Saturday, December 8, 2012

Ron Swanson at the CJAHS archive?

Today's post will be my last for the semester. However it will not be the last forever. I will continue working at the archive next year after the holidays. Either way, I decided to dedicate this post to a fun discovery we made at the archive.

As I was working on organizing the many hundreds of photos we have in the archive, I can across a large batch of photos from the 1990's. These included photos from community events during the 90's as well as some personal photos from Japanese Americans in Chicago. Although these photos might not be as striking as the ones from the WWII period and the 1800's, they are equally as important to the archive as a means of recoding the activities of the community.

The photos were mostly out of ordered and I had to separate them into different groups based on the content pictured. It was obvious that many of the photos were from the same events so I categorize them as such. Some included information about their donator or origin, so I made sure to keep that information with the groups. I also consulted the President when I could not recognize a person in the photo that she might know.

Anyway, as I was going through these I came across a photo of a heavily mustachio'd man pictured in a full traditional Japanese outfit with some kids also in kimono. At first I just started to pile the photo with some others like it, but then I realized that the man looked eerily familiar. Upon a second inspection I realized that the man looked strikingly similar to Nick Offerman, who plays a major role as Ron Swanson on the hit show Parks and Recreation.

As I searched through the collection I found several more with the same Ron Swanson/ Nick Offerman doppelganger. I was shocked. The more I searched, the more ridiculous it seemed. I found a photo of this doppelganger posing outrageously with a topknot wig and fake sword.

I could not believe what I was seeing, and decided to look up Nick Offerman's biography when I returned home. I found out that Nick Offerman was actually living in Chicago during the 1990's as Chicago is a mecca for American comedians. With this new information I could not help but think that this could be Nick Offerman himself. I've decided to send Nick Offerman and Amy Poehler these photos to discover if he had some relationship with the Japanese American community during the 90's or if this is simply a doppelganger. Nonetheless, I am sure that they will be as amused with these photos as I was. 

Although work at the archive can sometimes be less than exciting, odd discoveries like these add a new element to our experience. The historically significant and stunning photos that we come across are always stimulating and we are honored to be in the presence of such objects. We also are happy to find strange discoveries like this one, reminding us that no matter how heavy some of the subject matter at the archive might be, these objects are all the products of real lives and real people. And no life is complete without some goofy fun.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Assessing Progress

Since I will be away over winter break,  I returned to work at the archive today to make sure that all of our latest projects are completed, or at least organized so that when we return, starting our work again will be simple and straightforward. Even between weekends, restarting where we left off can be difficult because most tasks are fairly long and require mental organization to complete. Often I will leave notes to myself about my progress and the necessary next steps. Although I sometimes think that writing out notes wastes time that could be used to work directly on the archive, when I return to my notes I realize that the effort is well worth it. During this session I organized our workspace so that the status of our current projects would be obvious.
When we began work at the archive, all of the objects needed to be re - accessioned, so evaluating our current work's status was simple. Nothing was completed or even in progress. Today, however, our work is much farther along than it was before. Keeping track of the position of every item is now a crucial part of our work. Each object and document goes through 3 major stages. First the item is re - storaged  into  protective materials and new boxes. Then the object is accessioned into the computer. A position in the archive is found for the object. This position's location is recorded into the object's file. The accession number is attached to the object and it is finally placed in the correct spot. Often packaging is much faster than accessioning so items may become backlogged. Also, sometimes we may have a very valuable object that needs to be accessioned as soon as possible to ensure that it does not become lost, or lose its information, but we might not have the best packing material for this object yet. There are many instances where the process may become stalled or backed up. We must be careful to watch the status of each object so that we do not lose any valuable information during the process.
There are many minor details that go into maintaining our work at the archive. The overall project requires artful directing and procedural organization, but a major bulk of the work on the archive is done through small tasks. Although we have have grand ideas for the future of the archive, we only can reach these goals through small slow steps. Knowing when and how to appropriately stop a project is one of the ways that we are able to reach our greater goals at the archive effectively. Today was devoted to assessing the current state of these projects so that a break from the archive will not mean that we lose track of our progress. A majority of the work at the archive is organization, but I've always had the habit of organizing even when its not needed so I've enjoyed my time working here.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

My favorite archive objects...

