Last Chance to See the Civil Liberties Act of 1988

Original pages of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988

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

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!

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.

Tell Your Tales of Little Tokyo

Artist Dan Kwong
Artist Dan Kwong

Dan Kwong is a veteran performance artist, director, writer, and native Angeleno, based at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. He is one of four artists who are currently part of the inaugural +Lab Artist Residency Program, sponsored by the Little Tokyo Service Center. The theme of the residency is Community Control and Self-Determination. The four artists are living in the historic Daimaru Hotel on First Street for three months while creating art projects that involve the Little Tokyo community and speak to this topic.

Dan’s project, Tales of Little Tokyo, involves collecting personal memories and stories about Little Tokyo from seniors (as well as some younger generation folks), and shaping that material into a theatrical piece.

“Little Tokyo is a precious and vibrant community with over 130 years of history,” says Dan. Our stories are at the heart of that history, and collectively they become the voice of our community. This project aspires to give that voice a hearing.”

Through the first week of July, Dan is conducting a series of informal “story-circle” gatherings at JANM. Story-circles happen every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, usually from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., and Wednesdays, usually from 1:45 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. Gatherings happen in JANM’s Araki Community Education Center.

Members of the JANM community share stories of Little Tokyo

In these story-circles, Dan asks various questions—it’s a bit like an interview—and people share their memories, stories, and anecdotes about Little Tokyo. These are recorded.

In early July, Dan will sort through and edit this material and write a theatrical piece that expresses the significance and value of preserving and sustaining Little Tokyo as a cultural community.

On the weekend of July 28-29, there will be a public presentation (most likely a staged reading) of the piece in JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum.

Please let Dan know if you are interested in sharing your tales of Little Tokyo. He would love to hear from you! Dan can be reached at dkbb12@aol.com. A maximum of 10 people can share per session so contact Dan in advance to ensure your spot and confirm the time for the day you want to participate. You can also just drop by one of the story-circle sessions if you’d like to listen in; you might still want to contact Dan to confirm the time. Paid admission to JANM is not required, but there are great exhibitions now on view so you may want to take full advantage of being here. Admission is only $12 for adults and $6 for seniors.

For more information about the +Lab Artist Residency Program, check out the LTSC’s press release announcing the inaugural artists.

This Summer, See Masumi Hayashi’s Work in Glendale

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.

Gila River Camp, where Hayashi was born.
Gila River Relocation Camp, Foundations, 1990, panoramic photo collage. 22″x 56″

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.”

Manzanar Relocation Camp, Monument, 1995, panoramic photo collage, 48″x 80″

Don’t miss the opportunity to see Hayashi’s work and all of Accused of No Crime.

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!

A Visit to Otomisan, the Last Japanese Restaurant in Boyle Heights

Owner Yayoi Watanabe greets customers at the counter.

The history of Otomisan Restaurant in Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights neighborhood is well documented in the press. It was first opened in 1956 as Otomi Café, by a couple who are remembered today only as Mr. and Mrs. Seto. At that time, Boyle Heights was a melting pot of diverse, working-class immigrant groups that included Jews, Russians, Armenians, Japanese, and Mexicans. The Japanese had begun spilling over from nearby Little Tokyo in the 1920s, at the same time that a critical mass of Jewish migration turned the neighborhood into the largest Jewish enclave west of Chicago. In its early years, Otomi Café was just one of many Japanese establishments in the multiethnic community.

A Los Angeles Times profile from 2007 offers this account of the restaurant’s bustling business during its first decade: “During the weekends, Japanese people from the neighborhood and throughout LA would have prefectural meetings during picnics at places like Griffith Park and Elysian Park. The restaurant would make bento box lunches, hundreds of them, for the meetings.” The clientele was mostly Japanese then, and there was often a wait to get into the tiny eatery.

Inside Otomisan, shortly after the lunch rush.

In the early 1970s, the Setos sold the restaurant to a Mr. and Mrs. Seino, who changed its name to Otomisan. By that time, the neighborhood’s demographics were beginning to shift. Many of the various immigrant groups had moved on, and Boyle Heights began to emerge as a predominantly Mexican American community. Then, in the early 2000s, Mr. Seino passed away, and Otomisan closed down for six months. In addition to being the owner, he had been the sole cook. His widow seemed to be on the verge of giving up the place.

Yayoi Watanabe, the owner of a nearby dry cleaner, had other ideas. She felt it was important to maintain a Japanese presence, keep up a Japanese tradition, in the neighborhood. She convinced Mrs. Seino to sell the restaurant to her, and she has been running it ever since.

Just a few of the objects that decorate the walls and counters.

A group of JANM staffers recently paid a visit to this historic restaurant. It still sits in its original location on First Street near Soto. The place is remarkably small; there are only three booths and a handful of stools at a short bar. Walking into it does feel like going back in time; the furnishings look original, and vintage pictures and knickknacks are pleasantly cluttered everywhere. Watanabe was working behind the counter, as she always does. Behind her in the small kitchen, a lone cook filled all the orders.

We ordered from the menu of classic Japanese comfort dishes: tempura, beef cutlet, chirashi bowl, oyakodon, croquettes, soba noodles. The amiable Watanabe confirmed that the offerings had not changed much since the 1950s; the most recent addition was probably the curry, and that happened in the 1970s. She wanted to stay as close to the original offerings as possible. When our entrees came, we all marveled at how good the food was and how home-cooked it tasted. It felt like we were hanging out in our grandmother’s kitchen—the most nourishing of places. A steady flow of people came in and out of the place while we were there, some looking like they were regulars. The clientele was diverse: Mexican, Japanese, Caucasian.

