Monday, April 22, 2013

Hapa Japanese American History

JANM Show Looks at Mixed Ancestry

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - The very title of the new Japanese American National Museum exhibit indicates the complex factors at play in a single community.

The show, Visible & Invisible: A Hapa Japanese American History, examines the diverse history of the Japanese American community as well as the still evolving notion of family and race. It opened April 7 and continues through Aug. 25 at the Little Tokyo museum.

Through photos, videos, artifacts and paintings, the shows traces the history of mixed-race Japanese American families — hapa is a term for a person of mixed race who is part Asian or Pacific Islander — going back to the late 1800s. It also looks at the challenges these families faced due to segregation and laws that criminalized mixed race marriages. 

It’s a history, said Duncan Williams, the exhibit co-curator, that is often plainly visible in the faces of biracial individuals. However, he said the topic is also invisible, since it is rarely discussed in open forums.

“One of the major points we’re trying to make is that increasingly the Japanese American community is changing,” said Williams, who is also director of the USC Center for Japanese Religion and Culture. 
He said that by the next U.S. Census in 2020, it is expected that more than half of the members of the Japanese American community will identify themselves as multiracial. 

“It’s an increasing trend in all ethnic communities but it’s been happening at a faster rate with the Japanese American community,” he said. 

It also has been going on for more than a century. 

Located on the ground floor of the museum, the exhibit begins with
a display of a black and white family photograph depicting one of the first immigrants from Japan, Matsugoro Kuwata, who arrived in Hawaii in 1868 and married a Hawaiian woman. 

In the picture he has a long gray beard and is sitting next to his wife and their six children. Other black and white images depict additional racially mixed families that were amongst the first to settle in Oregon and California. 

The exhibit then examines the legal challenges these families faced. One law, the Cable Act of 1922, stripped U.S. citizenship from American women who married Asian men.

The act caused couples such as Fusataro Nakaya and Edith Morton to marry in Mexico. The exhibit displays their Spanish language marriage certificate as well as the naturalization certificate she received years later, after the law was repealed in 1936. 

Photos from the Manzanar Children’s Village, an orphanage in the Manzanar detention camp, one of the sites where more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II, are also part of the exhibit. About 20% of the children in the camp were multiracial.

The exhibit includes a segment on artist Isamu Noguchi, who created sculptures, gardens and furniture. He was born in Los Angeles to an American mother and a Japanese father. One of the coffee tables he designed is on display.

The show also takes a pop culture turn, looking at figures such as Jerome Charles White. Born in Pittsburgh with African American and Japanese lineage, he is a singer who in Japan is known as Jero. The exhibit includes video footage of the singer and a family portrait. 
“He’s a quarter Japanese, and yet he really embraced his heritage and sings these enka songs in Japanese,” Williams said, referring to the term for traditional Japanese ballads. 

In many ways Jero exemplifies the future of the Japanese American community, Williams said. While Jero has mixed roots, he has embraced the Japanese part of his culture.

In recent years JANM has taken numerous looks at people of mixed ancestry. The museum has focused multiple times on the work of artist Kip Fulbeck, who has photographed many biracial children and adults. His 2006 show was titled Half Asian: 100% Hapa.
Cindy Nakashima, a co-curator of the current exhibit and author of the book The Sum of Our Parts: Mixed Heritage Asian Americans, said it is important to embrace broader definitions of culture, especially since it has always been part of the Japanese American community.

“The mix has always been there,” she said. “Our community was built by mixed multiethnic families.” 

Visible & Invisible: A Hapa Japanese American History runs through Aug. 25 at the Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave., (213) 625-0414 or
Contact Richard Guzmán at

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