By MIA NAKAJI MONNIER
Rafu Staff Writer
Outside the newest exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum hangs a banner. Up close, visitors can make out individual pictures—each about the size of a postage stamp. These are family photos: grinning kids in kimono, extended families three rows deep posing in the yard, teenagers gathered around Grandpa and his birthday cake. But take a few steps back, and the photos disappear like the strokes of an impressionist painting. Together, they add up, to make enka star Jero.
Duncan Williams, one of the curators of the exhibit, “Visible & Invisible: A Hapa Japanese American History,” says Jero represents the future: not just the of Japanese America, but of America in general. Born Jerome White in Pittsburgh, Pa., Jero is mixed— three quarters African American, one quarter Japanese. Yet he’s become famous in Japan for singing traditional enka songs, which he grew up hearing from his Japanese grandmother.
Jero, to Williams, represents the complex identity of a growing group of Americans, whose looks and cultural identifications don’t fit into neat or expected categories. Up close, in those stamp-sized family photos, the kids in kimono have light skin, dark hair; black, white, Latino features. They don’t fit the typical image of Japan, or Japanese America, and yet, statistically, they’re fast becoming the new norm.
“The Japanese American community is now on the cusp of becoming majority multiracial,” said Williams, while leading a tour of the exhibit. By the 2020 Census, the majority of Japanese Americans will be mixed, or Hapa, making “Visible & Invisible” relevant—and, to many Japanese Americans of mixed race or ethnicity, a moving affirmation of their place in the community.
While the exhibit is not the first about Hapa identity (that credit goes to Kip Fulbeck, whose exhibits “Part Asian, Not Hapa” and “Mixed” look at Hapas through photographs), it is thefirst to examine the subject through a historical and sociological lens.
Divided into several sections, it explores the early history of multiracial Japanese American families, the treatment of mixed children on both sides of the Pacific during World War II, and Hapa in Nisei Week and Japanese American baseball leagues. An interactive map by Loving Day shows the rise and fall of state anti-miscegenation laws in the United States.
The exhibit came as the culmination of the five-day Hapa Japan Festival, made up of film screenings, scholarly presentations, a book fair, a literary panel, and a comedy show (“the most specific comedy show ever,” in the words of comedian Anna Suzuki). Throughout the week, participants and visitors expressed excitement about being able to feel like part of a community of people who related to an aspect of their experience that not everyone could understand.
During the “Visible & Invisible” opening reception, reigning Nisei Week Queen Emily Folick, sharing the stage with fellow Hapas Williams and JANM CEO Dr. Greg Kimura, remarked on the number of mixed faces in the crowd. “I’ve never felt more at home,” she said. The comedians put it another way. “Since we’re all sharing, since we’re all family here somehow—” began KT Tatara, before launching into a joke about gray hairs south of the neck.
For a community of people who often feel that they stand out or aren’t quite understood in certain social groups, the festival provided a rare opportunity to be part of a majority, an experience simultaneously novel, strange, and comfortable. And if demographic trends continue, it may prove to be a preview of the future Japanese American community.
“Visible & Invisible” will be on display at the Japanese American National Museum through Aug. 25. Visit www.janm.org for more information.