A combo platter with their famous tempura and a tasty beef cutlet.

When asked if she had any news for our readers, Watanabe thought of her impending hire of a second cook, which is indeed significant given the restaurant’s long history of operating with just one. Perhaps the real news here, however, is simply that Otomisan still stands, serving comforting and authentic Japanese diner food to a diverse clientele much as it always has, even as the world around it continues to change.

Otomisan is located at 2506-1/2 East 1st Street in Boyle Heights.

To learn more about the history of this neighborhood, be sure to visit the archival site for JANM’s 2002 exhibition, The Power of Place: Boyle Heights Project.

Until next time!

This Year’s Day of Remembrance Considers the 30th Anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988

Signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 by President Ronald Reagan, 1988. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Norman Y. Mineta.

On Saturday, February 17, JANM will present the 2018 Day of Remembrance in partnership with Go for Broke National Education Center, Japanese American Citizens League-Pacific Southwest District, the Manzanar Committee, Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, Nikkei Progressives, OCA-Greater Los Angeles, and Progressive Asian Network for Action (PANA). This year’s theme is “The Civil Liberties Act of 1988: The Victory and the Unfinished Business.”

In addition to marking the 76th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, an act that led to the forced evacuation and mass incarceration of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II, this year’s Day of Remembrance also commemorates the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the legislation that provided a formal apology from the US government and monetary reparations to survivors of the incarceration. Years in the making, this landmark legislation went a long way toward providing vindication and closure for the Japanese American community. Over 82,500 survivors received the President’s apology and the token monetary compensation provided by the CLA.

Today, however, we again find ourselves living in a climate of fear and scapegoating, in which several different immigrant populations have become vulnerable to unfair targeting. At this year’s event, we hope to strengthen our collective voice as we strive to prevent a repeat of what happened to Japanese Americans 76 years ago. Featured speakers will include Alan Nishio, community activist and founding member of National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (now Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress), who will speak about the importance of the Civil Liberties Act, what it did not accomplish, and its ongoing relevance today. The DOR program will also continue its tradition of paying tribute to the Issei and Nisei generations.

Admission to this event and to the museum are both pay-what-you-wish on this day. Last year’s event drew standing-room-only crowds, so RSVPs for this year’s Day of Remembrance are strongly encouraged. For updates on the day’s program, please visit janm.org or the Facebook event page.

Tule Lake as a Site of Resistance

Residents of Tule Lake Block 42, who refused to sign the “loyalty questionnaire” and were collectively arrested and threatened at gunpoint by Army personnel. Photo courtesy of Mamoru “Mori” and James Tanimoto.

On Saturday, February 10, JANM will host a screening of Resistance at Tule Lake, a new documentary from director/producer Konrad Aderer that tells the long-suppressed story of 12,000 Japanese Americans who dared to resist the US government’s program of mass incarceration during World War II. Branded as “disloyals” and re-imprisoned at Tule Lake Segregation Center, they continued to protest in the face of militarized violence, and thousands renounced their US citizenship. Giving voice to experiences that have been marginalized for over 70 years, the film challenges the nationalist, one-sided ideal of wartime “loyalty.” A panel discussion with the filmmakers will follow the screening.

Tule Lake was one of ten American concentration camps that were hastily built to house the 120,000 persons of Japanese descent who were forcibly removed from their West Coast homes following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. Located in Modoc County, California, Tule Lake was the most conflict-ridden of the ten camps. In its first year of operation, it was beset by labor unrest, including strikes over a lack of promised goods and salaries and a mess hall workers’ protest. Then, in 1943, it was designated as Tule Lake Segregation Center and essentially became a prison camp for those perceived as “disloyal” to the United States.

Hiroshi Shimizu, who is interviewed in the film, and his father, Iwao Shimizu, stand in Tule Lake Segregation Center, two days before being shipped to Crystal City, Texas, along with some 400 others who had renounced their citizenship. Photo taken on March 18, 1946, by Fusako Shimizu (mother). Courtesy of Hiroshi Shimizu.

Tule Lake was chosen to be a segregation center partially because of its size and capacity, but also because the infamous “loyalty questionnaire”—an awkwardly worded document circulated by the US Army in all 10 camps in an attempt to determine who among the prisoners were patriotic citizens and who were not—was mishandled by authorities at the camp, leading to more unrest, turmoil among the inmates, acts of civil disobedience, and the largest number of presumed “disloyals” of any of the camps.

Tule Lake Segregation Center soon became a maximum-security prison as “disloyals” from other camps were relocated there. The “disloyals” lived alongside original Tule Lake inmates who had answered the questionnaire with “loyalty,” but did not want to be displaced a second time. Home to a deeply divided and disaffected population and constantly beset with strife, the center was for a time ruled by martial law. The emotional fallout from living under such hostile conditions led some inmates to become disillusioned with America and to plan for a return to Japan after the war.

Japanese American members of a pro-Japan group known as the Hoshi Dan honoring brethren who were being purged from Tule Lake and sent to Santa Fe concentration camp before being deported to Japan. Photo courtesy of the Tule Lake Committee.

Come to our screening on February 10 to learn more about this dramatic episode in Japanese American history. JANM members may also attend an exclusive pre-event reception with filmmaker Konrad Aderer. Visit our website for more information and to RSVP.

To learn more about the film, read interviews with Konrad Aderer on Discover Nikkei:

Eaton Collection Display Seeks Answers and Provides Inspiration

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

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

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

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

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

Facsimiles of ink scrolls from the Eaton Collection.

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

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