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.
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.
January 30 is the birthday of the late Fred Korematsu and it is also Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and Social Justice!
Over the past few years, we have had a chance to get to know his daughter, Karen Korematsu, who has taken on the role of Co-Founder and now Executive Director of the Korematsu Institute, whose mission is to advance pan-ethnic civil and human rights through education.
Karen is joining with others to spread the word about her father’s story. As a young man, Mr. Korematsu purposely disobeyed the government’s 1942 order that excluded all people of Japanese ancestry, without due process, from the West Coast. He was arrested and eventually removed to a Japanese American concentration camp in Utah. He appealed his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in 1944 the Court ruled against him, declaring that the exclusion and confinement of people of Japanese descent was justified. It wasn’t until 1983 that his conviction was finally overturned. (Here is a link to his full bio.)
For teachers who are planning to commemorate Mr. Korematsu’s stand for civil liberties, we’ve put together a few links to FREE resources that we hope might be helpful to you:
The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia is currently featuring the drawing All In One Room by Estelle Ishigo in their permanent exhibition The Story of We, the People. The drawing will be on display through November of 2014.
Estelle Peck Ishigo (1899-1990) is most well known as an artist who chronicled the experience at the Heart Mountain concentration camp.
Estelle Peck was born in Oakland in 1899 to parents of English, Dutch, French ancestry. Her family moved to Los Angeles and Estelle attended the Otis Art Institute, where she met Arthur Ishigo (1902-1957), a San Francisco-born Nisei who was working as a chauffeur for California Lieutenant Governor Robert Kenny. As anti-miscegenation laws at the time prohibited interracial couples from getting married, Peck and Ishigo took a trip across the border to Tijuana to be wed in 1928. Hoping for a career as an actor, Arthur worked as a janitor at Paramount Studios while Estelle worked as an art teacher. Shunned by her family, the couple lived among the Japanese American community.
With the outbreak of World War II and the removal of all West Coast Japanese Americans to inland concentration camps, the couple faced a dilemma. As a Nisei, Arthur was required to be removed while his wife was not. Though he wanted her to stay behind, she accompanied her husband, first to the Pomona Assembly Center in California, and then to Heart Mountain, Wyoming.
Throughout the war years, Estelle drew, sketched, and painted what she saw, providing a valuable document of life in the American concentration camps. “Strange as it may sound, in this desolate, lonely place I felt accepted for the first time in my life,” she later wrote of her time at Heart Mountain. She and her husband remained at Heart Mountain in order to record the last days of the camp until it was officially closed. The Ishigos were given $25 and put on a train to the West Coast. “I felt as if I were part of a defeated Indian tribe,” she remembered later.
In 1990, filmmaker Steven Okazaki made a documentary of Estelle Ishigo’s life titled Days of Waiting. Estelle passed away before seeing the film, which went on to win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
Estelle Ishigo’s story and drawings comprise an important aspect of the permanent collection at the National Museum. The Estelle Ishigo Collection can be seen on the Museum’s website at: janm.org/collections/estelle-ishigo-collection
The exhibition chronicles the history of Japanese American Nisei soldiers from the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and Military Intelligence Service who served during World War II to prove their loyalty to the nation that had disowned them.
The Aratani Central Hall was packed for the reception and program with enthusiastic members and special guests. This preview included an informal gallery walkthrough given by curator, Eric Saul.
The program started with America the Beautiful performed by Keiko Kawashima; a welcome by Helen H. Ota, External Relations Officer at JANM; and a special keynote by Eric Saul.
It was a very intimate exhibition preview—it allowed guests to reflect on history, and to appreciate the efforts of Japanese American Nisei veterans before, during and even after World War II.
Check out these photos from the member’s preview!
Photo Credits: Tsuneo Takasugi, Richard Murakami, and Richard Watanabe.
Go For Broke: Japanese American Soldiers Fighting on Two Fronts is on view at JANM through March 2, 2014. For more details, visit: janm.org/goforbroke
On Saturday, October 26, 2013 at 2:00PM, JANM will present a special screening of The Untold Story: Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawai`i. Produced by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai`i, The Untold Story is the first full-length documentary to chronicle the internment experience of Japanese Americans in Hawai`i.
