Producing Japanese American History: An exploration through the JANM archives

Greetings Discover Nikkei!  While we all know that Discover Nikkei is a global project online, did you know that it is actually based at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Los Angeles, California?  For those of you that have never had the chance to visit JANM (commonly pronounced ja-num), I highly recommend you stop by whenever you’re in Southern California!  And for those of you nearby, you should consider volunteering – it’s definitely true when they say that you can get so much more out of it than you put in!

For the past few months, I’ve been on a somewhat “special assignment” at JANM, which luckily includes complete access to the museum’s 80,000 item permanent collection.  My job has been to profile unique individuals that complicate the “grand narrative” of Japanese American history.  Ideally, this research will eventually be used towards future public exhibits at the museum.  As a historian and sucker for all things old and nostalgic, this is right up my alley.

In this Discover Nikkei series, I hope to share some of these more memorable stories and give Discover Nikkei readers a “behind-the-scenes” look into some of the fascinating primary resources that JANM has in its permanent collection.  I will examine some unique examples of how the public facade of Japanese American history is created, recorded, and disseminated here at JANM.  But perhaps more importantly, I will also attempt to examine how easy it is for history to be lost, and how difficult it is for it to be found.

Check parts of the museum collection online >>

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Part 5 of 5 – History is Found: Sumi and Masao Shigezane

Over the previous four installments of this series, I have attempted to demonstrate many of the ongoing issues here behind-the-scenes at the Japanese American National Museum. We are fortunate to have so many priceless artifacts that help tell the remarkable history of Japanese people in the United States, but for every Namyo Bessho citizenship record, there are countless Joyce MacWilliamson radios. Furthermore, even for all properly documented items we have, it truly is beyond our ability and capacity to go one by one through each individual piece and attempt to properly contextualize it.

But every once in awhile, we get …

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Part 4 of 5 – History is Lost: Joyce MacWilliamson

To this point, we have examined three exceptional figures from the Japanese American community with remarkable stories and records. However, the sad truth is that for every item that we can properly describe, there are countless others that we can’t.

In 1999, JANM received a curious donation offer from Ms. Joyce MacWilliamson of Beaverton, Oregon:

Joyce MacWilliamson’s father Ramon “Mac” MacWilliamson took temporary ownership of a shortwave radio belonging to the 17 year old son of a Japanese American acquaintance. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan, such radios were immediately considered to be contraband for Japanese Americans, out …

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Part 3 of 5 – History is Ignored: Estelle Ishigo

Estelle Ishigo is a name that may be familiar to many of you. She was one of the few whites to be incarcerated with Japanese Americans during World War II. Estelle voluntarily chose to enter Heart Mountain Relocation Center in order to stay with her Nisei husband, Arthur Ishigo. She authored the book Lone Heart Mountain (1972) and was the subject of Steven Okazaki’s Academy Award winning film Days of Waiting (1990). While Ishigo’s artwork is highly acclaimed in Japanese American history, I believe that too often it alone is objectified, leaving the artist herself completely invisible.

Born in 1899 …

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Part 2 of 5 – History is Told: S. John Nitta

The second part of this series will tell the story of another fascinating individual with a tremendous contribution to Japanese American history. Shigeru “John” Nitta was born in Seattle in 1911, but moved to Japan as a child due to his father’s illness. He eventually returned to the United States (specifically Southern California), where he graduated from San Pedro High School in 1933. He soon moved back to Japan and studied chick sexing, which had recently been established and legitimized at the University of Tokyo.

The goal of chick sexing is to be able to determine the sex of a …

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Part 1 of 5 – History is Made: Namyo Bessho

While not exclusively the case, we can simply surmise that fascinating individuals with fascinating life events make fascinating history.

To appropriate Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s famous phrase, well-behaved Japanese Americans seldom make history. From Fred Korematsu to Toyo Miyatake to Yuri Kochiyama, the Japanese Americans whose lives are memorialized in our exhibitions are primarily those who went against the grain and followed their beliefs.

Although the vast heterogeneity and hybridity of Japanese Americans across three different centuries makes it difficult to find the universal common threads of Japanese American identity, the ideas of resistance and struggling for justice are uniting points …

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Amache anti-miscegenation laws art artifacts artist camps chick sexing citizenship Colorado Days of Waiting discrimination Estelle Ishigo Granada heart mountain incarceration issei James Lindley janm JANM collection Japanese American National Museum John Nitta kibei letters Masao Shigezane military