Congratulations to Eisner Award Winners!

Congratulations to George Takei, Stan Sakai, and Mariko Tamaki on their 2020 Eisner Awards wins! The 32nd Annual Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards were presented at a ceremony on July 24, as part of the San Diego Comic-Con International that is being presented virtually this year. 

JANM Trustee, actor, and activist George Takei’s graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy, won the award for Best Reality-Based Work. Our Education unit developed a teacher’s guide to accompany the memoir for IDW Publishing. 

Stan Sakai was elected into the Hall of Fame and also won for Best Lettering (Usagi Yojimbo, published by IDW) and Best Archival Collection/Project (Usagi Yojimbo: The Complete Grasscutter). Sakai was honored at JANM’s 2011 Gala Dinner with the Cultural Ambassador Award, the same year that we presented an exhibition about his work, Year of the Rabbit: Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo. You can also watch clips from an interview with him on Discover Nikkei.

Sakai has had an ongoing relationship with JANM, especially with our JANM Store. In addition to selling his books and comics, he has graciously allowed our Store to produce exclusive merchandise. Look out for more collaborations in the future!

Finally, Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s graphic novel Laura Dean Is Breaking Up with Me won awards for Best Publication for Teens, Best Writer, and Best Penciller/Inker. Skim, one of the Japanese Canadian writer’s earlier books, was previously sold at the JANM Store.

 

See the entire list of 2020 Eisner Award winners.

Inside JANM’s Permanent Collection

A Brief History

At the heart of Japanese American National Museum is its permanent collection. With over 100,000 artifacts stored within two-floors totaling 7,200 square feet, JANM houses the largest collection of Japanese American material culture in the world. From renowned artwork and artifacts of some of the most notable Japanese Americans, it also contains seemingly mundane objects of ordinary individuals with extraordinary stories to tell. The collection is full of family treasures that anchor narratives of hardship and success, loss and triumph, as well as challenge and resilience.

Located in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood, the heart of the Japanese American community since the 1880s, JANM’s founders and early supporters wanted to create an institution that would tell a lesser-known chapter of American history to help ensure that the violations of civil liberties that resulted in the incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II would never happened again.

After incorporating as a private, non-profit institution in 1985, artifacts and archival items began to populate the Museum’s permanent collection. With in-depth documentation from the immigration of the Issei generation to unique crafts made in America’s concentration camps, the burgeoning archive was unlike any other of its time. While JANM quickly became a renowned national museum, it was also a community archive—a repository for numerous families’ treasures. On January 23, 1999, the Japanese American National Museum expanded to its current location on the corner of Central Avenue and First Street, constructing at its center two floors for collections storage, as seen in the video Behind the Scenes of JANM’s Collection (see below).

While the permanent collection is encyclopedic, covering a myriad of topics that reflect the Japanese American experience from early immigration to the United States to the present, the majority of the collection conveys the varying experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II. This encompasses the forced removal and subsequent confinement of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry—two thirds of whom were US citizens—in temporary detention centers and later in America’s concentration camps as well as the military experiences of men and women who served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, 100th Infantry Battalion, 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, the Military Intelligence Service, and Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Artworks in a variety of mediums, photographs, personal letters, and government documents help to illustrate the experience of the former incarcerees and military personnel.

All of JANM’s collections are significant historical resources for scholars and researchers who study United States history and politics, Japanese American history, trans-Pacific migrations, and other similar topics. Yet, they are also incredibly important to the families that have donated them to the museum. Those who come to research the collections at JANM are not always scholars. Instead, many are descendants of family members who donated historical documents and artifacts to the museum. They visit JANM to learn more about where they come from and the uniqueness of their family history. This is what makes the holdings within the Japanese American National Museum’s permanent collection especially significant and incredibly valuable.

To bring your family’s artifacts into JANM’s permanent collection please email collections@janm.org. Or to help maintain and preserve JANM’s Collection with a donation please click here.

