Japanese Immigrants in the United States and the War Era (exhibition)

Exhibition on Japanese Americans during World War II at the National Museum of Japanese History in Chiba, Japan. Displayed from March 16, 2010, to April 3, 2011, Japanese Immigrants in the United States and the War Era commemorated the opening of the approximately 7,500 square foot Sixth Exhibition Gallery (which displays contemporary history) at the National Museum of Japanese History (hereafter Rekihaku). [1] The special exhibition was the first at a Japanese national institution to focus on Japanese Americans, attempting to bring them into the mainstream of Japanese history.

Exhibition Concept Overviews

Japanese Immigrants in the United States and the War Era deals with the history of Japanese immigration to the U.S. and the movements of people between the two countries, including that of foreigners in wartime Japan. The exhibition covered the time period from the 1880s to the present in chronological order, with the main focus on the World War II period. The exhibition featured a group of 84 specimens that included hats and suitcases from the U.S., a sugoroku (Japanese board game), ship models, passports, and crafts made by inmates in American concentration camps. The narrative text panels also displayed other materials including newspaper articles, pamphlets, books and photos. The list of specimens is included in the 79-page exhibition catalog. [2]

The exhibition consisted of four major sections: 1) "People on the Move," 2) "Immigrants and the Outbreak of War between the U.S. and Japan," 3) "Foreign Correspondents in Occupied Japan," and 4) "Resettlement: Japanese in American Society."

The first section, "People on the Move," served as a prologue showing the two sides of the story of how migration began. The social and economic situations in the two countries were shown in a parallel display to depict the beginning of the Japanese migration movement in Japan and the settlement of Japanese immigrants in the U.S.

Notably, Yawatahama Village in Ehime prefecture—which was one of villages called America mura —was introduced as "The Birthplace of Japanese Immigrants." [3] A set of records for kou (a communal Buddhist service for left family members) represented the hope of bringing back success from the U.S. There were also actual copies of investigation records of illegal entries (which visitors could hold and examine), and an enlarged copy was also displayed, illustrating people's reckless behavior. Their difficulties were also depicted through the prominent display of a model of an utase-bune (fishing boat) used for these entries by people from Yawatahama Village when they crossed the Pacific Ocean to the West Coast of the United States between the 1880s and the 1920s.

The section continued chronologically showing how settlements were established in Seattle, Washington, and gave examples of the lives of the immigrants in North America. The display included many photos, hand-drawn maps of Japanese villages in Port Blakely, Bainbridge Island, Washington , made by former settlers, and various advertisements inviting Japanese to be workers, students, or picture brides . A guidebook entitled "Independent and Self-sufficient Life—Studying Abroad in North America" was featured with the catch phase "luxury of being a schoolboy."

The second section, "Immigrants and the Outbreak of War Between the U.S. and Japan—Anti-Japanese Movements, Incarceration and Repatriation," was thematically the main part. The exhibition narrative showed a series of causes that negatively affected the status of Japanese in the U.S. at that time. Rising Japanese militarism after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and the anti-Asian movements in the U.S. were also introduced with the metaphoric use of a cartoon with a negative image of a Japanese soldier in a newspaper in the U.S. The exhibition explained how the status-shift of Japanese led to the Immigration Act of 1924 .

The exhibition did not include a graphic depiction of the outbreak of WWII, instead featuring the meaning and function of war repatriation ships (koukan-sen) as a tragic incident affecting some of the Japanese in the U.S. The two trips made to transport captured Japanese between England and Japan in 1942 and between the U.S. and Japan in 1943 were depicted with their shipping routes, and also illustrated these ships' other function in bringing food such as soy sauce and green tea to American incarceration camps. A documentary film entitled Memories of the Repatriation Ships on a touch screen showed the experience of a female philosopher, Kiyoko Takeda, who came back to Japan on a repatriation ship, the Gripsholm .

Japanese American incarceration was represented in a multifaceted manner. Many photos taken at the Tule Lake , Heart Mountain , and detention camps , Japanese newspapers at Rohwer , and crafts made by inmates told visitors about life in the concentration camps. Male Japanese Americans who had joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team were mentioned as well.

