JANM’s Discover Nikkei project is a major online resource that brings together the voices and experiences of Nikkei (Japanese emigrants and their descendants) who have created communities throughout the world. The multilingual website—available in English, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese—documents Nikkei history and culture and provides learning and networking tools for Nikkei around the world. At the same time, it seeks to explore the diverse and ever-changing meaning of the term Nikkei.
Every year, Discover Nikkei’s Nikkei Chronicles project puts out a call for original stories from Nikkei communities around the world. Qualifying submissions are published on the website, where readers can vote for their favorites. The most popular stories are translated into all four of the site’s languages and spotlighted.
The theme for this year’s Nikkei Chronicles is Family Stories. How has your family influenced who you are? What are the special traditions in your family? Do you live in a multi-generational/multicultural household? Does your family maintain any connections to Japan? Are there any famous, or infamous, people in your family? The possibilities are endless, and stories can be nonfiction or fiction. Submissions will be accepted through September 30. Many stories have already been published; you can read them here. Be sure to vote for your favorites! For complete details on how to submit your own story, visit this page.
This year also happens to mark Discover Nikkei’s tenth anniversary. A special page has been created to celebrate the occasion, inviting the site’s international readership to answer questions about themselves and their communities. The page is envisioned as an opportunity for a global network of Nikkei to “meet” one another and compare experiences. Visit 5dn.org/10th every month through March 2016 to see new questions.
Richard Murakami has been volunteering at JANM for 21 years and documenting the museum’s history for almost as long. He doesn’t claim to be a photographer or even in charge of JANM’s corps of volunteer photographers; rather, he prefers to think of himself as the museum’s event photo coordinator and librarian.
It all started in 1994, when Richard attended the members’ opening reception for America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese Experience and noticed that no one was taking pictures. With a Canon camera that he’d brought from home, he began shooting. He then had two sets of photographs printed and gave the prints and the negatives to JANM for the purpose of starting a repository of images of this type. This task that he saw as a necessity soon grew into his main role and contribution to the museum.
Richard has never taken any photography lessons. “I’m too lazy to go to class,” he says. “So how I learned is, I would take the prints to Kimura Photo Mart and I would say, how can I improve this photo? And they would tell me what to do, and that’s how I learned.”
A total of 12 photographers, including Richard, now help to document the many events and occasions that happen at this busy museum. In the past seven years, they have only missed three JANM events. “I just think these photographers are really great!” Richard enthuses. “You know I can’t say enough good things about them. I really praise and brag about them a lot, they are so good.”
Some of the volunteer photographers (Steve Fujimoto, Russell Kitagawa, Gary Ono, Richard Murakami, and Richard Watanabe) recently sponsored the Upper Level Members Reception for the opening of Before They Were Heroes: Sus Ito’s World War II Images, an exhibition of photographs taken by Ito while he was on a tour of duty through Europe as a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
The reception was a natural fit for the group since the exhibition is about photography, but for Richard, it was also about honoring the 442nd veterans. “They opened the door for people like me who followed, so I owe them a lot,” he said.
Like Richard, Sus Ito also considers himself an amateur photographer. “I think he has an eye for photography,” Richard reflects. “Some people just point and shoot. With Sus, it’s what he took and when he took it that’s important. And whoever picked out those photos to include in the exhibition and tell the story—that person has an eye too.”
Richard’s official day to volunteer at the museum is every Friday, but you can often find him here multiple days of the week, sitting in his office in front of his Apple computer. In addition to coordinating the volunteer photographers and photographing events himself, he also inventories and organizes all the images. “When staff members need photos, they ask me and I find them. I’m probably the only one who really knows where they are.”
This post was researched and written by JANM Executive Assistant Nicole Miyahara. In addition to her duties at JANM, Nicole is an ethnographic documentary filmmaker who is currently working on The Making of a King, a documentary that explores the world of drag kings, the lesser-known counterpart to drag queens.
One of JANM’s own staff members, Events Assistant Camryn Sugita, was selected as a queen candidate for the 2015 Nisei Week Japanese Festival, representing the Gardena Evening Optimist (GEO) club. She has agreed to do a series of occasional blog posts about her experience, offering insight into the Nisei Week Court process and what it means for the princesses and the community at large. Read her first entry here.
A couple of days after I submitted my application, I received an email confirming my interview. The interview only lasted 30 minutes with a panel of six interviewers. I was told I would hear back the next day about whether or not I was selected.