Behind the Scenes

In Behind the Scenes of JANM’s Collection the following artifacts can be seen:

  • Antique Kodak camera owned and used by Frank Kamiyama of Fresno, CA, Gift in Memory of Frank U. Kamiyama, 2000.335.2
  • Shell pins from Topaz concentration camp, Gift of Ryo Maruoka and Aiko Yoshida, 93.122.2
  • Harold Landon’s correspondence with Sohei Hohri, Gift of Harold Landon Family in Memory of Sohei Hohri, 2019.13.9
  • Suitcases taken to Manzanar concentration camp, Gift of Grace Shinoda Nakamura, 2001.61
  • The Heart Mountain mystery stones, Gift of Leslie and Nora Bovee, 94.158.1
  • Suit of Harry Miyagawa, Gift of the Uragami Family, 91.92.3
  • Citizen USA, Gift of Lois Ferguson in Memory of Charles K. Ferguson, 2002.174.2
  • Sculpture: The Portal by Ako Castuera, loan

Photos from JANM’s Collection

JANM’s collection storage, first floor
JANM’s collection storage, second floor
General Collection (3D artifacts), second floor, aisles 97 & 98. Frank Kamiyama’s antique Kodak camera [left], Gift in Memory of Frank U. Kamiyama, 2000.335.2
Archives (original photographs; papers and correspondence; diaries and journals; rare books; and ephemera), first floor, aisles 23 & 24. Norman Y. Mineta Papers (45 linear feet) [left], Gift of Norman Y. Mineta, 96.370
Archives (continued), first floor, aisle 23, shelves B-D. Professor Masakazu Iwata Papers [center], Gift of Masakazu Iwata, 94.58
Fine Arts Collection (paintings, drawings, and prints from Japanese American artists), second floor, painting racks 63-75, includes artwork by Henry Sugimoto [center], Gift of Madeleine Sugimoto and Naomi Tagawa, Japanese American National Museum, 92.97


Video credit: Behind the Scenes of JANM’s Collection by Shawn Iwaoka

Views from Poston

Larry Ogino, Untitled, ca. 1942. JANM, Gift in Memory of Larry Akira Ogino (2020.20.1)

Every three months, staff at the Japanese American National Museum meet to discuss donation offers of artifacts for the museum’s permanent collection. One collection that arrived at the museum recently was from the family of Larry Akira Ogino.

Kathy Bishop and her siblings recently offered to JANM a collection of watercolor paintings created by their father, Larry Akira Ogino, during his time at the WRA concentration camp at Poston. The five vibrant watercolors accepted into JANM’s permanent collection capture life and scenery at Poston, with some of the works evoking the style of other watercolor artists in Poston and other camps, such as Gene Sogioka.

Larry was born in 1919 in San Francisco, California. During his youth, the family owned and operated a fruit and vegetable farm in the Los Gatos and Campbell neighborhoods adjacent to San Jose. Prior to incarceration, Larry was an art student at San Jose State College. Larry, his mother, and three brothers were sent directly to Poston. Their father joined them after a year at the Santa Fe Department of Justice camp. Larry left camp in June 1943 for employment in Chicago, and later volunteered to join the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He served as a medic in Europe during his tour of duty.

Once out of the service, Larry was sponsored by a family friend and was able to continue his studies at the Studio School of Art in Chicago. During this time, he painted landscapes in watercolor, but also experimented with oils and acrylics. He was hired as a technical illustrator and worked for several different companies in the Midwest before finally returning to San Jose, where he was employed at FMC Corporation until his retirement. Until his death in 2000, Larry continued to paint—some animals (including cougars, foxes, dogs, cats, and birds), but mostly landscapes.

With over 100,000 artifacts, JANM’s Collections Management and Access staff work to preserve and document the experiences of Japanese Americans like Larry Akira Ogino. If you are interested in donating, making an appointment to view your family’s past donations, or learning more about objects in JANM’s permanent collection, please email  collections@janm.org.

