An older Japanese American gentleman stands in front of a museum display case. Behind him is an enlarged photograph of a group of Japanese picture brides (a sort of predecessor to the mail order bride) newly arrived in the United States, looking a little lost and apprehensive. Mr. Hayashi, a volunteer at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), is explaining how he uses the photograph as a didactic tool during school tours, but he is also talking about its personal significance—his own grandmother was a picture bride.
The brides share a display case with several other objects. One of these, a document in the lower corner of the frame, reads: Keep California White. Mr. Hayashi is commenting that despite his grandmother’s ambiguous fate as the bride in an arranged marriage, the partnership was considered successful and resulted in 36 grandchildren and great grandchildren. Mr. Hayashi is, in fact, a testament to his family’s success in the face of a myriad of trials that women like the ones in the picture must have faced so many years ago. He is Nikkei, a descendent of Japanese migrants, and there are 2.6 to 3 million others with stories like his across the globe.
A global storytelling community
Allowing people to discover stories like the one Mr. Hayashi tells in the video described above is what the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles hopes to achieve through its Discover Nikkei website, an interactive multimedia website launched in 2005. Discover Nikkei was conceived as a community-building tool on a grand scale that allows users to keep up with activities at the museum, and also permits access to a part of JANM’s collections, through the Nikkei Album feature.
Through the website, Nikkei all over the world are able to communicate, connect, and share, with a particular emphasis on the U.S., Canada, Central and South America, where a large number of Japanese emigrants have settled. Altogether, Discover Nikkei presents three main areas that allow Nikkei and people interested in the Japanese diaspora to build a global network together: Stories, Community, and Resources. This wealth of primary-source material available through the Discover Nikkei website in the form of archival home videos, articles, and video profiles combine to mount a concerted effort to privilege the community’s voice over a classic museum discourse.
In the “Stories” section of Discover Nikkei, the Nikkei Album feature allows users to create collections of images and/or film, much like Flickr or Pintrest type websites. To get an idea of the diversity of voices accessible through the albums, some albums include a Japanese farming and arts community in Brazil, Baptist churches in Japan, and an origami crane-making lesson in Peru. Of the three, the last album is written in Spanish, one of the four languages in which Discover Nikkei is available; the others being English, Japanese, and Portuguese.
The museum as participant is a major premise for the Discover Nikkei website, and manifests itself both in the “low profile” JANM presents on the website, as well as in the importance it places on community members’ involvement and collaboration. Aside from website users, the website gets a large part of its content through international correspondents who range from cultural institutions to individuals who contribute articles in the Journal section of the “Stories” page and post events on the main page. A subtle museum presence displaces focus from the “experts” to the community and allows the website to take on a real, marketplace-type feeling, where stories are related, not dictated by an institution.
Nikkei History in the First Person
The JANM account in the “Nikkei Album” section also gives self-service access to a portion of the museum’s permanent collection, made up of over 80,000 artifacts, objects, photographs, and artworks. The available documents are from the Watase Media Arts Center and include an important collection of home movie footage—more than 330 film clips totaling over six hours—filmed between the 1920s and 1960s, and digitally transferred for online access. Each film clip is described and annotated on the janm.org website in the Collections, Home Movies section.
The home movies touch on a wide variety of subjects and themes in the lives of American Nikkei, including work, play, home, and family life. Some extraordinary footage is also consultable, dating from the period of internment of Japanese Americans at several camps across the country from 1942 until the end of World War II, including that of Heart Mountain in Wyoming. The clips depict daily life at the camps from the point of view of the internees themselves, and are a grim reminder of the extent to which certain communities have had to grapple with a “Keep California White” mentality.
Although the Nikkei experience translates well through images, text is also an important component of the Discover Nikkei website. Through the “Stories” “Journal” rubric, we meet Norm Masaji Ibuki, a Canadian Nikkei struggling to come to terms with his government’s non-action in the face of recent devastating events in Tohoku, Japan, where he once lived. Since the earthquake hit on March 11th, 2011 Norm has been keeping tabs via email and telephone on an old friend, Tomo and his family, stranded not far from the earthquake epicenter. “The Great Tohoku Disaster” series allows readers to listen in on a conversation that is as fascinating as it is terrible, as we progress from not knowing the family’s whereabouts, to learning that they are in Tokyo trying to find a way back to Canada, leaving house, belongings, and friends behind.