After what seemed like the longest day of my life, I finally received an email at 4 p.m. The first two lines read, “Thank you so much for taking the time to apply and interview for the Miss GEO candidate position. It was very nice interviewing you and getting to know you.” I immediately thought I hadn’t been selected.
Then in the second paragraph it stated, “You were selected as the 2015 Miss GEO!” My jaw dropped and I screamed, which probably wasn’t a good idea since I was working at JANM’s front desk at the time. I couldn’t wait to tell my family, friends, and co-workers, who had all encouraged me throughout the interview process. A week later, I had my crowning at Cherrystones restaurant in Gardena, where I was able to meet members of GEO and give my first, very rough, speech. It was a night to remember!
At the end of April, I attended the Nisei Week Queen Candidate orientation with my parents, where I met the other girls and our advisors, the Queen and Court Program Committee. Less than a week later, we had our first training session: kimono rehearsal, in which we learned how to properly put on, walk in, and fold a yukata (casual summer kimono). Some of us had a hard time at first, but now we can all put them on with ease.
Since June, we’ve been meeting at least three times a week for various classes and trainings. The sessions are three to four hours long and have included odori (Japanese dance) rehearsals, modern dance classes, etiquette training, professional development, and a variety of cultural lessons. Many hours are devoted to practicing our introductions and learning to walk properly in heels. My favorites, however, are the cultural lessons. The first one was in basic karate—by the end of the lesson, we were each able to break a board in half!
All of these classes prepared us well for our first big event—the Nisei Week Japanese Festival Opening Ceremony on July 19. At this official kickoff, we all gave our introductions and were presented as candidates for Nisei Week Queen. But the fun doesn’t stop there! We still have lots of trainings to go before Nisei Week.
Nisei Week takes place August 15–23. The new Nisei Week Queen will be selected at the coronation ceremony on August 15. Who will be crowned? Visit niseiweek.org for more information, and stay tuned to this blog for more diary entries!
Most people I know of Asian descent who came of age in the 1990s have a deep appreciation for hip hop music. One of the most visible examples of this is chef and iconoclast Eddie Huang, whose boyhood is the subject of the hit ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat.
Based on his bestselling autobiography of the same name, the sitcom repeatedly emphasizes young Eddie’s identification with hip hop as empowering music for outsiders. As Huang’s generation came of age, they began making music of their own, and today, there are many successful Asian American hip hop acts.
Back in the early ’90s, however, it wasn’t so easy for musicians of Asian descent to gain acceptance in the field. The hip hop genre was heavily coded as African American, and Asians were perceived as not fitting into the culture. Attempts to perform or compose beats were typically disparaged—by audiences, by music producers, and by industry executives.
In 1996, a trio of Chinese-American students at Penn State University entered a national singing contest sponsored by Sprite, and won. Their slick rhymes expressing their love for the soft drink wound up on the radio as a 60-second commercial. Executives at Ruffhouse Records—known for producing albums by The Fugees and Cypress Hill, among others—liked what they heard and approached the group for a deal.
The Mountain Brothers—CHOPS (Scott Jung), Peril-L (Christopher Wang), and Styles Infinite (Steve Wei)—named themselves after a group of noble bandits depicted in a classical Chinese novel. They soon became the first Asian American hip hop group to sign with a major label.
Unfortunately, the group’s path was a rocky one. The record label saw their ethnicity as a disadvantage, and even suggested that they satirize their heritage onstage by wearing karate outfits and playing a gong. Although their music was critically acclaimed, it was difficult for them to get gigs if they did not initially conceal their Asian identities. After releasing only two albums—Self: Volume 1 in 1999 and Triple Crown in 2003—the group disbanded.
Today, the Mountain Brothers are considered important pioneers who paved the way for the many Asian American hip hop acts who followed. Although two of the members have since left music to pursue other professions, CHOPS continues to have a successful career as a producer and composer, working with artists like Nicki Menaj and Kanye West.
On Thursday evening, May 14, JANM will present a rare panel discussion with all the original members of the Mountain Brothers, moderated by sociologist Oliver Wang. Come and learn more about the band’s history and what the members have been up to lately, and hear their views on the past and future of hip hop music. Tickets are still available here.
One of JANM’s own staff members, Events Assistant Camryn Sugita, is a candidate for the 2015 Nisei Week Court. She has agreed to do a series of occasional blog posts about her experience, offering insight into the Nisei Week Court and what it means for the princesses and the community at large.
