Breaking the Fast with #VigilantLOVE

On May 24, 2018, the Japanese American National Museum was honored to support and participate in the #VigilantLOVE 3rd Annual Bridging Communities Iftar—the evening meal that breaks each day’s fast during Ramadan—held at the Centenary United Methodist Church. As a new staff member in the Education Unit at JANM, I was excited to attend the event with a few colleagues to learn more about #VigilantLOVE and the Little Tokyo community.

Place setting at the #VigilantLOVE iftar.

According to its website, #VigilantLOVE is a healing and arts-driven organization that counters mainstream narratives of insularity, building upon the legacy of Muslim American and Japanese American solidarity since 9/11. As someone new not only to JANM, but also to Los Angeles and the West Coast, this solidarity is one that I was not aware of until starting at the museum. But it is one that makes perfect sense when considering the shared commitments to fighting against hate, battling racism, and standing up for constitutional rights that again seem imperiled in our country.

Already in my short time at JANM, seemingly disparate aspects of my identity, both personal and professional, have converged in unexpected and exciting ways. I was raised Muslim, and by my own choice wore the hijab from grade three through my first semester of college. I have fasted for Ramadan in the past, but it has been many years since I have attended a community Iftar event. I never would have thought that my professional work, at a Japanese American organization no less, would have provided the opportunity for me to connect with this part of myself again.

The event itself was also a very unique mix of elements, from speakers to poetry reading to reflective breaths of gratitude to fundraising. In learning a little more about #VigilantLOVE, the confluence of these, again, seemingly disparate elements fit perfectly into their organizing model, which “integrates grassroots organizing, policy advocacy, political education, the arts, and healing practices within the culture of everything we do.”

Origami note containing words to make poetry.

My favorite part of the night was the short collective poetry activity attendees were invited to participate in. Since I’m an educator, perhaps this is not too surprising but I loved that everyone was invited to collaboratively create something with the others at their table. Each table had a small gold or silver origami envelope containing various cut-out words; our job was to create a haiku using words from our envelope. Our JANM table struggled a bit (we needed to make sure the number of syllables in each line was correct!), but eventually came up with this:

side by side building

wakeful unshakeable friends

create strengthen home

Our poem, and the night as a whole, reminded me of the importance of community—of friends —in building the world we want to see. Despite mainstream rhetoric of insularity and isolationism, where people focus on the issues that divide us, this event helped us to remember the beauty of the multicultural, multifaceted world in which we live.

Collaborative haiku.

 

Getting in Touch with Our Roots: Submissions Invited for Nikkei Chronicles 7

Nikkei Chronicles is an annual theme-based writing project from Discover Nikkei. Its goal is to promote deeper understanding of the histories and insights of people of Japanese descent living around the globe. This year, after inviting submissions from the Discover Nikkei community, Nikkei Roots has been chosen as the theme.

Jay Horinouchi designed the Nikkei Roots logo.

Discover Nikkei invites writers to interpret “roots” in whatever ways they choose; the following questions are offered only to help writers get their thought process going:

  • What does being Nikkei mean to you?
  • How does your Nikkei identity reveal itself in your day-to-day life?
  • What activities do you engage in to maintain traditions from Japan?
  • How do you stay connected to your roots, whether individually or collectively?
  • When and how do you really feel like a Nikkei?

To best explore the shared heritage and experiences of Nikkei while recognizing the singularity of each experience, a wide range of texts will be accepted, including academic papers, personal essays and stories, and other prose pieces. (For this installment, poetry will not be considered.) Submissions can be made in English, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese. All stories submitted that meet the criteria will be published in Nikkei Chronicles 7: Nikkei Roots: Digging into Our Cultural Heritage on a rolling basis as part of the Nikkei Roots series in Discover Nikkei’s Journal section. Authors may submit multiple entries.

It is hoped that by publishing a wide range of Nikkei stories, Discover Nikkei will help readers enhance their understanding of what it means to be Nikkei. Nikkei Chronicles 7 will be about how Nikkei identity—a connection to roots—is maintained individually or collectively, as a family or as part of a community.

Submissions will be accepted until September 30, 2018, at 6 p.m. PDT. For more details and to submit, click here.

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!

Our Man in Tokyo (The Ballad of Shin Miyata)

There’s nothing quite like a hometown crowd.

Our Man in Tokyo (The Ballad of Shin Miyata) is my short documentary about the struggles and obsessions of Shin Miyata, a Tokyo-based record label owner and promoter who specializes in the difficult task of distributing Chicano music in Japan.

