Coming to New York City on October 18, 19, and 20, and Orange County on November 10 is Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience.
This documentary, a co-production between JANM’s Watase Media Arts Center and KCET for the series ARTBOUND, explores five second generation Japanese American artists—Ruth Asawa, George Nakashima, Isamu Noguchi, Gyo Obata, and S. Neil Fujita—following the ways in which their camp experiences impacted their lives, influenced their art, and sent them on trajectories that eventually led to their changing the face of American culture with their immense talents.
The film will screen three times as a part of the Architecture & Design Film Festival at the Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas in New York City.
Showtimes are Friday, October 18 at 9:15 p.m.; Saturday, October 19 at 7 p.m.; and Sunday, October 20 at 1:30 p.m. Q&A with Mira Nakashima (furniture designer and daughter of George Nakashima), Kenji Fujita (artist and son of S. Neil Fujita), and filmmaker Akira Boch will follow the Friday night screening.
Masters of Modern Design will also screen in Orange County on Sunday, November 10 at 12:30 p.m. at the Orange County Buddhist Church. A Q&A with the filmmakers will follow. This is a free event, but please rsvp to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience is available on DVD at the JANM Store. JANM members receive 10% discount!
Our newest exhibition, Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey through the World of Japanese Toys opens on Saturday, September 15 and showcases hundreds of dazzling vintage and contemporary Japanese vinyl toys, providing a feast for the eyes and the imagination! Kaiju translates to “strange creature” in English but has come to mean “monster” or “giant monster” referring to the creatures that inhabited the postwar movie and television screens of Japan. The advent of these monsters brought about the creation of characters to combat them—hence the emergence of pop-culture heroes like Ultraman and Kamen Rider. Drawing from the extensive vinyl toy collection of Mark Nagata, the exhibition also demonstrates how Nagata’s pursuit of these Japanese toys took him on an unexpected journey that brought new realizations about his cultural identity as an American of Japanese ancestry.
Growing up in California, Mark Nagata was a fan of Disneyland, comic books, and classic Japanese television shows, movies, and toys. These influences inspired his creativity and spurred his initial interest in drawing and art. After attending the Academy of Art College in San Francisco during the late 1980s, Nagata embarked on a 10-year-plus journey as a freelance commercial illustrator. In 2001, Mark transitioned from illustration to co-founding Super 7 magazine, a publication dedicated to vintage and art vinyl toys. Through his work on the magazine, Nagata combined his passion for Japanese vinyl toys with his artwork. It was during this period that Nagata founded the Max Toy Company in 2005 to produce vinyl kaiju and hero toys. Fast-forward to today, and not much has changed for this toy designer, painter, illustrator, and collector. We caught up with Nagata via email to ask him a few questions.
JANM: What is your favorite kaiju toy of all time?
Mark Nagata: To be honest, my favorite kaiju toy is actually a hero toy. It’s an Ultraman figure, made of soft red vinyl, produced by a Japanese company called Bullmark in the 1970s. Ultraman is my favorite hero and when I discovered that there was a very rare variation of this figure, the hunt was on. During one of my trips to Tokyo in search of toys, I actually found one but the price was very expensive. Even though my fellow toy friends were willing to let me borrow the money, sadly I had to pass on the chance to obtain it. For the next month after returning home, I couldn’t stop thinking of the figure. So, I decided to sell off a bunch of toys and contacted a dealer in Japan to see if the figure was still there for sale. Luckily, it was and they helped me to purchase it. Because the figure is fragile and expensive, I requested that they carefully wrap and pack the figure in a sturdy box and declare the full insurance amount when shipping it.
I waited what seemed like weeks for the figure to arrive. To my complete horror, the mailman handed me a shoe box that was partially opened, and inside the figure was barely wrapped in one piece of newspaper! I quickly examined the figure to make sure it was not broken and luckily it was in perfect condition. As I was throwing out the box, I glanced at the shipping label and once again was shocked to see that the declared insurance value was $5.00, not the value of $5,000! The story has a happy ending, but to this day I keep thinking of how lucky I was that it made it to me in one piece!
