True visionaries see things and do things no one else does. They imagine and act on possibilities. They often pursue these ideas in the face of opposition and obstacles. Yet they prevail.
I attended the 25th anniversary of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) last night. It was a celebration of its founders and the rightful acknowledgment of their accomplishments. One of the most successful stories of any museum founded in the last century. It's story is remarkable and directly parallels the success of Americans of Japanese ancestry in this country.
Many people, including myself, thought the museum idea was too narrow, too ethnocentric, too limited to be "national" and the focus of such fundraising and effort. But that is why I am not a visionary. In less time than most people complete their college education and training, JANM has grown up and become a force to be reckoned with. A towering example of the power of faith and vision. A multi-dimensional research, arts, and educational institution that defies the limits of its name. JANM's mission says it all.
Consider the following achievements since its public opening in 1992:
- 1,000,000 visitors, 60% non-Japanese
- 400,000 school children on school field trips
- Support groups in 17 states
- 3600 teachers trained–reaching 4,000,000 students
- The only Asian oriented museum affiliated with the Smithsonian
The Japanese American population has always been small and today is shrinking. Yet the ripple effects of its history yield enormous value to a much broader community. The major American historical events involving Japanese Americans center on WWII.
- The incarceration of 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry for more than 3 years under the ominous cloud of "enemy aliens" from 1942-45 in 10 War Relocation Centers or "interment camps". There was never a single finding of anti-American crimes or threats.
- The 442nd fighting unit became the most decorated in American history. Placed in the forefront of battles in the Pacific and in Europe, the 442nd endured more casualties (314%!) and awards (18,000+!)than any US unit in military history. There is ample evidence that without this unit many battles and indeed the war may have been lost.
Despite being wronged and honored, after the war, Japanese Americans returned to racism and discrimination for many decades, including my parents. 45 years later, President Reagan signed legislation that apologized for the internment and authorized symbolic reparations. The act admitted that the internment was based on "prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of leadership."
Still amazing how many Americans do not know this relatively recent history. Less than 25% of US states require it be part of their curriculum. If Texas can now expunge Thomas Jefferson from its textbooks, then the fight to tell the truth in our history books is far from over.
Yet the story of placing ethnic soldiers on the front lines and the threat to Americans who look like the enemies of the United States continues to be played over and over again. Arab and Muslims are the newest targets of prejudice, racism, and civil rights violations.
The story of the Japanese American experience and success is one that goes on teaching and inspiring. On the threshold of Comprehensive Immigration Reform, we have to remind ourselves that we all came through Ellis Island, or off a boat or over a fence. That the story of America is one of diversity.
Norm Mineta, former distinguished congressman and cabinet member under President Clinton and Bush, told a small group of us that the "future of JANM is to weave together a tapestry of colorful cloths, each strong and colorful on their own, but much stronger together."
Each of us must find our sense of community by looking within and then connecting with others. The greatest and most potent networks are those that begin with a personal connection or cause. Then the power of those networks is manifested through the ability to connect to other networks and exponentially increase the impact. Isolation is the biggest weakness of any network. Thinking bigger than ourselves is always the goal.
JANM has come so far so fast. It has become a hub of networks. It has exceeded the wildest expectations of its founders. It has even defined its mission by putting its self-interests after the greater good. JANM has transcended the Japanese American community to become an invaluable resource for all of us.
Thank goodness for visionaries. For people who dream without regard to the obstacles. For the leaders who connect others to their visions and dreams. For taking us to higher grounds so we can appreciate their vision and to see the next mountains we must climb.
Regretably, racism, prejudice, and ignorance abound.
Typical of the Japanese American community, their work and achievements are less about fanfare and more about commitment. We all owe the founders of JANM a debt of gratitude.
Thanks for reading. John