I always knew about Nisei Week growing up. As a Japanese American in Los Angeles, it was just one of those things you grew up going to. I remember seeing the Nisei Week Court featured in the Rafu Shimpo, sitting on a float in the parade, wearing beautiful dresses and crowns. I never thought that one day, I would be doing that.
I was working at JANM on a busy Saturday when I bumped into an old friend’s mom. She didn’t even recognize me at first. We chatted and caught up with one another, then toward the end of our conversation, she said, “You should apply for Nisei Week Court! You would be the perfect candidate!” The idea caught me so off guard that the only reaction I could come up with was to reject it. I kept saying, “I don’t know, I don’t think so,” but she wasn’t backing down. She insisted on putting me in touch with a former Nisei Week princess. By the end of the conversation, I was saying “I’ll think about it.”
And I really did think about it. All I knew about Nisei Week Court was what I remembered from childhood, so I did some research and spoke with two former Nisei Week princesses about their experiences. I discovered that being part of the court meant so much more than just sitting on a float in a beautiful dress; for 74 years, they have acted as representatives of the Los Angeles Japanese American community, helping to promote its image and build positive relationships worldwide. Members of the court receive training in public speaking, etiquette, and Japanese history and culture; they also have opportunities to travel to different cities, meeting all kinds of people and learning to be leaders of their community.
It quickly became apparent to me that becoming a Nisei Week princess is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as well as an extreme honor. I became really inspired and excited to apply for the position, and hoped that I would be able to get an interview.
Twice a year, JANM offers a workshop called Discovering Your Japanese American Roots, a primer on amateur genealogy specifically geared toward Japanese American patrons. This workshop is JANM’s longest running; it’s been offered since 1992 by Chester Hashizume, a Sansei information technology project manager by profession and genealogy hobbyist.
Born in Illinois and raised in New Jersey, Hashizume’s interest in genealogy began at a family reunion, when one of his uncles shared the beginnings of a family tree. Resources to help Japanese Americans trace their roots were not readily available, and so Hashizume embarked on a personal journey of discovery. He was able to find some information, including immigration records, at a Mormon Family History Center and at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. His most valuable resource turned out to be his mother, who was fluent in Japanese and knew relatives back in the home country. Through her, Hashizume was able to meet family members and gain access to some elusive village records during trips to Japan.
Hashizume moved to Los Angeles in 1988. Seeking to connect with the local Japanese American community, he checked out a 1989 JANM-organized Nisei Week exhibit that featured internment camp records on microfilm. At that time, the museum was still in its infancy, organizing pop-up shows while working to secure a permanent facility. Fascinated by the historical information contained in those records, Hashizume signed up to volunteer with JANM the following year. When the museum opened its doors in 1992, Hashizume began offering his workshop.
“I was a Japanese American with no Japanese language skills and no knowledge of my own background,” Hashizume explains. “I wanted to help others like myself.” Having already gone through much of the process of researching his own background, he now wanted to share his findings with others. He found it rewarding to help others go through the same process of discovery that he did.
Hashizume supplies each workshop participant with a binder full of helpful information, including: the basics of constructing family trees, where and how to conduct preliminary research, the unique characteristics of Japanese genealogy, the meanings and origins of Japanese names and family crests, and how to do research in Japan. Hashizume even includes a simple koseki (household registry) request form, written in both Japanese and English, that people can mail or bring with them to present to government officials in Japan.
“You have to go back to Japan,” Hashizume stresses. “This is how you really do research.” Japan, which for much of its history was a feudal society, has no central archive; koseki are maintained by townships and are still, to this day, updated by hand. The language and cultural barriers may seem daunting, but overcoming them is well worth it; Hashizume’s own trips back to Hiroshima and Ishikawa (his maternal and paternal prefectures of origin, respectively) were life-changing.
Additional spaces have been added to this weekend’s edition of Discovering Your Japanese American Roots! Visit janm.org to register.
Little Tokyo is filled with public art, from street murals to commemorative statues. JANM Development Assistant Esther Shin explores one of those works.
Toyo Miyatake’s Camera, a bronze sculpture by artist Nobuho Nagasawa, stands just outside of JANM’s Historic Building. Made in 1993, it is an outsized replica of an actual camera that belonged to the Japanese American photographer. In the evening, the camera projects slides of Miyatake’s photography onto a window of the Historic Building.
