Despite passing away in 1971 at just 47 years old, John Okada’s brief life carries a lasting impact on American literature to this day. Acclaimed as a pioneering Japanese American novelist, Okada’s only novel, No-No Boy, gives an unflinching look into the cruel treatment and aftermath that individuals of Japanese descent in America experienced following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and during World War II. The first of its kind, Okada’s book broke the veil of silence that fell over most of those incarcerated during the war; this master work of fiction pushed back the shadow cast over Japanese Americans during and after WWII.
in 1923, Okada was a student at the University of Washington when Japan bombed
Pearl Harbor in 1941. His studies were put on hold when he and his family were incarcerated
at the Minidoka concentration camp in 1942, along with thousands of other
American citizens. After completing a loyalty questionnaire, Okada was released
from camp to join the United States Air Force as a translator for intercepted
Boy, Ichiro, the protagonist, is also faced with a loyalty questionnaire. For
question 27, “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States
on combat duty, wherever ordered?,” and question 28, “Will you swear
unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend
the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and
forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any
other foreign government, power, or organization?,” Ichiro answers “no,” dooming
himself to two years in an American concentration camp and two more years in
The story follows Ichiro through his attempts to regain a somewhat normal life after his release. The reader meets other Japanese American characters who were impacted in various ways by the incarceration camps and vicious treatment endured during the war. Ichiro’s friend Freddie, coping with his unjust incarceration, turns to a life of partying. In contrast, a man Ichiro befriends named Kenji, who lost most of his leg while fighting in the war after passing the loyalty questionnaire, held no ill feelings towards the military, America, or those who chose not to serve. Others in the book express different feelings about the war and its outcome, including Ichiro’s own mother, who is in deep denial for most of the book. Things take a dramatic turn when she realizes that Japan lost the war and she can never return to her home country or be accepted in America. Despite these troubled characters, the story retains a message of hope with the idea that Ichiro does not have to succumb to his deep-rooted pain and instead can take life into his own hands and transcend the demons that haunt him.
John Okada created a window of understanding into a group of people that suffered due to the actions of others. His work lives on as a warning of what can come from blaming our own citizens for the actions of those we are in conflict with. that misplaced blame can harm generations and breed deep divisions in our country, damaging our social fabric from the inside out. The painfully truthful work that is No-No Boy lives on as both a beautifully written and tragic piece that gave a voice to a generation while also opening doors to similiar works.
On Saturday, February 2, join us for the Los Angeles launch of the book John Okada: The Life and Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy. Frank Abe, a journalist and producer of the PBS documentary Conscience and the Constitution, and Greg Robinson, professor of history at Université du Québec a Montréal, who edited John Okada (with Floyd Cheung) will be on hand to discuss the first full-length examination of Okada’s development as a writer. Moderating the discussion will be Brian Niiya, Content Director of Densho.org, an organization whose mission is to preserve the testimonies of Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated during World War II. Book signing to follow.
Another fulfilling year is about to come to a close. JANM presented many significant exhibitions and interesting events in 2018—here’s a look back at some of the highlights.
In January Contested Histories: Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collectionshowcased a collection of arts and crafts Japanese Americans made while incarcerated at American concentration camps during World War II, along with a large number of photographs taken in the camps. Saved from the auction block through the action of Japanese American community leaders throughout the country, the collection serves as a testament to the creative spirit enduring in even the darkest of times. A pop-up version of this is now touring the country. Viewers are asked to contribute any information they have about the objects and the people depicted in the photos.
The Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo exhibition, which opened in 2017 but continued into the first two months of 2018, highlighted the experiences of artists of Japanese ancestry born, raised, or living in either Latin America or predominantly Latin American neighborhoods of Southern California. The show examined the complexities surrounding identity and how the concepts of homeland and cosmopolitanism inform the creativity and aesthetics of this hybrid culture. Continuing on the topic of cultural identity, JANM opened hapa.me– 15 years of the hapa project in April. In this exhibition by artist Kip Fulbeck, photographs from his 2006 exhibition Kip Fulbeck: Part Asian, 100% Hapa were paired with new portraiture of the same individuals. The subjects of the photographs identify as hapa—of mixed Asian/Pacific Islander descent. The photographs were accompanied by each subject’s responses to the question, “What are you?”
