By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
About 1,200 people turned out for the Japanese American National Museum’s annual gala, held March 19 at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites in Los Angeles with “Moving Images, Telling Stories” as this year’s theme.
The museum’s inaugural Legacy Award went to the husband-and-wife team of Robert Nakamura, a pioneer Asian American filmmaker, and Karen Ishizuka, a respected scholar. They were brought on in JANM’s early days to help shape its direction, established its collection of home movies and video life histories, and produced several exhibitions and documentaries.
The inaugural Founders’ Award went to noted filmmaker Ken Burns (“The Civil War”), who was unable to attend. He used material from the museum’s collection in three of his documentaries — “The War,” “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” and “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.”
David Ono of ABC7 Eyewitness News served as emcee. Music was provided throughout the evening by Hiroshima — Dan Kuramoto (saxophone/flute), June Kuramoto (koto), Kimo Cornwell (keyboards), Danny Yamamoto (drums), Dean Cortez (bass), and Terry Steele (vocals). Their repertoire included classics like “Kokoro” and “Thousand Cranes.”
In his opening remarks, JANM President and CEO Greg Kimura said that every week thousands of visitors to the museum learn about the Japanese American experience. “The story of those Issei and those Nisei, our families, remains as vital as ever, especially now as this nation continues to struggle against racism, homophobia and religious intolerance. Yes, we are about history, but make no mistake, we also remain relevant on the contemporary scene, especially in this political season.”
Meanwhile, he said, two of JANM’s traveling exhibitions are drawing crowds — “Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World” at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, Fla., and “Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty” at the EMP Museum in Seattle.
Former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, chair of the JANM Board of Trustees, expressed his “personal appreciation and very deep gratitude” to the museum’s trustees, governors, staff and “legions of loyal volunteers” for their support.
He added, “With the 2016 elections in high gear, we’ve been hearing things, disturbing things that sound very familiar, placing collective blame on groups of people based on ethnicity, race or religion … re-emergence of talk about concentration camps. Let us remember how easily our rights can be at risk when fear, insecurity and war hysteria gain root … a reminder of why the Japanese American National Museum is so important.”
Greetings were also delivered by dinner co-chair Linda Horioka, a member of the Board of Trustees, on behalf of herself and co-chair Tammie Kanda, a member of the Board of Governors; and Kanetsugu Mike, executive chairman of MUFG Union Bank, who said the bank became a signature sponsor of the gala to express gratitude for the support it has received from the Japanese American community over the years.
An “In Memoriam” video, which was followed by a moment of silence, paid tribute to notable individuals who have passed on since the last gala: May Fujino, Fred Yaichio Hoshiyama, Masaji “Mas” Inoshita, Susumu “Sus” Ito, Ben Kuroki, Masao “Mas” Matsumoto, Eleanor Edith “Ellie” Minami, Hisamiya Miyagishima, Tetsujiro “Tex” Nakamura, Ruth Ohmura Nishida, Susan Turner Purvis, George “Joe” Sakato, Dr. Paul Ichiro Terasaki, Dr. Richard J. Wood, Teruyo “Tootsie” Yoshimura, Rev. Dr. Takeo Uesugi, and George “Horse” Yoshinaga.
“A Lasting Impact”
Before performing a piece called “Manzanar” in Robert Nakamura’s honor, Dan Kuramoto recalled that he and June Kuramoto composed the music for an early Visual Communications film, “I Told You So,” a documentary about poet Lawson Inada. “The entire fruition of that whole visual arts scene … came as a consequence of Bob’s whole idea of letting everyone participate, and he was so generous in giving us the opportunity to try things … Bob encouraged all of us to grow this art form for our community.”
Ono said that although Nakamura and Ishizuka were being honored together, “each stands alone on their own merit, Karen as administrator, archivist, historian, writer and producer, Bob as photographer, community-minded teacher, mentor and award-winning filmmaker.”
Mineta added, “It takes an imaginative vision and steadfast dedication to leave a lasting impact. Karen and Bob’s legacy is embedded in what makes JANM today. Karen and Bob, thank you so very, very much for your leadership in establishing the Watase Media Arts Center and recognizing the value of home movies.”
Upon accepting the award, Nakamura remarked, “Both Karen and I are more at ease behind the camera rather than being in front. So I can tell you, using film language, the POV from here is spectacular … Thank you all so much for coming tonight and supporting the Japanese American National Museum … The museum is indebted to you and we are all so honored to be in your presence this evening.”
“We are really grateful to be the first recipients of the museum’s new Legacy Award, especially because there are so many others who could easily be standing here in our stead,” Ishizuka said.
She recognized friends and family members in attendance, including son Tad, who had just premiered his latest documentary, “Mele Murals,” at CAAMFest in San Francisco, and Keiko Higa, mother of the late curator Karin Higa, who “did so much for the museum and we lost her too early.”
Ishizuka continued, “Of the many staff, Irene Hirano, who was director and CEO during our tenure, had enough confidence and trust in us to let us work with very little bureaucracy and a lot of support. Clement Hanami has to be, I have to say, the single most important person at the museum. Without him all these years, the museum wouldn’t be where it is today. His talent, hard work and friendship have been invaluable.