Toyo Miyatake established a photo studio in Little Tokyo in 1923. He became known for his photographs documenting the early Japanese American community. During World War II, Miyatake was imprisoned at the Manzanar incarceration camp along with 10,000 other Japanese Americans. He had to leave behind his home and studio, but he managed to smuggle a camera lens into the camp and constructed a camera body from wood. With this camera he secretly documented the community’s daily life behind barbed wire; the photographs from this period have become important documents of this tragic episode in American history.
Nagasawa’s sculpture is my favorite public artwork in Little Tokyo. Although it is relatively small and modest, it speaks loudly and is rich in meaning. I see it as a symbol of remembrance, underscoring the importance of looking back and reflecting on what has happened in the Japanese American community—not only during the incarceration of U.S. citizens during WWII, but in the years before as well. I appreciate the fact that the images projected by the installation include darker moments from our history alongside special events and celebrations that were dear to the community before the war—such as the 1932 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and the Nisei Week parade of 1939—because all of these moments, bright or dark, are part of the Japanese American story.
It is fitting that the sculpture is located on the plaza of the museum, and faces the Historic Building. It stands on the spot of a former WWII reporting site, where hundreds of Japanese Americans boarded buses to be taken to incarceration camps. It is also located across the way from JANM’s Pavilion building, where the permanent exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community—which chronicles 130 years of Japanese American history—is displayed.
JANM has a long history of collaborating with East West Players, the nation’s leading Asian American theater troupe. Among other activities, the museum is proud to host A Writer’s Gallery, a semi-regular reading of new works by Asian American playwrights. On Thursday, March 19, East West Players will present a reading of Giovanni Ortega’s Iyakan Blues (The Criers), a comedy about a group of women who work as professional criers—people who are paid to weep at funerals.
On the eve of this latest collaboration, JANM reached out to Snehal Desai, Artistic Associate/Literary Manager at East West Players, and Giovanni Ortega, playwright, to find out more about the series and about Ortega’s play.
JANM: JANM began hosting A Writer’s Gallery way back in 1996. It now occurs roughly semi-annually. Snehal, can you talk about the significance of the series, and how it came about?
Snehal Desai: Lately, the series has functioned as an incubator—a place for the development of works we are considering as part of our season at East West Players. It is immensely helpful for our playwrights to have workshop time to develop their plays and then have a public reading of it, followed by a talkback. We have found that these readings really bring the community and audiences into the process of premiering a new work. The Tateuchi Democracy Forum is a perfect space for this kind of reading and the conversation that follows afterwards.
JANM: How do you go about selecting the writers who get featured?
SD: The writers and the works get selected in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are tied to exhibitions that are being presented at JANM, or they are inspired by dialogues currently happening in the community. Other times, a writer with whom we have a relationship will bring us a play that they are developing and want to read publicly.
JANM: Giovanni, is professional crying really a thing?
Giovanni Ortega: Professional crying is actually a real thing in different countries. It is still done in Chinese, Sardinian, Irish, and Middle Eastern societies, just to name a few. Mourners from Chongqing, China, and Taiwan were recently on the news. The 1993 Indian film Rudaali featured a character who cried at funerals, and going back further, there were professional mourners in Honoré de Balzac’s 1835 novel, Le Père Goriot. The basic concept behind crying at funerals is to allow the person who passed to have a good welcome on the other side. The extent of the wails and cries also shows the reverence and respect this person had while living.
JANM: What inspired you to write Iyakan Blues (The Criers)? Did you draw from personal experience?
GO: The initial inspiration for the play was the women in my family. I was raised by my two grandmothers, and then my mom after I moved to the U.S. [from the Philippines] when I was a teen. Growing up, I was always surrounded and influenced not only by my lolas (grandmas) but also their sisters and my aunts. They were all strong-willed women who had very distinct opinions about life.
Regardless of whatever adversity, burdens, and struggles they had to endure to survive, the underlying force was laughter to get through it all. I witnessed that this was their tool in survival, regardless of how difficult it got. One of my earliest memories was going to the wake of my Lolo [Grandpa] Tute, where tears and laughter went hand in hand. Having such experiences allowed me to realize that I can use the theme of death as a means to laugh, and writing this play was a great opportunity to do so.
There are also very few stories about the Filipino diaspora. There is so much more to our country than Imelda, beaches, karaoke, dancing, pancit [Filipino noodles], and poverty. Ours is a rich culture, not unlike the U.S. in its mixture of race, religion, and cultures. My own heritage being Chinoy (Filipino and Chinese) as well as Spanish and Native American is a testament to our variety. I wanted to share different perspectives that people have in regards to what being Filipino is.
