By George Toshio Johnston, Senior Editor
Over its nearly four decades of formal existence, the Japanese American National Museum’s trajectory has met several milestones — and has had to overcome several obstacles since becoming a nonprofit organization in 1985.
As William Fujioka, current JANM board of trustees chair, pointed out in an interview with the Pacific Citizen, its April 30, 1992, dedication ceremony at its original site, the former Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, was overshadowed when, as he put it, “all hell broke loose” in the city and county because of the rioting that erupted a day earlier after a jury acquitted four Los Angeles Police Department officers charged with severely beating motorist Rodney King.
The museum survived, of course, reaching the next big event in its evolution, namely the multimillion-dollar construction of the Pavilion, with Jan. 23, 1999, as the date JANM moved to its modern 100 N. Central Ave. location, just across the plaza from the old Nishi, now the home of the Go for Broke National Education Center.
Since then, as the museum has continued to mature, there were several changes in its top leadership until 2017, when Ann Burroughs became JANM’s president and CEO, with Fujioka — who, among his many past positions, held that of chief executive officer of Los Angeles County — becoming the board of trustees chair after his predecessor, Norman Mineta, died on May 3, 2022.
The museum’s timeline will now regard Aug. 5, 2023, as the date JANM formally unveiled the next stage for it and its now-25-year-old Pavilion. Befitting such an occasion, dignitaries present included Consul General of Japan in Los Angeles Kenko Sone, U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis. Other speakers included JANM board of governors members Jennifer Hirano and Josh Morey.
It’s an initiative called “Our Promise,” which among its many parts includes raising $65 million to make the museum’s sweeping vision a reality. Those changes were actually alluded to at JANM’s May 13 fundraising gala (see the June 2, 2023, Pacific Citizen), when Burroughs referred to some “very, very bold plans” that would be revealed in a few months.
With $48 million of the $65 million already collected — nearly 75 percent of the goal — among the many changes that the museum will effectuate during the “Our Promise” campaign under the leadership of Fujioka and Burroughs over the next few years include:
- Beginning in December 2024, closure to the public of the museum for 14-18 months until 2026
- Beginning in January 2025, in conjunction with the museum’s closure, a renovation of its entrance, with what is now the Aratani Central Hall becoming the new entrance, with some of the current first-floor space that is now, for example, used by the Hirasaki National Resources Center moving to the second floor and the Heart Mountain barrack getting relocated to the first floor
- JANM utilizing space in its historic building and the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy during the renovation
- Greater use during the closure of its Mobile Education Lab, which will see JANM exhibitions visit classrooms throughout Los Angeles
- The renaming of the plaza between the Pavilion and the old Nishi, which will become the Norman Y. Norman Democracy Plaza
- The relaunch and the renaming of the National Center for the Preservation for Democracy, which will become the Daniel K. Inouye National Center for the Preservation of Democracy
- A significant increase in the museum’s digital footprint, which will eventually include five interactive digital avatars of Japanese American community members, with June Yasuno Aochi Berk and 442nd veteran Lawson Sakai (now deceased) having already been completed
“Our Promise” is also an acknowledgement that JANM and its purpose has evolved, post-Trump and post-pandemic.
“We are increasingly being seen as a center for the arts and civil rights,” Burroughs told the Pacific Citizen, “and that, I think, is very different for us.”
Echoing what Burroughs had expressed in her remarks at the May gala, that JANM’s founders had wanted it to “stand as a beacon of civil rights,” Fujioka said, “We see this facility as a beacon and also a strong voice for social justice for equity and the preservation of democracy.”
For Fujioka, “Our Promise” is also an acknowledgement that maintaining the status quo was akin to falling behind. “I believe any institution, if you merely keep the status quo, you’re not growing with what’s happening in the outside world . . . especially in the area of technology.”
Burroughs concurred, adding that “using smart technology is going to be critically important for us going forward.”
For Burroughs and Fujioka, manifesting “Our Promise” will be the next step in what they believe the museum’s founders were aiming for back in 1985.
“Our goal is to make sure our story resonates with everyone in all communities,” Fujioka said.