Ethnic Effects: Revealing the Impact of Immigrant Groups in Shaping the American Experience through Museum Objects

My name is Jose Quirarte and this summer I have had the opportunity to work at the Japanese American National Museum as the Getty Marrow Collections and Curatorial Intern. I recently graduated from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona with a bachelor’s degree in history. Throughout my undergraduate work I studied the 20th century ethnic American experience, focusing a majority of my research on the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. As a result, I wanted to create a capstone project during my internship at JANM that reflected my research interests in the Japanese American experience as well as those of other ethnic communities by exploring the complexity of American identity.

In order to fulfill this capstone project, I invited Getty Marrow Undergraduate Interns from JANM, La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, the Chinese American Museum, and the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles to collaborate and create a collections-based project that focused on the ethnic American experience. Specifically, the project invited each intern to highlight items in their museum’s respective collection that reveal lesser known stories and demonstrate how the American experience has been shaped and defined by its rich ethnic history.

Interns selected an artifact or artwork that related to the broad project question: 

How have immigrants and subsequent generations shaped what it means to be American?

Participants were encouraged to view and interpret this question from different perspectives and were provided a variety of sub-questions to further delve into different facets of the American experience. The initial goal of the project was to highlight the agency of immigrants in shaping American identity. However, the interns’ submissions made it clear that the answer to this specific question would not fully encompass the American experience of immigrants and their descendents. The interns, through the objects that they selected and wrote about, demonstrated the complexity of the immigrant experience in the United States. They underscored obstacles and triumphs, the ingenuity of immigrants, the unique cultural identity that formed, and the notion that “being American” has not historically conformed to one singular definition.

The following Getty Marrow Undergraduate Interns participated by shaping their own interpretations of the project question:

Japanese American National Museum: Jose Quirarte, Shelby Ottengheime, and Rino Kodama

Italian American Museum of Los Angeles: Mercedes Solaberrieta

La Plaza de Cultura y Artes: Araceli Ramos

The resulting capstone project has been crafted into a blog series titled Ethnic Effects. I have synthesized and framed the submissions into a series of posts that reveal a different facet of the American experience through an analysis of collection items.

I answered the broad project question, by selecting a drawing from JANM’s Miné Okubo Collection (2007.62). I argue that it reveals the complexity of “American identity” and the ways in which it is shaped by the cultural traditions and experiences of immigrants and their children.

Jose Quirarte, Japanese American National Museum

Miné Okubo, untitled, 1942-1945, Miné Okubo collection. 2007.62.156, Japanese American National Museum. Los Angeles, CA.

In this untitled work, artist Miné Okubo depicts herself seated at a mess hall table while she observes several individuals in the process of pounding mochi at the Topaz concentration camp in Utah during World War II. Miné Okubo was just one of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in America’s concentration camps without due process because of racism and war hysteria. Executive Order 9066 laid the foundation for exclusion of Japanese Americans on the West Coast and their subsequent forced removal. Miné Okubo’s drawings depict the World War II incarceration experience— from removal on the West Coast to daily life at Topaz.

This particular drawing depicts a scene of mochitsuki, a Japanese New Year’s tradition of pounding sweet rice into mochi (rice cakes). Mochi is an important ingredient in a New Year’s soup called ozoni, which is supposed to bring luck. The three men in the background take turns pounding the sweet rice with large wooden mallets while the man kneeling in front turns the mochi and moistens it with water. To the left of Okubo, there are several mochi cakes resting on the counter.

On the surface, this drawing seems to only speak about the mochi-making process in the Topaz concentration camp. However, the drawing, in conjunction with Okubo’s other drawings, helps to reveal the dynamic nature of “American identity” by depicting Japanese Americans actively participating in Japanese traditions. From behind barbed wire fences, Japanese Americans demonstrated that American identity was not homogenous; rather, American identity had always been inherently diverse and multifaceted due to the integration of a variety of immigrant groups and their respective traditions and values. Okubo’s drawing of mochi-making signified the reality that many Japanese Americans held on to traditional Japanese institutions and values. Furthermore, her drawings indicate that Japanese Americans placed an importance on maintaining Japanese traditions, despite attempts by the War Relocation Authority to “Americanize” and “assimilate” them. From within the confines of America’s concentration camps, Japanese traditions and cultures thrived and persisted among the Japanese American community. 

