What We Did: Cultural Ecology

It’s Sunday, the second full day of the fellowship, and my plan is to spend the day using my helmet camera to create a series of digital map of a few of L.A.’s Asian cultural areas.   The route should be something like this:


  • A – B) Ride from hotel to Little Tokyo: Visit to the Japanese American National Museum followed by a Walking Tour of Little Tokyo.
  • B – C) Ride from Little Tokyo to Chinatown: Brief exploration of the latter.
  • C – D) Ride from Chinatown to Koreatown: In search of street art.
  • D – E) Ride from Koreatown to Thai Town: Dinner at Jitlada restaurant, hands down among the best Thai restaurants I’ve ever eaten at (Thailand included).

All told, the route will  have me biking just around 15 miles with several stops along the way—nothing too ambitious.

But you know what they say about the best laid plans…

The day’s first stop is the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, where I am met at the front door Chris Komai, the museum’s Public Information Officer.Chris has invited me to the museum to see its latest exhibition,  Drawing the Line: Japanese American Art, Design and Activism in Post-War Los Angeles. Featuring the works of several local artists, the exhibition is part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time project.   To paraphrase from the museum’s website:

Drawing the Line features works by several Japanese American artists, including painter Matsumi “Mike” Kanemitsu,  photographer and filmmaker Robert A. Nakamura; performance artist Linda Nishio; painter and automobile designer Larry Shinoda.  The exhibit deals with the question of Japanese American identity in the decades following the second world war.

But I can’t really speak to it in anything approaching an educated way, because while it’s the exhibition I’d come to see, I am waylaid by another.

After a brief pit-stop at Larry Shinoda’s car, Chris and I head up the stairs, where I find myself facing a crude barrack.


This, Chris Tells me, is not a recreation.  It’s one of the actual barracks from Heart Mountain, an internment camp in Wyoming where Americans of Japanese ancestry were forced to live during World War II.

In less than an hour I will be meeting Bill Shishima and taking his Walking Tour of Little Tokyo. Bill spent four years of his childhood at Heart Mountain, possibly in this very barrack.

The Barrack is part of another exhibit, a permanent one at the museum chronicling the history of the Japanese in America, and covering the four-year period in which a large percentage of Americans of Japanese ancestry were held prisoner in their own country.

Looking at the structure, enough space between boards to pass a newspaper through,  I wonder out loud how families used to living in temperate Pacific climes coped with the Wyoming cold in such a clearly substandard structure.

A few months ago, my nephew Jeremiah turned me onto the song “Kenji,” by the band Fort Minor.  The song chronicles the experiences of a Japanese American family during the war years, and I have a hard time listening to it without crying. You can hear it here.

I spend fifty minutes examining images and items from the exhibit, photographing a number of the images myself for use in a short slideshow:

Following the museum tour, I meet up with Bill Shishima and my moving Experience Teammate Alissa Walker for a Walking tour of Little Tokyo.

Bill Shishima

A cheerful man wearing a great navy peacoat (the same type of coat given to him as a boy in the camp, he tells me), Bill is credited with basically inventing the Little Tokyo Walking tour. Over the course of an hour (after a meal, of course) Bill takes Alissa and I through Little Tokyo. The tour focuses primarily on the long history of this beautiful L.A. neighborhood, but after my experience in the museum it’s impossible for me not to focus on the war years, when the residents of the neighborhood named for Japan’s capital were forced to leave. These years are etched in stone in Little Tokyo, where a the names of the area’s various businesses are engraved in the sidewalks before the buildings in which they once stood. Noodle shops of the 1920’s, haberdasheries of the 1930’s, dry good stores of the 1950’s and so forth. A long black strip runs the sidewalk’s length for the years 1942-1945, representing the internment years, when all Japanese businesses in Little Tokyo were closed down and the neighborhood went quiet.

When the tour ends at around three, I’m drained and unable to take in any new information. I decide to leave Chinatown for tomorrow, head back to the hotel to look through my photos and catch a quick nap before heading out to Thai Town for the evening.

On the way to Jitlada, I shoot the following film, which I think reflects at least in part a certain melancholy state in which I found myself.


Next: Dull Chinatown Day and Is It Art?