The over 100 available videos feature a diverse array of Nikkei living in Japan and abroad, sharing their life experiences and what they have learned from them. Each video is meticulously transcribed, then translated into all four languages available on the website. The library of stories we are privy to through the Interview section provide audiences with first person accounts of the Nikkei experience, much like the images in the home movies from the collection also available through the site.
Tools for empowerment
Issei, Nisei, Sansei… These terms and many others are peppered throughout the Discover Nikkei website. They are words used to denote how far removed a person is from their Japanese heritage by generation, and they provide a kind of reference for those who are initiated to the lingo. At the time this article was first published, the “Nima of the month,” or featured Discover Nikkei member, is a Sansei, a third generation Japanese, born in the U.S. His wife is Yonsei, fourth generation Japanese American. The user clearly expresses himself well in English, but does he speak Japanese? Does he even feel it is necessary to speak the language in order to feel a connection to his Japanese heritage? These are the types of identity issues explored in a number of the user-written articles accessible in the “Nima-kai” rubric of the “Community” section. Here users can also post photographs and events, in a way that is similar to Facebook. A “Taiko Groups” rubric has recently been added to the Discover Nikkei website.
A critical step in the preservation of cultural heritage is the acquisition of necessary knowledge and skills. The “Resources” section of Discover Nikkei attempts to provide users with just enough guidance to encourage participation. This how-to section has detailed instructions for beginning a genealogical research project, including tips on conducting interviews, conservation basics, and even a bit of information on starting a personal collection of artifacts. These could potentially be the tools to inspire a user to create a Nikkei Album with a few of their own home movies, start a blog about Nikkei communities in countries other than the ones already featured, or maybe even dust off those old family kimonos in the attic. Discover Nikkei users participate in a variety of ways, defining and affirming the term Nikkei in an active way with the help of the website interface.
Apart from inspiring users to affirm their cultural identity, Discover Nikkei is also a remarkable example for museums that may be looking to relate to their audiences in a different, more egalitarian way. JANM’s idea was one that started small and gained momentum as the project advanced stage by stage, allowing for more complexity only after a solid framework had been put into place. JANM staff observed that one of the most important elements of website development was ease of content management. For JANM this meant that in order for content to remain relevant as the website progressed, room had to be made for constant revisions by regular staff members, as opposed to specialized IT staff. Avoiding proprietary software to cut down on costs and compatibility issues has also been a key development issue.
Through the Discover Nikkei website, JANM provides access to a rich collection of documents and artifacts that encourage Nikkei to take pride in their cultural patrimony, and to place a high value in sharing and communicating with others at a local and global level. By focusing on primary source materials and community-generated content, the museum places an emphasis on providing a forum for discussion and discovery rather than contributing expertise via a classic museum discourse. This approach, visible through the Discover Nikkei website, allows for a transfer of authority to take place, positioning in the foreground a community that has much to offer in the way of cultural tradition and values.
With special thanks to John Esaki, Director of the Frank Watase Media Arts Center, Japanese American National Museum, whose advice and comments during this collaboration were essential.
A Los Angeles native, Cynthia G. Valdez is currently working to complete a Master’s in Art History at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Cynthia has written about art for various publications in France and abroad, including ArtSlant, The Paris Times, The Mag L.A., and Whitehot Magazine for Contemporary Art. When not accumulating stamps in her passport, she enjoys knitting, experimental music and answering emails at yomemoi(at)gmail.com. She microblogs here and here.
I am happy to announce that we have completed the Local History Digital Resources Project (LHDRP) to digitize the Afton Dill Nance Papers and the images are now online!
In 2011, the National Museum was awarded the LHDRP grant to digitize this special collection of letters. Nance, who was a teacher in Palos Verdes during the outbreak of WWII, saved letters from her students, parents, and individuals who shared their thoughts of leaving Palos Verdes, their incarceration and their adjustment of life after camp.
Please check the Online Archives of California (OAC) and Calisphere websites to view this collection:
I was going through JANM’s on-line collections and came across this image of baseball in camp. Look closely and you can see the iconic Heart Mountain looming in the background, behind the barracks. And in the foreground, did you notice the hats worn by the spectators? With this photo, I can just about hear, smell, and feel summer…
You can browse through the Mori Shimada Collection to see other pictures of life in Heart Mountain. And, in case you haven’t heard, if you want a chance to “feel” summer, there will be a multi-generational pilgrimage to Heart Mountain this August 10-11. Check Heart Mountain’s Web site for details!
