On display only until September 23, time is running out to see two original pages of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed by President Ronald Reagan! Currently on view as part of our Common Ground: The Heart of Community exhibition, these pages will soon return to the National Archives in Washington DC.
This past August marked the 30th anniversary of the Act. JANM commemorated this anniversary by reimagining the final gallery of Common Ground to place an even stronger emphasis on the redress movement, its influences, and its accomplishments. With the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the US government formally apologized for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and paid monetary reparations to surviving victims of America’s concentration camps. This law came about after many years of activism by the Japanese American community.
Seeing a historic document like this in person moves us in a way that even the best-written article or book cannot. The document is a direct connection to the past and seeing it, one can almost feel the emotions, values, and hard work that culminated in the passing of this legislation. Moreover, the Act reminds us that we must remain vigilant in pushing back against a social and political atmosphere that seeks to marginalize people.
Seeing the document and learning about how this legislation was achieved pushes us to recognize that elements of today’s political landscape harken back to the dangerous and racist thinking of the 1940s that allowed for the creation of America’s concentration camps. If allowed to continue unanswered, then over time, the hard-fought battles of 30 years ago erode, and our democracy may be diminished.
If you are in Los Angeles, we hope you’ll find time to visit us while the original pages are still here. For information about all of our current exhibitions, please visit janm.org
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!
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.
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:
Now through December 31, 2018, the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center in Wyoming is staging the first significant showing of Estelle Peck Ishigo’s work in nearly 50 years. The Mountain Was Our Secret: Works by Estelle Ishigo includes ten watercolors by the artist on loan from JANM’s Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection and several of the artist’s pencil sketches, courtesy of the Bacon Sakatani collection.
Born in Oakland, California, in 1899, Estelle Peck was raised by a series of relatives in Southern California. In her twenties, Peck attended Otis Art Institute where she met and fell in love with aspiring Nisei actor Shigeharu Arthur Ishigo. Due to anti-miscegenation laws at the time, the pair were unable to marry in the United States, so they wed in Mexico in 1929.
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, many businesses fired employees of Japanese descent. Estelle, because of her marriage, lost her position as an art teacher. When her husband was forcibly removed and incarcerated at Pomona, and later Heart Mountain, Estelle opted to go with him.
Because of her background as an art teacher, Estelle was recruited as a documentary reporter for the US War Relocation Authority. With this job, it was her responsibility to record the Heart Mountain experience in illustrations, line drawings, and watercolors. As evidenced in her art and writing, Estelle took her official work as a documentarian for the WRA seriously, making sure to accurately document the miserable conditions at the camp. Many of her pieces illustrated the lack of privacy and comfort in living quarters and latrines. Like many Heart Mountain artists, Estelle’s work often depicted the mountain itself, an imposing figure in a desolate landscape.
Estelle first began documenting conditions in the camp by using watercolors. However, she admitted to being frustrated by watercolor’s inability to fully capture the conditions in which Japanese Americans were forced to live, calling the medium too “clean and untroubled.” To remedy this shortcoming, Estelle created more charcoal and pencil drawings, many of which are in JANM’s online collection.
When she was released from Heart Mountain in 1945, all the art that she had created was considered the property of the government and seized. She managed, however, to smuggle out many pieces by hiding them between her and Arthur’s clothing. After the war, the Ishigos returned to Southern California and lived in a trailer park. They struggled to find steady employment. Arthur died in 1957, and Estelle lived hermetically until 1972 when her artwork was rediscovered and included in a California Historical Society exhibition. That same year, she worked with the Hollywood Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League to publish a book, Lone Heart Mountain, which recounts individual stories as well as shared realities of persons of Japanese descent before, during, and after incarceration.
In 1983, filmmaker Steven Okazaki heard of her story and sought to make a documentary about Estelle. While doing research for his film, Okazaki discovered Estelle was living in poverty and residing in a Los Angeles basement apartment. When he told her about his project, Estelle said, “I’ve been waiting for someone to tell my story. Now I can die.” She passed away in 1990, just before the release of the film, Days of Waiting, which went on to win a Peabody Award and an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject).
