CRM Journal

Exhibit Review

Bittersweet: Japanese American Legacy and Resilience

Los Altos History Museum, Los Altos, CA. Curators: Allyn Feldman and Toshiko Furuichi Kawamoto

August 14–November 22, 2003


Increasingly during the past several years, cultural historians have revisited the issues surrounding the U.S. Government's internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. A recent spate of museum exhibits testifies to this renewed interest. As home to a sizable Japanese-American community both during the internment period of 1942-1945 as well as today, California leads the way in exhibits dealing with the subject.

The Los Altos History Museum takes a unique approach in its exhibit, Bittersweet: Japanese American Legacy and Resilience. Curated and developed by collections and exhibits manager Allyn Feldman and consultant Toshiko Furuichi Kawamoto, the exhibit chronicles the story of the internment through the perspective of several local Japanese-American families. This personal approach reduces the large, somewhat complex topic to a more accessible story. Including the periods prior to internment and following the return of the evacuees to society at the end of World War II extends the exhibit storyline and places the Japanese-American internment in context.

The first Japanese immigrants settled in the Los Altos area at the end of the 19th century. Working primarily as farmers, the Japanese families became part of the larger agricultural movement in the Santa Clara Valley. During the valley's rapid agricultural growth between 1879 and 1909, the cultivation of fruits and vegetables jumped from 4 percent to 50 percent of all crops grown in California. The exhibit illustrates the industriousness of the Japanese community at this time and effectively personalizes their experiences through photographs and a discussion of family life.

The signing of Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, shattered this seemingly idyllic life, setting in motion the relocation of people of Japanese ancestry, American citizens and noncitizens alike. The exhibit interprets the implementation of the order by focusing on personal experiences recorded by families during relocation, internment, and return.

The internment section of the exhibit looks solely at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming where all of the Los Altos evacuees were sent. The photographs bring the conditions at Heart Mountain to life. In particular, an enormous photographic panel serving as the backdrop for the section shows the camp barracks with a snow-covered Heart Mountain looming in the background, evoking the isolation and bleakness of the barren landscape. Hansel Mieth and Otto Hagel, two Life Magazine photographers assigned to document life at Heart Mountain, took most of the photographs on exhibit.

The internment section of the exhibit is the same dimensions as an average barrack "unit"—approximately 16 by 20 feet—complete with a cot and a trunk. This design forces visitors to confront the reality of the confinement of a family and invites viewers to linger in the restricted space and "experience" internment.

The return of the evacuees to Los Altos was not a seamless transition because many local residents were hesitant to welcome their Japanese neighbors back. But, through perseverance and resilience, the returnees confirmed their national allegiance to a skeptical public and adjusted their skills to the changing world. During the postwar period, the Santa Clara Valley's agricultural economy became more diversified. Several exhibit panels discuss Los Altos Japanese-American families and individuals whose businesses range from jewelry stores to landscaping services.

Although the subject of Japanese internment during World War II has reemerged as a popular topic within the California cultural community, Bittersweet: Japanese American Legacy and Resilience succeeds in distinguishing itself through its special handling of the topic. By focusing on internment and its consequences on a specific community, the subject is rendered more personal to the audience. The U.S. Government's internment of thousands of Japanese during World War II remains one of the darkest periods in modern American history, but this exhibit manages to send the visitor home with a positive message. Modern images of Japanese families in this region of northern California illustrate the families' resilience in confronting racism and prejudice, and their commitment to creating opportunities for future generations.

Dwyer Brown
San Francisco, CA