Today I decided to do a summarized list of the objects from the archive that have had the most profound affect on us.

I would say that first on the list is the Purple Heart awarded to Tom Arai for his valiant efforts during the second World War. I learned that during WWII they created the largest amount of Purple Hearts for any given period because of the expectation that the war would call upon men in ways that no other had before. They produced so many that today, the Purple Hearts that are awarded to soldiers are mostly still from the same batch. It was striking to see this Purple Heart because it was one of the first of its lot, and awarded during the period it was meant for. The connection between all these Purple Hearts also makes us realize that no matter what time or what battle, all of these soldiers are bound together by their courage.
It was also striking to see this object in person, because it solidified many of the things I have learned about the actions of Japanese Americans during the complicated and tumultuous time that defined WWII across the globe and within the United States. I have always heard of the admirable acts of loyalty by Japanese Americans in the face of fear, but only when I saw the Purple Heart did that fact come to be so significant for me. It was the actions of individuals, and their noble character that made up the history of all Japanese Americans.

My second favorite objects were the artifacts from the camps. The small handcrafted birds from Topaz and other internment camps were significant because they are physical proof of the resilience of Japanese Americans who were interned.
These artifacts also add to the significance of Arai's Purple Heart, because it shows the full range of experience of Japanese Americans during the war. It was also very interesting to see the differences between the different birds as it shows the development of an individual's art and the change in their personal expression. Although these concepts are more like those you would encounter in art history, I think they apply to any individual artist. It is also interesting that the artist chose to depict birds that are not native to the area where they were interned. I liked these because they gave a real physical context to the experiences of Japanese Americans in the camps that I had only heard or read about before.

A few objects that we recently found in the archive are athletic uniforms from Japanese American Chicagoans who migrated to the Midwest after being released from the Internment Camps. These objects are significant to Japanese American history as they represent the activities of the Japanese Americans as a community after being displaced by the forced relocation and internment.
It is inspiring to see the ambition of Japanese Americans to establish a strong and unified community in Chicago after their great losses. Although many of the Japanese Americans that moved to Chicago never imagined living in this city, their efforts to build a true community can be seen throughout their history in Chicago. Since the Japanese American community is much larger on the West Coast in cities like L.A. I always considered these places to be the meccas of Japanese American culture. After working with so many objects from Japanese Americans in Chicago, I now have a greater appreciation for our community here. 

It may look backwards, but it opens up like a classic
Japanese book from left to right
The last objects I will include in this post are the many family album collections from Chicago Japanese Americans. These are all very nicely put together, and kept in very good condition. They usually include photos of family members in Japan around the turn of the century. Very few include recent pictures of the family that owns the album. It seems to be reserved for old pictures of Japanese ancestors. 

These books are very well organized and made from high quality paper making our accessioning process very easy, as we do not have to worry about the storage of the photos. My family does not have many photos of our ancestors as our family's migration to the United States occurred many generations ago. Seeing these photos of other Japanese families who have relocated to Chicago like my own are especially interesting. Most of the photos depict humble farm - tending families, as most of the Japanese people that sought to migrate to the U.S. were from humble backgrounds. Some however, appear to be more affluent, or have very extensive families with many children and grandparents. These are intriguing  because they show the diverse backgrounds of Japanese American families.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Completing Projects

Yesterday's work at the archive was more of the usual, except I focused on completing some of my projects that still had loose ends. This included accessioning and filing away the last remaining materials in the Arai Family collection. I have been saving some of the most important pieces to be accessioned last so that hopefully we can get more information on them before we put the information into the computer. This includes the Purple Heart that was awarded to Mr. Arai for his valiant efforts during the Second World War. I have never seen a Purple Heart so close in person before, so it is very exciting to be able to be part of the effort to preserve and protect it. There is of course a undeniable irony that the nation that is incarcerating his family should also be the nation that awards him with the highest honor demonstrating the nation's trust and gratitude. However, even with this unfortunate juxtaposition in mind, we should remember that his Purple Heart was earned for his individual bravery and should not be burdened by the conditions that surround it. His courage should not be tainted by the injustices of the internment camps.