JANM: Where was the most unique place you bought a kaiju toy?
MN: Not really the most unique place, but I think using a fax machine to order toys from Japan was unique. Before email and the internet (yes, that long ago) I would buy toys via the fax machine. A dealer from Japan would fax me in the middle of the night (it was his daytime) with various toy offers. The next day I would circle what I wanted and fax it back to him. I’d still have to wait for another fax to me with payment information. Once I got the totals I had to get a postal money order and mail the payment to him. I’d wait a month for a box to arrive and sometimes a toy would be sold out by the time he got payment. In that case, I would end up with a credit with the dealer.
There was much more work involved to obtain Japanese toys back in those days. Now, with the internet, toy buyers can get a ”fix“ instantly. To me, the fun has been taken out of the searching and hunting process for these toys.
JANM: What is your favorite piece featured in the exhibition?
MN: I know I will get asked this question and to be honest it’s like picking your favorite child! In no particular order for the heroes: the Bullmark Red Ultraman figure, Marusan Talking Ultraman figure, and Ultraman costume. For kaiju figures, I would say the glow in the dark Bullmark Zazan figure, Bandai Barom One Doruge figure, and Bullmark Mirrorman Darklon figure.
Join Mark Nagata on Saturday, September 15, at 2:00 p.m., for a conversation with Marusan toy company President Eiji Kaminaga about kaiju toy history, the world of Japanese toy collecting, and their companies’ histories. (The Marusan toy company created some of the first vinyl kaiju and hero toys of the 1960s and these toys make up a significant part of Nagata’s collection). The conversation will be moderated by Brad Warner, who worked for 15 years at Tsuburaya Productions, the makers of the Ultraman television shows.
Following the discussion, Mark Nagata will sign copies of Toy Karma, an accompanying book by and about Nagata, as well as a 13″ x 19″ print (10″ x 17″ image size) featuring a kaiju and hero image by toy photographer Brian McCarty, who will also be signing the print. The book is $24.95 and the print is $50. Both can be purchased the day of the event. RSVP here.
What We Carried: Fragments & Memories from Iraq & Syria, a traveling exhibition of the Arab American National Museum, is on view at JANM until August 5, 2018. Having previously created work centered on American soldiers who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, photographer Jim Lommasson wanted to tell the stories of those affected by the United States’ participation in these countries. When the same approach he had used in the past did not yield meaningful results, he tried another tactic. The following is excerpted from the artist’s statement:
I realized from the conversations, that when one leaves their home, under the cover of darkness with a kid under each arm, you can’t take much with you except some practical items and maybe one or two mementos. It became clear that the carried items tell the story. I began to ask recent refugees in several U.S. cities to share those things with me. I photographed the objects, I made 13” x 19” archival prints and asked the participant to write on the photograph why that item above all others, was so important that they chose to carry it on their long journey to America. The results speak volumes about being uprooted and displaced, about loss, and the preservation of identity. What was carried? What was left behind?
I realized that the objects and the stories help those of us who see them feel compassion and an intimate empathy. What would I take with me? But the more powerful understanding is the realization, of what was left behind. What was left behind was everything else: homes, friends, family, school, careers, culture and history.
The stories tell how similar we all are. Circumstances and zip codes determine what kind of lives we will live. When we try to walk in “others” shoes, we become more human. When we understand that those “others” are not as different as the media and that politicians make them out to be. When we see tired, hungry and desperate families arriving in inflatable boats, walking by the thousands to refugee camps, we have to understand that we would look just like them if we lived in a war zone, or were victims of a natural disaster. Those tired, desperate people might also be teachers, doctors, engineers, or homemakers. Their objects tell us how similar we are. What would you choose? A picture of your mother, bible, a Qur’an, a ring, a teapot, maybe even a Barbie doll? Yes, all of these things travelled from Iraq and Syria to your neighborhood. We aren’t as different as we think. Certainly those who fan the flames of “us” and “them” profit by spreading fear and hatred for personal political gain and try to keep them out by persecuting based on foreign-ness or religion. History has demonstrated that it works.
