Our visit to the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles was, for us, a reminder of just how World War ll disrupted the lives of millions of people. The shock and anger that the surprise attack by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor on Sunday December 7, 1941 created among the American people was unforgettable for those of us that experienced it.
The result for Japanese Americans residing in the United States was the immediate incarceration of entire families. Within just of few days following war commencement they were ordered to leave their homes and businesses, with only a few personal possessions, to be gathered and housed in camps under guard, this for the reminder of the war.
From the present viewpoint such an incarceration of Japanese Americans was clearly unconstitutional but at the time when ordered by President Roosevelt it was met with approval by most Americans.
Most people remembered, the rest of the lives, what they were doing when they heard the news that we were at war with Japan.
On that fateful day I was 14 years old and in front of my house passing a football back and forth with a 15 year old neighbor, Jack Longmeyer, when another neighbor shouted from his front door that the radio has just announced the attack in Hawaii.
Little did we realize that day, before the war was over, Jack Longmeyer would fly 23 missions over Germany in a B 17 bomber as a gunner or that I would be an infantryman during the Battle of the Bulge in Germany.
The Japanese museum in Los Angeles is the first in the United States to tell the story of Japanese Americans on how they have fitted in and contributed to the American lifestyle and U.S. history.
Since its founding and opening in 1992 the Museum has not only told the story of the mass incarceration and what the camps looked like but also how Japanese Americans have contributed to their country in many endeavors.
The concept of a Japanese museum was first explored in 1982 by businessmen in the "Little Tokyo" area of downtown Los Angeles. Also joining the effort were veterans of the 442 Infantry Regimental Combat Team, which was made up of American born Japanese. In combat during World War ll the 442 became one of the most highly decorated units in the U S Army. The place chosen for the museum was a building originally made in 1925 as a Buddhist Temple. Then in 1999 a new Pavilion was built to house the rapidly increasing Museum collection and activities.
The injustice of the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War ll was not officially recognized until the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was signed by President Ronald Reagan. This provided an official apology and reparations to the thousands of Japanese Americans who were unlawfully forced from their homes by the U.S. Government during the war.
One exhibit shows part of the typical barracks that was used to house the Japanese Americans in camps usually located in rural areas with little local population.
On our visit we were greeted by Leslie Unger, director of Marketing and Communications, who introduced us to Clement Hanami, Vice President of Exhibitions and Art Director. Mr. Hanami granted us a personal interview to explain the mission of the Los Angeles Japanese American Museum which is the largest in the U.S dedicated to sharing the experiences of Americans of Japanese ancestry. It tells a story of immigrant hopes, achievements, the frustration of the War years as well of the success that has finally been achieved.
Mr. Hanami explained that the Los Angeles museum was the first in the country dedicated to sharing the experience of Americans of Japanese ancestry as an integral part of U.S. history. With its comprehensive collection of Japanese American objects, images and documents this museum exhibits the Japanese American story to a national and international audience. The story of the Issei, the first generation Japanese immigrants is well told including the process of immigration and re-settlement common to so many Americans.
A current exhibition entitled "Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit" graphically depicts the camps and life there during World War ll. These camps included Heart Mountain in Wyoming and Manzanar located along Highway 395 in California. The photographs are by Paul Itagaki Jr. and the exhibition will continue until April 2019.
Another current exhibit is entitled "Kaiju vs. Heroes" and is Mark Nagata's Journey through the World of Japanese Toys.
During World War ll 120,000 Japanese were incarcerated in what can only be described now as concentration camps. In 1952 a book entitled "Beauty Behind Barbed Wire" explored art and craft objects created by Japanese living in those camps. Material described in this book has been collected, some four hundred pieces of art, jewelry, paintings, and photographs that are now on display at the Museum.
The Japanese American National Museum is located at 100 North Central Avenue in Los Angeles, Ca. 90012, Tele. 213 625-0414, web www.janm.org. Open Tuesday thru Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Monday.
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