By Frederick J. Augustyn, Jr.
The Library of Congress
The Asian Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA) on Friday, conducted its conference cultural field trip by bus to a district in Los Angeles that is a vibrant collection of ethnic neighborhoods. Its destination was Little Tokyo, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1995, one that “possesses historical significance in commemorating the history of the United States of America.” Nearby are Olvera Street, site of the original Spanish settlement and a Chinese neighborhood. The purpose was to experience a sample of Japanese American history and culture while in Southern California.
The excursion consisted principally of: a one-half hour docent-led tour of the Japanese American National Museum (www. janm.org); a one-half hour tour of its Resource Center (also known as its library and archives); and, after lunch, a two-hour long walking tour of the district. The museum originally opened in 1992 in a former Buddhist Temple, built in 1925 with Egyptian flourishes when the King Tut phenomenon was the cultural rage, across the street from the JANM’s current building.
In the museum’s entrance was a statue of a crane, symbolizing hope, enclosed by barbed wires, representing the Japanese-American concentration (internment) camps during World War II. There was a reproduction of the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism that is in Washington, D.C. A part of an actual camp from Heart Mountain, Wyoming was transferred to the museum in 1994.
A second exhibit was on “Japanese Pioneers in Hawaii.” “Picture brides,” a custom whereby immigrant men had wives selected for them when the men sent their own photographs back home, were common until about 1920. Japanese Americans in Hawaii comprised the all-Nisei 100th Infantry Battalion, later to join with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which liberated Dachau.
The Resource Center is forced to cope with limited funds. Currently there is no librarian, one research assistant, one archivist, and volunteers who help out with both answering research questions and arranging the archival holdings. Information for genealogists includes internment camp and immigration records, often copies of materials from the National Archives. The Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) Records is a collection co-owned by the museum and BCA and is an ongoing, active collection of what now consists of approximately 400 boxes. The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) Records, a national civil rights advocacy organization, is another significant collection.
The group passed by a fire look-out tower, originally made out of wood but now cast iron, in the Japanese Village Plaza. Curiously this plaza was built by a Chinese developer. Bob Honda developed another shopping plaza in the area. Cultural fusion resulted in products such as mochi (rice) flavored ice cream and Japanese burritos and tacos. The group passed by several subsidized housing sites, such as Miyako Gardens. At the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple, built in 1976, a Buddhist minister spoke about his non-monastic denomination, Jodo Shinshu Buddhism of the “Pure Land” sect, which went back 800 years. He pointed out the adaptations made to American customs,such as pews (but no kneelers), Sunday services and special programs for children.
The tour concluded with the “Go for Broke” military monument (1999) in honor of the more than 16,000 Japanese Americans who fought in World War II including the 21 who were awarded Medals of Honor.