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The Japanese American National Museum

Japanese American National Museum
The Japanese American National Museum
is an organization that contributes to the Japanese American community
in numerous ways. Since it is a museum, it offers historical information
and many services to both the Japanese American and non-Japanese community
about the role that Japanese played in American history. It is an active
organization that interacts with the surrounding community, as well as
with other organizations and programs worldwide and an organization that
serves to the public with exhibits, programs, and publications that explore
the changing role of Japanese Americans. However, the history and
the presence of the museum itself is significant because it is an establishment
that serves as a landmark for people of Japanese ancestry, a compilation
of a reflection of America, and a memorial for all the suffering that the
Issei and Nisei have endured.

The Japanese American National Museum
began with the idea from a businessman and a war veteran. These individuals
wanted to preserve the Japanese American’s contributions to California
and the United States history. Therefore, Bruce Kaji and two war veterans:
Colonel Young Oak Kim and Y.B. Mayima decided in 1982 to erect a national
museum in honor of the Japanese Americans. Their purpose was to inform
the City of Los Angeles and the world that the Japanese American was an
integral aspect in shaping California and the United States. The mission
of the Japanese American National Museum is to make known the Japanese
American experience as an integral part of our nation’s heritage in order
to improve understanding and appreciation for America’s ethnic and cultural
The difficult task to building the museum
was money. This non-profit endeavor required funding from many different
sources. In the following years of 1982, California and the city of Los
Angeles began donating money in support of the museum. The city of Los
Angeles, under the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) agreed to match
the donation from the State Legislature. Therefore, the State Legislature
approved a $750,000 donation toward the museum and in return the CRA agreed
to donate $ 1 million in 1985. For the museum, this funding was jus the
beginning. Fundraisers and donations were organized to bring the idea to
a reality. Money was not the only item that needed to be donated. The museum
wanted to preserve the Japanese American artifacts, documents, lost letters,
furniture, and photographs into the museum.

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The museum needed a permanent building
so the museum planners decided to have an old Buddhist temple as the home
of the museum. The building they decided on was the first Buddhist Temple
built in Los Angeles in 1925. The building was the abandoned Hongwanji
Buddhist Temple. In the late 1980’s donations were abundant, “Dozens of
volunteers answered phones and gingerly unwrapped donated objects, ranging
from old kimonos to immigration documents and bundles of faded letters.”
One of the many employees of the museum is Akemi Kikumura Ph.D. She was
hired by the museum to further facilitate the search for Japanese American
memorabilia and materials.

In 1986, Los Angeles decided to graciously
award the museum a lease of one dollar per year for fifty years. The city
also decided to award the museum and a section of North First Street as
a historic cultural monument. Other private companies and institutions
began to recognize the museum project as a growing vision. Some contributors
include the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. and the National Endowment
for the Humanities (NEH). The volunteer board for the museum decided
to tour the country in search of filling the remaining positions of the
museum. The volunteer board went to places like Illinois, Texas, Idaho,
and other states. The members wanted contribution from a national level.

Therefore, they hired individuals that had experience in ethnic studies
and that had a passion to provide a service to their community. Along with
employing people from across the country, the museum had aspirations to
further enhance the exposure of the Japanese American history by expanding
and creating a new pavilion that would house more artifacts from the Japanese
American community.

During the 1990s, the museum took on several
significant changes. Along with the establishment of the temple as
the museum, members, part of the museum, hired Japanese American architects,
David Kikuchi, Yoshi Nishimoto, Frank Sata, and Robert Uyeda, to renovate
the buildings. In addition to the building’s restoration process,
the museum also hired James T. McElwain to assure that the buildings have
their own unique and historic features. Not only were buildings renovated,
its interior design was also completely redone since the museum needed
new systems installed. For example, a new electric system, heating/air
conditioning was installed during the renovation. In addition, the
Museum made it more accessible to handicapped people by installing three
separate elevations for those in wheel chairs.

