Sharing the Japanese American experience
The mission of the Japanese American National Museum is to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience.
The Japanese American National Museum is the first museum in the United States dedicated to sharing the experience of Americans of Japanese ancestry as an integral part of U.S. history. Through its comprehensive collection of Japanese American objects, images and documents, as well as multi-faceted exhibitions, educational programs, documentaries and publications, the National Museum shares the Japanese American story with a national and international audience.
The National Museum was established in Los Angeles to preserve the rich heritage and cultural identity of Japanese Americans. In 1982, businessmen in L.A.’s Little Tokyo began exploring the possibility of building a Japanese American museum, as did a separate group of highly decorated World War II veterans. A representative from the financial group proposed incorporating a museum into a planned Little Tokyo residential complex, while veterans of the famed 442 nd Regimental Combat Team sponsored a “Japanese American Soldier” exhibition at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Natural History.
The two groups soon joined forces, and in 1985 the Japanese American National Museum was incorporated as a private, nonprofit institution. Over the next several years, volunteers sought backing from community groups. In 1985, California State Senator Art Torres introduced a funding bill that acknowledged the major contributions Japanese Americans have made to the social, cultural and economic spheres of California, and the state legislature soon appropriated $750,000 toward the Museum on the condition that Los Angeles provide matching funds. At the urging of the volunteer corps, the City of Los Angeles granted a $1 million match the following year.
Seeking to safeguard the rich oral histories of first generations immigrants, or Issei, and the artifacts, photographs, written records and other materials documenting the lives of Japanese Americans before, during, and after the World War II mass incarceration, National Museum founders enlisted the support of the Japanese American community. In 1992, the Japanese American National Museum opened its doors to shed light on the Japanese American experience—a process of immigration and re-settlement common to so many Americans.
Built by Japanese immigrants in 1925, the National Museum’s renovated historic building was the first structure designed specifically in Los Angeles to house a Buddhist place of worship, the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. The ornate building incorporates elements of a temple in Kyoto, combining Japanese and Middle Eastern influences in its striking façade. The temple originally served as a house of worship, social hall and rental office space. A central gathering place in thriving Little Tokyo, the structure was later used to store the belongings of Japanese Americans sent to U.S. concentration camps during World War II. The building eventually fell into disrepair after the Nishi Hongwanji moved to a new facility in 1969, and was sold to the City of Los Angeles in 1973. Declared a landmark by the City, it became the long-awaited space for the Japanese American National Museum.
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