Threads of ‘American Tapestry’ Displayed at JANM

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“American Families” by Momo Nagano, a flag inscribed with names of the camps and of families from the Seinan district among the items on display now at the Japanese American National Museum. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO

RAFU STAFF WRITER

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The Japanese American National Museum unveiled a new exhibition, “American Tapestry: 25 Stories from the Collection” on Nov. 13 as part of the celebration of its 25th anniversary.

The 25 items were chosen from more than 80,000 artifacts, documents, photographs, oral histories and works of art currently in the museum’s collection.

Clement Hanami, JANM director of programs and curator of the exhibition, said that each object has a link to Facebook and other websites so that visitors with iPhones or PDAs can instantly access further information. “Technology changes things. It also changes how people, especially young people, engage with information … We’re part of a network of a lot of information sources.”

During a docent tour last week, Hanami gave the back story of each item, including a quilt created by six women from the South Bay the year the museum opened. “They were so enamored with the fact that the museum actually existed that they created this quilt … They eventually donated it to the museum with a check for $3,000. Just a way to show how the community can come together to create something but also to support the museum through their work. It’s a beautiful tapestry.

“One of the things we want to talk about is the tapestry as a metaphor. This is a physical, literal tapestry, but in the exhibition … we’re talking about the many threads of our society, whether it’s by race, ethnicity, color, age, religious beliefs. All of these represent different threads of our society. Together they become one really strong fabric.”

Captain Sulu’s uniform from one of the “Star Trek” movies was donated by actor George Takei. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Many of the objects, such as a pair of dollar bills from the 1940s, seem ordinary until their story is told. Hanami pointed out that each bill was stamped with the word “Hawaii.” “The government … made all the people in Hawaii trade in their money. Everyone had to have money stamped with ‘Hawaii.’ That would be the only money that would be acceptable … What they said was they didn’t want the Japanese government or imperial army to get the money, but in reality they were really just trying to control the use of currency within the territory. You couldn’t use it on the mainland … So people couldn’t send money, people couldn’t receive money. It was a form of martial law, basically.”

While the Issei as a group were barred from U.S. citizenship until after World War II, there were exceptions, as a 1919 naturalization certificate for Namyo Bessho illustrates. Hanami noted, “He was a veteran of the Spanish American War and World War I … He tried to get citizenship and he got it briefly, but then they took it away because of another law which reinforced the idea of ‘aliens ineligible for citizenship’ … It’s interesting how the definition of the laws was interpreted and things could be reversed. It wasn’t until 1935 that he actually did get his citizenship.”

Two paintings by Henry Sugimoto depict different aspects of the Issei experience. One is from the 1920s and shows a farm laborer carrying his suitcase along the road to Hanford in the San Joaquin Valley. The suitcase, inscribed with the kanji “Beikoku yuki” (bound for America), represents the immigrant’s journey in search of a better life.

The other painting, from the 1940s, shows an Issei man being taken from his home by the FBI as his wife and children watch helplessly. “Now it’s no longer coming to America, now it might be leaving America,” Hanami said. “There’s a lot of fear and anxiety that this painting portrays. Same artist, different time period, different situation. I think it’s a very revealing juxtaposition.”

Wartime Writings

Camp-related artifacts include the journal of Gordon Hirabayashi, who as a young man challenged the constitutionality of the internment. He turned himself in to the authorities and was jailed while his court case was pending. Also on view are the diaries of Stanley Hayami, who left the Heart Mountain camp to serve with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and was killed in Italy at the age of 19.

The drawings of Mine Okubo, author of “Citizen 13660,” are like a graphic novel about the internment. Hanami said, “She was a young, very talented artist … She was in the prime of her life and the whole experience just totally turned her life upside down … She created over 200 drawings documenting the whole experience from a young person’s perspective.”

A 1943 Liberty Magazine article by Mary Oyama Mittwer, titled “My Only Crime Is My Face,” described the Nisei experience to a mainstream audience. A scrapbook contributed by Yuri Kochiyama tells the story of the Crusaders, a group of young people in the camps who wrote letters of encouragement to Nisei soldiers overseas.

Community activism is represented by an album, “A Grain of Sand,” released in 1973 by Yellow Pearl, the singing/songwriting duo of Nobuko Miyamoto and Chris Iijima. Miyamoto, a dancer who played a Puerto Rican in the movie version of “West Side Story,” became politically aware in the late 1960s, Hanami said. “She was enamored with the idea that your art can mean something, it can do something. That’s when her life started to change … A lot of their music was in protest of the Vietnam War. One of their major concerns about the media was its portrayal of Asians. Whenever they saw Asians, they were being maimed and murdered.”

An online tie-in, shown by Hanami on his iPad, is a video of Yellow Pearl singing “We Are the Children” on “The Mike Douglas Show” in 1972. John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as co-hosts of the show for a week, were allowed to choose the guests.