Aside from the Arai Family collection, I also cleaned up some of my entries for the collection of Scene magazine issues. I find that editing entries is much easier for me than creating them. Perhaps because I am better at spotting a specific error in a detail than keeping track of my overall goal, at least on the computer. When entering the accession information I always find myself stalling and trying to remember what I meant to type in each section, or which sections I ought to fill out versus those I should ignore. However, when I return to an old entry, I can immediately identify everything that could use improvement and am quick to find better solutions. Because of this imbalance in my skills I have taken the task of double checking everyone's entries, as opposed to entering them from scratch.

There are also many documents that need to be reorganized into new larger containers. The actual job is not complicated in the least, but the difficulty comes in finding the perfect sized box for the documents we have, especially because we have used up most of our pre - made boxes at this point. Also, the documents are not in of themselves very valuable. They merely hold information that might be of interest to someone in the future. So deciding what quality material they deserve is also part of the task of reorganizing. Since we are running low on some of our materials, and simply do not want to waste something we are sure to need in the future, I have been working out the best way to keep the documents organized without much waste. It may be one of the less exciting projects, but it is still a necessary part of keeping up the integrity of the archive.

Lastly, a final project that I am determined to complete before the end of the year involved accessioning  quite a few sports jackets, t - shirts, jerseys, and miscellaneous equipment from the CNAA (Chicago Nisei Athletic Association). I packaged the objects into proper storage materials, but have yet to find the best place for them in the archive. Until we find a place where the objects can be together without displacing too many others, we have decided to delay accessioning the items. When you accession materials, one of the most important steps is adding the correct location of the object to the file, because without it, the object may as well be lost. In order to avoid any discrepancies that might happen if we relocate the items, we have decided to complete our other projects before tackling the sportswear. However, we have reached a point where taking on the CNAA objects is feasible, so in my next visit I will be sure to work on those objects.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Work as Usual

Yesterday was one of the less exciting days at the archive. I mostly accessioned photos and completed my reorganization of the Scene magazine box. I also began accessioning all the issues of the magazine into the computer. As far as accessioning goes, documents and periodicals are some of the easiest things to file. Photos and objects, on the other hand, are quite difficult. When we first were becoming acquainted with the Past Perfect program we accessioned many books. These were a good point to start from because books have a lot of information easily available, giving us good examples to explore the different sections of the Past Perfect program. Today while accessioning the issues of Scene magazine I was grateful to have all the useful information that comes with a magazine like the volume number, month and year of issue, general topics of that issue and so on. Meanwhile, the photos I accessioned were a bit more difficult. Sometimes years are written on the back which is very helpful. However, many of the photos I've found recently only have Japanese written on the back. I have been able to understand a few, but in Japan there are two dating systems, the Western - based system and another which uses the lineage of emperors for reference. When only the second system is used I am totally at a loss. If we should find someone who can read the photos for us I have decided to make a note for any photos that have Japanese written on the back. I also make sure to include any sort of information about writing on the back of photos no matter what language as it is an important part of the "Condition Notes" section. Its important to make note of anything that might be considered a alteration to the object to keep track of any damages that might occur if it is lent out. Doing the first magazine was slow, and the interesting pictures in it can also be distracting. But after I figured out the details that could be translated to all the other pieces, the process became much faster. This seems to always happen with a large group of pieces that need accessioning. Much of the work at the archive gets easier with time. That is why at first it is difficult to get started, but often around the time that the session is over I am not yet ready to leave. I reach my peak work pace then, and find it difficult to shift gears into cleaning up our work areas. I am glad that we are able to leave much of our work laid out. At this point, we have quite a few boxes of items fully organized and accessioned. We also have many projects nearly finished, and have been able to get a much better sense of the archive as a whole. I have not taken the time to take a nice look at our completed projects, but this week I noticed that we had made quite a bit of progress and was happy to see all our things nicely put together. Next week I will put the finishing touches on some of our latest projects and hopefully find many new interesting ones to take on.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Some Interesting Finds

