Spanish-Language Tour of Little Tokyo Opens More Doors of Understanding

Monica Cruz and Sergio Holguin. Photo by Richard Watanabe.

The Little Tokyo Walking Tour is one of many public programs offered by the Japanese American National Museum. In conjunction with JANM’s latest exhibition, Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, visitors will soon be able to tour the Little Tokyo Historic District with an experienced Spanish-speaking docent. To gain more insight into this new offering, JANM Visitor Services Associate Sergio Holguin sat down with Monica Cruz, the docent who will lead the tour, for a brief discussion.

Author’s note: In this discussion, “Latino” is shorthand for a larger, mixed identity/ies. Both parties use the term to refer to persons of Mexican, Mexican-American, Latin American, and mixed Hispanic descent. The term is not used to describe those who significantly identify with specific indigenous identities or those who represent themselves as “Chicano.” “Latino” is used for the sake of brevity, and should not be misconstrued as a reductive gesture. If there are any questions or concerns, please feel free to comment below.

Sergio Holguin: Tell me about yourself and the work you do with JANM.

Monica Cruz: I’ve been a member of the museum for about five years, and a volunteer for three. I’ve worked in a variety of capacities: Visitor Services, when they need me; leading the Little Tokyo Walking Tour (I was trained as a docent); and now I’m a part of the group that helps out at the HNRC (Hirasaki National Resource Center).

SH: As a Mexican-American, I tend to get a lot of puzzled looks from folks coming in, even after seven years of working here. As a non-Japanese person like me, how did you get involved with the Japanese American community?

MC: To make the story short, my late husband was Japanese American, the first generation in his family to be born in the United States.

SH: So he was Shin-Nisei [a child of Japanese immigrants who arrived in the US after World War II]?

MC: Yes, we were both actually born in the US territory of Puerto Rico and moved to California for work. When he passed, I decided to stay close to the Japanese American community here, in celebration of his memory. I started volunteering with the different temples, and also got involved in Obon season, when they remember the dead—kind of like Día de los Muertos for us Latinos. I became a member of the museum because of all the programs they offer, and I saw the need for volunteers at that point, and I wanted to be a part of that as well.

SH: I like that you brought up Obon, because that’s actually how I was first drawn to visit Little Tokyo years ago. There’s a lot of overlap between cultures—not just Mexican, Latino, and Japanese culture, but other cultures as well. Remembering and honoring the dead, responsibility to family, and public service—those are very universal human traits. It’s important that we celebrate intersections of identity. What are some of your thoughts and hopes for the very first Little Tokyo Walking Tour en Español?

MC: I think that Transpacific Borderlands and this tour both provide opportunities to increase our knowledge and understanding overall, with a particular focus on the mix between cultures. We can each say that we have gone through similar changes—moving from a different country to here, learning new cultures, and learning new things as part of joining “the American Dream.” I think that opening doors of understanding for people who may not be comfortable with English, but are still an important part of the community, can help with that.

I would like others to discover and fall in love with Little Tokyo the way I did. I think if we offer the tours in Spanish and other languages as well, we can share our experience with others while growing as a group and bringing new stories and experiences into the museum.

SH: Absolutely, and that’s the museum’s mission: to share Japanese American stories to celebrate America’s cultural diversity and encourage others to share their own stories. If we’re able to talk with one another along those lines, the more rigid lines between communities start to melt away.

MC: I think that’s the part I enjoy the most: when people who begin the tour being quiet or shy actually open up and start sharing their life stories. Because even though this is the Japanese American National Museum, I think that the general idea of being an immigrant or coming from an immigrant background is something we share with others.

SH: It’s always fun to hear where people are from—whether it’s France, Osaka, or even El Sereno—and what brought them to Little Tokyo, because that in turn informs and becomes part of your experience.

