What Does the Japanese American Experience Tell Us About the Proposed Muslim Registry?

L to R: Hiroshi Motomura, Ali Noorani, Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, and Ann Burroughs.

On January 18, JANM was pleased to partner with Zócalo Public Square and UCLA to present a panel discussion addressing the question, What Does the Japanese American Experience Tell Us About the Proposed Muslim Registry? JANM’s own Interim President and CEO, Ann Burroughs, moderated an extensive talk that featured Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, UCLA’s George and Sakaye Aratani Chair in Japanese American Incarceration, Redress, and Community; Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum; and Hiroshi Motomura, UCLA’s Susan Westerberg Prager Professor of Law and author of the award-winning books Immigration Outside the Law (2014) and Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States (2006).

The panel discussion, organized as part of the museum’s Tateuchi Public Program series, addressed a topic that has been important to JANM’s work since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Quickly recognizing a dangerously hysterical political climate that threatened the civil rights of innocent Muslim Americans—eerily similar to the climate that led to the imprisonment of 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans during World War II—JANM’s leadership reached out to Muslim Americans in the months following 9/11, building strong coalitions with community representatives, sharing resources, offering counsel, and helping them to establish the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Recent public statements by President-elect Donald Trump and several of his supporters have again raised the idea of a registry tracking all Americans with ties to the Muslim religion. Disturbingly, some of them have even cited the Japanese American incarceration as a “precedent” for such an action. Statements like this reveal a gross ignorance of history; as part of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the US government formally apologized for the incarceration, admitting that it was “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership,” and awarded monetary compensation to each incarcerated family.

Last night’s discussion confronted the question of a Muslim registry head on, examining it in light of the historical perspective afforded by the Japanese American experience. Burroughs opened the discussion by noting that the idea of a Muslim registry is commonly framed as a tactic designed to keep citizens safe; she asked the panelists if such registries do, in fact, keep people safe. The answer was a resounding no. Hirabayashi noted that numerous registries were kept of Japanese Americans, but none of them turned up evidence of espionage or other wrongdoing. Motomura pointed out that the Bush administration created the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) in 2002, which turned out to be, in his estimation, an ineffectual “immigration sweep.” Noorani added that although President Obama rescinded the registry in December, it could easily be reinstated by the Trump administration.

The rest of the discussion weighed various aspects of current and past public policy, and lessons that can be extracted from history. As with all Zócalo Public Square programs, the event was recorded in its entirety and will be available for viewing on their website soon. In the meantime, as noted by Zócalo writer Reed Johnson, a key takeaway from the discussion was to be prepared for the very real possibility of a “trigger moment” occurring—like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which led to the US’s entry into World War II—that will likely set existing security apparatuses into motion and activate questionable public policy.

Although the discussion was at times foreboding, Motomura tried to strike a positive balance by recognizing that much progress has been made in the last 75 years; ideas that were considered “exotic” back then, such as LGBTQ rights, are commonplace now.

Decoden takes “Bedazzling” to Another Level

At our last decoden workshop in January 2016, participants got to work on Giant Robot figurines. Photo by MariAnne Nguyen.
At our last decoden workshop in January 2016, participants got to
work on Giant Robot figurines. Photo by MariAnne Nguyen.


This Saturday, October 22, JANM is offering a Decoden Phone Case Workshop, led by lifestyle personalities Chrissa Sparkles and Jon Brence. Participants will bring their own plain plastic phone cases and make them over with the decoden materials provided. Many of you are old hands at this, but others may be wondering, what is decoden? And where does it come from?

The word decoden is a Japanese portmanteau combining deco, which stands for decoration, and den, which is shorthand for denwa, the Japanese term for “phone” (literally “electric talk”). Decoden culture began to develop almost as soon as cellular phones came into popular usage, around the turn of the century. If you are familiar with the American craft of “bedazzling,” then you can understand decoden, which is basically the same thing—dressing up ordinary objects with sparkly accessories.