Yesterday, my work at the archive began with assisting the president of the organization edit some material that is to be sent out to donors and members. The letter summarized some of the activities the organization plans to complete as well as a proposal for changing the frequency of newsletters. While working with this it made me realize all the small tasks that are necessary for the larger projects of the organization. I also realized that finding support for all of these projects is more than half the battle of completing them.
Following this task I began working with some of the Arai files again. We still have quite a few items from that collection to store, identify and accession. I started working with some of the photos that do not appear to have any relation to the others. However, I luckily came across a slip with many of the same small photo within it. This small photo also matched a larger version I had found before. It was a candid portait of an older man. I remembered I had seen a picture of Mr. Arai, who appeared to be the same age as the man in this portrait. I returned to the other photo, which showed Mr. Arai with Mrs. Arai and their son Benzo. The faces were identical and I now knew that the portraits were of Mr. Arai.
I continue to look through the Arai files and found more photo slips from the 1950s. Its very interesting to see the old style photo slips from this era. One included photos of Mrs. Arai. Up until then I was unable to find the first name of Mrs. Arai. I had only one document with what might have been her adopted name "Jean". I knew that this was a good insight, but I also knew that many of the Japanese Americans during that time that were also about her age adopted new more americanized first names. For example, my grandmothers real name was Shizuko, but she adopted the name Sue. Anyway, the photo slip that I found with Mrs. Arai's photos also had her name, the date, as well as her address. I finally had all of the pieces to fill her general biography information. I also now knew that likely address in the Rogers Park area of all the other family members, at least for November of 1950. This was a very convenient discover. I am always happy to find documents that are simple and straightforward like this.
My final interesting discovery of the day involved a very large box that whose items we had yet to accession. I looked into the box and discovered many editions of a magazine called Scene. The dates of the editions ranged from 1948 to 1953. This magazine was a Japanese American pictorial magazine. Before finding these I had never known of the publication. I never knew that a magazine marketed specifically for Japanese Americans ever existed during the post - war era. Finding out about something interesting like this is usual done through secondary sources, so I am very lucky to have my first understanding of the magazine through the actual issues. I repackaged the magazines into new plastic slips and began organizing them chronologically. Next week I will accession all of the magazines and hopefully will work with kimono that are being donated to the archive soon.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


My work at the archive can be split into two categories: organizing materials, and accessioning materials. I have spoken mostly about the physical organizing of the archive the most because that is my favorite part of the work.  However, accessioning also plays a crucial role in maintaining the integrity of the archive.

To accession our materials we use the program Past Perfect. This is a completely new tool for the archive, so we must accession every object and file for the first time into the program. The program is fairly simple to use, but the extent of information it requires can be overwhelming. The most obvious bits of information that are required include, the donors' names, the object type, the date of origin, and the location of the object in the archive.  Before I began working with the program I knew that these details would be important to the accession file, however, I did not realize how many more details are also needed. For example, my name is an important part of the filing as it tells the next accession operator who was the last person to work with the object. Also the date of the actual accessioning activity is an important indicator. If something unfortunate should happen and the object becomes lost, one can refer to the accession information to find when the object was last seen. Every bit of information that I enter that is based partially on opinion requires my name and the date. For example, when I enter in the overall condition of the object I must include my name and the date. If another person should do a reassessment, they must override my name and date as well. These are just a few of the details I would never have considered if it had not been for the Past Perfect program.
There is also a section of the accessioning that often gives us the most challenge. Along with the details of the physical object we must also include keywords that apply to the object. This is to create a searchable archive that a researcher might use to find certain objects of interest. To apply the keywords we much choose from a list of programmed words. Often the words we need are not listed. When this happens we much insert new terms into the program, and ensure that we do not repeat our insertions to ensure that the search program works properly. In addition, there are 4 types of searchable categories that must be completed in this manner. Although this step is difficult, it gives our archive an additional facet that can contribute greatly to the research capabilities of the archive.

