By GWEN MURANAKA
RAFU ENGLISH EDITOR IN CHIEF
“The crane always leaves the water clean,” said Akemi Kikumura Yano, quoting a Japanese proverb as she described cleaning her office during her last days at the Japanese American National Museum.
On Aug. 31, Kikumura Yano finished her 24-year career at JANM — the last three as its president and chief executive officer. She received her Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA and in 1987 brought that skill set to JANM, curating its inaugural exhibit, “Issei Pioneers: Hawaii and the Mainland 1885-1924.”
Looking back at her career during an interview on Tuesday, she showed photos taken in the field, working with Nisei such as Oregon surgeon Homer Yasui and Kona coffee farmers on what would be some of JANM’s most notable exhibitions.
“I see myself as a facilitator. When I go into a community they are the experts, not me. I’m there to help them tell their story. A local artist will get the aesthetics better,” Kikumura Yano explained.
JANM enters a new era with Kikumura Yano’s departure. As senior vice president, she brought continuity when she took over in February 2008 for Irene Hirano Inouye, who served 21 years as head of the museum and left shortly before her marriage to Sen. Daniel Inouye. Hirano Inouye guided JANM from its early days in a warehouse south of Alameda Street to a nationally recognized cultural institution. This week the board announced the appointment of Nancy Araki, director of community affairs, and Miyoko Oshima, chief operating officer, as co-executive directors who will oversee day-to-day operations.
The Los Angeles-based executive search firm Morris & Berger has been hired to find a new CEO, and was to meet with JANM staff on Friday. Gordon Yamate, chair of the Board of Trustees, is leading the search committee. He didn’t place a deadline on finding a new CEO but was optimistic.
“Akemi has been with the museum since its inception on both on the curatorial side and development side, and done a tremendous job over the years. She will definitely be missed,” said Yamate, a San Jose-based attorney and former vice president and general counsel for Knight Ridder.
“We want the best possible candidate, so we want to do this carefully and thoughtfully. My hope is that things will move along relatively quickly.”
Yamate said that Kikumura Yano’s departure represents an opportunity to contemplate who JANM’s audience will be in the future.
“One of our strategies will be to broaden our audience. Some have asked whether the next CEO will be Japanese American. When you think about it, who is a JA? It’s changing so much, and that’s part of the thinking going forward: how do you connect with those audiences?” said Yamate.
One change discussed by the board was making the museum more open and creating more connection between the three JANM buildings — the Historic Building, National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, and the Pavilion.
“All museums are facing this particular issue: how do they stay relevant to the communities they serve? We think there is tremendous potential. We have to make the right decisions now. One of the key positions will be the new CEO we hire,” said Yamate.
During Kikumura Yano’s tenure, JANM weathered the economic downturn, which led the museum to cut staff and reduce operating hours at the beginning of 2009. Today JANM has 40 employees and 200 volunteers, down from a peak of 100. JANM has also worked to eliminate its short-term debt, which has impacted staffing and programs.
“We’re in a good position, the board has worked hard, in the last couple years to get rid of the museum’s short-term debt,” said Yamate.
“The hardest part is having to downsize. For me, it still is the hardest part when you know you’re impacting people’s livelihood,” said Kikumura Yano.
Kikumura Yano said the job of president and CEO was a 24/7 task that left little time for family. The youngest in a Lodi farming family of 13, including 10 sisters, she is planning a road trip up to
Northern California to visit with all of her living sisters, stopping in cities such as Bakersfield, Acampo, Fowler and Sacramento.
“Four girls are going to drive all along California and see my older sisters,” said Kikumura Yano. “Because I grew up in a family of women, there were always storytellers. I’m going to take this trip and be able to hear these stories about my family.”
One of her plans is to return to writing and research. A book on her sisters would complete a trilogy on family started in 1981 with “Through Harsh Winters: The Life of a Japanese Immigrant Woman” and followed in 1991 by “Promises Kept: The Life of an Issei Man.” She has also received offers to teach and consult, but has not made any commitments yet.
“I owe it to my family to be real thoughtful about what I’m going to do next,” said Kikumura Yano.
Kikumura Yano will return to JANM in October for a planned reunion of the cast of the 1976 teledrama “Farewell to Manzanar.” She played Koro, the young wife of Teddy (Clyde Kusatsu), in the film, which JANM received rights to reprint on DVD.
Other than that, she exits JANM as it turns to a new generation of leaders to guide its future development. The board that was once dominated by Nisei has transitioned to younger leadership and the staff is transitioning as well.
“I worked with Irene Hirano. She and I had a very, very good partnership. And when I went in, it was the end of the Issei generation. There were a handful of Issei alive in 1987, and then they were gone, there are no more. And we are at the same place with the Nisei,” said Kikumura Yano.
Herself a younger Nisei, Kikumura Yano noted that it is the younger generation that will now build institutions based on the changing needs of the Japanese American community.
“Being nimble and being flexible and accepting of change and evolution is important. For that reason I think the next generation of leaders must come in and take it over, and assume the responsibility and feel as passionate as the Issei and Nisei who built this museum.”