MC: Yes. The stories that people tell me, I can sometimes include on my Little Tokyo tours. For example, someone once noted that the Brunswig Square building looks a lot like Los Angeles City Hall, so I did some research and found out they were designed by the same architect. Even if you have led the tour many times, the perspective of other people can still open new doors.

SH: Tell us more about what your tour en Español will be like.

MC: It depends on the needs of the group. Sometimes people are here for school, so certain kinds of information are more important for them. But I do want everyone to be familiar with the area so that even after the tour they are able to go and find their own adventure. We only have two hours to condense decades of living in Little Tokyo! As time moves forward, we get different types of people moving into the area. I don’t expect everyone to sit down and read up on all the history, but I do expect them to go and have an adventure!

Museum admission is included with the fee for the tour, so after lunch, I encourage people to come visit the museum. I feel that JANM is the spine of the whole Little Tokyo experience, not only because it’s the Japanese American National Museum, but because it tells you the story from the beginning, when the Japanese first began migrating to the United States.

Monica Cruz will be leading a tour of Little Tokyo in Spanish on February 10 at 10:15 a.m. You can purchase tickets for the tour here. Visitor Services staff at the front desk are always happy to answer questions about the tour or any of our other public programs.

Sergio Holguin is a Visitor Services Associate at JANM. Formerly a volunteer docent, Holguin strives to share his personal story as a means of encouraging discussions of contemporary identity within a shared American history. You can read about his journey on Discover Nikkei.

Celebrate the Holidays in Little Tokyo

Committee members prepare for the 11th annual Christmas Cheer fundraising program at the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) office in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, California, October 3, 1958. Photograph by Toyo Miyatake Studio. Published in the Rafu Shimpo, December 5, 1958. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of the Alan Miyatake Family.

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 info@golittletokyo.com. 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.

The Go Little Tokyo gift basket contains not one but TWO of these Usagi Yojimbo tea cups, featuring the iconic Stan Sakai character, from the JANM Store and janmstore.com.

Happy holidays and see you soon!

ICYMI: Recent News Roundup

A panel from Chapter 3 of Bombshells United. Courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Many news items come across the desk of the editor here at the First and Central blog. As busy as we’ve been over the last few months with the opening of JANM’s major new exhibition, Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, and various other developments, we haven’t had the chance to share as many of these as we’d like. Following, therefore, is a roundup of notable news items from the last few months. If you missed any of them, here’s your chance to catch up!

Little Tokyo Has Been Named a California Cultural District

Our own neighborhood of Little Tokyo was named one of 14 California Cultural Districts by the California Arts Council. A new initiative in its first year of operation, the Cultural District designation is designed to “grow and sustain authentic grassroots arts and cultural opportunities, increas[e] the visibility of local artists and community participation in local arts and culture, and promot[e] socioeconomic and ethnic diversity.” The districts are also intended to play a conscious role in tackling issues of artist displacement.

A Cultural District is defined as a “well-defined geographic area with a high concentration of cultural resources and activities.” The designation comes with benefits, such as technical assistance, peer-to-peer exchanges, and access to branding materials and promotional strategy. Per state legislation, each of the districts will hold the designation for five years.

We couldn’t be prouder of our district, which joins other vibrant cultural centers throughout California such as the Eureka Cultural Arts District and Balboa Park in San Diego. To see the complete list of 14 districts, click here. To read more about the initiative, click here.

Wonder Woman Confronts Japanese American Incarceration in New DC Comic

Wonder Woman is looming large in popular entertainment these days. The blockbuster action movie starring Gal Gadot was a huge hit earlier this year, and a sequel is in the works. A smaller film called Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which explores the origins of the classic comic book character, was just released last month.

The staff at JANM was thrilled, therefore, to learn that a new digital comic book has come out that imagines Wonder Woman fighting, and even helping to prevent, the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The series, titled Bombshells United, is written by Marguerite Bennett and illustrated by Marguerite Sauvage. Bennett decided to write the story after noticing that her cousins’ American history textbooks failed to mention the incarceration. Angered by the erasure, she set about doing her research, reading books like Farewell to Manzanar and No-No Boy, and paying visits to JANM (!) and the Manzanar National Historic Site.