Through her work, Estelle showed the duality of the American concentration camp experience. She had the unique ability to capture both the quotidian, tedious activities required for daily survival as well as scenes of respite, brief moments of joy amidst trauma. An excerpt from her book, Lone Heart Mountain, notes this binary experience: “Gathered close into ourselves and imprisoned at the foot of the mountains as it towered in silence over the barren waste, we searched its gaunt face for the mysteries of our destiny: and some spoke its name with the same ancient reverence, felt for their own mountains in Japan.”
The Mountain Was Our Secret is included with admission at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, which is $9 for adults and $7 for students and seniors. Children under 12 and members of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation are free. More information is available on their website.
What We Carried: Fragments & Memories from Iraq & Syria, a traveling exhibition of the Arab American National Museum, is on view at JANM until August 5, 2018. Having previously created work centered on American soldiers who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, photographer Jim Lommasson wanted to tell the stories of those affected by the United States’ participation in these countries. When the same approach he had used in the past did not yield meaningful results, he tried another tactic. The following is excerpted from the artist’s statement:
I realized from the conversations, that when one leaves their home, under the cover of darkness with a kid under each arm, you can’t take much with you except some practical items and maybe one or two mementos. It became clear that the carried items tell the story. I began to ask recent refugees in several U.S. cities to share those things with me. I photographed the objects, I made 13” x 19” archival prints and asked the participant to write on the photograph why that item above all others, was so important that they chose to carry it on their long journey to America. The results speak volumes about being uprooted and displaced, about loss, and the preservation of identity. What was carried? What was left behind?
I realized that the objects and the stories help those of us who see them feel compassion and an intimate empathy. What would I take with me? But the more powerful understanding is the realization, of what was left behind. What was left behind was everything else: homes, friends, family, school, careers, culture and history.
The stories tell how similar we all are. Circumstances and zip codes determine what kind of lives we will live. When we try to walk in “others” shoes, we become more human. When we understand that those “others” are not as different as the media and that politicians make them out to be. When we see tired, hungry and desperate families arriving in inflatable boats, walking by the thousands to refugee camps, we have to understand that we would look just like them if we lived in a war zone, or were victims of a natural disaster. Those tired, desperate people might also be teachers, doctors, engineers, or homemakers. Their objects tell us how similar we are. What would you choose? A picture of your mother, bible, a Qur’an, a ring, a teapot, maybe even a Barbie doll? Yes, all of these things travelled from Iraq and Syria to your neighborhood. We aren’t as different as we think. Certainly those who fan the flames of “us” and “them” profit by spreading fear and hatred for personal political gain and try to keep them out by persecuting based on foreign-ness or religion. History has demonstrated that it works.
You can read Lommasson’s full statement on our website. What We Carried is included with museum admission. For a closer look at the exhibition, visit JANM on July 28, 2018, when we will be hosting two special events for visitors. At 10:30 a.m., take a guided gallery tour of the exhibition, or join us at 2:00 p.m. for Stories of Displacement, presented in partnership with Vigilant Love, which will share the perspectives of recent Iraqi and Syrian refugees, Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II, and others.
Now through July 8, 2018, three pieces from the JANM permanent collection by artist Masumi Hayashi are on view at ReflectSpace Gallery at the Downtown Central Library in Glendale. The photocollages, from Hayashi’s “American Concentration Camps” series, are presented as part of the library’s exhibition entitled Accused of No Crime: Japanese Incarceration in America, which weaves a personal narrative through photographs, art, and film to highlight stories of Japanese Americans forced into concentration camps during World War II. Hayahsi’s work is presented alongside pieces from Mona Higuchi and Paul Kitaguki as well as archival images from Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, among others. Admission to the library is free. More information about the display can be found here.
Born in the Gila River War Relocation Camp in Rivers, Arizona, just after the war ended, Hayashi spent her childhood in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, where she worked at her parents’ neighborhood market. She briefly attended UCLA before moving to Florida to be with her husband, who had joined the Navy. Hayashi later enrolled at Florida State University where she earned both her BA and MFA.
In 1982, Hayashi joined the Cleveland State University faculty as Professor of Photography. While at CSU, Hayashi received awards and fellowships from a number of institutions, including the Ohio Arts Council, the Civil Liberties Educational Fund, and Arts Midwest. She worked at the university until her death in 2006.
Hayashi developed a systematic photographic style that involved taking multiple exposures of a single subject and assembling them into large panoramic scenes that could be six feet across or larger. She is probably best known for her series “American Concentration Camps,” which centered on the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II.