None of these renovations could of happened
without the help of the community. In expanding efforts, the Museum
leader, Fred Hoshiyama, developed a fundraising campaign that raised more
money for the expanding budgets that was caused by the renovation and preservation
process. With the campaign, the museum was about to complete seventy
percent of the Phase I campaign goals. Many of the money came for
individuals, groups, families, and companies with money ranging from $3000
to 100,000 or more. With the generous donations from all difference areas
of support, the Museum began using the funds by developing the “Issei Pioneers”
exhibit, which was one of the Museum first exhibit. The exhibit displayed
a collection of Issei artifacts, clothing, tools, and diaries. These
items were used to document the experience of the first generation Japanese
immigrants. In efforts to make the exhibit more attractive, the Museum
worked with Gene Takeshita, a northern California designer, to construct
a exhibit design for the Issei materials. In addition, in order to
enhance the experience of this exhibit, Robert Nakamura and Karen Ishizuka,
were hired to archives amateur film footages, photo and movie images; the
archives became a video presentation that included sound bits and music
of that era. The music, along with poetry and natural effects, attempted
to create and enhance the atmosphere and experience at that time.

The Museum not only focused its audience
towards the local Los Angeles community. It also attempted to open
out new exhibits around the country, thus, helping the Museum establish
public awareness. Some of the exhibits that were displayed across
the country were, “Extraordinary Ordinary People,” a four-day photographic
display in Honolulu and “Indelible Influences: East and West,” an
exhibit that documented Japanese Americans in New York during the late
19th century. Locally, the Museum established an exhibit in UCLA
that offered artworks during the internment camp. In addition to
the displays and exhibit, the Museum also formed an advisory council that
consisted a panel of more than 100 scholars. These scholars added
more depth to the Museum. They became one of the most important values
of the Museum.

The Museum became a great establishment
for thousand of people. During the official opening of the Museum,
many people dedicated many hours to coordinate the events. Thousands
and Thousands of museum supporters wanted to preview the Museum and attend
the opening ceremony. Not only were there supporters from Los Angeles,
people from over seas wanted to be part of the Museum’s historical moment.

Interestingly, the Museum’s official opening would not take place.

The Los Angeles riots broke out on the preceding night of the opening.

Although some members (mostly overseers) attended a mini-ceremony, the
riots underscored the significance of the Museum. Nevertheless, a
public opening was held ten days later, which drew a greater crowd.

During the opening, members of the Museum announced that the Museum would
help promote community-unity through education and history. In an
honorable presentation, a 13-year-old Yonsei honored a 101-year-old Issei
in attempt to show the respect and historical value of the Japanese American

The museum offers a plethora of artifacts,
photos, quotes, poems, personal testimonies, pieces of art, and records
to the public to create a deeper understanding about Japanese American
history. In the Historic Building, there is a temporary photo display
of The Heart Mountain Story, including over thirty images of Japanese Americans
in the relocation camp. The photos were taken by Hansel Mieth and
Otto Hagel. In 1943, they were sent to the Heart Mountain Relocation center
in Northwest Wyoming to take pictures for Life magazine. The photos
went unpublished and hidden until 1995. This display is a useful supplement
to the readings and discussions in class because the visual affects of
seeing black and white photos of internees are quite dramatic. To
read and talk about the experiences of Japanese Americans during World
War II is shocking, but to see actual photos of moments frozen in time
is overwhelming. The collection includes photos of people leaving
their homes to go to camp, mothers struggling with their young children,
children in camp schools, and even a photo of Lt. General John DeWitt himself.

Also among the collection were the exclusion order signs that read “April
22, 1942 Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry…” and the May
11, 1942 Civilian Exclusion Order No. 63. It is eerie to see then
as signs hanging on the walls, rather than documentation in our text reading.

The Historic Building also offers a full
timeline that follows the events from the 1950’s to the 1990’s. It
includes photos and notes that help give a better understanding of the
political atmosphere and attitudes of that time. Also, there is nonstop
footage of home movies playing that was taken by Japanese Americans in
the 1920’s to the 1940’s. The videos are narrated and show slices
of Japanese American life, in a brighter light, with their families, at
festivals, and playing games.

The Pavilion is also full of information
and displays that are directly relate to what we learned in class and our
readings. There are many familiar names that we have learned about,
such as Gary Okihiro, the Yasui family, Iva Ikuko Toguri, Yuri Kochiyama,
Michi Weglyn, and more. There are displays that describe events such
as Pearl Harbor, the Japanese American experience in Hawaii, and even the
Chinese American Experience. Artifacts on display include actual
anti-Japanese propagandas, Basic Personnel Records of Japanese Americans
in Ellis Island, New York, and personal belongings of internees, which
were donated by their families. Interestingly, there was also a panel
that displayed idea of the “model minority,” which we discussed in class.