The resulting story focuses on a group of ordinary Japanese American girls who hatch a plan to halt one of the trains going to camp. Bennett chooses to make them the heroes of the story, with some help from Wonder Woman. Although the story is a fantasy, many of the details are historically accurate. Bennett plans to continue exploring a variety of WWII and postwar stories in this series, even looking at intergenerational struggles between the Issei and Nisei.

Read an interview with Marguerite Bennett here. Purchase the comic books here.

Another Exclusive Naomi Hirahara Serial Now on Discover Nikkei

Everyone’s favorite JA mystery writer is at it again. Our Discover Nikkei project, which has hosted several exclusive serials by Naomi Hirahara, is especially thrilled this time to serve as the publisher of Trouble on Temple Street, the third installment in the Ellie Rush detective series. This installment, which follows two published book installments, will be published as an online serial, with new chapters coming out monthly.

Ellie, an LAPD bicycle cop who has been on the force for two years, finds herself in the middle of a Little Tokyo murder case that may potentially involve the people she loves most: her family. Will she be able to connect the dots before the killer harms her aunt, who is deputy chief of the LAPD? Where will Ellie’s allegiance fall—to the truth, or to family loyalty? The serial launched on September 4 and will continue through next August. Read the first two chapters now!

A Vegetarian’s Guide to Dining in Little Tokyo: Going Vegan, Part 2

Rakkan’s vegan gyoza is very tasty and comes with a unique tomato salsa for extra flavor.
All photos by Sylvia Lopez.

Last week, we looked at some great choices for a filling vegan lunch in Little Tokyo. Today, we will explore vegan options in noodles and desserts!

Rakkan
359 East First Street

Rakkan Ramen is one of the newest restaurants to open up on First Street, just steps away from JANM, and they have some stiff competition. They are one of four ramen spots on that block alone! However, I think they give themselves a strong edge with their wide array of vegan-friendly options.

On the menu, you will find avocado sashimi, an avocado and tofu bowl (they had me at “avocado”), and a vegan gyoza, which is fried without being oily and has a delightful crispiness to it. In addition to all this, they also offer vegan ramen! Now, this is a big deal to me as ramen traditionally features broth made from pork or fish, and noodles made with eggs. As an amateur home cook, I know that you can get some of that umami flavor from kombu and dried shiitake, so it’s always great to see restaurants consider plant-based broths.

The Bekko Ramen at Rakkan.

At Rakkan, they will even provide a laminated card listing their ingredients, allowing curious guests with food aversions to order with some peace of mind. For vegans, you can order the Pearl, Bekko, or Ruby ramen. I had the Bekko, which had a savory miso broth, chewy wheat-based noodles, slices of bamboo shoot and mushroom, cubes of tofu, and fresh chopped scallions. The only thing that left me baffled was the slice of tomato included as a topping, but I’m nitpicking at this point because overall, I was impressed! Ramen is such a comfort food to me and while many think that vegetarians should be content with a salad, Rakkan has demonstrated that variety and substance are possible.

Bonus Tips for Noodle Lovers

For people with wheat sensitivity, there are also gluten-free noodles available at Rakkan. Don’t forget to also try My Ramen Bar’s vegetarian ramen, which features spinach noodles. And if you’re in the mood for a thicker noodle, Kagura, located inside the Japanese Village Plaza, also offers vegan and vegetarian soups—my favorite is their veggie udon.

PB&J or coconut? Which one to choose?!

Café Dulce
134 Japanese Village Plaza, Building E

While I did talk about Café Dulce in my first Vegetarian Little Tokyo blog entry, I come back to it with important news: they now offer vegan donuts! I repeat, DONUTS! This is kind of a big deal considering the fact that I often walk into the JANM staff lounge and see a pink box full of donuts that I could never eat, and can only stare longingly at. When I found out Café Dulce was offering vegan donuts, I was immediately on the case.