In August, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of its signing, two original pages of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, on loan from the National Archives, were displayed along with the pen that President Ronald Reagan used to sign it. This Act formally apologized for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and paid monetary reparations to surviving victims of America’s concentration camps. This law came after many years of hard-fought battles and activism by the Japanese American community. Also marking the thirtieth anniversary of the signing, JANM re-imagined a section of its core exhibition Common Ground: The Heart of Community to include more information about the redress movement.
In the autumn, JANM opened Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey through the World of Japanese Toys and Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit; both are currently on display. Kaiju vs Heroes showcases the vintage and contemporary Japanese vinyl toy collection of Mark Nagata and demonstrates how something as seemingly insignificant as a child’s plaything can help inspire an exploration of one’s identity. Gambatte! features modern and historical photographs documenting the stories of Japanese Americans who were forcibly incarcerated during World War II. Large-format contemporary photos taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Paul Kitagaki Jr. are displayed next to images shot 75 years ago by such noted photographers as Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and others; each pairing features the same individuals, or their direct descendants, as the subject matter.
In addition to exhibitions, JANM hosted several public programs throughout 2018 that were a hit with the community. Highlights included artist Shinpei Takeda’s talk about his work in Transpacific Borderlands, a film screening of the original Godzilla movie, and, of course, the Natsumatsuri Family Festival. The summer festival featured fun for all ages, including crafts, music, tea ceremonies, and taiko drums. More recently, JAMN hosted a staged reading of Velina Hasu Houston’s play Little Women (A Multicultural Transposition). This re-imagination of Alcott’s classic novel presented the story of four Japanese American sisters living in post-war Los Angeles.
JANM members receive benefits at many of our events and exhibitions. These include invitations to exhibition openings and reduced-price tickets to events. Membership at the museum also includes invitations to Members’Only Learning at Lunch sessions at which JANM Collection Unit staff talk about recently acquired objects and other treasures we hold. Members also receive priority seating and access to express lines at family festivals. Think about becoming a member today!
Here’s to a great year. We hope to see you for JANM’s Oshogatsu Family Festival on January 6, 2019, as we celebrate the New Year and the Year of Boar with crafts, food, cultural activities, and performances! The NewYear, or Oshogatsu, is one of Japan’s most popular and important holidays. During this celebration, people in Japan spend time with friends and relatives and enjoy special holiday dishes. We will be offering lucky zaru soba (cold buckwheat noodles) and osechiryori (traditional new year foods), while supplies last. We’ll also present two taiko-infused mochitsuki, the beloved new year tradition of pounding of rice to make mochi. That’s just a small sampling of what’s in store for the day. You can find the complete schedule here.
On display only until September 23, time is running out to see two original pages of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed by President Ronald Reagan! Currently on view as part of our Common Ground: The Heart of Community exhibition, these pages will soon return to the National Archives in Washington DC.
This past August marked the 30th anniversary of the Act. JANM commemorated this anniversary by reimagining the final gallery of Common Ground to place an even stronger emphasis on the redress movement, its influences, and its accomplishments. With the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the US government formally apologized for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and paid monetary reparations to surviving victims of America’s concentration camps. This law came about after many years of activism by the Japanese American community.
Seeing a historic document like this in person moves us in a way that even the best-written article or book cannot. The document is a direct connection to the past and seeing it, one can almost feel the emotions, values, and hard work that culminated in the passing of this legislation. Moreover, the Act reminds us that we must remain vigilant in pushing back against a social and political atmosphere that seeks to marginalize people.
