Whitewashing our own history


How many of us have expressed anger when United States history books omitted the experiences of the Japanese Americans during World War II?

How did the anger evolve when writers of U.S. history textbooks stuck in merely a one-paragraph reference to the U.S. concentration camp experience in order to appease those who complained?

Something similar appears to have happened with how the Japanese American National Museum handled the acquisition of the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection through the Rago Arts and Auction Center.

The initial JANM press release, announcing the acquisition of the Eaton Collection, omitted any mention of the thousands of community people and organizations that had worked hard to avoid having camp artifacts put up for sale for profit.

After complaints from those who had actually worked to stop the public auction, JANM had a board of trustee member write in to the Nikkei newspapers, making general references to community support, and JANM came out looking like a “savior.”

But JANM arrived late in the game and had little to do with stopping the public auction. They appear, however, to have taken advantage of the public sentiment, swooped in for the kill and took all the credit.

Early involvement included the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which had been negotiating with Rago representatives for a month in an effort to stop a public auction and thus, avoid splitting up the collection.

Those from the Tule Lake Committee and other concerned individuals, then, started making a public appeal to stop the public auction, utilizing social media. Detailed updates were posted on their Facebook page, and another concerned individual started a petition under “Japanese American History Not for Sale,” which garnered support from 8,000 individuals and organizations within a few weeks. Many more wrote individual letters to Rago. Actor George Takei even made an appeal to Rago from Australia.

This evolved into an Ad Hoc Committee that opposed the commodification of these camp artifacts created under oppressive living conditions. Some of the photos in the collection depicted parents or grandparents that descendants had never seen before.

As a result of this outpouring of national support, Rago agreed to stop the public auction and took down the camp artifacts posted on their online catalog.

Following this, the Ad Hoc Committee outreached to different organizations to form a Japanese American History Consortium so as to avoid having one Nikkei organization pitted against each other to acquire the Eaton Collection. Included in this Consortium were the Smithsonian, the National Park Service and JANM.

When the Consortium was planning to have a phone-conference meeting to discuss how to negotiate with Rago, JANM requested a six-day postponement. Two days later, JANM publicly announced the acquisition of the Eaton Collection, without notifying anyone in the Consortium.

To add insult to injury, the Rago Facebook page has a nice publicity photo with the caption noting that Rago executives were invited to a private JANM reception with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan.

Did JANM just reward Rago for trying to profit from Nikkei misery? What does that say about JANM? Can the Ad Hoc Committee or for that matter, the rest of Japanese America, trust JANM in future dealings?

Martha Nakagawa is a journalist based in Gardena, Calif. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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