Lisa See’s bestselling novels—which have included Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan—are known for telling compelling stories of human relationships set against the rich backdrop of Chinese and Chinese American history. Her latest novel, released last June, is no different.
Set in San Francisco on the eve of World War II, China Dolls follows three independent young women as they revel in the city’s exciting and glamorous Chinatown nightclub scene. The women become close friends, sharing secrets and supporting one another through struggles and triumphs. When the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor however, it sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to change their lives forever.
One of the remarkable things about China Dolls is that it captures some key connections between Chinese American and Japanese American experiences. As in much of her work, See draws on her own family’s history to weave some of China Dolls’ narrative. During World War II, See’s grandparents lived in and took care of the home of the Oki family while they were imprisoned in camp. While many Japanese Americans lost everything after the war, the Oki family was able to return to their home and their belongings. In China Dolls, the incarceration of Japanese Americans plays a major role in the book, with vivid passages describing life in the camps.
See’s family history intersected with Japanese American history in other significant ways. In 1935, Eddy and Stella See (Lisa’s grandparents) opened the Dragon’s Den restaurant in the basement of the F. Suie One Company, located in Los Angeles’ original Chinatown. Eddy See commissioned three artists, including his good friend Benji Okubo, to paint murals of mythical Asian figures like the Eight Immortals on the restaurant’s exposed brick walls. See had already been selling artworks by all his friends in a small gallery in the mezzanine. These included works by Okubo, Hideo Date, and Tyrus Wong, who went on to become an influential graphic artist after creating the signature look for Disney’s Bambi movie.
The Dragon’s Den became a popular gathering spot for artists and actors, and See’s gallery now stands as an important early effort to show the work of Asian American artists. Many of these artists continued to exhibit together, earning a few different nicknames as a group, such as “the Orientalists.” Today, many works by Date and Okubo—along with those of the latter’s sister, Mine Okubo—are proudly featured in JANM’s permanent collection. (Pictured at right is Benji Okubo’s portrait of Lisa See’s great-aunt Florence See Leong, nicknamed “Sissee.”)
This Saturday, January 31, Lisa See will be at JANM to discuss China Dolls and her family’s connections to Japanese American history. She will also take questions from the audience.
China Dolls can be purchased from the JANM Store and online at janmstore.com. For a more in-depth profile of the author, check out this new feature story on Discover Nikkei.
For several years, Ruthie’s Origami Corner has been a popular fixture at JANM, whether as its own standalone event or as part of larger events like Target Free Saturdays and Oshogatsu Family Festival. Visitors young and old have benefited from Ruthie Kitagawa’s gentle guidance as she leads them in making unique origami items to commemorate every occasion.
A longtime JANM volunteer, Ruthie is a native Angeleno who spent part of her childhood imprisoned at Santa Anita Assembly Center and Amache Relocation Center. She has had an interest in arts and crafts for as long as she can remember; while still in high school, she volunteered to teach a class for the Boys and Girls Club.
Ruthie did not discover origami until later in life, and she admits that at first, she was not very good at it. Her initial experience with the craft occurred during preparations for her brother’s wedding in 1992, when she assisted in folding hundreds of gold foil cranes. She remembers with good humor that her cranes wound up on the reception tables, hidden behind floral arrangements, and that she was not invited to help with her sister’s wedding decorations two years later.
Shortly after her brother’s wedding, Ruthie’s older sister Lois—a dedicated JANM volunteer—encouraged her to take origami classes at the museum. Under the tutelage of Ryoko Shibata, who taught the origami classes at that time, Ruthie dedicated herself to improving her skills, which steadily blossomed. At the same time, she began volunteering at JANM as a docent and a Hirasaki National Resource Center assistant. Shibata Sensei eventually asked Ruthie to be her assistant in the origami classes, which Ruthie then took over when Shibata retired.
Sadly, Ruthie’s older sister passed away in 1998. Ruthie credits Lois—who was an avid origami practitioner—and JANM with inspiring her passion for the art form. Today, Ruthie applies a creative approach to her origami practice, often adding her own unique flourishes to designs she finds in books.
When asked what she enjoys the most about teaching her origami classes, Ruthie responds: “I love getting to know the people who come. They try so hard, and they can’t always complete the projects, but when they do, their faces just light up! That makes me really happy.”