February 26, 2014

Charting the Future of the Japanese American National Museum

How does the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) stay relevant  as the torch passes from its founding Nisei members to Sansei, Yonsei, and beyond?

Last night, Dr. Greg Kimura, president and CEO of JANM, spoke to members of JAJA (Japanese Americans and Japanese in America) and told the group how he's planning to do that.

The L.A.-based JANM started largely as a way to tell the story of the illegal roundup and imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Now Dr. Kimura, says, the museum is faced with a choice: it can recede from the public eye and become a gathering place for Nisei old-timers, or enlarge its vision and mission and begin speaking to Nikkei of all ages, Millennials and the larger community.

With close to 1.5 million people of Japanese descent living in the United States, he said, many of them mixed-race people who take their status as full-blooded Americans for granted, the issue is no longer one of assimilation or proving they belong in America. Instead, it's "How do we incorporate what it means to be of Japanese descent in the search for identity?"

JANM's challenge mirrors that of many traditionally Japanese American organizations that are trying to survive as fourth-, fifth- and sixth-generation community members become more assimilated; the discussion brought to mind stories I heard when I wrote this Discover Nikkei series on the future Japanese American elder care on the West Coast.

Dr. Kimura, a fourth-generation Japanese American hapa and fourth-generation Alaskan, added, "Nowadays, I like to say in an increasingly globalized culture, everyone is hapa."

Instead of drawn-out discussions on whether the World War II U.S. government camps should be called "internment" camps or "concentration camps," Dr. Kimura's mantra is "taking people where they are in their understanding," in other words, being less pedantic and more inclusive.

So he's lined up a series of shows designed to draw in viewers of all stripes, addressing the most universally appealing aspects of Japanese American culture. Included on his roster is a show opening on March 8, "Perserverence: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World." Another show (which by the way did not go over well among this group of New York City JAs) is planned on the role of the Los Angeles Dodgers in promoting diversity, which will feature Jackie Robinson, Hideo Nomo, Chan Ho Park, Sandy Koufax and Fernando Valenzuela. An October 2014 exhibit will celebrate the 40th anniversary celebration of Hello Kitty.

Dr. Kimura pointed to one model of the type of outreach he'd like to do: the $560 million Japanese government-backed Cool Japan Fund Inc., which has identified the "coolest" and most exportable aspects of its culture: food, fashion, manga, anime and pop music. "Cool Japan," he noted, "is the entree into Millenials and younger."

Although it took a high-priced branding group, acting as pro bono advisors to JANM, to tell the museum what its mission should be, Dr. Kimura said the message was simple: "We have to tell a different story for a different generation."