If the meaning of what it means to be an “American” is confined to the restrictive ideas of the “melting pot” and a European American standard, then it would allow no room for the preservation of outside cultures and traditions. Yet, Okubo and many other Japanese individuals, within the confines of concentration camps, maintained their cultural traditions and redefined the contemporary definition of American identity. Okubo’s drawings counter the restrictive narrative of the “melting pot” and highlight that Japanese immigrants and their children valued Japanese culture and were intent on keeping their traditions alive. More importantly, Okubo’s drawings reveal a bigger picture: “American identity” is inherently complex and diverse and it is shaped by the values and experiences of immigrant populations and their children.


This series, entitled: “Ethnic Effects,” will reveal commonalities and shared experiences in the American experience through material culture artifacts from JANM, La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, and the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles. The title of this series underscores the overall goal of the project: to highlight personal effects residing at cultural and ethnic museums, and use their historical significance to demonstrate the effect immigrant populations have had on shaping the American experience. Each of the posts in this series analyzes the complexity of “American identity” and demonstrates that the American experience is multifaceted. Through the Getty interns’ analysis of their respective museum items, several throughlines are apparent within the American immigrant experience. In coming to America, immigrant groups and their children have often had to adapt and reinvent themselves, face immense systemic oppression based on racial prejudice, and persevere in any way they can in order to survive. Each of the following posts reveals stories of American immigrants that exemplify the notion that the immigrant experience is not just a minor chapter in America’s history, but is instead an integral part in understanding the complex story of the American experience:

Ingenuity – Araceli Ramos & Rino Kodama

Vulnerability & Discrimination – Mercedes Solaberrieta & Jose Quirarte

Perseverance & Resilience – Shelby Ottengheime & Jose Quirarte

Acknowledgements

This project has been a wonderful opportunity for several of us Getty MUI interns to meet and collaborate on a project outside of our immediate internships. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing museum personnel to work from home, a majority of the interns have only had a digital experience working with their institution. Regardless of the unfavorable transition, our supervisors have adapted and have provided the Getty interns with a valuable experience working in the museum field. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the supervisors for their support of this project and their ingenuity in adapting their Getty programs to accommodate work from home. 

Thank you to Kristen Hayashi, Clement Hanami, and Akira Boch of JANM; Marianna Gatto of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles; Gina Alicia Lopez Ramos, Erika Garcia, and Liz Gama of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes; Rachelle Shumard and Ashley Lee of the Chinese American Museum.

Without your support, this project would have not been possible.

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).

 

Author Lisa See’s Unexpected Connections to Japanese American History

ChinaDollsCover.final 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.

Hideo Date Where South and North Winds Meet, ca. 1940, watercolor and gouache on paper. Japanese American National Museum, gift of Hideo Date.
Hideo Date, Where South and North Winds Meet, ca. 1940, watercolor and gouache on paper. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Hideo Date.

 

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.

Benji Okubo, Portrait of Sissee See, c. 1927–45. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Chisato Okubo.
Benji Okubo, Portrait of Sissee See, c. 1927–45. Japanese American National Museum.
Gift of Chisato Okubo.

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.

From Mine Okubo to Li’l Neebo: JANM Collections to Augment Marvels & Monsters Exhibition

Shazam
Comic from the Tulean Dispatch. This First Person Narrative of Americas Concentration Camps is highlighted in Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986

As the incoming Collections Manager at the Japanese American National Museum, I am amazed by the sheer depth of artifacts and artworks that comprise the Japanese American experience. Having admired the institution’s mission and values from an outside perspective, I am happy to become part of the thriving community that is “behind the house” in the collections at JANM.

It is the goal of the Collections Management and Access Unit (CMA) to preserve the collections for future generations and to utilize them to their fullest potential as ambassadors and storytellers for the Museum—for the collections are the cornerstone of the Museum. One wonderful way to achieve this potential is to use our temporary exhibitions as an entryway into exploring our own collections.

We are excited to have the opportunity to share some of JANM’s collection alongside the traveling exhibition, Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986, which comes to us from the NYU Fales Library & Special Collections. CMA and Education Staff realized the potential of pairing our collection of historical artifacts to enhance the exhibition in an unexpected way.

Superman
Chris Ishii’s Li’l Neebo (Little Nisei Boy) reading a Superman comic inside his book. Ishii, who once was an artist for Disney, started Li’l Neebo while at the Santa Anita Pacemaker newspaper, and continued at the Granada Pioneer. His first person narratives provide a glimpse into America’s Concentration Camps.

