By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
When Nancy Araki became the first employee of the Japanese American National Museum, there was no museum. There was only a small office in a refurbished warehouse at 941 E. Third Street, a few blocks from Little Tokyo.
Twenty-eight years later, about 200 people, including JANM’s staff, board and volunteers, gathered at the museum’s spacious Aratani Central Hall on Sunday to wish her well on her retirement. Araki stepped down as director of community affairs on Sept. 30.
Mitch Maki, a member of the Board of Governors, called Araki “the Forrest Gump of JANM,” noting that she has been present for every milestone in the museum’s history and that “each and every president of JANM has worked with Nancy.”
The current president and CEO, Greg Kimura, told Araki, “This institution would not be without you. We have nothing but appreciation and thankfulness because what you have done, what you have created … is going to outlast all of us.”
Bruce Kaji, JANM’s founding chairperson, recalled the museum’s humble origins. “We hired Nancy to be a person who would expedite things … I didn’t have a space in my office for her, but … if I removed the closet doors I could put a desk in there, so I put Nancy in the closet.”
He credited Araki, who was previously with Visual Communications, with putting together a film about Japanese American history that “totally impressed” then-State Sen. Art Torres and persuaded him to introduce a bill providing more than $1 million in funding for the museum.
Araki also saw the museum through tough times, such as when it opened its doors in 1992 at the former Nishi Hongwanji building on First Street. “We had a big celebration (planned) and it turned out the Los Angeles Riot was on that day, and we had to bring the whole ceremony into the building itself, had to take the chairs off the street … But we finished the opening ceremonies and we got it started,” Kaji said. “ … It’s been a fantastic journey to come to this point and we’ve had some fantastic people to lead us.”
Irene Hirano Inouye, who served as JANM’s president and CEO for more than 20 years, remarked, “I did not ever think this day would come … It’s really a testament to the way that Nancy dedicated so much of her life to the National Museum by how many people are here, people who go way back to the beginning … When we hired new staff, we would make sure that they sat down with Nancy so they not only understood the history but more important the culture and values that the National Museum stands for … She would greet each volunteer in that very special way.”
Araki led the way in the preservation/renovation of the Nishi Hongwanji building, which is now an annex to JANM’s main building, and the installation of barracks from the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming as part of a permanent display. Hirano Inouye said that Araki and curator Jim Hirabayashi felt that “if this was going to be a national museum, it had to have an artifact that would tell the story in a real way.”
“You’ve been an important part of our lives for so many years, you’ve seen children, grandchildren come into the institution. We would not have felt that the National Museum was such a special place if you had not been a part of it,” Hirano Inouye told Araki.
Miyoko Oshima, who served as interim co-executive director with Araki in 2011, recalled that staffer Clement Hanami referred to the pair as MONA (their initials), as though they were one person.
“I cherish those days,” Oshima said of her tenure at JANM. “I cherish the trust that we had, and it is a trust that comes from struggle, struggle for civil rights, struggle for human rights. It is a trust that comes from a shared ethic of gambarimashou — we will do this together. It is a trust that is essential for community-building … You, Nancy, are the godmother of this museum. Thank you for your 28 years.”
Hitoshi Sameshima, representing the Nisei World War II veterans and the museum volunteers, said he asked his colleague for their impressions of Araki and got comments like “born leader … very approachable … nice personality … positive attitude … has a wealth of information.” “What this signifies or boils down to is, Nancy, they all love you. We hate to see you leave,” he said.
Former City Councilmember Jan Perry, who represented Little Tokyo, remembered one of her conversations with Araki. “You said the techniques that the museum used could be shared and taught with other institutions because that is part of the mission of the museum, and what will continue its relevance in binding it together with greater institutions all over the world … Such a simple comment, but it always affected me on a very deep level because it represents to me who you are.
“You’re tenacious, you’re disciplined, you’re focused, you’re very warm, you’re extremely charming to politicians when you need to get what you want, and you always did and I never said no … I just enjoyed you so much.”
The program also included keyboardist/composer Scott Nagatani playing “Blowing in the Wind” and Helen Ota and Miko Shudo singing “American Made.”
A video of comments from well-wishers featured KTLA news anchor Frank Buckley, who said, “You have truly made an impact that will be a lasting impact on our community, on Los Angeles, and on me. I can’t believe you’re retiring. It goes without saying JANM will not be the same without you. You are the heart and soul of the place and you always will be.”
Gordon Yamate, chair of JANM’s Board of Trustees, announced that the room formerly known as Education Center II will now be called the Nancy K. Araki Education Center. The room is used for docent training, meetings of the Little Tokyo Community Council Executive Board, and rehearsals for the Cold Tofu comedy group, among other activities, and whenever people think of that place, “they will also think of you, Nancy, and what you’ve done for this institution,” Yamate said.
After receiving a standing ovation, Araki responded, “I’m such a fortunate person, really I am, to have the privilege to intersect with so many exceptional people during my tenure here at the museum and in this community, and many, many of you are sitting here today … family, friends, mentors, colleagues, co-conspirators and champions, all of whom I’ve worked with, learned from … They trusted me too and took our challenges together.”
Born and raised in San Francisco, Araki said she came to L.A. in 1979. “Little did I imagine … that I would have spent 34 years, the most time in any one place, here in Los Angeles, in Little Tokyo … This is where I’ve always worked, spent most of my waking hours, and the place where I’ve made lasting friendships. Little Tokyo has been a home to me where I experienced the work of community engagement, community building and community preservation, and I thank you who are continuing to plan and to work to the bright sustaining future for Little Tokyo …
“I had the privilege of working with visionary strategists and those who supported and continued to support the museum’s mission with generosity of spirit, time and funds. The National Museum will continue because of the solid foundation laid by … its leadership and the talented staff the museum has always been fortunate to attract.”
Her new adventures will include “a bucket list of hoping to visit 13 states … which I have not been able to travel to in the national community-building efforts of the museum. Then there’s the training classes which I must pass in order to be officially a volunteer at the museum … As my kids would say, before I get too old and crotchety, there will be a move back to the San Francisco Peninsula. But that’s in the distant future.”
Araki, who was accompanied by her two daughters, told the crowd, “I look forward to our paths crossing and continuing to cross, here in Los Angeles or wherever.”
Maki, who has known Araki for over 30 years, told her, “You once told me that life is like a box of manju. My wish for you is that your box of manju continues to be filled with the sweetest an possible.”
The event concluded with the cutting of the cake (inscribed “Nancy — Heart of Our Community”) and a group photo with JANM’s pioneers.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo