The Japanese American National Museum sits in the heart of Little Tokyo, a fact that we who work at the museum have always been very proud of. Rich in history and yet filled with hip stores, cafes, and restaurants, the neighborhood dynamically bridges past and present, offering a memorable experience for shoppers, diners, and history buffs alike.
The holidays are a great time to come to Little Tokyo, and Go Little Tokyo has come up with this handy Holiday Guide to help you sort through all the choices. You can download it from their website to get a head start on planning, or you can just pick one up when you’re in the neighborhood. We have a stack of them at our front desk!
New Year’s is a big deal here in Little Tokyo, so be sure to check out some of the festivities that will be happening nearby. Again, Go Little Tokyo has helpfully assembled an online calendar for your convenience. And of course, don’t forget about JANM’s own annual Oshogatsu Family Festival on Sunday, January 7—one of the museum’s biggest and most beloved family day events!
As if you needed any more incentive, Go Little Tokyo is also holding a FREE DRAWING for a gift basket filled with $250 worth of treasures from Little Tokyo. To enter, just make a purchase at any of our neighborhood stores or restaurants between now and January 31, 2018. Snap a photo of your receipt and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. One entry per receipt from a Little Tokyo business. We can’t tell you what’s in the rest of the basket, but we can whet your appetite with the contribution from the JANM Store, pictured below.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
This Saturday, August 19, JANM presents its Natsumatsuri Festival, one of the museum’s two big annual family festival events. As a celebration of summer, the event will include plenty of craft activities for the kids, a reptile petting zoo, two taiko drumming performances, a community bon odori dance, an interactive comic book workshop with Jeff Yang, musical performances from Minyo Station and the cast ofLetters to Eve, and much more. Admission to the festival and the museum will be FREE all day.
One special treat on this year’s Natsumatsuri schedule, of interest to children and adults alike, is a martial arts demonstration by the Aikido Cultural Institute. Based in Eagle Rock, the institute has been teaching aikido and related traditional Japanese martial arts for over 35 years. At 3 p.m. on Saturday, a variety of instructors from the institute will demonstrate elements of aikido, iaido (swordsmanship), and classical weapons arts. The audience will be invited to participate at the end.
Aikido, whose name roughly translates to “way of spiritual harmony,” is Japan’s non-violent, non-competitive martial arts form. Its philosophy emphasizes respect for life, self-control, and self-discipline. There are no offensive moves in aikido; like judo, aikido utilizes twisting and throwing techniques to neutralize an aggressor by turning his own strength and momentum against him. The practice of aikido is said to build inner calm and tolerance for stress and crisis in all areas of life, as well as physical skills for self-defense.
Aikido is actually a relatively young practice, having been founded in the early 20th century by a man named Morihei Ueshiba (1883–1969). As a boy, Ueshiba witnessed his father being physically assaulted for political reasons, and vowed to develop strength and skills for protection. He became an expert in various forms of martial arts, but still found himself unsatisfied, so he dove into religious study in order to gain a deeper spiritual understanding. Eventually, Ueshiba combined his martial arts training with his spiritual beliefs to create not just a new martial art form, but a distinctive way of life.
Aikido techniques are rooted in the three traditional practices that Ueshiba mastered: jujitsu (unarmed combat), kenjitsu (sword fighting), and sojitsu (spear fighting), with many moves invented by the master himself. Its spiritual philosophy takes many cues from Ōmotokyo, a religious sect in Japan with roots in Shintoism and various folk traditions. Ōmotokyo believed strongly in world peace and the need to unify and harmonize all human beings.
Morihei Ueshiba was revered as a master and called O-Sensei (venerable teacher); he was posthumously awarded a purple Medal of Honor by the Japanese government for his unique contributions. His son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba (1922–99), trained under his father and became instrumental in leading and organizing what would become the Aikikai Foundation, the nonprofit organization that is the center of worldwide aikido practice today. After O-Sensei’s death, Kisshomaru Ueshiba was named Nidai Doshu (the second “master of the way” of aikido). Following Nidai Doshu’s death, his own son, Moriteru Ueshiba, was named Sandai Doshu (third master) and continues to serve as a leader of the aikido movement today.
Be sure to join us this Saturday to see the art of aikido in action, and enjoy the many fun and educational activities we have planned for you and your family!
In April of this year, the JANM Store was the proud recipient of a 2017 Museum Store Association (MSA) Recognition Award for Product Development. Maria Kwong, JANM’s Director of Retail Enterprises and a current MSA board member, wrote a long essay on how she came to develop the award-winning products, an edited portion of which we published in May. We now present another excerpt from the same essay, which offers more in-depth insights into how products come to be selected and developed for the JANM Store.