I find that the most enjoyable part of accessioning is going through old accession files and editing them so that they fit with the new files better. I like to double check the old files to ensure that everything is properly spelled and that all the keywords are suitable. I feel that it gives be a broader sense of the state of the archive as a whole. In this way I can fashion the archive so that it is a better structured whole.

Although I always prefer working with the actual objects, once I start doing many accessions I also find it to be an enjoyable part of the archive process.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Courage and Resilience

Although I have already written a post about the art from the camps, I through the artifacts deserved another post, as they prove to be some of the most interesting and novel items I have seen at the archive.

Hana cards are a quintessential part of the Japanese American household. My family has a few decks that have been passed down through the generations. Although Hana cards are one of the few things that links Japanese American households to historic Japan, Hana cards only became popular relatively recently (late 1800s) through their production by Nintendo Koppai, the same Nintendo company that dominates the world of video games today. I never knew of this connection before I thought to research their origin while working a the archive. It's always strange to see unexpected connection in the world between the past and our present day.

Anyway, the deck of Hana cards I found at the archive were owned by an individual in the internment camps, and donated to the archive. These cards have remained in fairly good condition, given that they are hand- crafted and very fragile. Many people who were sent to internment camps during the Second World War burned all of their personal effects because they feared that any links that may be found between their family and the nation of Japan might be perceived as evidence of their betrayal to the United States. Many families lost cherished family portraits of loved ones in Japan along with other objects brought over from Japan. To be able to find an object like these Hana cards not only connects us to the everyday experiences of the Japanese Americans in the camps, but it also tells us of their courage to keep their belongings with them, even if they might make them vulnerable to unwarranted inquiry into their allegiance to the United States. All of the objects at the archive tell us a bit of the story of the individual who owned them. Sometimes they tells us of their courage, and other times they tells us of their hope and resilience.

Some objects that tell us of their resilience through the trails of life in the internment camps include the hand-painted bird that I mentioned in my previous post. Within the camps, many essential items of daily life were scarce, or absent. Over time, things like food, clothes, furniture, and other everyday objects became more readily available. Often, the interned individuals took it upon themselves to make the tools that the needed. Having these beautifully painted birds tells us that art, as an object essential for everyday living, was not forgotten. This artist used their skills to create pieces that help bring more color and life into the drab existence of the desert barracks. Those who were interned often tell stories of their parents building a community in the camps in an attempt to create a true home within the detention centers.

Although my work at the archive may be tedious at times, I hardly notice because the stories and the objects connect me to a world that has had a profound effect on my family's history. I will never truly know their experiences. However, through my exposure to the remnants of that past, I can gain greater access.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Art from the Camps

This week I have been working mostly on the computer, accessioning small artifacts and objects made in the internment camps. I have also been working on updating the biographies of people who either have donated to the archive, or who are associated with some of the materials. Knowing some of the background and relationships of the individuals connected to the items really brings them to life, and helps create a greater story around the objects. Instead of a selection of random objects, through the people involved the history we can develop a greater understanding of the significance of all of it.

While accessioning I came across a few very interesting items that force us to realize that the camps were a home to some people. Although their lives were halted and put off track by the events during the war; hobbies, traditions and creativity found a home in their makeshift temporary homes and communities.

