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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Japanese American National Museum Los Angeles


Japanese emigration to the United States began in earnest in the mid-1880s, mainly to Hawaii and California where immigrants worked in agriculture. By the 1940s about 40% of the population of Hawaii was of Japanese ethnicity. There was about an equal number of those of Japanese ethnicity in California, but the Californian Japanese population comprised a smaller percentage of the total population than was the case in Hawaii.

Hello Kitty at Japanese American National Museum, Little Tokyo, Los Angeles.
Hello Kitty at Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles.

The devastating Japanese attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii happened in 1941. America immediately declared war on Japan, fanning already latent anti-Japanese sentiment particularly in mainland America, specifically California, where the small Japanese population had prospered and had come to control fruit and vegetable distribution. Hawaiian Japanese were too plentiful for Hawaii to afford to intern them, but the relatively tiny Californian Japanese population became scapegoats for Pearl Harbor and from February 1942 were rounded up and sent to concentration camps further inland.

Unlike German concentration camps for the Jewish population of Europe, they were not built as part of a policy of extermination, and the level of brutality was somewhat less. However, the result was loss of pride and livelihood and, due to the poverty of the living conditions, often loss of life. The Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles exists mainly to document this injustice.

The Japanese American National Museum opened in 1992 in LA's Little Tokyo district. It is a stylish, modern building with a permanent exhibit dedicated to the Remembrance Project to document the plight of Japanese Americans during World War Two, as well as a general space for special exhibitions. At the time of my visit, it was showing the Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty exhibition, running until April 26 this year.

Japanese American National Museum, Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, U.S.A.
Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles

The sobering permanent exhibit is a far cry from Hello Kitty. The visitor first encounters a life-size reconstruction of one of the barracks that families were interned in in the desert: crudely built, barely waterproof, certainly not windproof, and affording no privacy to inhabitants.

Inside the exhibition halls is a rich assortment of memorabilia and information boards informing about the history of the internment and conveying what life was like for those who suffered it. The internment itself was only the most brutal expression of the discriminatory treatment that Japanese had suffered as non-whites since they began coming to the United States. The elder generation of internees were Japanese nationals, while the younger generation - their children - were American. This is because Japanese immigrants were denied the right to become Americans and only their children received that right by way of being born in the U.S.

Barracks reconstruction, Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles.
Barracks reconstruction, Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles.

One off the most moving expressions of the Japanese American war experience was the display of English-language haiku which appear throughout the Museum, giving lyrical and very memorable emotional form to the story being told.

The Museum also has a library and a bookshop cum souvenir shop. I found the book Years of Infamy by Michi Weglyn in the library and purchased a copy in the bookshop. It is about the World War Two internment experience. (Japan Visitor book review coming up in a couple of weeks.)

As a Caucasian in Japan who during my years of living here has often been irked by what I see as discriminatory attitudes and behavior by Japanese towards me based on my not being Japanese, my experience of the Japanese American National Museum has forced me to look back at my reactions to such discrimination and recognize them as those of a diva.

Discrimination against Japanese Americans did not produce a community that sought to get back at the discriminating majority. Rather, they worked supremely hard to earn respect, the ultimate such "work" being mostly voluntary enlistment in the military forces for war against Japan on the part of the Hawaiian Japanese population.

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