Larry Ogino, Untitled, ca. 1943. JANM, Gift in Memory of Larry Akira Ogino (2020.20.2)
Larry Ogino, Untitled, ca. 1943. JANM, Gift in Memory of Larry Akira Ogino (2020.20.3)
Larry Ogino, Untitled, ca. 1943. JANM, Gift in Memory of Larry Akira Ogino (2020.20.4)
Larry Ogino, Untitled, ca. 1943. JANM, Gift in Memory of Larry Akira Ogino (2020.20.5)

“Masters of Modern Design” Hits the Road

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.

Ruth Asawa, 1956. Photo by Imogen Cunningham. Courtesy of the Cunningham Estate.

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.

Tickets can be purchased here

Miles Davis Round About Midnight album cover designed by S. Neil Fujita

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: ksok@janm.org.

Nakashima Woodworkers in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Photo by Akira Boch

Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience is available on DVD at the JANM Store. JANM members receive 10% discount!

An Interview with Toy Designer and Collector Mark Nagata

Left to Right: Bullmark Mirrorman Darklon, soft red Ultraman, and glow-in-the-dark Bullmark Zazan

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!

Marusan Talking Ultraman

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.

Photographer Jim Lommasson on What We Carried

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.

Artist Mari Inukai Celebrates Girls

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

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

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

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

JANM: What inspired you to create this workshop?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JANM Works with Metro and Boyle Heights High School Students to Create Construction Phase Artworks for the Bunker Hill Neighborhood

Decorative banners created by the students of Boyle Heights High School can now be seen on Hope Street between 2nd and 3rd in downtown Los Angeles. All photos courtesy of the author.

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.

Led by Steve Brye, students from Boyle Heights High school
take a walking tour of the Bunker Hill neighborhood.

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.

The students go through the photographs they took while on their tour.

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!

More about the Regional Connector Transit Project: metro.net/projects/connector
More about the Metro Art Program: metro.net/art

Inspiring Women and Girls of Color

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.

Mine with open newspaper, surrounded by anti-Japanese slogans, Berkeley, California, 1941
Mine with open newspaper, surrounded by anti-Japanese slogans, Berkeley, California, 1941. Gift of Mine Okubo Estate
(2007.62.14).

 

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.

janm_2007.62.147_a
Gift of Mine Okubo Estate (2007.62.147).

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.

Gift of Mine Okubo Estate (2007.62.181).
Gift of Mine Okubo Estate (2007.62.181).

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.

To learn more about Miné Okubo and her trailblazing life, we recommend viewing our online collection of her work, reading Citizen 13660, which can be purchased at the JANM Store and janmstore.com, and checking out the biographical volume Mine Okubo: Following Her Own Road, edited by Greg Robinson and Elena Tajima Creef.

Mine and Benji standing with their luggage, Berkeley, California, 1942
Mine and Benji standing with their luggage, Berkeley, California, 1942. Gift of Mine Okubo Estate (2007.62.23).

 

New Exhibition Touches on Okinawan History

At the Sekai Uchinaanchu Taikai (Okinawa Worldwide Festival), hosted every five years by the Okinawan government, people of Okinawan descent from all over the world come home for a week of activities and socializing. Photo by Allyson Nakamoto.
At the Sekai Uchinaanchu Taikai (Okinawa Worldwide Festival), hosted
every five years by the Okinawan government, people of Okinawan descent from all over the world come home for a week of activities and socializing.
Photo: Allyson Nakamoto.

 

On July 11, JANM will open a new exhibition, Sugar/Islands: Finding Okinawa in Hawai‘i—The Art of Laura Kina and Emily Hanako Momohara. The two artists in the exhibition examine their mixed-heritage roots in Okinawa and Hawai‘i, drawing heavily from ancestral histories. The opening day will coincide with a JANM Free Family Day, which will feature many crafts and activities inspired by Okinawan culture.

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.

A traditional shiisaa (lion/dog) stands guard in Okinawa. Photo: Allyson Nakamoto.
A traditional shiisaa (lion/dog) stands guard in Okinawa. Photo: Allyson Nakamoto.

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.