“Of the many board members, I’d like to thank those who stood up and voiced their opposition when the exhibit that I curated, ‘America’s Concentration Camps,’ was almost censured when we took it to Ellis Island, especially Sen. Dan Inouye, Bruce Kaji, Norm Mineta and George Takei.
“We all know that the staff and board have been critical to the museum, but I think they’d all agree it’s the volunteers who embody its spirit and reason for being. I dedicated my book ‘Lost and Found’ to them, and would like to dedicate this special evening to them as well. They have been our inspiration and our biggest supporters. Tonight I have to say I especially miss Rumi Uragami, Lois and Elman Padilla, Fred Hoshiyama and May Fujino.”
Ishizuka and Nakamura had an ad in the evening’s booklet that listed additional volunteers. “When you read the names, know that every one represents a deep resume of work and commitment, and for every person listed, there are many more who enabled us to do what we do,” Ishizuka said. “Without their help, we would not be up here tonight. They are our team.”
Integral to American History
Actor and activist George Takei, a museum trustee and recipient of the JANM Distinguished Medal of Honor, said, “I had the pleasure of working with Ken Burns on his documentary ‘The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,’ narrating the story of Chiura Obata, a Japanese immigrant and renowned artist who fell in love with the breathtaking beauty of Yosemite National Park. Ken is not only a masterful visionary but also a champion of equality, using films to elevate his audience to a greater awareness. He could have easily omitted our story, but he made the choice to paint a more complete picture of American history.”
In a videotaped message, Burns apologized for not attending, explaining that he was working on a number of film projects, including a documentary about Jackie Robinson that will air in April.
“I’m honored to be the recipient of the museum’s very first Founders’ Award,” Burns said. “The vision that the founders articulated is a grand one. That you feel I’ve played even a small part in bringing it to life is very, very gratifying.
“As a filmmaker, I’m always looking for that rare and perhaps not as well known archive. The Japanese American National Museum proved to be that place for me on more than one occasion. The museum’s remarkable collection of home movies has proved invaluable to me, and the fact that these resources are made available to everyone is even more important.
“The Japanese American experience is integral to the full story of American history, and as a nation we should be grateful for the work the museum has done to share that experience with everyone … Being able to include the Japanese American National Museum’s unique moving images in my work has made my films that much better and more complete and accurate. I hope in doing so I’ve helped more people understand the Japanese American experience, regardless of their own background.”
Jamie Annunzio Myers, interim chief operating officer and vice president of education and community engagement for PBS SoCal, accepted on Burns’ behalf. Mineta said it was a happy coincidence that as a congressman he worked with her great uncle, the late Rep. Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.).
“As the flagship PBS station in Southern California, PBS SoCal has the privilege of bringing Ken’s groundbreaking documentaries into all of your homes,” Myers said. “Ken is a masterful storyteller with an amazing capability to make you feel hopeful yet hopeless, inspired or disheartened, confused or enlightened, because he tells stories with depth that put the best and the worst of humanity on display.
“He pays attention to the details that some might disregard but that he feels and considers to make all the difference because they provide the context that results in a more honest portrayal of humanity’s complicated history … He’s devoted to telling stories without shying away from revealing uncomfortable truths, because we can learn from these truths and continue to improve as people.”
Irene Hirano Inouye, president of the U.S.-Japan Council and founding CEO of JANM, made an appeal for JANM’s Bid for Education: “My late husband, U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, was the chair of JANM’s Board of Governors for many years … Whenever he would visit the museum, his greatest joy was to see yellow school buses lined up on First Street and to walk through the exhibits and the galleries and see the students of all ages captured by the stories being shared by the museum’s many docents. He knew the future was being safeguarded by sharing the lessons of the past and its relevance for today and for tomorrow.
“When school districts began to cut funding for field trips, he immediately knew something had to be done. Thus was born the Bid for Education. He wanted a fund that would pay for buses, for being able to train teachers and for educational materials to ensure that the museum could continue to serve students both inside the national museum and throughout the country … Dan knew that despite whatever was happening around us, that we together could make a difference.”
Mitch Maki, author of “Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress,” and Kira Teshima, immediate past president of the JANM New Leadership Advisory Council, presented a video and presided over the fundraising session. (The total amount raised is not yet available.)
The lights were dimmed and the audience was asked to hold up the LED candles at their tables. “Each candle reminds us of the Issei, Nisei and Sansei who have gone before us … a reminder of our commitment to protect justice and equality,” Maki said.
The Lexus Opportunity Drawing was conducted by two representatives of Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.: Tracey Doi, group vice president and CFO, and Tammie Kanda of Corporate Community Relations. The winner was Andy Chun of San Jose.
Nancy Matsui, national account manager for American Airlines, conducted a drawing for airline tickets. The winner was Mark Hutchins of Los Angeles.
The dinner was preceded by a silent auction and followed by an after party at the BonaVista Lounge on the hotel’s 34th floor.
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo (except where noted)