In keeping with the theme of this exhibition, "people on the move," the section displayed the sequence of movement of Japanese Americans after 1942 based on their response to loyalty questionnaires , either staying within the jurisdiction of the U.S. or going back to Japan. A few examples were a Japanese newspaper article about some Japanese who denied the loyalty questionnaires in the Heart Mountain detention camp, and later formed a junior chamber called Houkoku-Shinnendan . [4] The exhibition included a photo of these Japanese getting on the ship in Seattle to be repatriated.

The third section, entitled "Foreign Correspondents in Occupied Japan," was a unique part of the exhibition, since all of the foreign correspondents did not fit into the category of Japanese in the exhibition title. Undoubtedly it was included to show the view from people between countries based on the cross-cultural view of how wartime Japan looked from a foreigner's perspective.

Some correspondents abandoned their citizenship in their countries to stay in Japan to send information out to the world from occupied Japan (1945-46). Their passports in a display case depicted their status. A diorama of a room depicted their lives in Japan from the end of WWII to the Korean War (1945-50), and background information on the correspondents' society in Japan was also presented. A notable correspondent, Leslie Nakashima, a Japanese American from Hawai'i, who reported on the damage done by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, was featured with his newspaper article about the first observations of the devastated city.

The final section, entitled "Resettlement: Japanese in American Society," covered the issue of " resettlement " and the difficulties faced by Japanese-Americans after leaving the concentration camps and returning to society. A brochure made by the Committee for Resettlement (1945) that referred to the flow of Japanese Americans from the camps as "refugees" was displayed.

The exhibition also tried to connect the past to the present, particularly with regard to two issues: the beginning of the movement of redress in the 1960s up to the actual receiving of checks from the U.S. government in the 1990s, and a pilgrimage to Tule Lake in July 2002. A documentary film (with Japanese subtitles) entitled Caught In Between: What to call home in times of war by Lina Hoshino was a part of the epilogue to the exhibition. The film includes a peace gathering of Japanese and Muslims in Los Angeles to protest the prejudice against Islamic people right after the 9.11 attacks. Kosuke Harayama, the curator, said that initially he hesitated to include the 9/11 issue, but ultimately he decided to include it to show the continued presence of the common problem of racial discrimination. Notably, the concluding remarks of the exhibition asked the question: Is it possible to understand history and society through a mixture of various views?

This exhibition asked Japanese, who tend to consider themselves a homogeneous society, to see events through the perspective of "others," especially, from the views of people in between Japan and the U.S. in the past.

Background of the Exhibition

The opportunity to host this exhibition at Rekihaku came from one of the research projects at the institution. Founded in 1984 in Sakura, Chiba, Rekihaku is the only national history museum in Japan. Focusing on the scholarly disciplines of history, archaeology, and folklore, the museum houses a collection of 220,000 items. One of the purposes of the institution is to conduct research and to hold exhibitions to tell the stories of the past. [5]

In 2006-09, a project titled "Comparative Studies in Immigrant Histories" was conducted with eleven scholars. The goals included the policies and phenomena of the original villages and settled places, and social changes and influences on the settled places by immigrants. [6] When there were calls to renew the contemporary exhibition room with more inclusive perspectives, Rekihaku decided to take advantage of the results of this research. The exhibition project team was based on the former research unit, and further research was conducted by Yoko Murakawa, Kosuke Harayama, Tsuneo Yasuda, and Manabu Yokoyama. This exhibition was funded in part by the Japan Foundation. [7]

There are no precise figures on the number of people who viewed the exhibition, but it attracted a large number of attendees with three ancillary programs and a weekly Saturday gallery tour by curator Harayama during the opening. [8] The three programs were:

1) a symposium entitled "Past, Present, and Future of Immigrants to the United States," held on March 20th; 2) a lecture entitled "Thinking of War and Discrimination from the Perspective of Immigrant History," held on April 10th, and; 3) a film entitled "From a Silk Cocoon: Japanese American Renunciation Story" (2005), with the producer of the film, Satsuki Ina. [9]

Publicity was favorable overall. The Yomiuri Shinbun and three other newspapers carried articles about the exhibition during the opening. There was another early report when the exhibition was first announced in 2007. A column in the Yomiuru Shinbun in February 2011 reported about the film screening and included an interview with the director, Satsuki Ina. [10] It related the personal history of Ina's father, who was sent to Tule Lake as a " no-no-boy ," emphasizing the harsh treatment in the camps and how his status as Kibei affected his fate.