Shin’s goal has always been to bring authentic and diverse representations of Chicano and Latinx culture to Japan. He has done so with a purity of intention that hasn’t brought him financial gain, but has instead delivered a wealth of understanding that has educated, enlightened, and actually changed the lives of many people.

The documentary was made in conjunction with JANM’s exhibition, Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo. Like the art that was featured in the exhibition, Shin’s work provides a prime example of the intersectionality of Japanese and Latinx cultures and artistic collaborations.

 

Highlights from the Transpacific Musiclands Outdoor Concert at JANM, curated by Shin Miyata, featuring Quetzal, El Haru Kuroi, and La Chamba.

 

As we were planning our first screening in Tokyo, set for April 7 at an event space called Hare-Mame, Shin was nervous. Not only was he reluctant about promoting a screening of a film about himself, he was also worried that not many people would show up.

He wanted to add more entertainment—more films, maybe even a band. We decided to include Tad Nakamura’s poignant short doc about a little-known slice of Los Angeles’ Crenshaw District, Breakfast at Tak’s, plus a few of Shin’s favorite DJ’s—the Trasmundo crew and DJ Holiday.

Regardless of the additional entertainment, when the night of the event arrived, Hare-Mame was packed to the gills. It was full of Shin’s friends and followers, all eager to watch the documentary about him.

As the film played, the crowd’s reaction was amazing to see. It was much different from audiences in LA and Mexico City, the two cities where the film had previously screened. I don’t know if it was because of cultural differences or personal knowledge of Shin, but the Japanese audience burst into laughter at unexpected moments and actually cheered (!) during a section of the film where other audiences had remained silent.

 

Our Man in Tokyo at Hare Mame in Daikanyama, Tokyo

 

As the credits rolled, they erupted into a sustained applause—not just for the film, but also for Shin himself, who has impacted their lives in a deeply meaningful way for many years by introducing them to the art, culture, and politics of Chicanos and Latinxs from the US. It was an acknowledgement of all the tireless work he has done for Chicano/Latinx artists and the people of Japan.

Many people thanked me afterwards for telling Shin’s story, but I was just grateful that they had shown up and were open to Shin’s mission of cultural understanding and unity. As I write this, I know that he is already on to a new project—searching for the next band to take to Japan, digging up a long-forgotten album to re-release, or planning another live event. His struggle continues and countless people are better off for it.

***

If you live in the Bay Area, Our Man in Tokyo will be screening as part of CAAMFest 2018 on Sunday, May 13. Info and tickets here: caamfest.com/2018/shorts-programs/toyko-beats

***

To see some of the bands that Shin has worked with and the concert he curated at JANM, check out these videos:

 

Quetzal performing “Para Sanar” at Transpacific Musiclands

 

El Haru Kuroi performing “Niños Viajadores” at Transpacific Musiclands

 

East LA Taiko performing at Transpacific Musiclands

 

La Chamba performing “El Guapo” at Transpacific Musiclands

 

Conjunto J and Tex Nakamura performing together at Transpacific Musiclands

 

Ruben Guevara performing at Transpacific Musiclands

 

Can’t Attend the 2018 Gala Dinner? Show Your Support Anyway!

JANM’s 2018 Gala Dinner is just a few days away, on April 21. Even if you’re not able to attend in person, you can still support an important JANM initiative that is the focus of a portion of the evening: the Bid for Education.

JANM’s Bid for Education program was officially launched at the 2000 Gala Dinner by the late US Senator Daniel K. Inouye in response to state budget cuts that threatened bus transportation for school field trips. Since then, it has become a galvanizing force behind the museum’s School Visits program, making field trips to JANM possible for more than 12,000 primary and secondary school students and teachers every year.

Funds raised by the Bid for Education are earmarked to support bus transportation and museum admission for primary and secondary school students from Title I schools and groups who have demonstrated financial need. Both school buses and public transportation are eligible for funding. Bid for Education funds also support K–12 educator workshops, the development of free resources for educators, docent recruitment and training, and many other educational initiatives.

3rd-grade-students-visit
Bid for Education funds support bus transportation to JANM for primary and secondary school students, like these third-graders. Photo by Gary Ono.

One teacher from Bell Gardens, California, recently shared this with us: “As a Title I school with financial need, your grants have provided us with the opportunity to coordinate a field trip to such a worthwhile institution, which provides our students with an invaluable cultural experience.”

mas-yamashita-tour
The Bid for Education allows students to have docent-led tours of JANM’s Common Ground exhibition, like this one led by volunteer Mas Yamashita. Photo by Tracy Kumono.

Another educator, from Lynwood, California, said, “We thank JANM for the generous Bid for Education scholarship that made our great day possible. We wish you continued success in your mission to educate, enlighten, and inspire.”