Because a staff member at the café is vegan, the owners decided to introduce two new donuts that are made without eggs or butter: the peanut butter and jelly donut and the coconut donut. Both are delicious, flavorful, and sweet without tasting like pure sugar. The PB&J was surprisingly refined; I was expecting a slathering of conventional peanut butter, but instead, you get a raised donut sliced in half, sealed together with just the right amount of jelly, and topped with crushed peanuts. The coconut donut is also raised, topped with a generous amount of thinly sliced coconut shreds, and drizzled with chocolate and nuts. Pair one of these donuts with Café Dulce’s signature coffee or tea, and you’re set for a break time treat!

The vegan coconut donut pairs well with Café Dulce’s signature drinks.

Bonus Tips for Sweet Tooths

Now let’s say you’re in the mood for something sweet, yet more representative of traditional Japanese culture. Head on over to Mitsuru Café, also located inside the Village Plaza. Here you can pick up a mitarashi dango—a sweet rice ball skewer topped with a warm, sugary soy glaze. You can also go to Fugetsu-Do (Little Tokyo’s oldest business!) on First Street, not too far from the plaza, and find a wide variety of mochi and manju that are crafted onsite.

Be sure to check out my other two blog posts (here and here) to learn more about vegetarian dining choices in Little Tokyo!

You can take a real-life vegetarian tour of Little Tokyo this Saturday, October 21, when our intrepid volunteer Roxane Lewis leads Edible Adventures: Vegetarian Little Tokyo. Purchase your tickets here.

A Vegetarian’s Guide to Dining in Little Tokyo: Going Vegan, Part 1

Tofu tacos topped with a vegan coleslaw, one of two bento options at Far Bar.
All photos by Sylvia Lopez.

Being vegetarian in Little Tokyo is getting easier than ever. Being vegan—which means eliminating all animal-related products from one’s diet and lifestyle—still offers a bit of challenge, especially when you have lunch meetings with coworkers and you don’t want to inconvenience them. While I will gladly take one for the team and just go with a salad on a lunch outing, I’m happy to report that there are some great vegan gems to be found in Little Tokyo—some recently added! In fact, I have so many tips to share that this blog post will have to be divided into two parts.

So if you’re thinking about taking more steps toward a plant-based lifestyle, or just want to try something different, read on for my suggestions, and don’t forget to check back next week for Part 2!

Sandwich Shop
123 Astronaut E S Onizuka Street, Suite 108

The vegan chicken banh mi from Sandwich Shop.

Located next to the Marukai Market in Weller Court is an inconspicuous little place: The Sandwich Shop. Their name says it all—they have sandwiches! I was excited to see that they actually have a vegan offering, and a hearty one at that. The vegan chicken banh mi includes pickled vegetables, jalapeño peppers, cilantro, and vegan mayo, all on a crisp baguette. The “chicken” is soy-based and marinated in a ginger sauce, giving it a delicious flavor that blends well with the other components.

This one made me nervous the first time I tried it because it was a little too much like the real thing. But if faux meat is your thing, or if you are an omnivore looking to add more plant-based meals to the mix, this is a great option that always hits the spot, especially when I’m on the verge of being “hangry.” They offer a variety of chips to choose from, so grab a bag along with your sandwich for the perfect lunchtime recharge.

Far Bar
347 East First Street

The Thai curry bento at Far Bar, my favorite of their two vegan bento offerings.

Just steps from JANM is Far Bar, a hip fusion restaurant specializing in craft beer, spirits, and enticing food. Its location in the historic Far East Building gives it a chic vintage vibe, making it a great spot to unwind after a long day. While their dinner menu includes a number of vegan specialties, I’m going to focus on their lunch offerings, which feature not one but two vegan bento plates: the Thai curry and the tofu tacos. Each bento comes with a vegan mushroom soup, edamame, a grain salad, rice, and fresh fruit, all for just $10.