The first piece I cam across was a small multicolored crocheted piece. It looked very much like a practice piece. With it was information about its origins. If I remember correctly, it was made in a relocation center in Topaz, Utah by a woman who was not the donor. When we go through these items, we often learn about the many different hands they have been passed through on their journey. We hope that at the archive we can give them a proper and respectful place to preserve their stories.

The second item I found included 4 little hand - carved and hand - painted birds. They appear to be made from found objects, as the back of one bird has a safety pin fastened to it (to be used as a brooch). Two of the birds have more sophisticated materials, and are much more detailed than the others. They are either built by a more skilled artist or perhaps the same artist using a different and more experienced style/ technique. I had information about their origin and the artist for the two more detailed birds. I hope to be able to dig up some other information about the simpler birds the next time I visit the archive. These objects were some of my favorite to work with because they gave me such a strong sense of the types of normal lives that the Japanese Americans interned hoped to achieve in whatever small ways they could. I think that art is one of the strongest links to the true experiences of people in history.

A third item was a miniature stone sculpture of a Japanese garden sculpture. This piece had a letter with it containing some information about its origin. Its was made in Block 38 of the Poston Relocation Center although the artist is unknown. The stones it is made of may have been collected from the surrounding area of the internment camp. If that is true, it could potentially be very interesting to a geologist, or anyone with an interest in natural history. Knowing the Block that the piece was made truly puts the work at the archive into perspective. In a normal circumstance, this tiny stone sculpture would be worthless, and simply a trinket. However, given the gravity of the nature surrounding it, the tiny stone piece gains great value for the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society. Without others also identifying its importance and donating these items, many features of our history would be lost forever. Without these pieces and their donors, there would be no history available to study, so we a truly indebted to their generosity.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Learning Fumio Ralph Fujimoto's Story

Last Saturday, I did something a little different from the usual archiving activities. Instead of continuing my investigations into the Arai family files, I was assigned to read over a piece written by Fumio Ralph Fujimoto which recounts his life story, from the time of his parents making their way in California, through his time in an internment camp, to his success as a CPA building bridges between Japanese and U.S. businesses. The story is especially intriguing to me as my own grandfather's life parallels Fumio's in some ways.
Fumio's parents were successful farmers and grocers in California. My grandmother also grew up on a farm, but was in Montana, and was able to escape the targeting when Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps.

Pictured above are Fumio's parents. Like many Japanese Americans before the war, Fumio's family was fairly successful, and lived a comfortable life. Although many were recent immigrants, they were able to prosper and become essential members of the community. Fumio notes that although he did not understand the economic position of his family (as he was only a few years old at the time) he points out that his little outfits looked quite posh, suggesting that his family was well - established in the California home. 
Pictured above is Fumio in a baseball outfit, learning young the love for America's favorite pastime. 

After Pearl Harbor, this California life would only be a memory. Although my grandmother was able to escape incarceration, my grandfather was not as lucky. He too was forced to face the loss of a home and a livelihood when he was sent to an internment camp in Arizona. Fumio was a teenager when he first entered the camps. Schooling in the camps was subpar, but not fully absent. Over time, families in the camps began building a true community and establishing different little businesses in order to remain productive while interned. Fumio worked many odd jobs, some harder than others. While I know very little about my grandfather's experience while in the camp, I do know that he, like Fumio, was drafted out of the camps and into the army. 

Following their service in the army and the end of the war, both my grandfather and Mr. Fujimoto moved to Chicago in hopes of finding a new home. Many Japanese Americans immigrated to Chicago after the war ended because they were not permitted to return to their homes on the West Coast. Furthermore, there was very little to return to as the families were forced to sell most of their assets before internment. Chicago, the next biggest city east of California became a haven for Japanese Americans. Fumio began working in the Rogers Park area at different odd jobs. When I read this section, I could not help but feel connected to Fumio's story as I was able to recognize the landmarks he mentioned, and the street names he lived on. My grandparents also set up their new home on the northside of Chicago after many years of finding their bearings. Later Fumio also mentioned that his family moved to live on Sedgwick, the very same street where my family lives today. I have also learned of many other stories, through my time at the CJAHS, about the similar struggles of many different Japanese American families after the end of the war. Fortunately, like Fumio's and my family's story, they end in success. 