Bid for Education receives much of its funding during the annual Gala Dinner, but donations can be made at any time. If you won’t be with us at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites this Saturday, please consider making a gift online now. Support at any level is greatly appreciated!

Get Ready for hapa.me with This Catalog Essay Excerpt

Cindy, Japanese / German. Photos by Kip Fulbeck

JANM is thrilled to be opening a new exhibition by our old friend Kip Fulbeck on April 7, 2018. Check out the schedule of opening day activities for hapa.me – 15 years of the hapa project and plan to spend the day with us.

The following text is excerpted from an essay by Cindy Nakashima in the catalog that accompanies the exhibition. Nakashima has researched, written on, and taught about mixed race for over 30 years. She has published numerous articles on the subject, co-authored the book The Sum of Our Parts: Mixed-Heritage Asian Americans, and has co-curated two museum exhibitions exploring critical mixed races studies.

When Kip first spread the word in 2000-2001 that he was going to do a photo-based project of mixed race Asian/Pacific Islanders, we – meaning the small but growing group of us who were doing Hapa work at the time – were equal parts excited and nervous.

First of all, we asked ourselves and each other, “But who cares about us?” While it was definitely an exciting time to be in the dialogue – a moment of coalescing around the subject of mixed race (some were even calling it a “multiracial movement” – it still felt very much as if we were a small and obscure topic in the big world. If Mixed Race as a subject matter was ever recognized within the larger discourse on race (and even then, only marginally), it was always assumed to be Black/White.

And how will Kip ever find enough of us to photograph? Remember, there was no Facebook or Instagram back then. We’d have to get on our early generation cell phones and call every mixed person we knew, and make fliers and post them all over campuses and J-town and Little Tokyo. And what kind of venue would want to show our photographs? Would an Asian American community or student center identify with us enough to show it? Would they even be interested, let alone supportive? We’d been made to feel unwanted in Asian American institutions before – it was an especially painful sting. Dreaming big reminded us of how small we were.

Or were we?

. . . .

The photo shoots that Kip set up across the country turned out to be mob scenes, with 20, 30, 40, 50 Hapas … 1,200 in all across the country, pouring out of the makeshift studios into the hallways. People drove hours to sit on the floor with other mixed people, filling out release forms and answering his “What Are You?” paperwork.

hapa.me - Shane
Shane, Japanese / French / Chinese / Native American (Sioux) / Swedish. Photos by Kip Fulbeck

For those whose photos were included in the exhibit or book, Kip ultimately decided to omit their names for safety and privacy purposes. This had the added effect of taking away a major source of external supposition and judgement about the subjects in terms of their ethnicity, paternal/maternal lineages, social class, and cultural adherences. We Hapas know that our names can misrepresent us as easily as they can represent us.

Interestingly, Kip did choose to include the subjects’ self-reported ethnic identifications on the page with their “What are you?” answers, and he did so in all lower-case, using tiny letters. He included whatever the subjects wrote – ethnic, racial, religious, linguistic, regional identities – with little effort for consistency. At first I wondered why. When I asked him, the answer was simple: he knew that we’d want to know! It’s easy to forget, when analyzing The Hapa Project, that the audience in Kip’s mind was first and foremost mixed people. And let’s face it – we love learning about each other’s mixes! Just the fact that a person’s identity includes “Thai, Indian, Scottish and Lithuanian” excites our imaginations for the family history as well as the Thanksgiving dinner menu that might go with it.

But other than that, the external gaze of this project is very often an Asian American one, and as Kip frequently mentions, the only people who have trouble believing that he’s Chinese are Chinese people. The rigidity of what “looks” Chinese, Japanese, Korean – as determined by Chinese, Japanese, Koreans –  was, and is, something worth challenging. The faces in The Hapa Project might not “look Chinese” (or Japanese or South Asian or Thai) – but they are. Get used to it!

There’s a reason why The Hapa Project has lasted so long, both in terms of visual interest and relevance. Yes, it’s gorgeous. But it’s also terrifically thoughtful in its concept and in its design. I am one of the lucky few who was witness to just how much thought Kip put into it.

hapa.me cover
Catalog cover: Jenn, Japanese / French / Native American (Cherokee) / Irish. Photos by Kip Fulbeck

The hapa.me – 15 years of the hapa project catalog can now be pre-ordered from the JANM Store, though they will not be shipped until after April 7. If you join us for opening day, you can purchase yours then and have it signed by Fulbeck, Nakashima, and others involved in hapa.me at 4 p.m.

