America From Abroad : Tokyo’s Biggest U.S. Exhibit Isn’t Just About Flag-Waving : An outspoken African-American persuades Japanese planners to show racism and conflict alongside Apollo spacecraft and Mt. Rushmore.
Lonnie Bunch, project director of the Smithsonian’s most ambitious exhibit ever--American Festival Japan ’94--had had enough. For days, he had argued that Japan’s first comprehensive display of U.S. history and culture should stress America’s racial diversity. For days, however, the Japanese side had resisted.
“The Japanese just won’t understand,” Bunch, who is an African American, says he was told by his counterparts.
So he launched into what he calls his “Martin Luther King meets William Jennings Bryan” speech, a thundering oration on how America had grown and changed by grappling with conflict. He roared that the concept was critical to fathoming the American national soul. He leaped to his feet. He shook his fist. He pounded the table. An exquisite performance--or so he thought.
But from the Japanese side of the table, there was dead silence. Shock, perhaps, from a people accustomed to self-restraint. Finally, someone spoke, puzzled and concerned: “Dr. Bunch, are you feeling sick today?”
As Bunch tells it, it was one of the more memorable cultural snafus of the three-year project sponsored by the Smithsonian, Japan’s NHK television network and the nation’s largest daily newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun. But it reflected how those who staged the Smithsonian’s biggest attempt to bridge a cultural divide had to overcome perception gaps themselves--including differences in defining America.
Ending Aug. 31, the mammoth undertaking, an eight-week festival in the Tokyo suburb of Chiba, cost $41 million and covers 200,000 square feet. About half is devoted to the Smithsonian’s exhibit, a panoramic introduction to America’s land, people, history and culture.
In addition to sending extensive photos and videos, the museum shipped more than 400 priceless artifacts--many shown outside the United States for the first time. They include the Wright Brothers’ 1911 Vin Fiz airplane, the Apollo 14 space module, Thomas Edison’s first light bulb, George Washington’s mess kit and the original gifts exchanged when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Edo Bay with his black warships to open Japan to the United States in 1853.
The other half was organized mainly by NHK and the Yomiuri and is more playful: a NASA “orbitron” to simulate space travel, a basketball court in the NBA Hall of Fame and concessions selling everything from hotdogs to baseball caps.
From the very start, the two sides had to sort out differences in vision, execution and even the basic motivation for staging such an ambitious project. The Japanese sponsors say they wanted to better bilateral relations and revitalize America’s image, deteriorating into that of a land ridden with crime, racial conflict and economic decline.
Their initial thought was to remind people of America’s great scientific inventions and technological grandeur, its frontier spirit and creative popular culture. High on their wish list were treasures that would convey this--and draw in the crowds--such as U.S. spacecraft.
“Japanese people, especially young people, think they know everything about America and some people think we have nothing left to learn from the U.S.,” says Mayumi Harada, a Yomiuri spokeswoman. “We wanted to deter this arrogance.”
But the Smithsonian official they approached was not inclined to paint only rosy pictures. Bunch--former senior curator of the California Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles-- initially turned the Japanese down flat.
“I wasn’t interested in doing a show that just says, ‘Look at these beautiful pieces,’ ” he says, as he escorts a visitor through the exhibit. “I wanted to tell a story. I felt strongly that if the Smithsonian was going to do this, we had to challenge and expand the Japanese notions of America.”
Bunch’s idea: to present a vision of how America was transformed, enriched and strengthened by racial and cultural diversity--including the political protests and ethnic tension that engendered change.
“We wanted to say that America is great, but one reason is because we have struggled with issues of race, and that has enlarged our ideas about citizenship, liberty and notions of fairness,” Bunch says.
Such a vision meant the show had to include mementos of not only America’s ideals, but of their failure, such as a Ku Klux Klan robe.
It meant dealing with slavery and highlighting the civil rights movement with a video of Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I have a dream” speech. Bunch says the Japanese negotiators initially resisted the proposal, but the video has turned out to be one of the more powerful attractions.
Bunch’s vision also meant enlivening the Japanese-requested icons--the Statue of Liberty, the Stars and Stripes and Mt. Rushmore--with a video of Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful” and scenes of Americans in all shapes, sizes and colors. He added a section on women pilots and black pilots next to the Wright Brothers airplane. He began the Western frontier section with a giant photo of an Anasazi cliff dwelling in New Mexico.
His aim, he says, was to go beyond the stereotypical images of America and show the nation’s complexity.
But the two sides did not always see eye to eye. “At one meeting, I was told that all I ever wanted was shadows and they wanted light,” he says.
The perception gap came to a head--Bunch calls it “a wonderful moment"--when a Japanese negotiator pulled him aside and said, “You’re African American. You’ve been discriminated against. You’re critical of America and you’re angry. We understand that, but we just don’t want it to dominate the exhibition.”
That’s when Bunch launched into another passionate speech he says surprised even himself, on why his criticism of America was not an expression of anger but an “act of love” to continue improving his cherished nation.
For their part, the Yomiuri representatives downplayed the differences and said they knew nothing of the incidents Bunch related. “It’s not that we thought the show was too gloomy, but we thought maybe it was too serious, too scholarly,” said spokesman Masato Kikuchi. “If it’s no fun, people won’t come.”
As a result, the NHK-Yomiuri team added the second element to the show--"Enjoying America"--featuring the sports displays, concession stands and American homes. They also added brought Americans from various regions to talk about their hometowns with Japanese audiences.
In the end, Bunch’s vision prevailed because the Smithsonian contractually controlled the show’s content. But he remains unsure whether his message got across. Can a nation with only tiny minority groups truly understand America’s racial dynamics? Is it possible to appreciate a national value that holds that debating problems helps solve them when a Japanese proverb advises: “Put a lid on smelly things”?
“It tested all my years as a museum curator and scholar of history,” Bunch says, “but you’re never sure whether they’re going to get it.”
Judging from the crowd’s reaction, many did. The reactions were as diverse as America itself.
Aki Tachikawa, 22, was mesmerized by King’s speech and said she wished Japan produced such visionaries. “I know America has problems with social issues . . . but everyone is trying to search for something and that’s wonderful.”
Sadao Kishino, 58, was impressed by the forthright manner in which the exhibit presented the nation’s legacy of racism. “If it were Japan, the negative aspects would never have been shown, because Japanese want to be well thought of.”
But Nobumasa Kawamura, 22, said the exhibit covered up America’s flaws. “They should have shown more on the suppression of Native Americans, or the Vietnam War,” he said. “America is a sick country.”
Name: Lonnie Bunch
Title: Assistant Director for Curatorial Affairs, National Museum of American History.
Personal: Former senior curator of the California Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles. Publications include “Black Angelenos: The Afro-American in Los Angeles, 1850-1950" and “Visions Toward Tomorrow: The History of the East Bay Afro-American Community.” Married. Two children.
Quote: “I wasn’t interested in doing a show that just says, ‘Look at these beautiful pieces.’ I wanted to tell a story.”