You can read Lommasson’s full statement on our website. What We Carried is included with museum admission. For a closer look at the exhibition, visit JANM on July 28, 2018, when we will be hosting two special events for visitors. At 10:30 a.m., take a guided gallery tour of the exhibition, or join us at 2:00 p.m. for Stories of Displacement, presented in partnership with Vigilant Love, which will share the perspectives of recent Iraqi and Syrian refugees, Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II, and others.
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!
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!
The Japanese American National Museum was honored to be chosen by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Metro Art Program to participate in the design of decorative banners to cover the Regional Connector Transit Project construction site. Over a year in the making, the banners can now be seen on Hope Street between 2nd and 3rd, just around the corner from The Broad.
JANM was commissioned by Metro to identify professional artists to mentor local high school students in creating the artwork for the banners. We chose the wonderful Ako Castuera and Edwin Ushiro, both of whom have exhibited their work at JANM, to work with an excellent group of students at Boyle Heights High School.
Students were first asked to learn about the history and iconography of the neighborhood so they could incorporate it into their art. We took a walking tour of Bunker Hill, during which the students documented the area with sketches and photographs. The tour was led by Metro’s Senior Transportation Planner Steve Brye, who is a longtime resident of Bunker Hill. Students then reviewed their own images as well as some historical photographs, and came up with imagery that was inspired by Bunker Hill past and present. Ushiro worked to compile their artwork into larger pieces for the banners.
During the course of this project, JANM staff had the opportunity to visit the students at their school in our neighboring community of Boyle Heights and the students came to visit us here in Little Tokyo as they created art inspired by Bunker Hill. I can’t help but think how great it is that we’re in Los Angeles, where so many diverse and interesting communities can intersect to create something that makes our city a little brighter. The next time you’re in the Bunker Hill area, be sure to check out the work of the students from Boyle Heights High School!
Thank you to Metro, the students of Boyle Heights High School, Principal Leigh Ann Orr, Ako Castuera, and Edwin Ushiro. We had a great time working with you all!
Admission to JANM will be free to the public on Saturday, March 12, in celebration of the Smithsonian Institution’s annual Museum Day Live! event. This day is intended to encourage all people to explore our nation’s museums, cultural institutions, zoos, aquariums, parks, and libraries. This year, in recognition of Women’s History Month, the event has a special focus on reaching women and girls of color in underserved communities.
At JANM, we are very fortunate to have some significant pieces in our collection created by Japanese American women, such as the artist Miné Okubo (1912–2001), whose collection has been digitized and can be viewed on our museum’s website.
Okubo was a young woman during World War II. She and her family were removed from San Francisco to Tanforan Assembly Center, and then incarcerated in the concentration camp at Topaz, Utah, for the remainder of the war. Okubo was a keen observer; she made sketches and ink drawings that depicted what life was really like in camp.
In many ways, Okubo was ahead of her time. Her graphic novel, Citizen 13660 (1946), was the first published personal account of the camp experience. Through her pen and ink drawings, readers got an intimate view of what daily life became when Okubo, an American citizen by birth, was reduced to a number: 13660.
Although it is currently part of Japan, Okinawa for most of its history was an independent island kingdom called Ryukyu. Because of its location between the Pacific Ocean and the East China Sea, sailors, traders, scholars, and travelers from Southeast Asia, China, Korea, Japan, and beyond visited the Ryukyu Kingdom. Over time, elements of the languages, arts, and traditions from those countries found their way into the Ryukyuan culture, enriching it and making it even more distinct from its neighbors. In the Okinawan language (Uchinaaguchi), this mixing of cultural influences is called champuru.