The cake frosting effect can be achieved with acrylic paint. Photo by Courtney via Flickr Creative Commons.
The cake frosting effect can be achieved with acrylic paint.
Photo by Courtney via Flickr Creative Commons.


At first, decoden was applied specifically to cell phones and cell phone cases. As its popularity grew, however, decoden spread to encompass portable gaming systems, digital cameras, tablets, flash drives, picture frames, and even fingernails. Today, it’s an essential component of Japan’s kawaii (cute) culture.

Some of the results of the Giant Robot decoden workshop. Photo by MariAnne Nguyen.
Some of the results of the Giant Robot decoden workshop.
Photo by MariAnne Nguyen.


The decoden aesthetic is cute, playful, and above all, excessive. A huge amount of colorful, decorative trinkets are affixed to the surface of the phone or other ordinary object, turning it into a bright, eye-catching work of art that expresses the personality of its owner. Popular components include thick, fake cake icing; tiny clay figurines of everything from ice cream cones and lollipops to buttons, candies, and Sanrio characters; and plastic pre-manufactured charms, referred to in the decoden world as “cabochons.”

There is no end to the things you can decoden! Photo by Cuteness is a lifestyle via Flickr Creative Commons.
There is no end to the things you can decoden! Photo by Cuteness is a lifestyle via Flickr Creative Commons.

Making the perfect decoden object can be time-consuming, and perhaps not as easy as it looks; it requires patience to come up with good designs, a large number of individual pieces have to be glued on, and there are a variety of methods and materials to choose from. Come to our Decoden Phone Case Workshop this weekend, where our expert kawaii workshop leaders will take you back to the origins of the craft and make sure you get it just right!

Marié Digby’s Colorful Pop Music Helps Launch JANM’s New Summer Night Concerts

Irish-Japanese American singer-songwriter Marié Digby is just one of the artists featured in JANM’s new Summer Night Concerts series, launching on July 30. Digby is a Los Angeles native who vaulted to fame after her acoustic cover version of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” went viral on YouTube. We conducted this email interview to learn more about her music and her perspective as an Asian American musician.

Marié Digby
Marié Digby
JANM: How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it?

Marié Digby: I would say it’s like an apple! The skin is vibrant and colorful, the meat of the fruit is storytelling and emotions, and at the core is pop music.

JANM: Who or what are your biggest influences?

MD: I’m a kid of the nineties so most of my biggest influences are bands and artists from that era. I grew up on Björk, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Poe. So many amazing artists!

JANM: What inspired you to do your own acoustic version of “Umbrella”?

MD: I had just started uploading cover videos on YouTube. I was always on the lookout for new songs on the radio—preferably, heavily produced songs that I felt still had an amazing core structure, which I could then break down to just vocal and guitar/piano. When I heard “Umbrella” in my car for the first time, I knew it would probably sound great stripped down.

JANM: There’s a wonderful quote in your bio: “I love watching people, and songs come out of that. When I have an experience that moves me, I can’t sit still until I’ve written the song.” Can you give us an example of an experience that moved you to write a song?

MD: What’s funny is, when I have a really positive/happy experience, I rarely feel like the first thing I want to do is sit down with my guitar and write a song! It always seems to be the more tragic, heartbreaking, soul-shaking events. As an example, I once wrote a song about all of the different people I’ve seen and met who pass through Los Angeles, in the hopes of becoming a star. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking to see the transformations I often witness. This city from afar is full of hopes and dreams but when you’re actually in it, it can really eat you up alive.

JANM: Do you identify as an Asian American artist? Or, put another way, do you feel that your identity as an Asian American influences your artistic practice, and if so, how?

MD: I absolutely do! When I first started out, I never considered the fact that my ethnicity might play an important role in my being an artist. When I started posting videos, I noticed that the majority of the comments were coming from Asians, in all different parts of the world! I love being half Asian. I am so proud to represent not only my Japanese culture, but a quickly growing group of hapa kids in America.