Seeing the document and learning about how this legislation was achieved pushes us to recognize that elements of today’s political landscape harken back to the dangerous and racist thinking of the 1940s that allowed for the creation of America’s concentration camps. If allowed to continue unanswered, then over time, the hard-fought battles of 30 years ago erode, and our democracy may be diminished.
If you are in Los Angeles, we hope you’ll find time to visit us while the original pages are still here. For information about all of our current exhibitions, please visit janm.org
August marks the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. With its passage, the US government formally apologized for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Furthermore, with this formal apology, the law called for monetary reparations to surviving victims of America’s concentration camps. This law came after many, many years of hard-fought battles and activism by the Japanese American community.
To recognize this anniversary, we reimagined the final gallery of our Common Ground: The Heart of Community exhibition to place an even stronger emphasis on the redress movement, its influences, and its accomplishments. Opening to the public on August 4, among the artifacts newly on display is the pen that President Ronald Reagan used to sign the Act, on loan for a year from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Also debuting in the gallery are two original pages of the Act. These include the page bearing President Reagan’s signature, as well as those of Congressmen Spark Matsunaga and, Norman Mineta, who is now Chair of JANM’s Board of Trustees. These pages are on loan to us from the National Archives and Records Administration for only a limited time, through September 23.
The anniversary seems a fitting time to share this excerpt from President Reagan’s speech given at the time of signing the bill into law.
The Members of Congress and distinguished guests, my fellow Americans, we gather here today to right a grave wrong. More than 40 years ago, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in makeshift internment camps. This action was taken without trial, without jury. It was based solely on race, for these 120,000 were Americans of Japanese descent.
Yes, the nation was then at war, struggling for its survival, and it’s not for us today to pass judgment upon those who may have made mistakes while engaged in that great struggle. Yet we must recognize that the internment of Japanese-Americans was just that: a mistake. For throughout the war, Japanese-Americans in the tens of thousands remained utterly loyal to the United States. Indeed, scores of Japanese-Americans volunteered for our Armed Forces, many stepping forward in the internment camps themselves. The 442d Regimental Combat Team, made up entirely of Japanese-Americans, served with immense distinction to defend this nation, their nation. Yet back at home, the soldiers’ families were being denied the very freedom for which so many of the soldiers themselves were laying down their lives.
Congressman Norman Mineta, with us today, was 10 years old when his family was interned. In the Congressman’s words: “My own family was sent first to Santa Anita Racetrack. We showered in the horse paddocks. Some families lived in converted stables, others in hastily thrown together barracks. We were then moved to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where our entire family lived in one small room of a rude tar paper barrack.” Like so many tens of thousands of others, the members of the Mineta family lived in those conditions not for a matter of weeks or months but for three long years.
The legislation that I am about to sign provides for a restitution payment to each of the 60,000 surviving Japanese-Americans of the 120,000 who were relocated or detained. Yet no payment can make up for those lost years. So, what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.
You can read a full transcript of Reagan’s speech here. Also, here’s a video of the President’s speech and the signing ceremony at which Norman Mineta (and others), were present:
The recent election has brought many social and political issues to the forefront of American consciousness. Stoked by sensationalistic news coverage, debates and statements have often been heated and not always productive. To counteract this phenomenon, we at the Japanese American National Museum thought we would try a different tactic. Thus, to begin this new year, we invite you to join us in connecting with other museum visitors in a search for “common ground.”
Beginning on January 12, JANM will present a four-week series of public conversations taking place in the galleries of our core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community. Elements of the exhibition, which chronicles 130 years of Japanese American history through hundreds of objects, documents, and photographs, will serve as jumping-off points to start each week’s conversation. Sessions will take place on consecutive Thursday evenings from 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., and each one will focus on a different topic. Staff members from the museum’s education department will lead and facilitate the discussions.
Following are the topics for each conversation:
January 12: Compassion
January 19: Transparency
January 26: Speaking out
February 2: Solidarity
Our hope is that Common Ground Conversations will generate meaningful dialogue centered on each week’s topic, using Japanese American history to delve into contemporary issues and current concerns. No tickets or RSVPs are required. Common Ground Conversations coincide with JANM’s free admission on Thursdays starting at 5 p.m.