My favorite, the Thai curry, has a variety of squash, carrots, and potatoes in a creamy broth with a hint of coconut and spice. The mushroom soup is light yet robust in flavor, and the grain salad is a nice, refreshing complement to the meal. The tofu tacos are tasty and a great example of Japanese-Mexican fusion, which this vegan Chicana working in Little Tokyo can really appreciate! Make sure you ask for hot sauce though as these tacos are very mild in flavor. I only wish you could order these bentos for dinner as well as lunch!

Next week: ramen and desserts!

Did you enjoy these tips? Come take a real-life vegetarian tour of Little Tokyo on Saturday, October 21, when our intrepid volunteer Roxane Lewis leads Edible Adventures: Vegetarian Little Tokyo. Purchase your tickets here.

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

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

Nobody else in Japan is doing this kind of work.

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

Shin Miyata. Photo by Rafael Cardenas.

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

Thus, the idea for Transpacific Musiclands was born.

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

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dgTm2TivhlU&w=560&h=315]

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

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

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

You can get your tickets right HERE.

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

JANM Works with Metro and Boyle Heights High School Students to Create Construction Phase Artworks for the Bunker Hill Neighborhood

Decorative banners created by the students of Boyle Heights High School can now be seen on Hope Street between 2nd and 3rd in downtown Los Angeles. All photos courtesy of the author.

The Japanese American National Museum was honored to be chosen by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Metro Art Program to participate in the design of decorative banners to cover the Regional Connector Transit Project construction site. Over a year in the making, the banners can now be seen on Hope Street between 2nd and 3rd, just around the corner from The Broad.

JANM was commissioned by Metro to identify professional artists to mentor local high school students in creating the artwork for the banners. We chose the wonderful Ako Castuera and Edwin Ushiro, both of whom have exhibited their work at JANM, to work with an excellent group of students at Boyle Heights High School.

Led by Steve Brye, students from Boyle Heights High school
take a walking tour of the Bunker Hill neighborhood.

Students were first asked to learn about the history and iconography of the neighborhood so they could incorporate it into their art. We took a walking tour of Bunker Hill, during which the students documented the area with sketches and photographs. The tour was led by Metro’s Senior Transportation Planner Steve Brye, who is a longtime resident of Bunker Hill. Students then reviewed their own images as well as some historical photographs, and came up with imagery that was inspired by Bunker Hill past and present. Ushiro worked to compile their artwork into larger pieces for the banners.

The students go through the photographs they took while on their tour.

During the course of this project, JANM staff had the opportunity to visit the students at their school in our neighboring community of Boyle Heights and the students came to visit us here in Little Tokyo as they created art inspired by Bunker Hill. I can’t help but think how great it is that we’re in Los Angeles, where so many diverse and interesting communities can intersect to create something that makes our city a little brighter. The next time you’re in the Bunker Hill area, be sure to check out the work of the students from Boyle Heights High School!

Thank you to Metro, the students of Boyle Heights High School, Principal Leigh Ann Orr, Ako Castuera, and Edwin Ushiro. We had a great time working with you all!

More about the Regional Connector Transit Project: metro.net/projects/connector
More about the Metro Art Program: metro.net/art

Last Chance to See Instructions to All Persons and Moving Day

War Relocation Authority photo, taken at the Jerome concentration camp in Arkansas, June 18, 1944. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Dr. Toshio Yatsushiro and Lily Koyama.

On view through August 13, Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066 is an educational and interactive exhibition designed to engage visitors in critical discussions of the Japanese American incarceration experience. The exhibition is presented in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which paved the way for the World War II incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans. Original documents, contemporary artworks, and documentary videos form its substance.

