|Web Magazine Online|
|By Gary You|
A Voice from the Past: Japanese American National Museum
Settled in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, the Japanese American National Museum is the first in the nation. Located on the 369 block of East 1st Street in downtown LA, it is the first national museum that is dedicated to the Japanese American experience. Its mission is to create "a bridge of understanding between peoples of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds. By exploring what it means to be Japanese American, visitors discover a familiar face. Their own." The Japanese American National Museum wants to make known the Japanese American experience as an integral part of the United States' heritage to improve understanding and appreciation for America's ethnic and cultural diversity. It does this by providing a multifaceted program of historical and cultural exhibits, educational programs, award-winning films, live performances, workshops and through publications. The museum opened in 1992, but, to date, has the largest collection of Japanese American material in the world. It is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10-5 pm. The museum is closed on Monday and all major holidays.
Currently the main exhibits are the works of Kenjiro Nomura, the stories of Sumo Wrestlers in the USA and the permanent exhibit on the Japanese War Relocation Camps. Kenjiro Nomura was an artist at an unfortunate time. He and some 120,000 other Japanese Americans got sent to the Relocation Camps in accordance to Executive Order 9066. During World War II, US sent their fellow Americans to isolated concentration camps between 1942 and 1946. In all there were ten, all located in an area totally isolation from civilization. If anyone was of 1/16 Japanese heritage, they were considered as possible enemies and were relocated. An exhibit is dedicated to the camps. There are also actual articles and documents from that time. Included are also letters, pictures, paintings and scaled models of the barracks.
I had the opportunity to be told the experiences. Helen (she humbly refused that I use her full name), a former internee and a Wednesday volunteer at the museum told me her story. Helen and her family were relocated to Manzanar, CA in 1942. Due to the Executive Order of 9066, Helen's family had to sell everything they had, take only what they could carry, and got sent to somewhere that they had never been to. "It [Manzanar] was so far and empty from everything. It was in the middle of nowhere. The weather was harsh, cold, hot, windy and dry. We were only in poorly insulated barracks you know." The camps were enclosed within a barbed wire boundary with several watchtowers constantly surveying the land. "It was like a small city with sections of neighborhoods. Each section had their own cook, mess hall, and bathrooms. Nothing was private, everything public and shared." To take away their rights to privacy was a way to rip away their dignity. The Japanese Americans were not treated as equals, but as less. Even though the official documents showed that more than 2/3 were Americans by birth, Uncle Sam still refused to recognize them. "We were suppose to be free in the camps . . . kind of ironic with the artificial boundary huh? Well everybody had to participate and work as a community. I didn't have to because I had a 2-year-old boy to look after. From what I remember, let's see, we got $16 a month and professionals [doctors, teachers, etc.] got $19 a month. There was little to spend on the inside so saving was not a problem. . . . After the camps, I myself and the younger people were able to get jobs or start a new business. On the other hand, people like my aunt [the older generations] had a hard time in starting all over. All the government gave us was $25 and a train ticket to go anywhere except the west coast. It was not until 1988 that the US government apologized and gave $20,000 to all the people who where interned. . . I'm sorry I'm not that educated to tell you more."
"Oh no! I will appreciate the time you took in telling me your story and a different perspective on history," I said. We ended our conversation as time was running short, but I had learned more from Helen then from any textbook. Helen's experiences were real and authentic. Not until her did I realize the power in experience and sharing. Because of language barrier and deaths, I was never able to converse with my grandparents, but talking to Helen made me wish I had. We should not ignore the older generations, but listen and learn from them. Their stories are the building blocks and start of our own history. The most important lesson I have learned was the fact that history still lives on. We have to share and pass along our stories to somehow benefit the future.
(Gary Bum Jin You is a Junior majoring in Asian American Studies.)