Every week, hundreds of visitors view JANM’s core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community. While the story resonates strongly with Japanese American visitors, who can see their own family histories in it, the importance of community is something that can be felt and understood by visitors from all different backgrounds. The exhibition begins with an introductory panel, which sets the stage for a story of immigrants:
Community is not just where you live.
Community is also about who you are.
Immigration is central not only to the Japanese American experience, but that of all Americans:
We are on common ground with all Americans,
with all people.
The exhibition traces Japanese American history through the struggles of immigrant mothers and fathers, the trauma of World War II and the concentration camps, and the ongoing quest to find a place in this country. Through it all, the importance and fluidity of the concept of community is explored; it is both an ideal to aspire to, and a source of comfort during trying times. Common Ground closes with a look to the future:
in the stories we tell each other,
in the stories we tell others.
As we reinvent America,
from monolithic to multicultural,
to include all of us
in all our magnificent diversity,
we forever re-vision the American experience.
Visitors of all ages, ethnicities, and cultures are invited to explore their own history and appreciate the differences among us while also remembering our similarities. By doing so, we reflect on and create what it really means to be American.
Just announced! JANM presents Common Ground Conversations, a four-week series of themed public conversations inspired by Common Ground: The Heart of Community. Read our press release for complete information.
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.
Price: $10/person (for each scouts, for each adult, for each sibling)
RSVP: email@example.com. In your rsvp, please be sure to include (a) the name of each scout; (b) the age of each scout; (c) the name of each sibling; (d) the name of each adult. Space is limited and advance registration is required.
This is a great chance for Scouts to see the Folding Paper exhibition before it closes on August 26.
Photos by Richard Watanabe and Richard M. Murakami
Visitors to the museum often remark that what made their experience so special was getting to hear and talk to our volunteer docents. They share stories with our visitors that bring the artifacts in our Common Ground: The Heart of Community to life.
An ongoing project at the museum has been for our staff & interns in the Watase Media Arts Center, curatorial, and education units to work with some of our volunteers to develop 30 second (approximately) short videos talking about their favorite artifacts from Common Ground. The project is part of an ongoing effort to examine and re-envision the role the Museum and our volunteers will play in the 21st Century.
This is a wonderful project to record and share the stories especially of some of our older long-time Nisei volunteers while they’re still active at the museum.
We’re now up to 25 volunteer videos online. The most common artifact selected is the Heart Mountain barracks which makes an appearance in 3 videos. Although most are World War II-related, several are about pre-war Issei and Nisei life. While many are very poignant, some are humorous, like Marion Wada’s selection of a Hershey’s chocolate tin which recalls fond memories of childhood prior to WWII.
For those connected with the museum or have gone on tours here, you’ll recognize a lot of very familiar and dear faces. I’ve included a few of the more recent videos here, but you can view all of the videos from our Discover Nikkei website or on YouTube. Which ones are your favorites?
We’d like to thank the participating volunteers for sharing their personal stories: Ike Hatchimonji, Charlene Takahashi, Icy Hasama, Marion Wada, Mary Karatsu, Hitoshi Sameshima, Bill Shishima, Nancee Iketani, Ben Tonooka, Pat Ishida, Bob Uragami, Babe Karasawa, Yae Aihara, Richard Murakami, Yoko Horimoto, Jim Tanaka, Tohru Isobe, Mas Yamashita, Robert Moriguchi, Kathryn Madara, Kent Hori, May Porter, Eileen Sakamoto, Lee Hayashi, and Roy Sakamoto.
Funding for the Nisei Oral History project was provided by grants from the National Park Service and the California State Library through the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program.
Support for volunteer programming was generously provided, in part, by Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., The William Randolph Hearst Foundation, and The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation. The internships were provided through the Summer 2010 Getty Grants Program for Multicultural Undergraduate Internships to Los Angeles Area Museums & Visual Arts Organizations.