Instructions to All Persons has inspired quite a bit of press, including a Los Angeles Times feature, an interview with curator Clement Hanami on KPCC’s The Frame, a thoughtful review on KCET Artbound, and prominent news pieces on Hyperallergic and NBCNews.com. If you haven’t seen this historic exhibition yet, don’t delay—you have less than two weeks before it closes.

Moving Day, installation view. Photo by Carol Cheh.

To complement Instructions to All Persons, JANM has mounted an outdoor public art installation called Moving Day, which is on view in the museum’s courtyard daily from sunset to midnight, through August 11. The work consists of a series of projections of the Civilian Exclusion Orders that were publicly posted during World War II to inform persons of Japanese ancestry of their impending forced removal and incarceration. Each poster is projected onto the façade of the museum’s Historic Building, the site of Los Angeles’s first Buddhist temple and a pickup point for Japanese Americans bound for concentration camps during World War II, on a date that coincides with its original issue date.

The museum has also presented a series of public programs to grapple with various aspects of the WWII Japanese American incarceration. Below is a video of the first of these events, which took place on March 23. JANM volunteers Tohru Isobe and June Berk, both camp survivors, discussed what it was like to be forcibly removed from their homes as children. The discussion was moderated by Clement Hanami, exhibition curator and Vice President of Operations/Art Director. Video clips from a 2013 visit to Bainbridge Island, where the forced removal of Japanese Americans began with Civilian Exclusion Order No. 1, were also shown.

How the JANM Store Selects and Develops Its Products

Spirit Stones, available at the JANM Store.

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?

On the left, mystery stones that were found at Heart Mountain concentration camp and donated to JANM’s collection; on the right, the keepsake products they inspired at the JANM Store.

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.

A Young JANM Volunteer Shares Her Impressions of the 2017 Pilgrimage to Manzanar

Joy Teruko Ormseth at JANM. Photo by Carol Cheh.

JANM recently welcomed Joy Teruko Ormseth to its volunteer ranks. Born in 2000 in Los Angeles and currently a student at Arcadia High School, Joy is, at 16 years old, one of our youngest volunteers.

This past April, JANM volunteers and staff organized a bus tour to join the annual pilgrimage to the site of the American concentration camp at Manzanar, where thousands of people of Japanese ancestry were confined during World War II. Joy, who had only briefly visited Manzanar as a child, decided to join the group. She graciously agreed to an interview, in which we learn about Joy’s family background as well as her impressions of Manzanar.

JANM: Why did you go on the Manzanar pilgrimage this year?

Joy Teruko Ormseth: I wanted to understand better about the whole situation because it was really hard for me to conceptualize what the people who were interned were going through. I obviously have never experienced that, and so it was hard for me to imagine having to go through that.

The JANM contingent poses for a group photo during the Manzanar Pilgrimage.
Photo by Ben Furuta.

JANM: What’s your family’s background?

JTO: My grandma was interned in Poston as a child, and my great-grandpa on my grandfather’s side was interned at Heart Mountain. But my grandfather was kibei [a Japanese person born in the United States but educated in Japan], so he was still in Japan during the war. I’m half Japanese, so this is all on my mother’s side of the family. My dad is Norwegian.

JANM: When you were growing up, did your grandparents share any memories of their time in camp?

JTO: Not my grandfather, since he was in Japan during the war, but my grandmother would always tell me about the dust storms at Poston, how they would wake up and there would just be sand everywhere. She also told me that her mother—my great-grandmother—was from an upper-class family in Tokyo, so the other mothers would kind of look down on her because she spoke a different dialect of Japanese. Also, other families were put off by our family because grandma’s elder brother Tom volunteered to serve in the 442nd [Regimental Combat Team].

Evelynne Matsumoto (née Watanabe), Joy Ormseth’s grandmother, in the 1950s.
Photo courtesy of Evelynne Matsumoto.

JANM: Did the other mothers look down on your great-grandmother because most of them were working class?

JTO: Yeah.

JANM: Why were they put off by the brother for joining the 442nd? I thought that was considered the height of honor and patriotism.