I have been told that while perusing through a gallery space, the average person spends about 5 seconds in front of a work of art before moving on to another piece. I, myself, am guilty of this, as I have found myself racing through exhibits, which would take hours upon hours to properly absorb and appreciate. Although I have had the pleasure of being immersed in art from a variety of galleries and cultures, from the many we have here in Southern California to those on the East Coast and have seen a generous share works from renowned masters to local Michiganian artists, there unfortunately does not exist an encyclopedia of “Art Seen by Alexa” chronicling the art that I have seen in my lifetime. I’m one of the last people on this earth to have a photographic memory, so that’s understandable right? Pass by someone’s masterpiece and appreciate it for the time being, but soon it floats off into the deep dark abyss that are our forgotten memories. It happens. But I was recently taught the copious amounts of hard work that goes into us viewers being treated with eye-candy, museum style. And trust me, it deserves way more than the five-second glance us Plain Jane’s and Average Joe’s give it.
For the past few weeks, I have been given a taste into what it takes to bring an exhibition into fruition as we prepared for the opening of the museum’s new exhibit, Year of the Rabbit: Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo. I am not a nerd when it comes to the world of comic books, but educating myself in the world of Usagi Yojimbo was as easy as picking up a comic book, literally. Definitely something I wish I could have said for chemistry and calculus in high school. Portions of my past weeks have consisted of spending one-on-one time with Stan Sakai’s artwork as my fellow intern, Yuiko and I, transformed Stan’s works from being brilliant works on paper to being works on paper that are now matted, framed, and hanging in the galleries. Hours were spent in the Collections department as we measured, cut mats, drilled holes, and were reminded that our math skills were a little rusty from when we had last used them in high school.
Despite the refresher we needed on adding and subtracting, we successfully hauled plexi and frames around Collections and used power tools, which ultimately amounted into the works of Stan Sakai ready for your viewing pleasure. This was an invaluable opportunity to see original works up-close and personal as opposed to behind glass and a velvet rope. I am always a fan of not only final works, but the progress and process behind them and it was awesome to see the artist’s original pencil sketches underneath his final products in ink. At the end of our few weeks, everyone’s hard work was revealed and the museum’s new exhibition looks amazing! So if you’re ever in the mood to delve deeper into the world of Usagi Yojimbo or witness the culmination of the blood, sweat, and tears that went into the finalization of this exhibit, come check out Year of the Rabbit!!!
For many years my summers have consisted of friends, sunshine, and sleeping in, which some would like to call, lazing around and being the opposite of productive. However, this summer, I have been back in my home-state of California for about three weeks now and have spent two of those weeks at work, behind-the-scenes of the Japanese American National Museum as this summer’s curatorial intern, one of the three Getty interns this summer.
I am Alexa Kim, a soon-to-be second year at Kalamazoo College, in the little known city of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Last year, I, a lifelong California girl, decided that I would be spending the next four years of my life, across the country, in the wild wild Midwest, a place where the winters are cold and the authentic Mexican food is scarce, a place I’ve learned to call home. I’m set on the path of becoming a full-blown art nerd, a.k.a. an art history major, since I discovered years ago that I would not make my living as an artist since the “art” I created, or attempted to create, resulted in works faintly resembling Picasso, when I had been aiming for more of a Caravaggio-esque look. If you don’t know who on earth I’m referring to, like I said, art nerd in training.
Bright and early every morning I hop on the train to commute to Little Tokyo, where I am greeted with the hustle and bustle of everyone grabbing their pre-work coffee fix at Starbucks, me included, and then proceed to head to my desk at the National Museum. I have been met with various projects here, but the majority of my time here will be spent in the Collections department. A room where one must always remember to bring a sweater because even though it may be a sweltering 90° outside, it is always a brisk 67° in Collections. Down there, safety first means putting artifact preservation above one’s preferential temperature level. Despite the chill, Collections is a candy store for little art historian children. As I have been becoming more and more acquainted with Japanese American history, every artifact I come across has an amazing story behind it just waiting and wanting to be told. Stories that will eventually be told, as we continue to work on the hefty task of creating a new exhibit, which will shed a new light onto the WWII story. What I will be doing at the museum this summer, is simply a small piece to an eventually big puzzle.