JANM: Besides JANM’s Summer Night Concert, do you have any exciting plans or upcoming gigs you’d like to tell our readers about?

MD: The most exciting project on my calendar right now is a new album I’m creating with Tom Rothrock, who produced my first album, Unfold. We’ll be working on it later this fall. It will be my first full-length independent release, after making four other albums with the help of record labels. But I believe with the help of my amazing fans, it just might be my best album yet!

Marié Digby will perform as part of JANM’s first Summer Night Concert on July 30, along with Priska and headlining act Magnetic North and Taiyo Na. Kogi BBQ, Arroy Food Truck, and Frach’s Fried Ice Cream will be on site, along with a beer garden sponsored by JANM’s Young Professionals Network. Join us again on August 27 for an evening with Paul Dateh, Mike Gao, and Go Yama. All concerts are FREE.

Chester Hashizume Helps Japanese Americans Explore Their Roots

Chester Hashizume. Photo: Carol Cheh.
Chester Hashizume, longtime JANM volunteer and consultant


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.

Examples and explanation of kamon (Japanese family crests)
Examples and explanation of kamon (Japanese family crests)


“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.

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE TOKYO: New Film Series at JANM Spotlights Asian American Film


JANM’s Vice President of Programs, Koji Sakai, announces the launch of an exciting new Asian American film series at the museum.

During the last quarter of 2014, JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum was the site of two sold-out screenings and panel discussions celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the iconic film The Karate Kid and the tenth anniversary of Alice Wu’s romantic comedy, Saving Face. In December, it also hosted a well-attended screening of Tadashi Nakamura’s feature-length documentary, Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings, followed by an intimate talk and a live ukulele performance by Shimabukuro.

Now, in an effort to continue screening Asian American films, I am proud to announce a new bi-monthly film series called Big Trouble in Little Tokyo. To organize this series, JANM is partnering with Visual Communications, one of the premier Asian American media organizations; Angry Asian Man, one of the first and most influential Asian American blogs; and First Pond Entertainment, a consultation and distribution service for independent films that focuses on socially-driven documentaries and narratives that feature underrepresented communities in front of and behind the camera.

Starting next week, we will screen a film on the second Wednesday of every other month under the Big Trouble in Little Tokyo banner. The series will feature big Hollywood productions as well as small independent films, from the distant past and the more recent present, and will often include post-screening discussions with actors, directors, and others involved in the making of the movie. It will celebrate some important anniversaries, and most importantly, it will provide a venue for more Asian American films to be seen and appreciated.

TheJoyLuckClub Our first screening, taking place on Wednesday evening, February 11, will be The Joy Luck Club (1993), the film adaptation of Amy Tan’s bestselling novel, directed by Wayne Wang. Wang and stars Rosalind Chao and Tamlyn Tomita will be in attendance for a Q&A following the screening. On April 8, we will screen Big Trouble in Little China (1986), the cult film directed by John Carpenter that inspired the title of this film series. Post-screening panelists will include actors George Cheung and Gerald Okamura.

On May 13, we will have a very special screening in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West (1916–17), a silent black-and-white film directed by Marion Wong. The Curse of Quon Gwon is the earliest known film directed by an Asian American, and one of the earliest directed by a woman. The evening will include a talk with filmmaker Arthur Dong, who preserved two reels of the historic film, which was later restored by the Academy Film Archive. Parts of the film are still missing.

As an Asian American filmmaker, one of the things that saddens me is the lack of opportunities and places to screen our films. That’s why as a JANM staff member and part of its programming team for more than five years, it has always been important to me to ensure that the museum can be such a place. JANM has hosted dozens of film festivals, from the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival to Outfest, and hundreds of screenings. Now we have a series to call our own. For complete details on upcoming screenings, please visit our Big Trouble event page.