 

New Nikkei Car Clubs Story on Discover Nikkei

Mikado Car Club
Members of the Mikado Car Club show off their cars in the parking lot of the Evergreen Hostel on Evergreen Avenue, C. 1960. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Richard Sugi (2002.68.1.).

Dr. Oliver Wang, a professor of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach, has recently authored a new story about Nikkei car culture for JANM’s Discover Nikkei website. Here’s an excerpt:

The history of Japanese Americans in Los Angeles car culture dates back at least as early as the 1910s when Fred Fujioka teamed up with George Kawamoto to found F&K Garage in Little Tokyo. By the late 1930s, a prominent number of Niseis became involved in the local hot rod racing scene, most famously Glendale’s Okamura brothers, lead by champion racer Yam “Oka”. Executive Order 9066 forced most of these drivers into the camps though, in some cases, non-Nikkei friends kept cars and motors safe for them during the course of internment. Racers like Yam Oka picked up where they off and resumed racing after resettlement.

Apostles club patch
The club patch for The Apostles, out of Gardena. Photo by Oliver Wang.

The Nikkei car clubs that arose in the 1950s belonged to what might be described as a “lost” generation of Nisei and Sansei youth born in/around internment. I call them “lost” because most of the existing scholarship tends to either focus on Niseis of their parents’ generation or Sanseis born during the post-war baby boom. The Nikkei youth of the 1950s fall in between these eras: they were children in the camps and during resettlement and entered teen-hood during the 1950s.

Within the Nikkei community, the obvious antecedent to the car clubs were Nisei social clubs, many of which date back to the 1920s. UCLA’s Valerie Matsumoto has done exceptional work in documenting these clubs, especially in her book City Girls, and she notes that these social clubs quickly reformed post-internment by providing a source of “camaraderie and recreation…amid the disruptions of resettlement and the exigencies of finding work.” As such, forming a social club wouldn’t have been unusual for Nikkei teens in the 1950s except now, they were adding cars to the mix.

The general car club phenomenon in the U.S. dates back to the 1920s but it was the postwar era where things revved up. Not only was the American car industry entering into a golden age of production but this was also the birth of modern American consumerism which compelled many families to purchase new cars and that, in turn, created a robust used car market that helped working and middle class teenagers buy their first cars. As John DeWitt writes in his study of car culture of the ’50s, Cool Cars, High Art, “No longer were kids forced to drive old jalopies or the family sedan; they could pick and choose from a wide variety of fairly new used cars that were available for as little as a few hundred dollars. It was important…that these cars were their cars. They were free to do with them as they wished.”

Shogans car plaque
The plaque for The Shogans, another Gardena/Torrance area club. Photo by Oliver Wang.
Squires car plaque
The car plaque for the Squires, a Nikkei club out of Boyle Heights. Photo by Oliver Wang.

You can read the whole article here on Discover Nikkei. Dr. Wang wants to explore this subject further so be sure to reach out to him if you have stories of Nikkei car clubs to share or suggestions for his research.

Discover Nikkei articles explore everything from family stories to food, language to art, education to…cars. Take a look around—there’s something interesting for everyone.

Naomi Hirahara Bids Farewell to Mas Arai at JANM

Naomi Hirahara

Naomi Hirahara, the acclaimed author of the Mas Arai mysteries, is coming to the Japanese American National Museum on March 17. She will be discussing and reading from her most recent book, Hiroshima Boy, the last in a series of seven mystery novels featuring the Japanese gardener detective. The following is an excerpt of a new article by Kimiko Medlock about the book and Hirahara on JANM’s Discover Nikkei website.

In this final installment of Mas Arai’s adventures, the sleuth is getting older. His friend Haruo has died, and he travels to Japan to deliver Haruo’s ashes to his family on the small island of Ino near Hiroshima. Mas originally plans to hand his friend’s ashes over to his family, turn around and return immediately to the States—but as so often happens, his best-laid plans go awry when he discovers the body of a young boy floating in the island harbor, and returns to his room to find his friend’s ashes missing. Mas decides to stay on the island to solve the twin mysteries of the murder and the missing ashes.

Critics are praising Hiroshima Boy as “a wonderful finale to a fine mystery series,” and many also continue to ask whether Hirahara will change her mind and bring back the much-beloved Mas Arai down the road. But the author herself spoke with Discover Nikkei, and she is satisfied with the series’ close. Hiroshima Boy, the title a reference to both the murder victim in the story and to the protagonist himself, is a fitting end as it brings Mas back to his roots. “I knew that the last mystery needed to be in Hiroshima,” Hirahara said in our interview. Readers learn in Mas’s very first case, Summer of the Big Bachi, that Mas’s experience growing up in wartime Hiroshima and surviving the atomic bomb form a large part of his identity, so it is appropriate that his last escapade brings him full circle back to the source of those memories.

