Many of the first Japanese American women came to the United States as "picture brides," kimonoed women brave enough or desperate enough to spend a month at sea to marry a man whose face they knew only from a photograph.
Their daughters--the generation known in Japanese as Nisei--thought of themselves as citizens like any other. But when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, thousands of Japanese American citizens found themselves robbed of their possessions and shipped off to harsh detention camps because of the color of their skin.
The third generation, called Sansei, includes women like Kristi Yamaguchi, who skated her way to a gold medal for the United States at the Albertville Olympics in 1992. More than 50% of them marry non-Japanese men.
"Strength & Diversity: Japanese-American Women 1885-1990" is the subject of an award-winning exhibit running through May 30 at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Griffith Park.
Based on interviews with 50 Japanese American women, the show was originally organized by the National Japanese American Historical Society and the Oakland Museum, where it opened in 1990.
In part because Japanese American soldiers, many fresh from the camps, fought so heroically during World War II, the story of Japanese American men has been told before. But as Rosalyn Tonai, one of the show's Bay Area organizers, points out, this is the first exhibit that tells the story of Japanese American women, often in their own words.
What distinguishes this show from other ethnic exhibits, even groundbreaking ones, is that, as it travels around the country, the show is customized to reflect the local experience. "It was very different in Hawaii than it was in Portland, Ore.," Tonai said. Southern California has the largest concentration of Japanese Americans in the country--more than 130,000 in Los Angeles County alone. Working with the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, the Autry has tapped this rich community resource to give the show a local spin.
According to Michael Duchemin, curator of history at the Autry, the traveling portion of the show includes photographs, text--much of it taken from the oral histories--and some 70 objects that document the journey of Japanese American women from immigration to their varied roles in contemporary culture. The era of the picture bride, for instance, is vividly evoked by a kimono, iko or kimono rack and Japanese wicker suitcase that accompanied one hopeful woman across the Pacific. Local additions flesh out the basic show and allow visitors to see in concrete detail how their Japanese American neighbors fared during almost a century of tradition, trial and change.
Before World War II Japanese American women had even fewer job opportunities than their men. Many could get jobs only as domestic servants or at vegetable stands. But during the 1930s, some local Japanese American women attended the Gardena Dressmaking College. The show includes a photo of the class of 1936, plus a diploma and a program for the ceremony that marked them as full-fledged seamstresses.
Inevitably, some of the most powerful material involves the notorious "relocation centers." As a result of the exclusion order of 1942, many Japanese Americans were, in the words of writer Eugene V. Rostow, "sent to concentration camps on a record which wouldn't support a conviction for stealing a dog." Locally, many internees were concentrated at Santa Anita, where children did their lessons in front of the parimutuel windows in the grandstand because their mothers didn't want their educations interrupted.
According to Tonai, whose mother was a teen-age internee in Rohwer, Ark., many people, however guiltless, were ashamed of being interned and never spoke about their camp experiences.
The exhibit includes such eloquent objects as an oil painting titled "Family in Camp Room," done in Rohwer, that shows how internees tried to brighten the small, barracks-like spaces where they suffered marriage-testing lack of privacy and other indignities. Bad, decidedly un-Japanese food was another trial of camp life. Internees in Topaz, Utah, finally rioted after they were served liver once too often.
Somehow the internees, especially women, managed to create some beauty in their lives and those of their families. Handcrafted jewelry is part of the exhibit, including a corsage made from little white shells at the Gila River camp in Arizona.
At the same camp Japanese Americans wove baskets in the style of the local Pima Indians. "It looks like the Indians may have been showing the internees how to make them," Duchemin said. The result is "a very interesting cross-cultural piece" that appears in the show.
The stories of Nisei women are especially interesting because, even more than their mothers, they were aware of being, in the words of writer Mei Nakano, "in double jeopardy, objects of the sexism of the society-at-large as well as the deeply entrenched one of the traditional Japanese society."
As you look at the pictures and read the words, you can almost imagine the parents of the Nisei women who became WACs and broke from tradition in other ways, muttering the Japanese equivalent of oy veh.
Activists are also part of the story, including the women who fought for redress and reparations for the victims of Executive Order 9066.
The show includes a Life magazine cover that shows civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama cradling the head of fallen Malcolm X.
The exhibit also bears witness to the achievements of contemporary women. Included in the show is a robe worn by Fumiko Hachiya Wasserman as a Los Angeles Superior Court judge. "It brings the story up to the present," Duchemin says.
"Strength & Diversity: Japanese American Women 1885-1990" through May 30 at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, 4700 Western Heritage Way, next to the Los Angeles Zoo. Open daily, except Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for senior citizens and students with valid ID and $3 for children 2 through 12. Members of the Autry and the Japanese American National Museum will enjoy reciprocal admission privileges throughout the exhibit. Information: (213) 667-2000. For a list of related activities at the Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. 1st St., call (213) 625-0414.