Every clear morning I tuck in my right pant leg and pedal my way over to the museum. After setting my silver wheels up on the bike rack in the loading dock, I take the stairs up to the Education offices on the second floor. The dimly lit entry to the Education office space is located behind the tea room in the second floor Japan galleries. Because I pass through these galleries everyday, I always look forward to new rotations of Japanese art.
The latest additions to the Japan galleries include a pair of near-life-sized Japanese dolls in kimono complete with miniature accessories in a striking installation. Their innocent smiling white faces reflect in the gallery cases behind my own reflection. I know my sister would absolutely shudder at that description because she is one of those people that are just irrationally creeped out by dolls but I find them to be quite cherub-like. They are a part of the thematic exhibition Japan’s Early Ambassadors to San Francisco 1860-1927, currently on display.
This exhibition begins with the arrival of the ship Kanrin Maru and the first Japanese embassy in San Francisco, this year being the 150th anniversary of their arrival. It examines the experiences of some of the first Japanese diplomats and cultural emissaries to the United States. The exhibition also includes artwork and objects relating to Japanese artists active in San Francisco in the late 19th and early 20th century.
San Francisco’s love-hate relationship with Japan and its Japanese-American citizens is an underlying thread throughout this exhibition. Japanese immigrants faced many challenges, including discriminatory practices and attitudes. One culmination of this could be seen in an anti-Japanese movement that related directly to the Immigration of Act 1924. The 1924 law included provisions that were aimed specifically at Japanese immigrants.
In fact, the two Friendship Dolls on display were ambassadors of goodwill in a doll exchange effort made by certain leaders to ease tension between the two nations in the wake of the 1924 legislation. However, by the time the Friendship Dolls were sent immigration from Asia had been effectively halted by the Immigration Act.
I think this exhibition is timely and relevant because it brings up important questions about immigration in the past that we continue to struggle to answer to this day. As the responses to the recent new legislation in Arizona requiring police officers to stop and interrogate anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant show, immigration and related issues of discrimination and racial profiling remain a divisive issue for many people.
Arizona’s lawmakers have also signed into law a measure that bans Ethnic Studies programs in Arizona public schools in a move reminiscent of those made by the Hawaii Legislature in the 1920s, primarily targeting Japanese-Americans, to ban foreign-language schools in the territory. The Hawaii laws were later deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the case of Arizona today the debate continues.
Some leaders and groups have openly criticized the Arizona legislation and moved to boycott the state of Arizona. However, some polls have shown that there is broad support for this type of legislation. The complicated issue of immigration includes questions about racism, civil rights, education, healthcare, crime, and foreign policy. It is a big issue that I admit I am not expertly informed on.
So in the spirit of dialogue and learning I would like to offer some questions for discussion to all of our blog readers:
- How do you think immigration has changed over the past one hundred and fifty years?
- What can we learn from the immigrant experience of the past that will help us today?
- What is the role of art, artists, and museums in relation to immigration issues?
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