This marks the end of my second week working at the museum and I cannot wait to see all the cavities I will have by the end of my ten week trip to the candy store and the great tan I’ll have from spending all my time under artificial lighting. But seriously speaking, the lack of a tan I will have by the end of these ten weeks will so be worth it.
Have you ever wondered what happens to the artifacts you see hanging on walls or sitting in cases in a museum after an exhibition is over?
Here’s a little peek at our collections and production units’ staff at work deinstalling Momo Nagano’s “American Families” tapestry in the Taul & Sachiko Watanabe Gallery after the closing of the exhibition, American Tapestry: 25 Stories from the Collection.
The tapestry is back on its shelf in our climate controlled collections storage. You can see the hygrothermograph on the shelf above to monitor temperature and humidity.
So, that was just one object out of 25 stories presented in the exhibition. Others had special mounts, supports or cases with accompanying text panels. In Norman Mineta’s archival collection alone there were 31 boxes displayed on shelves enclosed within 3 cases. After all the objects are removed, or in the case of the “American Families” tapestry as objects are deinstalled, Collections staff write a condition report on the artifact which is updated in our collections management database. The artifact is rehoused and returned to storage or, if it is a loan, to loaning institution or individual, which is a whole other ball of wax.
Jero (Jerome Charles White Jr.)
Jero is a Hapa (Japanese/African-American) from Pittsburg, PA. His close relationship with his grandmother inspired his dream of becoming an enka singer in Japan, highlighted by his appearance on the Kohaku Uta Gassen in 2008
This weekend is your absolute last chance to see it before it closes this Sunday!
American Tapestry features artifacts, artwork, photographs, oral histories, and more from the Museum’s collection—some that have never been seen before by the public.
From the time we opened the exhibition way back in November, two of my personal favorites artifacts have been the radio and bicycle because they share stories of friendship, hope, and doing what’s right during the dark days of World War II and beyond.
In December, over the holidays, I was talking with family about the exhibition, and learned about a very similar story about an elephant. I wrote about it for our Discover Nikkei site. That’s one of the things that I really love about JANM—how I’m often able to find personal connections to the artifacts and stories we share.
Another favorite is the Japanese-style tub that was donated by the Esaki family of Monterey, CA. John Esaki works at the museum now, but the tub was donated very early in the museum’s history. John recorded a video of his dad explaining the history of the tub, which he added to the JANM YouTube channel last year as a resource for the exhibition.
The ofuro also played a special part in the Museum’s history! Back in April 1992, the museum was scheduled to have its Dedication Ceremony. Unfortunately, it ended up being the day after the Rodney King verdicts were released and civil disturbances erupted across the city, and so the opening ceremonies were postponed.
As a new opening event was being planned, staff invited Greg Alan Williams to come speak. At the time of the riots, the former Baywatch actor had saved a Japanese American man’s life. During his visit, he saw this ofuro and it reminded him of his own family’s tub. At the ribbon cutting ceremony, he spoke about how through this artifact, he was able to find his own personal connection:
On Wednesday last, I personally experienced the wonderful power within these walls. After completing my tour, I sat on a small stool around an old Japanese redwood hot tub in the Museum’s Legacy Center. I marveled at the way three Americans, two of Japanese descent, one a great-grandchild of Africa, were sitting around the tub, laughing, openly sharing their thoughts, their pain, and their hopes for a shared and much beloved community. I believe the honesty and openness of that dialogue was possible in part because this cultural work of art [the Museum] had illuminated our similarities, as it celebrated our differences. And in so doing, had opened a channel of communication between three human beings, which might not have otherwise existed. Such is the magic of this historical masterpiece.
American Tapestry has 25 artifacts, each with its own stories to tell. Most seem like everyday items, but I think that’s what makes this exhibition so special. It reminds us that our own lives are rich with stories that connect us with the world, if only we can stop for a moment to listen.
If you can, come check it out before it closes. If you have a smartphone or other internet-accessible device, bring it with you! We have free wi-fi available in the American Tapestry galleries so you can access additional related photos and videos on Facebook and YouTube.
For those who have made it out, I’d love to hear what your favorites were!
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Communications Production Manager