Being the director of a museum store with our particular mission statement—to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience—has always made product development challenging. Contrary to what many vendors and buyers imagine, Japanese products do not make up most of our inventory. We are a museum that explores Japanese American culture, history, and community.
During the early days of the JANM Store, the rule was to not buy any products that were perceived as “too Japanese.” This rule served two purposes. First, it put the emphasis on the hybrid culture of Japanese Americans. Second, it removed the appearance of competing with local neighborhood merchants, many of whom do specialize in products imported from Japan. Explaining all of this to vendors was often met with perplexed head scratching.
What we wanted was to offer memorable items that would firmly imprint what we were about on the visitor’s memory—items that would remind people of the history they had seen through our exhibitions. Finding such objects became the mission of the store. What kind of products could we offer that would bring back the stories depicted in Common Ground: The Heart of Community, our core exhibition covering 130 years of Japanese American history, from the early days of the Issei pioneers to the present day?
Our first custom products were inspired by a 55-gallon metal drum full of rocks that was found at the site of the Heart Mountain concentration camp. Each one had been carefully painted with a single Japanese kanji character. These rocks were initially dubbed “the Heart Mountain mystery rocks,” but it was later determined that they formed Buddhist sutras when placed around the cemetery at Heart Mountain.
Around that time, “affirmation stones” were becoming popular. We found a vendor who offered to make custom stones for us—not painted, but carved, making for a more permanent object. We selected a few of the kanji from the Heart Mountain stones and had them reproduced by a local calligrapher. It was a daunting project, producing six designs in quantities and prices that would work for both the store and the vendor. And when we announced that we were going to sell rocks in the store, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Apparently no one remembered when Pet Rocks were popular!
That was 18 years ago. Today, our stones are still selling, and we have expanded our line to include Heart Mountain Mystery Rocks, Spirit Stones, and Kaeru Stones. Our stones feature characters that were used at Heart Mountain as well as popular Japanese American sayings and whimsical images of JANM’s mascot, the frog (kaeru), which symbolizes the concept of “return” in Japanese culture.
Other products we have developed over the years include a koinobori (carp kite) painting kit; a plush frog toy that doubles as a secret container; a plush daruma beanbag; a kaeru zipper pouch by M.P. Barcelona; and a series of custom tea blends that are named after the different generations of Japanese Americans. Developed in collaboration with neighboring business Chado Tea Room, the tea blends include Issei, a roasted hojicha blended with coconut in honor of the first Japanese immigrants who settled in Hawaii, and Nisei, a genmaicha with citrusy bergamot tones to honor the second generation that largely settled on the West Coast.
Today the JANM Store is virtually exploding with uniquely Japanese American products, many of which are collaborations with local vendors, as well as a great collection of Japanese American history and culture books and products related to our current exhibitions. Intriguing new items are added all the time—like this tasty Japanese salsa from Colorado—so be sure to stop by often for an authentic adventure in Japanese Americana.
Staff members at JANM have been particularly excited lately about a new product being sold at the JANM Store: Karami, a unique salsa developed over 100 years ago by Japanese American immigrants in Colorado. In addition to being extremely tasty, the salsa (whose name means “beautiful heat”) offers a window onto a little-known piece of Japanese American history.
According to Karami’s website, the salsa came into being around the turn of the 19th century, after some enterprising Japanese immigrants settled in Colorado with their families. Finding themselves far inland without access to the ocean-based food staples of their native land, they were forced to be inventive with the resources they had. After sampling a variety of local vegetables, they found that the spicy green chile pepper made for the most viable substitute for seaweed. They mixed the green chiles with soy sauce and used it as a topping on rice, fish, chicken, and meats.
Generations of Japanese Americans who grew up in Colorado were known to keep a jar of the homemade mixture on their kitchen table. Every family had their own variation on the recipe. It was Jason Takaki’s family recipe that formed the basis of the product now known as Karami Japanese Salsa; with the help of his partner Kei Izawa, Takaki was able to turn his salsa into a viable business. For a detailed account of their journey, check out this Daily Camera article. For an early review of the salsa, see Gil Asakawa’s 2013 article on JANM’s DiscoverNikkei.org. For even more delicious historical details on Colorado’s Japanese salsa, check out this article on the Great Flavors website.