Hiroshima was a difficult place to set a mystery tale, however. The author herself is not intimately familiar with the prefecture, nor with how the comparatively less transparent police force operates in Japan. The setting thus presented a sizable challenge to Hirahara’s research and writing process. “I knew that the last mystery needed to be in Hiroshima,” she says, “but I was wary about writing a novel set in a place I have visited, but is not my home.”

To find out how Hirahara solved this challenge, read the full article here.

The author discussion with Naomi Hirahara on March 17 starts at 2 p.m. It is included with JANM admission but RSVPs are recommended.

Hiroshima Boy and other Mas Arai by Naomi Hirahara are available for purchase at janmstore.com.

 

Naomi Hirahara fans will want to check out Trouble on Temple Street: An Officer Ellie Rush Mystery, available exclusively on Discover Nikkei. LAPD bicycle cop Ellie Rush, first introduced in Murder on Bamboo Lane (Berkley), returns in this special serial. Chapters 1–7 are online now, with new chapters released on the 4th of each month through August.

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!

Artist Mari Inukai Celebrates Girls

Mari Inukai, Sena No Koe (Sena’s Voice), 2017, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.

On Saturday, March 3, artist Mari Inukai will lead a sold-out kokeshi doll workshop in celebration of Hinamatsuri (Girls’ Day), which takes place that day. It’s no surprise that spots in this workshop went quickly, as the popular artist—whose dreamy paintings and animations often depict and are inspired by the lives of young girls—may be the perfect person to lead a celebration of Girls’ Day.

Born in Nagoya, Japan, Inukai came to the United States in 1995 to study art. After attending Santa Monica Community College, she went on to obtain a BFA in character animation from California Institute of the Arts in 2004. Her short animated film, Blue and Orange (2003), has been an official selection at numerous film festivals, including the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, and was the Japan Grand Prize winner at the Short Shorts Film Festival EXPO 2005. In addition to her animation practice, Inukai regularly exhibits her paintings and drawings. She also designs clothes, toys, and other fun products. She now lives in Beverly Hills with her daughter Sena, who is often a subject of her artworks.

According to her website, Inukai’s paintings are “an expression of her desires, ambitions, and hopes for the future, starting from where she stands now. Like water flowing, seeking its path, [she] channels her direction naturally, finding her importance as she travels forward.” We caught up with Inukai via email to ask her a few questions.

JANM: What inspired you to create this workshop?

Mari Inukai: March 3 is a special day for girls in Japan. Americans may be familiar with Hinamatsuri, but in Japan, that day is also known as Momo No Sekku (桃の節句), the peach harvest festival. The day marks the changing of the seasons, and peach blossoms are said to ward off evil; they also stand for longevity. I thought we should celebrate!

Mari Inukai, Kingyo Hime, 2014, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.

JANM: Why was it important to you to encourage collaboration among participants?

MI: In the past, young Japanese girls would celebrate Hinamatsuri (ひな祭り) together by making dolls, eating sweets, and drinking sweet rice sake. I wanted to recreate that spirit in my workshop, so that we can all inspire and help each other and learn something new together and most of all, have fun!

JANM: What is your own relationship to Hinamatsuri? Was it something you regularly celebrated back in Japan?

MI: I have two sisters, so Hinamatsuri was pretty special when we were small. I remember our mom making chirashizushi (a colorful sushi dish), karaage (fried chicken), or tempura and salad. We would have a cute decorated cake with two dolls on top. There was a lot of laughter. No sake though!

JANM: Looking through your extensive body of work, I see that girls are frequently the subject.

MI: Yes. I paint my daughter Sena most, because she is the most inspiring thing in my life. I paint my friends and their children too. I am really fortunate to have great friends!

JANM: Do you think that Japanese traditions, like Hinamatsuri, have influenced your own artwork?

MI: Absolutely. Not just Hinamatsuri, but all Japanese traditions. In fact, I have curated a special MOMO/桃の節句 group show for Giant Robot that is also opening on March 3. I gathered several talented figurative artists whom I really admire and asked each of them to create their own “Momo No Sekku world.” I am doing a mural in collaboration with Audrey Kawasaki, and perhaps Amy Sol too. Amy has her own solo show opening on the same day at Thinkspace Gallery, so she will be in town. As for myself, I am making paintings with Gansai Japanese water color pigments, so they will look really different from my oil paintings. Please join us for the party!