Voices of the Volunteers: The Building Blocks of the Japanese American National Museum

This series introduces the experiences of the volunteers at the Japanese American National Museum from the book Voices of the Volunteers: The Building Blocks of the Japanese American National Museum, which was sponsored by Nitto Tire and published by The Rafu Shimpo.

A few years ago, Nitto Tire began working with the Los Angeles Japanese-language newspaper The Japanese Daily Sun to interview the Japanese American National Museum (JANM)’s volunteers. When Nitto Tire approached The Rafu Shimpo in late 2014 to edit and compile these interviews into a book, we were happy to do it. As a former JANM intern, I knew how important the volunteers were, how hard they worked, and how much their presence humanized history.

In the process of editing this book, I read each story so many times I began to dream about them. I know that I’m not alone in this absorption. Everyone who gave his or her time to this book lived within these stories and felt their effect. That’s the power of a first-hand account.When visitors come to JANM for a guided tour, they experience a similar kind of accelerated intimacy that brings the Common Ground exhibit to life. The volunteers have been putting a face to history for thirty years. For all that time, they have upheld the story of our community. It’s time now for us to uphold their stories.

Edited by Mia Nakaji Monnier with additional thanks to Contributing Editor Chris Komai; Japanese Editors Maki Hirano, Takashi Ishihara, and Ryoko Onishi; and Volunteer Liaison Richard Murakami. Interviews conducted by Tomomi Kanemaru (The Japanese Daily Sun), Alice Hama (The Japanese Daily Sun), and Mia Nakaji Monnier.

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Yasuyuki Suzuki

“Working as a volunteer guide at the Japanese American National Museum is such an interesting experience. I’ve taken a class about the history of Japanese Americans, but there’s no manual for my work. So I have to study constantly,” says Yasuyuki Suzuki.

Yasuyuki is one of the volunteer guides at the Japanese American National Museum who give tours around the exhibitions in Japanese. He learned the explanations of the exhibitions by accompanying the Nisei volunteer guides who gave tours in English. For Japanese visitors, some content is difficult to understand, so he tells them historical events in Japan from the …

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Kenneth “Ken” Hamamura

Over the years, Ken Hamamura has assumed various roles at the Japanese American National Museum. As a donor, staff member, and volunteer, he learned the importance of preserving and sharing our stories and artifacts to create a legacy for future generations.

Inspired by the Museum’s ongoing mission, Ken started to focus on his family history and hopes to build an enduring legacy for his daughter and grandsons. For some time now, the retired Sansei with Kibei parents has been researching and documenting his family’s history, delving into archived records, collecting photographs, and traveling to places that are meaningful to the …

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Mary Karatsu

“After I retired in 1993 as assistant to the president of a large nonprofit organization, I began my second career as a volunteer,” says Mary Karatsu. Indeed, she has been a prominent figure among community-based organizations like the Japanese American National Museum for many years, armed with determination and no small amount of charm.

Her early inspiration came from a Caucasian lady who took her under her wing and taught her what it meant to serve others. “She was such an influence in my life,” says Mary. “I wanted to be like her when I grew up.”

For 28 years, …

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Robert “Bob” Uragami

“I am not a museum type of person,” says Bob Uragami. He had his first encounter with the Japanese American National Museum in 1991 when it was looking for artifacts for its first exhibition, Issei Pioneers: Hawaii and the Mainland, 1885–1924.

Bob submitted a Japanese letter, dated about 1916, which had belonged to his mother. The museum translated it for him. It was a letter from his father, who was living in the U.S., to his future bride. “Contrary to what you have heard, there is no money tree,” he had written. Life in America was tough.

Both of …

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Kihachiro Tajima

Kimio Tajima was an American-born Nisei, but he died a Japanese soldier, while at war in New Guinea. He was 28 years old. His son, Kihachiro, was only ten months old when Kimio was drafted. Kihachiro grew up being called a war orphan, not remembering his father’s face.

When he was in elementary school, he asked his mother, “Why am I a war orphan?” She told him, “Your father died in war as a Japanese soldier, but he was born in the U.S.” Through her stories, Kihachiro began to adore his late father whom he had never met and dreamt …

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Amache Bob Uragami docent fukuoka janm Japanese American National Museum Ken Hamamura kibei Kihachiro Tajima Mary Karatsu nisei Rumi Uragami sansei Shin-Issei volunteer volunteers YMCA