Japanese American Museum of Oregon says ‘Tadaima’

The Japanese American Museum of Oregon recently opened its new location. The museum occupies the ground floor of the Old Town Lofts in what was once Portland’s Japantown. photo by Curtis Suyematsu

On May 5, 1942, more than 2,400 members of Oregon’s Japanese American community were forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated in the Portland Assembly Center, the first stop on their way to the Minidoka concentration camp in southern Idaho.

On May 6, 1942, General John DeWitt declared Portland the first major city on the West Coast to be “Jap free.” In one day, the city’s vibrant Nihonmachi, or Japantown, disappeared, just like that.

Fast forward 79 years and on May 6, the Japanese American Museum of Oregon turned the day that Nihonmachi died into a day of reclamation and celebration with a virtual grand opening of its brand new museum, which was previously called Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center. For the 13,604 members of Oregon’s Nikkei community, according to 2017 U.S. Census figures, this opening was “Tadaima!” They were back home. At last.

Beginning in the 1890s, Issei immigrants settled in Oregon to work on the railroads, lumber mills, farms and fish canneries. As the population grew to exceed 4,000 by 1940, Portland’s Nihonmachi included more than 100 Japanese American businesses, all within a 10 to 12 block area, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia.

This history of the Issei and much more is on display at the museum’s new space, located at Fourth and Flanders Street in what was once Nihonmachi. It’s a project 32 years in the making, full of ups and downs and challenges along the way.

“We’ve renovated space, designed and installed new exhibits and opened in a new location all in the midst of a global pandemic,” said Lynn Fuchigami Parks, the museum’s executive director. “We are truly blessed to overcome all the obstacles and arrive at this day.”

JAMO’s mission, explained Fuchigami Parks, is to honor and preserve the history and culture of Japanese Americans in the Pacific Northwest, to educate the public about the Japanese American experience during World War II and to advocate for the protection of civil rights for all.

“The Japanese American story is one of resilience and strength,” Oregon’s U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden said in his welcome statement.

“As a son of Jewish immigrants, I especially value the preservation and the sharing of the immigrant experience.”

After a purification ceremony by the Rev. Andrew Uzunoe of the Konko Church of Portland, Fuchigami Parks addressed the anti-Asian hate people are experiencing across the country, and talked about the relevancy of telling the Japanese American story at the museum today.

The “Grace, Grit & Gaman” exhibit on Japanese American women through the generations. photo courtesy of Japanese American Museum of Oregon

“As if the devastating impact of COVID was not enough, we have also faced a pandemic of racism with hate as a virus,” she said. “What we are seeing today is a continuance of the racism and hate that led to the mass incarceration of innocent men, women and children of Japanese ancestry during World War II.”

Other guests addressed the issue as well, including actor and activist George Takei. “History needs to be shared so the lessons learned from the past are not forgotten,” said Takei. “These lessons are more important now than ever as our democracy is under attack and we witness the rise of anti-Asian hate and violence.”

Nisei George Nakata connected memories of Portland’s Nihonmachi with his hope for a better future. “My hope has been that America could really understand racial justice,” he said. “You’ve got to change the attitudes and behavior with the children. They have to grow up knowing that all men are created equal, and I’m hopeful that my children and grandchildren will grow up in a world where that is actually practiced.”

Oregon Attorney General Ellen F. Rosenblum added: “The importance of celebrating the lives of Japanese Americans cannot be overstated at this time,” she said. “We are better when our country stands as a beacon of freedom and welcomes all who seek to join us in our great experiment in democracy.”

Other guests included Consul General of Japan in Portland Masaki Shiga, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, Native tribal elder Cathy Sampson-Kruse, singer/songwriter Kishi Bashi and Kurt Ikeda, acting chief of interpretation and education at the Minidoka National Historic Site in Idaho.

Ikeda talked about wood from Minidoka’s post office that is now part of the museum’s barracks exhibit.

ABC7 Eyewitness News co-anchor and filmmaker David Ono pointed out that a Japanese American museum could not be complete without the story of the all-Nisei 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service.

“At the museum you will learn about this,” said Ono. “You will see faces of heroes now passed, but not forgotten.”

Key Japanese phrases such as “gaman” (perseverance) and “kodomo no tame ni” (for the sake of the children) were also explained during the program.

Jeff Selby, the city of Portland’s communications manager, defined shikata ga nai. “‘It can’t be helped’ didn’t mean giving in or giving up,” said Selby. “It meant a mindset to keep moving forward. Moving forward meant protesting to call out injustice and hold the country accountable to the principles of democracy and the rights of its citizens. Injustice inspired acts of courage that gave birth to activism and the fight for justice that continues to this day.”

The event also featured the museum’s new immersive exhibits, including videos, moving images and listening stations. One such exhibit is the Minidoka Interactive Touch Table, where people can touch a screen to see photos of their families and their location within the camp.

OREGON’S JA LEGACY ­— The Japanese American Museum of Oregon recently opened its new location. The actual jail cell that held Minoru Yasui for nine months in solitary confinement. photo courtesy of Japanese American Museum of Oregon

A museum centerpiece is Minoru Yasui’s historic Multnomah County jail cell where he spent nine months in solitary confinement for purposely violating the World War II military curfew imposed upon Japanese Americans, to test its constitutionality. Yasui’s voice can be heard describing life behind those bars. Also on display is Yasui’s Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Musician/scholar Julian Saporiti, who makes music out of camp artifacts, said he looks forward to making recordings of Yasui’s cell bars and turning that into music. Singer/activist Nobuko Miyamoto brought the program full circle with her singing “We are the Children.”

At the end, Fuchigami Parks talked about the new museum’s message. “It was rebuilt by community for all communities and shares a message of perseverance, vigilance and hope. We share this history not as something from the past, but to fight for justice and equality to ensure the future. We hope the museum moves people to join in that effort.”

Starting June 18, the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, located at 411 NW Flanders St. in Portland, Oregon, will open to the public by reservation only. For more information, visit http://www.oregonnikkei.org, or call (503) 224-1458.

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