While my family opened up a chain of successful laundromats, Fumio became a CPA focused on Japanese - U.S. business relations. Strangely enough, my father (who is descended from Greek and Irish New Yorkers) is also a CPA whose work has somehow found its way in the world of Asian - American business relations. One thing I've learned from this archive work is that although studying these many artifacts and the many diverse people connected to them might appear to lead me to a complex series of stories far beyond my own world, it seems that every time, I am brought much closer back to my own history. Reading Fumio's story only reaffirmed this. I cannot help but think that in studying history that is far from us, we will always be able to find a road back to home. 

All photos from an album dedicated to Fumio Ralph Fujimoto made by his sister for his 80th birthday.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hard day, Interesting discoveries

Today was a harder day at the archive, but I also made some very interesting discoveries with my co - intern Jake. We found a collection from a donor with a mixed assortment of objects. In addition to properly storing the materials, we also worked on identifying the connections between the various pieces. At first, we were not getting very far, finding more and more seemingly unrelated pieces, and getting cluttered and confused. This collection had very little information with it and only a few objects had the important data (i.e. names, dates, locations, etc). We knew that the collection was primarily from 2 different families; the Murakami family and the Arai family. We found quite a few photos with Mrs. Arai identified, but unfortunately not with her full name (yet). We also found a few with Tom Arai (her son) identified. In most of the photos he was pictured in uniform or at different locations in Europe during the war. I also found documents from the Veteran's Association describing his benefits as a disabled veteran. Finding this piece of information gave me a much greater sense of his life story. Before finding the photos, the question about his injuries or death during the war was always in the back of my mind as I have not yet seen a photo of him in his old age. Learning the extent of his injuries helped me understand not only his life, but also the lives of his mother and family. After looking through many more photos, including some from turn of the century Japan, Jake and I came across two large family portraits with the names "Tom", "Benzo", and "Chiye" written on the case holding them. In the photos were 3 children; 2 boys and a girl, and 2 adults. When we compared this portrait to other photos we had of Mr. and Mrs. Arai, it was obvious that the 2 adults were much younger versions of the couple. Tom, who was seated on his father's lap looked just like the uniform - clad Tom pictured in Italy (pictured in my previous post). His face was only a bit chubbier and his outfit a bit tinier. I realized that I had also seen a photo addressed to Chiye in the collection, as well as a few other unidentified portraits with it. We compared the photos to the little "Chiye" and noticed another significant resemblance. This connection will have to be further investigated and verified, but finding these links gave us hope. We could tell, from the quality and framing style of the family portait, that this object was from many years before the army photos, supporting our conclusions about the individuals pictured. While we were only able to build some understanding about a few objects, the result was rewarding. Our next few visits to the archive will probably be focused on these materials, and hopefully we can make more interesting discoveries.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Archiving Materials

An essential and seemingly very boring part of archiving is understanding the physical materials. Part of archiving is studying materials and identifying names, dates and donors for pieces. The other part is putting these identified materials away in high quality containers that protect the objects from damage. Every piece of the packaging is important as acids as well as natural chemicals that seem harmless can really damage a piece over time. Therefore, it is important that we utilize every precaution when dealing with these delicate and irreplaceable pieces. Using cotton gloves when handling anything that can be damaged by the oils and proteins on our hands is an important step to remember. Taking extra care with old newspapers and magazine can be more difficult than one would expect. And finally one of the most difficult tasks is to attempt to restore an item that has undergone damage from improper storing. Being mere interns, our abilities to restore a damages piece are very minimal, however, even the smallest tasks can be very difficult as we must avoid causing further damage.

