Exiled to Motown Exhibit Shares Stories of Japanese Struggles in the US
(Rebecca Phoenix, Aug. 14, 2021)
Detroit, MI – In the community gallery of the Detroit History Museum on Kirby Street in downtown Detroit, the story of Japanese Americans in the metro-Detroit area is being told in the “Exhiled to Motown” exhibit.
From the first Japanese immigrants in the early 1900’s to the internment camps of the 40’s, to the rise in anti-Asian and specifically anti-Japanese violence in the 1970s and 1980s, this exhibit relies on the artifacts of Metro-Detroit based Japanese Americans to tell the story of their community.
Along the way, the timeline is situated not only in the history of Michigan and the United States but also alongside the histories of other BIPOC communities in the area beginning information cards like with “What it means to settle on stolen land” for the original Japanese immigrants, and ending with the Detroit Will Breath protests and the fight against rise in Anti-Asian American hate.
The exhibit was initially set to open in the summer of 2020 but pandemic delays necessitated it’s opening this year. The exhibit is based on the 2015 book of the same name by the Detroit Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) History Project Committee and sponsored by the JACL.
Co-Curators Celeste Shimoura Goedert and Dr. Mika Kennedy worked with the Japanese American Citizens League Detroit Chapter to bring their stories out of the book and into the public eye. Both women have a deep interest in telling the stories of Japanese Americans, Goedert works with Rising Voices to organize with and develop diverse leadership in the Asian-American community, and Kennedy is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Kalamazoo College.
A smaller traveling exhibit toured the Novi, and Ann Arbor libraries; and made its way to Salt Lake City, Utah before heading back to Detroit to be displayed at the Detroit History Museum.
In an interview with Oakland County Times, Ferndale native and co-curator Goedert went into detail about the exhibit.
According to Goedert the exhibit was created with the intention of not only sharing the stories of those forcibly relocated after their internment but also to help rebuild the community.
“One goal of the United States government after the incarceration of 120,000+ Japanese Americans was to split apart the communities that had been built, and thus promoted those who left the camps to move east into the Mid-West
“They wanted the only difference between Japanese and white Americans to be appearance,” she said. The government’s goal for Japanese Americans released from the camps was assimilation, and from there the exhibit tracks the birth of the “model minority” myth that seeks to pit Japanese and other Asian communities against the Black community in a competition for resources.
“The presence of the Japanese American community in Michigan is in spite of the government,” she said.
Exiled to Motown conveys the danger of letting others control the narrative of one’s history. One example shared was of the Japanese-American response to the murder of Chinese-American Vincient-Chinn . The murder, committed by Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz who believed him to be Japanese, was fueled by rhetoric against Japan, and by extension Japanese and other Asian-Americans. Goedert explained that anti-Asian sentiment in the 70’s and 80’s was prompted by the failing American auto industry, said to have suffered due to Asian imports.
The exhibit also highlights the Asian-American activists who have carried on today. One group, Tsuru for Solidarity (‘Tsuru’ means crane in Japanese), is a movement of Japanese Americans fighting against the current detention centers for migrants at the border, reminded of the horrors of the incarceration camps.
The curators sought items that went beyond what the public might typically associate with the Japanese American community. The items reflect the journey of the community throughout Michigan, including a bi-lingual cookbook and a hand-crocheted tablecloth. They also have a typewriter from one of the first Japanese American businesses in Michigan. They collected items through community events at the JACL and networking with the families in the area, many items came from long term families of the area.
Goedert said that the history of Japanese Americans and Asian Americans in the metro Detroit area is not complete, citing lacking information on Black Japanese individuals. “The first step is to find each other and to keep reaching out,… like a call from the mountain,” she said.
When asked what visitors should take away from the exhibit she explained that “You are part of the exhibit” the exhibit presents the Japanese American experiences not as an oddity or interesting fact but as the story of our neighbors. “Living in the suburbs can give the illusion that you are alone but…we can find each other”.
The curators hoped not only to help further connect Japanese-Americans in Michigan but also hope that non-Japanese BIPOC “feel they have a right to author their own stories” and feel validated in their unique experience in the larger context. She hoped that non-BIPOC visitors would “find a sense of urgency to learn” about the experiences of the marginalized communities that surround them. Above all the message of shared community and shared solidarity shine through the exhibit.
Upon conclusion of the exhibit visitors have the option to fold a crane which will be sent to Tsuru for Solidarity and share a message of what community and solidarity means to them.
If you’d like to visit the exhibit the Detroit History Museum is open
Thursday – Saturday 10am-5pm
Sunday 1pm – 5pm
$10 for adults
$8 for seniors, students, military and first responders upon proof of ID
$6 for kids over 6
$35 for households of up to 6 adults
Accessibility information can be found here The exhibit runs through Oct. 3, 2021.
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