic and diverse representations of Chicano and Latinx culture to Japan. He has done so with a purity of intention that hasn’t brought him financial gain, but has instead delivered a wealth of understanding that has educated, enlightened, and actually changed the lives of many people.

The documentary was made in conjunction with JANM’s exhibition, Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo. Like the art that was featured in the exhibition, Shin’s work provides a prime example of the intersectionality of Japanese and Latinx cultures and artistic collaborations.

 

Highlights from the Transpacific Musiclands Outdoor Concert at JANM, curated by Shin Miyata, featuring Quetzal, El Haru Kuroi, and La Chamba.

 

As we were planning our first screening in Tokyo, set for April 7 at an event space called Hare-Mame, Shin was nervous. Not only was he reluctant about promoting a screening of a film about himself, he was also worried that not many people would show up.

He wanted to add more entertainment—more films, maybe even a band. We decided to include Tad Nakamura’s poignant short doc about a little-known slice of Los Angeles’ Crenshaw District, Breakfast at Tak’s, plus a few of Shin’s favorite DJ’s—the Trasmundo crew and DJ Holiday.

Regardless of the additional entertainment, when the night of the event arrived, Hare-Mame was packed to the gills. It was full of Shin’s friends and followers, all eager to watch the documentary about him.

As the film played, the crowd’s reaction was amazing to see. It was much different from audiences in LA and Mexico City, the two cities where the film had previously screened. I don’t know if it was because of cultural differences or personal knowledge of Shin, but the Japanese audience burst into laughter at unexpected moments and actually cheered (!) during a section of the film where other audiences had remained silent.

 

Our Man in Tokyo at Hare Mame in Daikanyama, Tokyo

 

As the credits rolled, they erupted into a sustained applause—not just for the film, but also for Shin himself, who has impacted their lives in a deeply meaningful way for many years by introducing them to the art, culture, and politics of Chicanos and Latinxs from the US. It was an acknowledgement of all the tireless work he has done for Chicano/Latinx artists and the people of Japan.

Many people thanked me afterwards for telling Shin’s story, but I was just grateful that they had shown up and were open to Shin’s mission of cultural understanding and unity. As I write this, I know that he is already on to a new project—searching for the next band to take to Japan, digging up a long-forgotten album to re-release, or planning another live event. His struggle continues and countless people are better off for it.

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If you live in the Bay Area, Our Man in Tokyo will be screening as part of CAAMFest 2018 on Sunday, May 13. Info and tickets here: caamfest.com/2018/shorts-programs/toyko-beats

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To see some of the bands that Shin has worked with and the concert he curated at JANM, check out these videos:

 

Quetzal performing “Para Sanar” at Transpacific Musiclands

 

El Haru Kuroi performing “Niños Viajadores” at Transpacific Musiclands

 

East LA Taiko performing at Transpacific Musiclands

 

La Chamba performing “El Guapo” at Transpacific Musiclands

 

Conjunto J and Tex Nakamura performing together at Transpacific Musiclands

 

Ruben Guevara performing at Transpacific Musiclands