According to the artist’s statement in 1997, preserved on her online museum’s website, “The viewer can instantly see a 360-degree panoramic view which would otherwise circle around her, thus the viewer becomes both prisoner and guard within the photograph’s memory.” Her work is often described as eliciting contradictory sensations. Former JANM curator Karin Higa in 2003 noted that there is a “suggestion of dysfunction between what you see and what you know—what you can’t find out” in her work. The “American Concentration Camps” series is no different, moving viewers to take in both the beauty of the landscape and the memory of what happened there as well as that which can never be known about either. As Hayashi once remarked, “What we’re living with is not always on the surface.”
Don’t miss the opportunity to see Hayashi’s work and all of Accused of No Crime.
The following text is excerpted from an essay by Cindy Nakashima in the catalog that accompanies the exhibition. Nakashima has researched, written on, and taught about mixed race for over 30 years. She has published numerous articles on the subject, co-authored the book The Sum of Our Parts: Mixed-Heritage Asian Americans, and has co-curated two museum exhibitions exploring critical mixed races studies.
When Kip first spread the word in 2000-2001 that he was going to do a photo-based project of mixed race Asian/Pacific Islanders, we – meaning the small but growing group of us who were doing Hapa work at the time – were equal parts excited and nervous.
First of all, we asked ourselves and each other, “But who cares about us?” While it was definitely an exciting time to be in the dialogue – a moment of coalescing around the subject of mixed race (some were even calling it a “multiracial movement” – it still felt very much as if we were a small and obscure topic in the big world. If Mixed Race as a subject matter was ever recognized within the larger discourse on race (and even then, only marginally), it was always assumed to be Black/White.
And how will Kip ever find enough of us to photograph? Remember, there was no Facebook or Instagram back then. We’d have to get on our early generation cell phones and call every mixed person we knew, and make fliers and post them all over campuses and J-town and Little Tokyo. And what kind of venue would want to show our photographs? Would an Asian American community or student center identify with us enough to show it? Would they even be interested, let alone supportive? We’d been made to feel unwanted in Asian American institutions before – it was an especially painful sting. Dreaming big reminded us of how small we were.
Or were we?
. . . .
The photo shoots that Kip set up across the country turned out to be mob scenes, with 20, 30, 40, 50 Hapas … 1,200 in all across the country, pouring out of the makeshift studios into the hallways. People drove hours to sit on the floor with other mixed people, filling out release forms and answering his “What Are You?” paperwork.
For those whose photos were included in the exhibit or book, Kip ultimately decided to omit their names for safety and privacy purposes. This had the added effect of taking away a major source of external supposition and judgement about the subjects in terms of their ethnicity, paternal/maternal lineages, social class, and cultural adherences. We Hapas know that our names can misrepresent us as easily as they can represent us.
Interestingly, Kip did choose to include the subjects’ self-reported ethnic identifications on the page with their “What are you?” answers, and he did so in all lower-case, using tiny letters. He included whatever the subjects wrote – ethnic, racial, religious, linguistic, regional identities – with little effort for consistency. At first I wondered why. When I asked him, the answer was simple: he knew that we’d want to know! It’s easy to forget, when analyzing The Hapa Project, that the audience in Kip’s mind was first and foremost mixed people. And let’s face it – we love learning about each other’s mixes! Just the fact that a person’s identity includes “Thai, Indian, Scottish and Lithuanian” excites our imaginations for the family history as well as the Thanksgiving dinner menu that might go with it.
But other than that, the external gaze of this project is very often an Asian American one, and as Kip frequently mentions, the only people who have trouble believing that he’s Chinese are Chinese people. The rigidity of what “looks” Chinese, Japanese, Korean – as determined by Chinese, Japanese, Koreans – was, and is, something worth challenging. The faces in The Hapa Project might not “look Chinese” (or Japanese or South Asian or Thai) – but they are. Get used to it!
There’s a reason why The Hapa Project has lasted so long, both in terms of visual interest and relevance. Yes, it’s gorgeous. But it’s also terrifically thoughtful in its concept and in its design. I am one of the lucky few who was witness to just how much thought Kip put into it.