A video oral history shown on site features Superior Court Judge Vincent Okamoto, the most highly decorated veteran to survive the Vietnam War. Okamoto, who had two brothers in the 442nd and another who served in the Korean War, recounts visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with his young son.

Friends Forever

An 80-year-old bicycle is displayed as a symbol of friendship. It belonged to a little girl, Yoshino Uyemara, now known as Elaine Otomo, who was interned with her family in 1942. “They had to give up a lot of their personal belongings because people could only bring with them what they could carry,” Hanami said. “Yoshino’s father gave this bike to neighbors who were family friends. They had a daughter the same age, her name was Alice Blueian, so they gave Yoshino’s bike to Alice.” Being Armenian, the Blueians knew what it was like to be singled out on the basis of ethnicity, and they promised to return the bike.

The two families eventually lost contact with each other, Hanami said. “It wasn’t until about 60 years later that Alice and her son-in-law were looking at the bike, thinking, ‘We should try to return this to Yoshino because it’s not ours’ … Through the Internet they were able to reconnect. They only lived 20 miles apart in Fresno County.”

Another tapestry is an American flag woven by Momo Nagano to remember the Japanese Americans in her neighborhood, 30th Street in the Seinan district, who were interned. The stars are replaced by the names of the camps, and the stripes are inscribed with the names of the families in alphabetical order.

A wooden furo (bathtub) dating back to 1927 has a connection to a more recent event. “When the museum opened in 1992, it was actually the same day as the Los Angeles riots,” Hanami said. “So we had a lot of challenges as far as opening a museum while the city was basically on fire. We to change a lot of events, we had to cancel some, we had a lot of out-of-town visitors that we had to accommodate … But it also signified an important time for us because it illustrated the importance of a Japanese American museum and what it can do in a diverse society.”

Rioting broke out in South Central and elsewhere following the acquittal of the policemen in the Rodney King beating case. Takao Hirata was driving through the intersection of Florence and Normandie when he was pulled from his car and brutally beaten by a mob. “For some reason, this man, Greg Alan Williams – who’s an actor, he was in ‘Baywatch’ – shows up on that scene,” Hanami said. “He grabs this man, he pulls him away from the mob and he rescues him … It was actually his actions that saved this man’s life.”

The museum invited Williams to tour its opening exhibition. When he saw the furo, it brought back memories of his upbringing in the South, Hanami said. “It was not a furo, but an outdoor bath, but they basically did the same thing, had the same types of experiences. From there we really formed a bond … Fifteen days after the riots started, we did have an official opening to try to start the healing, and he spoke there.”

Lost Marbles

Three marbles, about 70 years old, are from Toru Saito, who was interned at Topaz as a child. “When Toru made a pilgrimage back about 50 years later, he looked for the barracks where he lived,” Hanami said. “He looked where the steps would have been. He felt like he needed to dig right here, so he dug and he found 26 marbles. They were his marbles … He recounts the story of revisiting that experience and coming to terms with what that whole experience meant.”

A model of Manzanar barracks was created by Robert Hasuike, who was a model-maker for Mattel Toys.  “He wasn’t a guy that carried a picket sign. He just had a lot of humility. He was a great guy,” Hanami said. “And he was really good at making models … He actually took them to the pilgrimages and … made a lot of adjustments based on what people were telling him, so it’s very authentic in that sense.”

A skateboard with outdoor wheels provides a more contemporary spin on the Manzanar experience. Eric Nakamura, publisher and editor of Giant Robot, toured the camp site by skateboard with a friend. “One of the poignant stories of his experience was that after skating all over Manzanar, they looked at the reservoir. It’s a really huge reservoir of concrete, so they had more fun skating all over the place,” Hanami said. “But then they stopped and they saw that someone had written their names in the concrete. That’s the moment when they had an epiphany –  ‘Wow, these people were just like me, doing the same things.’ “

Actor/activist George Takei’s contribution is the uniform of Captain Sulu from “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991). Takei’s character was the helmsman of the USS Enterprise in the original series, but when the “Star Trek” movies were made, he pushed the writers to give Sulu a promotion. In “Star Trek VI,” he commanded his own vessel.

Takei made equally important strides in real life, Hanami pointed out. “He ran for City Council in the ‘70s … He was on the board of the Rapid Transit District. Even today he’s a very vocal person for the rights of all people, with his stands on Proposition 8, and if you go on YouTube there’s tons of videos of him speaking out against injustice.”

Two items are tied to the 9/11 attacks. There is a photo from journalist Stan Honda of a woman, covered in white ash, walking away from the WTC site after the towers collapsed. Robert Ideishi, a Sansei, was in Tower 1 of the World Trade Center when it was hit, but managed to survive. The computer bag he had with him is on display. “What he talks about is his experiences – in a time of crisis, how people really come together and step up … It’s really about giving hope and talking about role models, heroes,” Hanami said.

The museum is located at 369 E. 1st St. in Little Tokyo. The gallery is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday from 12 to 8 p.m. (closed Mondays and holidays). For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or visit janm.org.

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