The CJAHS is a very small organization, so buying thousands of the highest quality cardboard for boxing objects, or the latest photo negative scanner is not always an option. However, some expensive materials must be purchased, which is why I try to find innovative ways to recycle materials for some of the less important parts of archiving.

One day as we were organizing large boxes and storing many different objects in them, it became apparent that we needed a way to easily identify which objects were in what boxes without permanently labeling any of them. Writing on the boxes in pencil might have worked but would become messy if things needed to be erased. Still, we could not leave them blank. I noticed a pile of transparent small plastic photo protectors that had belonged to a series of WW2 era propaganda postcards donated to the CJAHS. The postcards were relocated into our files and did not need their protectors. I also found a large stack of stiff paper that was no longer being used either. So I decided to cut the paper to fit the plastic protectors and attach the plastic to the boxes. Now the accession numbers for all the objects in the box can easily be added and removed without risk of damaging the box itself.

While this may seem like one of the most boring parts of my work at the archive I actually quite enjoyed the process of discovering a cheap solution for a little problem. Also, it was satisfying to see all the boxes together with a uniform look. I hope that even though I do not have professional expertise, I can make some contribution to the organization of the archive. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Day with Photos

Last Saturday, I returned to the CJAHS archive. As it stands today, there is a great amount of work to be done. Accessioning items into our new program means that every item within the archive must be removed, examined, identified, and stored in its new, proper location. Some items are easier to identify and have ample amount of information attached to them. Others, namely photographs, are harder to link to a year, person, or location. During my last visit to the archive I only worked with photographs. I had been working on a large stack of photographs on the previous Saturdays, but the pile was becoming overwhelming. So, I decided to focus on a group of old photos from a single donor. I was lucky enough to find one large photo in which a group of Japanese Americans were posing with a massive tarp sign which fully identified the photograph.

Chicago Japanese Christian Church Group Spring Tour

I also was able to recognize Mrs. Arai, giving me a better sense of the photographs origins. In the same collection I found photographs of the same individuals posing in front of various monuments in Washington D.C. I also found a photograph of the group at a Christian gathering with what appears to be many different individuals from a variety of churches. While at first the task appeared very daunting, as I began to put the pieces together, I was able to understand the history behind the photographs. It felt like the moment when you finally solve a multilayered puzzle.

As I explored further into this collection of photos, I came across some very interesting photographs of Tom Arai in the army. From his uniform and the dates listed on a few of the photos I was able to identify the year, which placed him in the Second World War. Furthermore, "Rome", "Genova" and "Pisa" were written on the backs of the photos. This was one of my most interesting discoveries, as I have recently visited Genova while studying at the John Felice Rome Center. Never would I have guessed that my work in the CJAHS archive would bring me all the way back to Rome.

Tom Arai in Pisa, Italy

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


When I was about 14 years old I participated in the annual History Fair and decided to investigate a topic that was closer to home. Although my name is Alexandra Vasilou (both first and last being of Greek origin) I am the daughter of a Japanese American mother who grew up in Chicago. At the time, I had no connection to the Japanese American community. However, through my investigation into the history of Japanese Americans in Chicago, I was introduced to many organizations such as the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society (CJAHS).

The CJAHS is a volunteer, non profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to document, preserve and share the complex history of Japanese Americans in Chicago. The organization was formed by Yoji Ozaki in the 1980s following the development of the exhibit, "Chicago Goes to War 1941- 45" with assistance from the Chicago Historical Society. The CJAHS continues their work though a comprehensive historical presentation about the Japanese American experience as well as through museum collaboration, a publication of personal stories from various authors titled "Voices of Chicago" and their archive.
Above is the president of the CJAHS in 1943 when she was a very young girl in an internment camp.

Pictured here are board members and volunteers working at one of the many events hosted by the CJAHS.

Following the end of my project I continued to maintain a relationship with the organization. Now, for the past year I have been assisting at the archive, organizing, identifying and accessioning a plethora of materials. This blog will be dedicated to recording my experience with the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society Archive.