JTO: Grandma said the other families didn’t understand why he would volunteer, because they were put in camp [by the same government].

A replica of one of the barracks that once filled the Manzanar camp site. Photo by Ben Furuta.

JANM: Your grandmother sounds like she has an amazing memory.

JTO: Yeah, she remembers a lot. She has a really good memory. She even remembers stuff from before the war!

JANM: Was she your main connection to this history?

JTO: Yes, she was. Out of all her siblings, she’s the one who talks about it the most, and she’s the youngest. She also knows a lot because she became a teacher and she likes to research everything.

Interior of the recreated barrack. This structure is much safer and more comfortable than the original barracks were, due to the necessity of accommodating visitors. Photo by Ben Furuta.

JANM: Tell me more about your grandmother’s memories of Poston.

JTO: I know that my Auntie Mary, her sister, had a baby in camp who died because there wasn’t proper medical care. She had also lost a baby right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. (My grandma had several siblings, and the oldest ones were a lot older than she was.)

JANM: Oh my God, that’s horrible. Were there any babies born who did survive?

JTO: Yeah, there was one daughter who’s still alive.

JANM: What did your grandma think of the food in camp?

JTO: Great-grandma worked in the mess hall. She always demanded that the family eat at least one meal together per day, to keep the family together. I think grandma said they ate a lot of Spam! She also told me that creamed chipped beef on toast was often served, which the inmates referred to as “SOS” (sh** on a shingle).

Representatives from the other camps made their presence felt with colorful banners.
Photo by Ben Furuta.

JANM: In total, who all from your family was in Poston?

JTO: My grandmother. Then there was Uncle Jack, Auntie Mary, and Uncle Tom, who joined the 442nd. My Uncle Harvey was the oldest of the siblings and he was already in the military—he was drafted before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and served in military intelligence. Another auntie, Alice, worked as a secretary in Minnesota during the war.

JANM: Did they find other families that they could get along with?

JTO: They never talked that much about other families. My grandmother did say that since she was so little, she never really considered the severity of the situation—she was just happy that she had other kids to play with. Before the war, they lived in Central California, and I guess there weren’t as many children around there. So when she went to camp she was like, there are all these kids here to play with!

Taiko drummers helped to kick off the ceremonies at the 2017 Manzanar pilgrimage, which was attended by more than 2,000 people. Photo by Ben Furuta.

JANM: How did you get connected to JANM?

JTO: My mother used to volunteer at the Little Tokyo Historical Society, so I grew up knowing a lot about Little Tokyo and JANM because my mom loves history, like my grandma. I just figured that I would like to volunteer here.

JANM: What volunteer duties are you taking up at JANM?

JTO: I’m still a trainee, so I’m still figuring out what I want to do. But last week, I volunteered at the HNRC (Hirasaki National Resource Center) and it was so cool! We have access to ancestry.com, and I didn’t know how many documents there were on that website. One of the other volunteers was showing me how to research everything. I find all the dates so interesting—it’s all just right there, right in front of you, but it happened so long ago.

JANM: What were your impressions of Manzanar?

JTO: It was really hard for me to visualize all the barracks, because obviously they’re not there anymore, but [the trip] did help me to understand a little better the thought process of the Issei, what they were thinking. It made me realize that they came to this country believing in the American dream—if you work hard, you can succeed—and when we were there, it was so isolated, so barren, it was like, is this the American dream that they came for? That made me really upset and frustrated, and helped me understand just a little bit what they were going through.

A barren landscape. Photo by Ben Furuta.

JANM: Was there anything from the ceremony that stuck out for you?

JTO: Well first of all that song “Sukiyaki”—I really liked it because it was a musical connection to the past that kind of made it more real. Also, Alan Nishio’s talk was very inspiring.

JANM: Are you interested in going on any more pilgrimages?

JTO: I’ve heard that Poston is really difficult to get to, but I might want to go there one day.