In 1609, the kingdom was annexed by Japan. Trading continued under the banner of Japan, while the Ryukyuan court system, performing arts, literature, and crafts flourished. In 1879 however, Japan officially took over the kingdom and renamed it “Okinawa Prefecture,” dissolving the Ryukyuan monarchy. The Japanese government then attempted to eliminate Ryukyu’s native culture, replacing it with Japanese language, culture, and laws.
A variety of factors tied to changing social policy in Okinawa soon led to economic hardship and social unrest. At the same time, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 created a need for more immigrant labor in the United States. In 1899, the first group of laborers left Okinawa for Hawai‘i. Emigration then began in earnest from Okinawa to Hawai‘i, to the mainland United States, and to South America.
It is the history of these immigrants that is explored in the art of Laura Kina and Emily Hanako Momohara. How did the former Ryukyuans make their lives in Hawai‘i? How did their culture continue to evolve in Hawai‘i, mixing with even more cultures? Despite all this champuru, there is still something that is distinctively and identifiably Okinawan.
JANM’s School Programs Developer Lynn Yamasaki and her family recently had the opportunity to view artworks by her great uncle, Jack Yamasaki, that are part of the museum’s permanent collection.
Jack Yamasaki, my father’s uncle, is someone I only have the faintest memories of seeing on occasion and visiting during holidays. I always knew he was an artist though, because I’ve been surrounded by his artwork my entire life—drawings and paintings by “Uncle Jack” have always hung on the walls of my parents’ and grandmother’s homes. Looking back, his artwork was probably my earliest exposure to art as a child.
A few decades later, I find myself fortunate enough to have studied art and to have worked in museums. I’ve had the opportunity to see some incredible artwork in the various institutions in which I’ve worked, including the Japanese American National Museum, where I currently spend my days. Recently, I had the great privilege of bringing several members of my family to the museum, where staff in the Collections Management and Access (CMA) Unit were kind enough to bring out five works by Uncle Jack for us to look at.
Most of these were pieces that my family and I had never seen before. In some cases, they were gifted to the museum by donors who are not family members. And it was a little odd for me to see Jack Yamasaki’s name among the other great artists in JANM’s collection. Though always appreciated by my family, it wasn’t until recently that I gained respect for the broader significance of his artwork and the events documented in them.
This 1942 painting was really interesting for us to see. It is a depiction of life in the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming, where Jack spent the war years. Reminiscent of JANM’s recent Colors of Confinement display, this work depicts camp life in bright, vivid colors; a rare and striking thing when you’re used to looking at black-and-white photographs. We noticed that it is still in its original frame, made by Jack.
I was also attracted to this pencil and ink drawing. In a busy scene, again from Heart Mountain in 1942, men are laying bricks in winter. On the left, one figure tosses a brick to another, with the brick depicted in mid-air. The cloudy sky and the way the figures are bundled up and hunched over as they walk really conveys a sense of the cold climate.
This one is a definite favorite for more personal reasons. The figure in pink in the foreground is my grandmother, someone I spend a great deal of time with. At 99 years old, she is one of the most impressive people I know. She says this was painted when the family was farming in Utah after the war. The other figures in the painting are family friends from pre-war days in the Imperial Valley. Her account doesn’t quite match the official description on file at the museum. However, my grandma is pretty sharp and has a great memory, so I prefer her version of the story.
My family had seen a reproduction of this painting, but it wasn’t until the CMA Unit staff brought it out that we saw the original. We were all struck by how the colors were much brighter than we thought they were. It was the first time my grandma had seen it since Uncle Jack painted it so many years ago.
At first, seeing it again brought up an old annoyance. According to her, she had told Jack she wanted to buy the painting and he said she could. But after one of his exhibitions, she found out that he had sold it to someone else! I remarked that this painting’s journey brought it to JANM, where it is now professionally cared for in a controlled environment. It is probably better off than it would be at her house, and she agreed!
Little Tokyo is filled with public art, from street murals to commemorative statues. JANM Development Assistant Esther Shin explores one of those works.