The visitor study survey also notes that the exhibition received mostly positive reviews overall. However, some points for further consideration were identified as future research topics, according to Harayama. [11] These included the depiction of other minorities who had drifted into the U.S. and who were not thought of as mainstream immigrants, and a more detailed analysis of foreign correspondents through further research.

Traveling Exhibition

The panels for the exhibition were displayed at Yawatahama City Library in May 2011 and received relatively favorable local publicity. The traveling exhibition, entitled Kazewo Toraeta Hitobito (The People Who Caught the Wind) , was held at the Yawatahama City Library museum from April 29 to May 29, 2011. It was actually a joint exhibition of some panels from the Rekihaku exhibition and other materials and panels of the local history of Yawatahama. As noted, Yawatahama City was featured in the first section as a village that produced a comparatively large number of immigrants.

The People who Caught the Wind featured three notable persons from Yawatahama; Chuhachi Ninomiya, Hisahachi Nishii and Takusji Yamashita. The year 2011 was the 120th anniversary of Ninomiya's rubber-band-motor aircraft, while the other two were immigrants to the U.S. Nishii was known as the "father of immigrants"—he was successful in his business in California, so he often came back and recruited workers from Yawatahama. Yamashita fought in the courts for the rights and advancement of Japanese immigrants.

Authored by Kaori Akiyama , Graduate University of Advanced Studies [SOKENDAI]

For More Information

K. Harayama, Y. Murakawa, and M. Yokoyama, eds. Japanese Immigrants in the United Status and the War Era [Exhibition Catalog]. Chiba, Japan: The National Museum of Japanese History, 2010.


  1. "Rekihaku" is an abbreviation of Kokuritsu-rekishi-minzoku-hakubutsukan (National Museum of Japanese History).
  2. K. Harayama, Y. Murakawa, and M. Yokoyama, eds., Japanese Immigrants in the United Status and the War Era [Exhibition Catalog], Chiba, Japan: The National Museum of Japanese History, 2010. About the exhibition, please see http://www.Rekihaku.ac.jp/english/exhibitions/regular/img/special_06_001.pdf , accessed on September 15, 2014.
  3. America mura , literally "American Village," a term for a place that was brought wealth by the many immigrants who left to go to the U.S. Those who succeeded occasionally came back to recruit laborers for their businesses in the U.S.
  4. Houkoku means devotion to country and shinnen means beliefs (and dan means group). This was a group that espoused its belief in Japanese policies.
  5. For more about Rekihaku, see http://www.rekihaku.ac.jp/english/aboutus/index.html , accessed on September 15, 2014.
  6. Fiscal 2009 Collaborative Research, National Museum of Japanese History, http://www.rekihaku.ac.jp/education_research/research/list/joint/2006/imin.html , accessed on September 15, 2014.
  7. Japan Foundation website, accessed on September 22, 2014 at http://www.jpf.go.jp/e/index.html .
  8. However, from March 12th to April 3rd 2011, the exhibition was closed due to the Great East Japan Earthquake that occurred on March 11th.
  9. From a Silk Cocoon website, http://www.fromasilkcocoon.com/index.html , accessed on July 7, 2014.
  10. The article was written by journalist Yoshiko Sakurai in Shukan Shincho and titled "Japan Renaissance 448th," http://yoshiko-sakurai.jp/2011/02/17/2432 , accessed on September 15, 2014.
  11. Personal communication with Kosuke Harayama, June 3, 2014.

Last updated July 10, 2017, 9:33 p.m..