This writer sampled the product and was instantly hooked. Karami Japanese Salsa possesses a smooth, silky quality that I’ve never experienced in other salsas. An initial pleasingly sweet flavor soon gives way to a memorable kick that packs a low, slow-burning heat. I had it with tortilla chips and polished off half a jar before I knew it. Maria Kwong, JANM’s Director of Retail Enterprises and the person responsible for bringing us this salsa, tells me it’s great on hot dogs. Jason Takaki himself likes it best on fried rice.
A jar of Karami sells for $8 in our store; check it out the next time you’re at the museum. Please note this product is not available online.
Founded in 2011, Kizuna is a nonprofit organization based in Little Tokyo whose mission is “to build a future for our community through the education, empowerment, and engagement of the next generation.” Through a variety of workshops, projects, and initiatives, Kizuna teaches leadership and community service skills as well as Japanese American values and cultural practices to Nikkei youth of all ages.
At the 2017 Oshogatsu Family Festival, JANM hosted Kizuna’s story time reading and signing of their recently published children’s book, Thank You Very Mochi (available for purchase at the JANM Store). We will also be partnering with them to present our next JANM Free Family Day on Saturday, April 8. The event will celebrate Japanese American history and Kizuna staff will be on hand to lead craft activities, a spam musubi workshop, and story time readings.
This week, we sat down with Kizuna director Craig Ishii via email to find out more about the organization and what it does.
JANM: You’ve been going strong now for six years. Please tell us the story of how and why Kizuna was founded.
Craig Ishii: Several of us had been working at different community-based nonprofits for some time—Little Tokyo Service Center, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Japanese American Citizens League, etc. During our tenures with those organizations, it became clear that the community was looking for involvement from the next generation, but there was a general lack of knowledge and practice on how to do this. So in 2011, we brought our heads together and created the organization. We were not experts in this arena, but we had the drive. We went through several names before we found the name “Kizuna.”
When we were first getting off the ground, we had no office and no resources, but we had our networks, a clear vision, and nonprofit building skills. In addition to our years of working in nonprofits, several of us also held master’s degrees in nonprofit management; I really believe that the technical knowledge we acquired in those programs had a huge impact on the success and growth of Kizuna. In our first year, we launched our programming, held our first fundraiser, and seeded the funds to hire our first staff member. Since then, we’ve been able to continuously grow our budget, staff, and programs each year.
JANM: What does the name “Kizuna” mean?
CI:Kizuna doesn’t have a direct English translation. Eiko, the very wise receptionist at JACCC, described it best when she told me that kizuna is the depth of your relationship with someone. So the bond between myself and my parents, that is our kizuna; or the bond between best friends, that’s kizuna. We chose this name for a couple of reasons: we’re hoping to create a deep relationship between our students and the community, but we’re also hoping to build a tightly knit next generation that is connected and networked.
JANM: Tell us about the book, Thank You Very Mochi. What inspired you to get into publishing, and is this the first of more children’s books to come?
CI: Our program manager, Paul Matsushima, held a workshop a couple years back where he had to manage more than 60 kids for a mochitsuki (mochi pounding) workshop. He knew that having 60 kids pound and knead mochi at once would be impossible, so he split them into various activity stations. One of those was a storytelling station that revolved around a family mochitsuki. Afterwards, one of the parents said to him, “Hey, that story is a cute idea, you should turn it into a children’s book.” So Paul, Sophie Wang (Kizuna’s development coordinator), and I co-authored Thank You Very Mochi. It’s been a great way to get our mission out to the community here in Southern California and beyond. I think this book is everyone’s favorite accomplishment to date and yes, we would like to publish more!
JANM: What are some of your other favorite accomplishments?
CI: I’m pretty sure we have the largest network of Japanese American summer camp programs in the nation now. We manage six separate locations working with around 350 elementary to middle school students per year (and that number grows each year). It’s our largest program but also our most creative. It’s my personal favorite because it allows Kizuna to build the culture of the next generation. When we have a student who attends for more than a couple of years, we can impart important understanding and behaviors that will help them be successful and give back to our community as they age.
JANM: It’s amazing that you offer a full range of programs for ages seven through young adulthood. Do your kids tend to come back to take on more advanced programs?
CI: Yes, definitely, there’s a high retention rate. For me, working with kids is the clearest and most direct representation of impermanence. On one hand, you want the kids to grow up and everything that you do is about their growth and development. But then, of course, as they do grow up, they become smarter and wiser, and they really don’t need you as much. Then at that point, they become the teachers, instructors, and mentors. It’s great to watch this, but sometimes it feels like it happens a little too quickly. I’m sure folks in my parents’ generation say the same thing about us!