Toyo Miyatake’s Camera, a bronze sculpture by artist Nobuho Nagasawa, stands just outside of JANM’s Historic Building. Made in 1993, it is an outsized replica of an actual camera that belonged to the Japanese American photographer. In the evening, the camera projects slides of Miyatake’s photography onto a window of the Historic Building.
Toyo Miyatake established a photo studio in Little Tokyo in 1923. He became known for his photographs documenting the early Japanese American community. During World War II, Miyatake was imprisoned at the Manzanar incarceration camp along with 10,000 other Japanese Americans. He had to leave behind his home and studio, but he managed to smuggle a camera lens into the camp and constructed a camera body from wood. With this camera he secretly documented the community’s daily life behind barbed wire; the photographs from this period have become important documents of this tragic episode in American history.
Nagasawa’s sculpture is my favorite public artwork in Little Tokyo. Although it is relatively small and modest, it speaks loudly and is rich in meaning. I see it as a symbol of remembrance, underscoring the importance of looking back and reflecting on what has happened in the Japanese American community—not only during the incarceration of U.S. citizens during WWII, but in the years before as well. I appreciate the fact that the images projected by the installation include darker moments from our history alongside special events and celebrations that were dear to the community before the war—such as the 1932 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and the Nisei Week parade of 1939—because all of these moments, bright or dark, are part of the Japanese American story.
It is fitting that the sculpture is located on the plaza of the museum, and faces the Historic Building. It stands on the spot of a former WWII reporting site, where hundreds of Japanese Americans boarded buses to be taken to incarceration camps. It is also located across the way from JANM’s Pavilion building, where the permanent exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community—which chronicles 130 years of Japanese American history—is displayed.
Lisa See’s bestselling novels—which have included Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan—are known for telling compelling stories of human relationships set against the rich backdrop of Chinese and Chinese American history. Her latest novel, released last June, is no different.
Set in San Francisco on the eve of World War II, China Dolls follows three independent young women as they revel in the city’s exciting and glamorous Chinatown nightclub scene. The women become close friends, sharing secrets and supporting one another through struggles and triumphs. When the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor however, it sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to change their lives forever.
One of the remarkable things about China Dolls is that it captures some key connections between Chinese American and Japanese American experiences. As in much of her work, See draws on her own family’s history to weave some of China Dolls’ narrative. During World War II, See’s grandparents lived in and took care of the home of the Oki family while they were imprisoned in camp. While many Japanese Americans lost everything after the war, the Oki family was able to return to their home and their belongings. In China Dolls, the incarceration of Japanese Americans plays a major role in the book, with vivid passages describing life in the camps.
See’s family history intersected with Japanese American history in other significant ways. In 1935, Eddy and Stella See (Lisa’s grandparents) opened the Dragon’s Den restaurant in the basement of the F. Suie One Company, located in Los Angeles’ original Chinatown. Eddy See commissioned three artists, including his good friend Benji Okubo, to paint murals of mythical Asian figures like the Eight Immortals on the restaurant’s exposed brick walls. See had already been selling artworks by all his friends in a small gallery in the mezzanine. These included works by Okubo, Hideo Date, and Tyrus Wong, who went on to become an influential graphic artist after creating the signature look for Disney’s Bambi movie.
The Dragon’s Den became a popular gathering spot for artists and actors, and See’s gallery now stands as an important early effort to show the work of Asian American artists. Many of these artists continued to exhibit together, earning a few different nicknames as a group, such as “the Orientalists.” Today, many works by Date and Okubo—along with those of the latter’s sister, Mine Okubo—are proudly featured in JANM’s permanent collection. (Pictured at right is Benji Okubo’s portrait of Lisa See’s great-aunt Florence See Leong, nicknamed “Sissee.”)
This Saturday, January 31, Lisa See will be at JANM to discuss China Dolls and her family’s connections to Japanese American history. She will also take questions from the audience.
China Dolls can be purchased from the JANM Store and online at janmstore.com. For a more in-depth profile of the author, check out this new feature story on Discover Nikkei.