From left, history professors Greg Robinson, Franklin Odo and Eiichiro Azuma discuss the World War II Nikkei experience in the Pacific Rim at the JANM conference in Seattle last month. (Photo by Tracy Kumono)

SEATTLE — During the first week of July, the Japanese American National Museum presented its fourth national conference, “Speaking Up! Democracy, Justice, Dignity,” in Seattle to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

In keeping with the success of its three prior conferences — “All-Camps Summit: Preserving and Sharing the Legacy” (Los Angeles, 2002), “Camp Connections: A Conversation About Civil Rights and Social Justice in Arkansas” (Little Rock, 2004), and “Whose America? Who’s American? Diversity, Civil Liberties, and Social Justice” (Denver, 2008) — the museum once again presented a content-rich and powerful slate of sessions and activities.

As part of its educational programming, the “Speaking Up!” conference enabled the museum to reach beyond its walls to share the important lessons and legacies of the Japanese American experience. Over 500 multiethnic, multigenerational individuals and families from 30 states, including the local Seattle community, Canada, and Japan, attended the conference to reflect on the historical and contemporary issues of the Japanese American experience. 

Throughout the three-day conference, participants heard the first-person stories and researched academic perspectives that have defined the Japanese American experience — the sacrifices, the tragedies, and the triumphs of the Issei and Nisei, including the World War II incarceration, the dedicated service by the Nisei veterans, and the event that firmly placed the Japanese American story within the context of the larger American story, the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

“It is gratifying to see the diversity of our participants eager to learn about and share the first person narratives that constitute our living history,” remarked Dr. Greg Kimura, JANM’s president and chief executive officer.  “Through our work we hope our younger audiences will gain new perspectives and inspirations from the sacrifices and courage of our pioneering Issei and Nisei.”

For the first time ever, JANM presented four sessions in Japanese as the museum continues its outreach to the Shin-Issei and Shin-Nisei.

The conference was such an eye-opening experience,” commented Keiko Arakane, a conference volunteer and attendee from Seattle. “As a child of a Japanese expatriate and now as a Shin-Issei and a U.S. military spouse, there were many stories that I could relate to, yet at the same time, I realize there is more to learn and understand about Nikkei history and society.”

The conference also featured a Community Marketplace with over two dozen vendors from around the country who showcased their regional histories, current projects, and products related to the Japanese American story. An Expo included youth-friendly workshops, cultural crafts, and other activities such as the video game “Minecraft,” where kids researched and created a digital version of Minidoka, and a “Speaking Up!” challenge book. 

The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (The Wing) also had on display their exhibition “Meet Me at Higo: An Enduring Story of a Japanese American Family,” about Seattle’s Higo 10 Cents Store in the International District. Both the Community Marketplace and EXPO were free to the public. 

Participants also enhanced their visit to Seattle with a glimpse into the historical and present-day Seattle Nikkei community with three off-site tour activities. Two of the tours were organized by The Wing and included visits to the museum, the International District, and the Nisei Veterans Committee Hall. The third tour to Bainbridge Island was headed by the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community. Incidentally, Bainbridge Islanders were the first “evacuees” from the West Coast during World War II. 

Dr. Greg Robinson, professor of History at Université du Québec à Montréal, summarized, “This conference as a whole was very inspiring for me… It gives me hope for the community’s ability to live up to and make newly relevant the legacy of wartime incarceration, even after the last survivor of the camps has passed on.”

Due to its close to 30 years of work, JANM recognizes that endeavors like a national conference require the support of many individuals, partners, and organizations. The University of Washington, Department of American Ethnic Studies, and the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington were key partners in its planning and execution. Additionally, the Seattle Nikkei Community Network played an important role in bringing audiences from both the local Japanese American and Japanese-speaking communities to be part of the conference dialogue. 

In his opening plenary presentation, Tom Ikeda, Densho executive director and member of the JANM Board of Governors, left attendees with this challenge: “Keeping the story [of Japanese Americans]alive is not the responsibility of a few professors, high school social studies teachers, or organizations like JANM or Densho. It is a responsibility for all of us to listen, to participate, to reach out to new friends… and together, we will keep the story alive.”

“The museum continues to receive many wonderful comments by folks from all over detailing how much the conference moved them personally,” said Nancy Araki, JANM’s director of community affairs. She added, “One of our goals was for all who attended, whether this was their first conference or fourth, to learn something new about our story.” 

In the coming weeks, the museum will be uploading conference photos, audiotapes of the sessions and keynote addresses, and related topic resources through and its sister website, For more information, call (213) 625-0414.

From left: Paul Bannai, Dr. Greg Kimura, Kathryn Bannai and Sean Miura. (Photo by Tracy Kumono)


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