We noted an fascinating quote by Frank Chin who described the words “model
minority” as a “white supremacist stereotype…expressed in the form of
Another interesting display was in the
Ahmanson Foundation Gallery. In this gallery, there were copies of
actual letters written by internees and their families while in the camps.

Included in these were “Miss Breed Letters” (letter that a San Diego teacher
exchanged with her interned students). The letters present poignant records
and personal information that are effective in helping people understand
some of the experiences of internment.

Inside the Pavilion, there is even an original
barrack from the Heart Mountain Relocation center. It is a real life
example of the size of the barracks and one doesn’t have to imagine how
little space families had to live in while interned. Not only do
the contents of the museum recapture the broad, overall events and experiences
of Japanese Americans, but also it gives detailed pieces of individual
experiences and life stories as well. Visiting the museum helped
us fill in the any gaps that we had between what we learned in class and
what the Japanese experience was really like. It definitely gave
us a more complete understanding of what was going on during that era,
and finely supplemented the books and discussions that we had in class.

We had the chance to speak briefly with
Debbie Henderson, who is the archivist at the National Resource Center
in the Pavilion. When we asked her what kind of people generally
visit the museum, she said that she noticed many tourists from Japan and
Hawaii, students in junior high and high school who come for school tours,
and generally people of all ages. However, she does not see as many
college students as she would like, especially since the National Resource
Center provides many research resources on Japanese Americans, such as:
books, manuscripts, databases, immigration records, newspapers on microfilm,
periodicals, diaries, videos, life histories, and oral histories.

We realized that the Museum has many research materials to offer students,
but we were disappointed that only a few college students take their time
to visit the Museum and take advantage of what the Museum has to offer.

Other organizations and groups that the
Japanese American National Museum works with include the Japanese American
Resource Center in San Jose, the Japanese American Historical Society of
America in San Diego, Japanese American organizations in Chicago and Seattle.

These are mostly for the purpose of finding family stories and studying
life history. They also work with other museums, such as Skirball and the
Watts Art Center to promote the appreciation for cultural diversity. They
even work with other ethnic institutions, such as Korean Americans, to
create connections with other ethnic communities.

The museum caters to the changing role
of Japanese Americans in several ways. For example, they do public programming
and work in accord with community events (i.e. Nisei week). Also,
they are constantly creating new exhibits, with many of them that appeal
to newer generations. For example, the display, Common Ground: The
Heart of Community, gives a historical overview of Issei pioneers to the
present (sansei, yonsei, gosei). The museum even offers programs
that appeal to children, such as story telling on Thursdays, and several
activities booklets for children to learn about the Museum and its significance
towards the community. In addition, the museum is working on an international
research project, Nikkei, which is financially supported by Japan.

This program studies the role and experiences of Japanese in ten other
countries. In order to understand the role and experiences of Japanese,
a comparative studies and bibliographies by scholars are performed.

The Japanese American National Museum plays
an active role in educating people about historical events and how the
Japanese American population contributed to the development of America
today. In accord with the authors and the people that we read about in
this class, the museum celebrates the accomplishments and the significance
of Japanese Americans. As the museum affects the community, it is
also affected by the ever-changing community, such as new generations of
Japanese Americans and people with multi-ethnic backgrounds. Most
importantly, the museum does not serve exclusively for those of Japanese
ancestry. By working with other ethnic institutions, it attempts
to bridge the gap between ethnic differences, thus showing how it is community
based, rather than ethnically based. Since it has only been seven
years since the museum opened, it is still developing, changing, and improving.

It is expanding through both time with the continual studying of sansei,
yonsei, gosei, and space, with its globally establishments that are beyond
it’s location in Los Angeles and in America. Although it is called
the Japanese American National Museum, it is beginning to explore the experiences
of Japanese from an international outlook, as seen in its Nikkei research
project. In tying together from our class readings and the experience
at the Japanese American National Museum, we believe Senator Daniel Inouye’s
quote sums up our views of the Museum. The Museum was “conceived,
built and largely financed by Americans of Japanese Ancestry. Increasingly,
the effort is being joined by other Americans for whom the appeal comes
from the similarity to their own stories… In sum, it is an American institution,
built by Americans, while has meaning for all of us.”


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