Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Japanese American National Museum

It so happened that my birthday fell during my stay in Los Angeles, and my son, Hunter, knowing that I love Sushi took me to Little Tokyo where on the second floor of a department store complex was a Sushi bar that was absolutely fabulous.  All the chefs and staff were Japanese  as were most of the patrons.  Should you be in L.A. it is called Sushigo55.  It was the real thing right down to the location,  herewith photos of the latter, the restaurant and the beautiful tasting food.

As we were leaving by a different entrance than we came in from, in front of us was The Japanese American National Museum, a museum that was new to me. Of course, I asked Hunter if we could go.  Lunch had been such a perfect setup.  Hunter had another museum surprise for me later in the afternoon, but we had time.

It is a wide open space with several exhibitions going at once, including one on Japanese toys and another on the photographer Kip Fulbeck who has been photographing persons who identify as “hapa”, from the Hawaiin meaning half, part or mixed, that are of Asian/pacific islander decent.   His 15-year project promotes awareness and positive acceptance of multicultural identity.

The exhibition that interested me most was “Common Ground: The Heart of a Community”. Back East we were aware of the prejudice and injustices done to African Americans.  In the Southwest it is the Native Americans and Hispanics who have been given the short end of the stick.  Having just finished the book “Hawaii” by James Michener, I have learned far more about the prejudices of the white population against the Chinese, Japanese and others brought in as indentured servants. This went on well into the 20th century, with the fear that if Hawaii became a state the whites would be ruled by the Japanese, particularly as they were going into business with the Chinese.

“Common Ground” showed hundreds of objects, documents and photographs collected by the museum covering 130 years of the Japanese in America.  Truth be known, it was a specific period, and the one that was covered the best, that grabbed my attention, the persecution of the Japanese during World War II.   From their second generation on, Japanese in the U.S. felt as American as anyone else.  I, the son of German Jews, felt I was American, and said so loudly  from the age of 3.  The prejudice and alienation experienced by Japanese Americans , however, is difficult to fathom.  In the exhibition is this poster.  It shows a man running for his second term in the US. Senate in 1920 saying, “Keep California White”.

At the dawn of World War II young Japanese Americans understood that they had to prove their patriotism, but they were not allowed to join the armed forces.   Anglos felt they were all probably spies or Japan sympathizers.  In Hawaii, however, nearly 40% of the population was Japanese American and if they had been incarcerated it would have crippled the local economy.  So instead they declared martial law and continuously harassed the community. With Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt 10 weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941, the way  was cleared for the eventual internment of 120,000 Japanese, well over half being U.S. citizens.  By 1943,however, they were allowed to  form a regiment and fight in Italy, France and Germany.  That was the 442nd Infantry Regiment out of Hawaii.  The 442nd is the most decorated unit in the history of American warfare with 9,486 purple hearts, 8 Presidential Unit Citations and 21 Medals of Honor!

These were some of the thoughts going through my head as I walked around the show.  But there was so much I did not know.  For instance, that there was a large Japanese community in the state of Utah brought in to fill railroad construction gangs in the early 20th century.  Remember, going West was our “manifest destiny”.   Out of Utah’s total population of 373,000 thousand in 1910, 2,110 were Japanese. This had grown to 8,000 when the Japanese internment camp called Topaz opened in 1942.  Here you see their piled up suitcases. They were only allowed one each.

The exhibition has an original internment barracks   It is from the Heart Mountain Relocation Center where more that 10,000 Japanese American, rounded up from the entire West Coast, were incarcerated. This barracks is 20 x 16 feet and was intended for a family of 2 or 3, or more bachelors.  Around it were labels with quotes. From a former inmate, George Iseri, “The most important thing I brought was my baseball mitt and shoes. Only one suitcase.  Oh, yes I remember”. And from a visitor, Bacon Sakani  “ … by taking a person inside that barrack [s], you can explain what happened to us better.  Just talking about it is not enough”. This latter is a good thing for all teachers to remember.  Here is an image of building a barrack and one of the barracks in the museum.

We so often forget and have to be reminded that when citizens everywhere get scared and feel threatened they close down and fear all foreigners.

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