The hapa.me – 15 years of the hapa project catalog can now be pre-ordered from the JANM Store, though they will not be shipped until after April 7. If you join us for opening day, you can purchase yours then and have it signed by Fulbeck, Nakashima, and others involved in hapa.me at 4 p.m.
First and Central has done several blog posts exploring various aspects of Transpacific Borderlands. This week, we present an interview with Kris Kuramitsu, one of the exhibition’s five curators. A longtime art professional based in Los Angeles, Kuramitsu was responsible for selecting the three artists who represent this region. She will be leading a tour of the exhibition on Saturday, February 24, at 10:30 a.m.
JANM: How did you come to be involved with Transpacific Borderlands?
Kris Kuramitsu: I’ve worked with and curated work by artists from around the globe, but I’ve been based in Los Angeles for my entire professional career, so I was really excited about the parameters of this very global project. I jumped at the opportunity to work on it when [JANM Vice President of Exhibitions] Clement Hanami invited me. Clement was really the driving force behind the exhibition, and the fact that he’s so invested in and engaged with the cultural dynamics that we’re exploring in the exhibition—not only as a curator but as an artist in his own right—really helped shape the project as a whole.
I was asked to bring to the table artists in Los Angeles whose work defines a Japanese Latino cultural space, and my colleagues in Brazil, Mexico, and Peru did the same for artists from their countries. It was such a complex and fascinating conversation, one that we were lucky enough to develop into the exhibition that’s at JANM today.
JANM: Can you give us some insight into your curatorial process? How did you go about selecting the artists you selected? What was it about their artwork that drew you to it?
KK: The three artists I selected to be in the exhibition are really different from one another, but each of them powerfully represents his or her own cultural position in striking visual terms. Kenzi Shiokava is a longtime Angeleno who is originally from São Paulo. He’s one of the oldest artists in the exhibition, probably by a decade or two, and served as a bit of an anchor for me in thinking about the show. His work is such a rich combination of Japanese and Brazilian influences, in both aesthetics and materials, but it is also so deeply grounded in Los Angeles. He literally gathers his materials from the streets and gardens of LA, so they are assemblages that tell the story of the city as well as that of the artist.
Shizu Saldamando makes exquisite drawings that really can stop you in your tracks. They seem to be simple, beautifully rendered portraits of her friends, but the specific moments and gestures that she captures are so precise. Her compositions masterfully balance ornament and abstraction, positive and negative space. Ichiro Irie has such a strong relationship to his materials—as deep as Kenzi’s, but with an interest in stretching them to their limits. He’s also an incredible connector, gathering communities around him through his work, through the international art and culture magazine Rim that he published in Mexico City, and through the gallery Jaus where he is director and curator, showing artists from LA and around the world. I think of all of this as part of his artistic practice, which is deeply connective and connecting.
JANM: Did you confer with the other curators at all during the course of this project? Do you think that the various curators and scholars informed one another’s choices?
KK: Thanks to the support of the Getty, this was a really fantastic process that involved conversations among a broad range of scholars and artists from throughout Latin America and the US over the course of a few years. Because it’s such a wide and complex territory that we’re dealing with in the exhibition, it was really important to come together and talk through ideas about identity and the differences (and similarities) in cultural and social contexts that exist for artists in various geographies and generations. We talked about the ways cultural identities form very differently in all of our different homelands—relationships between self and community, self and national identity, and the differences from one generation to another are quite particular. We made our own choices of artists, but once we brought them to the table, there were so many places that their work and approaches overlapped that the sections of the show emerged from those areas of common approach.
JANM: What are some of the insights or experiences that you hope visitors will take away from this exhibition?
KK: I think the sheer diversity of the work is one of the main points; collectively, I think the show does a great job of confounding notions of strict national or cultural identity at every turn. We tried to create rooms that had loose associations around shared subject matter, treatment of material, or related approaches to history, so I hope people see those connections. But primarily, I hope people want to know more about the artists and seek out more of their work!
Join Kris Kuramitsu for a tour of the Los Angeles portion of Transpacific Borderlands on Saturday, February 24, at 10:30 a.m. Tickets may be purchased here. The exhibition will be on view through February 25.
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).
Through an email interview, Tajima-Peña shared some thoughts on the program, cultural hybridity, the immigrant experience, Asian diasporas, indie film, and other topics.
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.
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.
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.
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.