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History Lesson

Japanese-American Museum

By Todd Inoue

LAST FEBRUARY, Congressman Howard Coble (R-N.C.) went on the radio and basically justified the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II. "Some [Japanese-Americans] probably were intent on doing harm to us, just as some of these Arab-Americans are probably intent on doing harm to us," he said.

Coble's comments touched off a tsunami of controversy in the Japanese-American community. Joe Yasutake, president of the Japanese-American Museum of San Jose, believes that the politician needs enlightenment. "For someone in his position to make a statement like that is totally unconscionable," Yasutake says. "You expect that from a private citizen, but not from the chairman in charge of homeland security."

It'd be worth Coble's while to check out Yasutake's crib. Located in a modest home off the main Japantown drag, the museum moved into this house in 1998 after a couple of years inside the Issei Memorial Building. The front half is dedicated to local Japanese-American history, focusing especially on internment and military service during World War II. The walls of the main hallway display various pictures and artifacts from Heart Mountain camp, where many Santa Clara Valley residents were interned. There are rooms dedicated to Military Intelligence Service, the 100th and 442nd regiments, the JCYS (Japanese Community Youth Service) cultural association and resettlement.

The back half houses a library/resource center filled with books and videotapes about Japanese-American history, culture and identity. Currently, there are special photo exhibits about pre- and postwar Japanese-American baseball leagues and the local CYS leagues--still a huge part of the community today. Stories about local farm life, immigration, children, Japantown and the community are told through pictures and artifacts. Schools and cultural visit the museum regularly.

"We consider ourselves more of an educational support group," Yasutake tells me. "We want to give them a sense of the history of Japanese-Americans in Santa Clara Valley, that our history goes back a long ways, back to the 1890s. The purpose is to tell that story. A large part of the history has to do with the internment. We feel it's more important to continue to tell that story because now it's impacting other ethnic groups."

Yasutake and museum committee members Eiichi Sakauye, Jimi Yamaichi and Ken Iwagaki are more than docents; they are walking, talking history books of local San Jose JA knowledge, and if Coble stopped whistling "Dixie," he might sing a new tune.

Japanese-American Museum of San Jose Hours: Tue-Fri, 11am-3pm; Sun 11am-2pm; closed Mondays and Saturdays. 535 N. Fifth St., San Jose; 408.294.3138. www.jamsj.org

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From the March 13-19, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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