Dr. G.W. (Greg) Kimura, chief executive officer of the Japanese American National Museum, is a fourth-generation Japanese American and a native Alaskan. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)




Tattoos may not be the image one has of the Japanese American National Museum, and that may be precisely the point, according to new CEO, Dr. G.W. (Greg) Kimura.

Edgy new exhibitions and a new attitude are part of the vision Kimura has set forth for the institution, which first opened its doors in Little Tokyo in 1992. Kimura, 44, served as president/CEO of the Alaska Humanities Forum (Alaska’s state humanities council). He has a Masters in Divinity from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion from Cambridge University.

“This museum is dealing with what every museum is dealing with right now. What does it mean to be a museum in the 21st century?” Kimura said.

“In the digital age, kids are spending more time on the Internet than watching TV. Everybody is updating with touch screens. How do you compete in that world, how do you stay relevant? That’s really the challenge for the museum is stay relevant and have a message that resonates and tells this story.”

Kimura commissioned Innovation Protocol, a marketing and branding firm in the Arts District, to create a report on JANM, evaluating it against comparable institutions, including MOCA, the Skirball Cultural Center, Go For Broke National Education Center, and the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle.

Identity and how that has evolved from Issei to Nisei to the Yonsei and Gosei generations will be key to how JANM will evolve, Kimura explained.

“Increasingly for Gen Y and millennials, the shift is happening that our American-ness is already assumed and we’re trying to figure out our Japanese heritage and what does that mean. How do we integrate that into our personal identity?” Kimura said.

He acknowledged that JANM has been known as the “internment museum,” but said that while it must continue to tell that part of Japanese American history, it must also expand both in subject matter and audience.

He revealed that before taking the job, he brought his children from Alaska to the museum for five consecutive years to see the core exhibition “Common Ground: The Heart of Community.”

“We went to ‘Common Ground’ and I couldn’t get through it without being in tears,” said Kimura. “This place is special but it has to be for more than just us. We can tell each other our story until the cows come home, but the vision I have is we have to be a cultural institution of diversity as well.”

A show on tattoos planned for 2014 and curated by Kip Fulbeck will explore the artistry of tebori Japanese tattoos. Fulbeck, who curated two successful “Hapa” exhibitions at JANM, has written on the cultural phenomenon of tattoos in America.

“I think this is going to be a watershed exhibit,” Kimura stated. “This is going to be the first one that shows this tattoo art as a pure art form descended from ‘floating world’ style Japanese woodblock prints. These tattoos have deep symbolism that goes into Shinto and Buddhist virtues and storylines.”

Other upcoming exhibitions include the West Coast showing of “Asian American Portraits of Encounter,” which just concluded its run at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and a Dodgers exhibition set for next year’s baseball season.

Kimura said the Dodgers exhibit will showcase the role the team has played in promoting diversity and inclusion in sports through the careers of Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Fernando Valenzuela, Chan Ho Park and Hideo Nomo. Although only one of the players is Japanese, Kimura asserted that the story is one that fits JANM’s mission.

“The connection is their story is also an important American story about the power of baseball to overcome ethnic, cultural differences and prejudice for the team and the support to unite people,” said Kimura. “It has to be very clearly tied to a moral story and the story is there for the Dodgers, even if you’re a Giants or Yankees fan.”

Gordon Yamate, chair of the JANM Board of Trustees, gave his approval to Kimura’s vision and leadership. The board met last weekend for a regular board meeting to go over, among other things, the financial audit. The board has passed a budget for fiscal year 2013 of approximately $6.16 million.

“We’re very pleased and very excited about some of the directions he’s taking us. One of the things in terms of direction is an effort to expand the audience of the museum, to integrate it more with the Little Tokyo community, which is a great thing,” said Yamate.

Kimura’s tenure has not been without its difficulties and criticisms. A letter signed by approximately 40 museum volunteers was delivered to Kimura in August expressing displeasure at the firing of Chris Komai, long-time public information officer for JANM and a de facto spokesman for Little Tokyo.

In the Aug. 10 letter, obtained by The Rafu Shimpo, the volunteers state that they were “completely shocked and thoroughly upset over the recent dismissal of Chris Komai. A few of us have been docents/and or volunteers from day one and have attended most of the public programs that have been introduced by Chris, and have come to see him as a spokesman extraordinare  of our museum.”

Neither Kimura or Yamate would comment on Komai, calling it a personnel issue. Helen Ota, director of Cold Tofu, has been hired to fill the position.

“I know Greg is a thoughtful person. I’m sure he went through a thoughtful deliberation. He communicated the situation and we stand behind our CEO. He needs to make tough decisions,” Yamate said.

Komai also declined to comment on the circumstances of his dismissal. Since then he has met with some of the volunteers, who held an appreciation luncheon for him in Gardena in September. He said that the gathering helped bring some closure for the volunteers and he has encouraged them to continue to support the museum.

“From my point of view, when the museum hired Kimura, the board was looking at moving into another phase of its existence and there would be a lot of change. Whether it’s successful or not, we’ll wait and see,” said Komai.

Ike Hatchimonji, a long-time volunteer, acknowledged the feelings of other volunteers but said he is optimistic about the museum’s future under Kimura.

“He has an ‘open door’ policy and a firm belief in ‘transparency,’ a refreshing attitude,” Hatchimonji said.

Among the challenges facing Kimura is dealing with the finances. He said when he started at the museum, he had inherited a $500,000 operating deficit.

“We just had our exit interview with our auditors and we’re in the black. According to them, this may be the first time in five years that we’re really in the black,” Kimura said.

The museum has shrunk considerably since its height in 2002 of 140 full-time employees and a budget of $13.2 million. JANM now has 46 full-time employees. Kimura gave credit to his predecessors for keeping expenses in check.

“I will hand it to Akemi (Kikumura Yano) and Miyoko (Oshima) and Nancy (Araki) for holding the line and saying we just can’t spend. We have to do good work but you can’t spend and that’s a hard thing to do,” he said. “That was the message and it’s been the status quo since I’ve come on board. The people who paid the freight for that has been the employees.”

But in order to grow and create new programming, the museum will have to find new sources of revenue. Kimura has been meeting with donors, traveling extensively to Chicago, New York, Seattle and Honolulu. He praised the staff, many of whom have had to pay for their own materials and have seen their hours cut.

“I’m not a touchy-feely kind of manager or leader. It’s just who I am. But I do think that people understand that I do listen. Ninety percent of my job is listening, and trying to do the right managerial and leadership things that will free up a staff and volunteer corps that is really amazing at what they do but don’t need to be burdened with the anxiety of looming fiscal, financial things,” he explained. “I tell them, that’s what I’m paid for — you guys do the creative stuff.”

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