It is interesting to contemplate the idea that artist Chris Ishii never imagined Li’l Neebo sharing gallery space with Wonder Woman! A Miss Breed letter and Mine Okubo drawing in conversation with each other about the shared theme of comic books… who would’ve guessed?

Marvels & Monsters illustrates Asians and Asian Americans through racial and cultural archetypes and when paired with first person Japanese American narratives of concentration camp life told through comics, a differing perspective is shared. Through the cartoons of artist Chris Ishii’s Li’l Neebo and George Akimoto’s Lil Dan’l, artwork by Mine Okubo, and letters from young inmates to librarian Clara Breed, Museum visitors will glimpse how comics were used to express emotion and to retain a sense of normalcy in a less than ideal situation. These images, juxtaposed with the stereotypical Asian themes in U.S. comics, provide a place for reflection on the impact and power of storytelling through comics and the way in which this popular medium has shaped perceptions of history.

It is through collaborations such as these that the importance of the collections at JANM, through the stories and first person experiences of the Issei and Nisei generation, are linked to contemporary society.

* * * * *

Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986 will be on display at the Japanese American National Museum from October 12, 2013 – February 9, 2014. For more information about the exhibition and related public programs, visit: janm.org/marvels-monsters

Margaret Zachow Wetherbee is the new Collections Manager at the Japanese American National Museum.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas from everyone at JANM!

Gift of Mine Okubo Estate (2007.62.155)

 

This image from the Mine Okubo Collection in our archives shows a family gathered around a cast iron stove to celebrate their first Christmas in camp. It is one of the drawings by artist Mine Okubo used for her book Citizen 13660 which shares life inside the Tanforan Assembly Center and Topaz concentration camp during World War II.

It reminds us that in tough times, it’s still important to come together and celebrate with family & friends. Kodomo no tame ni. For the sake of our children, we must continue on.

Wishing you & your loved ones a Happy & Healthy Holidays!

Introducing the Miné Okubo Collection

Miné Okubo, Untitled, 1942-1944, Gift of Miné Okubo Estate (2007.62.82)

 

Artist.  Writer.  Activist.

Miné Okubo (1912-2001) was all those things and more.  We also venture to call her a documentarian and anthropologist for the way she captured life while incarcerated in the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, CA and Topaz, UT camp during World War II.  Along with over 120,000 other Japanese and Japanese Americans, Okubo was confined behind barbed wire simply because of the way she looked.  She took the opportunity to observe and record her experiences as shared in her seminal book Citizen 13660:  “…I had the opportunity to study the human race from the cradle to the grave, and to see what happens to people when reduced to one status and condition.”

Due to a generous grant awarded to the National Museum by the National Endowment for the Humanities, we spent two years conserving, mounting, scanning and cataloging all of Okubo’s original drawings from Citizen 13660 in order to share her insight and talents with a larger audience.

You can browse this amazing collection on our Museum Collections webpage!:  http://www.janm.org/collections/mine-okubo-collection/

Oh!  And don’t forget her brother Benji Okubo (a pretty amazing artist in his own right):  http://www.janm.org/collections/benji-okubo-collection/

 

Documenting Manzanar

We recently finished posting a wonderful essay about the documentation of Manzanar during World War II by Nancy Matsumoto on our Discover Nikkei website. It’s quite an extensive piece which we posted in 18 parts. There’s also great historic photographs that accompany each part.

Source: War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement Series 8: Manzanar Relocation Center

Documenting Manzanar
By Nancy Matsumoto
Read the essay >>

The article focuses especially on three photographers—Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and Toyo Miyatake, but also about the documentation of Manzanar in art and in books by artists and authors like Miné Okubo, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, and Michi Weglyn.

It also examines various books and exhibitions, including the Ansel Adams exhibition here at JANM. It also references Two Views of Manzanar, an exhibition and book created by graduate students in the UCLA Fine Arts Program in the late 1970s. One of the students was Patrick Nagatani, whose works will be on display here in a retrospective exhibition opening next weekend.

As I’m writing this, I realize that we have something in our collections, exhibitions, and projects related to pretty much all of these things I’ve mentioned. We’ve just released the Farewell to Manzanar DVD based on the book & screenplay written by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and her husband. Our collections staff is currently working on a project to conserve & digitize Miné Okubo’s original drawings from Citizen 13660 (generously
supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ “We The People” project), and we have original design sketches by Michi Weglyn from her days as a costume designer in New York.

These types of realizations tend to happen often. That’s one of the great things about working at the museum so long…getting to see how different aspects of our history and culture fit together. It also goes to show how inter-related the Japanese American community is!