SAN JOSE — The grand opening ceremony of the newly renovated Japanese American Museum of San Jose at 535 N. Fifth St. on Oct. 16 drew an enthusiastic crowd of 800 people to the cream-colored farmhouse-style building. The ceremony also marked the 88th birthday of Jimi Yamaichi, who is unofficially known as the “Mayor of Japantown.” Yamaichi serves as the co-founder, curator, historian and construction manager of the museum.
“We had a phenomenal show of support,” said Aggie Idemoto, president of the museum board, who presided over the opening ceremony of the celebration, which extended through the next day.
The ceremony featured entertainment by San Jose Taiko, speeches by dignitaries, and an opportunity for the public to view the new exhibits.
The expanded museum features 6,400 square feet of interior space, allowing the facility to significantly expand its exhibits and community events. The museum is the first of its kind in Northern California and the second in the state. The Japanese American National Museum is located in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo.
Joe Yasutake, vice president of the museum board, said, “Our purpose is to tell the Japanese American story and the history of Japanese Americans. We feel that it is important for the general public to know that story.”
Idemoto said that the museum is particularly significant to the many people who were held in the concentration camps.
“We are giving voice to a certain pain that was voiceless for many years,” she said.
In addition to celebrating the museum reopening, the museum staff also paid tribute to Yamaichi on his birthday.
“It’s an auspicious celebration. We thought what better way to celebrate and give Jimi a gift at the same time?” Idemoto said, adding that the 88th birthday is significant in Japanese culture.
Idemoto and Yasutake said that Yamaichi’s contributions to the museum have proved invaluable. A former construction manager and master carpenter, Yamaichi built many of the museum exhibits himself.
Yasutake said Yamaichi “also likes history and he has a fantastic memory. He has been the heart and soul of the museum.”
Idemoto added, “Jimi remembers lots of details. He has a better memory than I do. Whatever his memory exercises are, we’re going to start doing that.”
The museum features numerous areas devoted to agriculture, sports, World War II experiences, post-war resettlement and Japantown merchants. There is also a museum store, which sells apparel, cards and unique, hand-painted bird pins.
Among the major exhibits is an authentic replica of a concentration camp barrack at Tule Lake, Calif., built by Yamaichi to provide visitors with a sense of the concentration camp experience. Yasutake said that former inmates contributed items for the display.
In addition to the barrack, the museum also features exhibits about each of the 10 concentration camps and the Justice Department internment camp at Crystal City, Texas, and how they differed.
“We wanted to show the uniqueness of all the camps. Each of them has a different story,” said Yasutake, who was incarcerated in Crystal City, Texas.
For example, he said that Crystal City was the only camp that housed inmates of other nationalities, such as German Americans.
Among the other museum exhibitions are a “picture bride” exhibit, which contains photos of the Issei who immigrated to the United States. The exhibit features a dock lined with the immigrants’ trunks.
In addition, visitors can view an agricultural exhibit outside, which includes such farming equipment from the early 1900s as a horse-drawn carriage and a tractor.
“The early history of the Japanese Americans was based on agriculture. Most of the Issei started as sharecroppers,” Yasutake said.
Also among the exhibits is an area focusing on San Jose’s Japantown and some of the early merchants. The military exhibit includes a tribute to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the U.S. Army, consisting of Nisei soldiers, as well as the Military Intelligence Service, composed of Nisei linguists who interrogated Japanese prisoners of war and translated documents.
The museum also features a colorful 20-foot tapestry that was created by Indiana students whose teacher wanted to provide her students a lesson about racism.
“The teacher used Japanese Americans as an example of an ethnic group that went through a lot of discrimination. The kids got information [for the quilt] after writing 3,000 letters to veterans of the 442nd,” Yasutake said.
In addition, the museum features a traveling exhibit, “Camp Days,” from artist Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz. Her exhibit features a collection of 60 watercolor paintings that depict her childhood memories from a concentration camp.
Idemoto said, “Judy is a wonderful addition to the museum. She was one of the first people we thought of for the exhibition.”
Sugita de Queiroz was 9 years old when she and her family were uprooted from their home and incarcerated at Poston, Ariz. She recollected her childhood camp experience through interviews with older siblings, relatives and friends. She then expressed her feelings and insights in a series of vivid watercolors. The exhibition will run through April 30.
The museum, which was formerly housed in the Issei Memorial Building, has been in development for three years. It cost about $3 million to build. Museum construction started in 2008 following a $1 million grant from the California Historic and Cultural Endowment, with matching funds from the museum community. A federal funding boost of $237,500 assisted in the completion of the museum.
The museum is open noon to 4 p.m. from Thursday through Sunday. Admission is $5 general and $3 for students and seniors. Children under 12 are free. Call the museum at (408) 294-3138 or visit www.jamsj.org.