Within 48 hours of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawai`i authorities arrested several hundred local residents—targeting Buddhist priests, Japanese language-school officials, newspaper editors, and business and community leaders. In total, more than 2,000 men and women of Japanese ancestry were arrested, detained, and interned at 13 different confinement sites located in Hawai`i. There was no evidence of espionage or sabotage, and no charges were ever filed against them. The Untold Story chronicles their story through oral histories, documents, interviews, and reenactments.
“While people have heard of places like Manzanar and Tule Lake, the sites where Japanese Americans were incarcerated on the mainland, few people are familiar with places like Honouliuli, Kalaheo Stockade, or that Japanese Americans were held at the Kilauea Military Camp during WWII,” said Carole Hayashino, president and executive director of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai`i.
“Our film, The Untold Story, helps to ensure that the experience of over 2,000 persons of Japanese ancestry in Hawai`i who were picked up and imprisoned simply because of their ancestry is not forgotten.”
Don’t miss this special film screening and the Q&A session with the filmmakers afterwards!
Visit the Discover Nikkei website for an insightful behind-the-scenes article on The Untold Story written by the director, Ryan Kawamoto:
The Nisei soldiers who fought in World War II embodied a particular set of values, passed down from generation to generation. Giri—sense of duty. Gambare—perseverance. And of course, go for broke—give it your all.
Go For Broke chronicles the resilience and bravery of these young men both on and off the battlefield. Japanese American soldiers fought in eight brutal campaigns across Europe, receiving thousands of medals for heroism even while suffering an astronomical casualty rate. Thousands more joined the Military Intelligence Service and operated throughout the Pacific Theater as language and intelligence specialists. Yet their battles were not finished when the war ended. The Nisei veterans returned to fight pervasive racism back home—and proved just as successful in this arena. With their help, hundreds of anti-Asian laws were struck down.
First displayed at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York, Go For Broke shows how instrumental these soldiers were in the Japanese American fight for justice both overseas and at home. The photographs in this exhibition are supplemented by a special Guide by Cell audio tour, with narration by curator Eric Saul and Nisei veterans.
To celebrate the opening of this exhibition, we invite all JANM Members for a special preview of the exhibition before it opens to the public.
Member Preview Sunday, November 10th • 2-4PM
Members are invited to join us for an exclusive preview of Go For Broke with curator Eric Saul. To RSVP, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 213.625-0414 ext. 2222 by Wednesday, November 6.
Join us also for this special public program on December 7th presented in partnership with the Go For Broke National Educational Center:
The Military Intelligence Service (M.I.S.) in Occupied Japan Saturday, December 7th • 2PM
M.I.S. veterans, Edwin Nakasone, Bruce Kaji, and Hitoshi Sameshima, will discuss their roles in the rebuilding of Japan after the end of World War II. The MIS was a US military unit mostly comprised of Japanese American Nisei who provided translation, interpretation, and interrogation services during World War II. Presented as part of the Tateuchi Public Program Series.
In the eyes of ABC 7 Eyewitness News Anchor David Ono, lessons from the Heart Mountain concentration camps still resonate today. In the four-part special, Witness: The Legacy of Heart Mountain, Ono explores the camp’s history and legacy.
Witness tells the story of the camp through photos from the Hirahara collection. While incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Patti Hirahara’s father and grandfather—both avid photographers—secretly built a darkroom under their barrack. They would go on to shoot and print over 2,000 photos cataloguing life inside the camp. Interspersed are interviews with those connected to the camps, from those incarcerated such as Judge Lance Ito and his mother, to Shirley Higuchi, Chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation Board of Directors.
The Japanese American National Museum plays a role in this documentary as well. Several interviews were filmed in the Museum’s Common Ground: The Heart of Community exhibition, supplemented by archival footage from the Museum’s permanent collection.
David Ono’s Witness is a moving look into the Japanese American experience during some of America’s darkest hours, told by the people who witnessed it firsthand and complemented by striking photos from inside the camps.