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Reading Between the Folds: An Interview with JANM Volunteer Ruthie Kitagawa

The Japanese American National Museum’s current origami instructor and a volunteer since the museum’s opening, Ruthie Kitagawa has been an active member in the community for over two decades. And like so many JANM volunteers, Ruthie’s personal and family histories are what brought her to the museum. Her love for family and all things arts-and-crafts remain prevalent inspirations for Ruthie, and they tell the story of why her work at JANM continues to be an important part of her life today.

Ruthie Kitagawa (Photo by Russell Kitagawa)

Born on August 14, 1937 and raised in the Los Angeles area, Ruthie experienced some of the city’s most historic years. Coincidentally, this year marks not only the 20th anniversary of Ruthie’s involvement with JANM, but also the 70th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order No. 9066, which authorized the incarceration of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans across the greater West Coast during World War II, including Ruthie and her family.

Five-year old Ruthie, along with her father Kay Yoshimasa Kitagawa, an Issei heralding from Mie Prefecture in Japan; her mother Ruth Yaeno Kanamaru, a Nisei from Los Angeles; and her sister Lois, six years her senior, were uprooted from their lives in Lynwood and sent to inhabit the hastily constructed barracks and freshly vacated horse stalls of the Santa Anita Racetrack Assembly Center in Arcadia, California. The Kitagawas lived at the assembly center for months as they waited to be placed in one of the ten camps being built across eight states. The family of four was eventually transferred to the Amache Concentration Camp in Granada, Colorado where they remained for the duration of the war.

Ruthie holding a cat in her lap, Amache Concentration camp (Gift of Lois Kitagawa Padilla, Japanese American National Museum [94.171.9])

Save stories from relatives and a few captured moments in photographs, Ruthie does not remember much from her time in Amache. To this day, Ruthie says, “The only thing I can really remember is 11K-12B, my block number…it must have been drilled into my head in case I got lost.” It was only from a JANM photograph and later confirmation from relatives that Ruthie discovered she cared for a pet cat while in camp. Pictured among a group of other children in Amache is a young, smiling Ruthie Kitagawa with a bow atop her head and a cat in her lap. If it were not for the photograph, Ruthie may have never known of her furry feline friend. Despite the few memories from camp however, Ruthie does remember coming home.

Upon the Kitagawas’ return to Los Angeles after their three-year absence and with few belongings in their possession, they also found that they had no Lynwood home to which they could return. It was with a mentality of “not wanting to dwell on the past” that Ruthie’s parents decided to move the family in with Ruthie’s aunt, Toshiko Frances Yoshihara, at her East Los Angeles home. Toshiko was one of the lucky few that managed to get her house back and even some of the family belongings after she returned from camp. The occupants of her house, a Mexican-American family, not only agreed to live in the house and look after the Kitagawa’s belongings when they swiftly departed back in 1942 but this family also agreed to find other housing upon Toshiko’s return.

Ruthie remembers opening a luggage trunk filled with family belongings that had been kept safe at the house during their time in camp, including her mother’s wedding dress. As the others in her family were sorting through the trunk, Ruthie gently played with her mother’s dress. A simple pleasure and fond memory, but one that perhaps others returning from camp may not have been able to enjoy as many never recovered the sentimental items they were forced to leave behind.

Soon enough Ruthie and Lois found themselves back in school as they tried to pick up their lives where they left off. A little older now, Ruthie started fourth grade at 118th St. Grammar School and soon moved on to Gompers Junior High School where she remembers being the only Japanese American student in the entire school. For many Japanese Americans at the time, this was a challenging period as they found themselves moved from one form of isolation in the camps to another as they assimilated back into society after a three-year absence. Though she did not have a difficult time making friends, it was not until she entered John C. Fremont High School that Ruthie found students of other ethnicities such as Japanese as well as Chinese and Korean descent to befriend.

Sadly just six months after Ruthie graduated from Garfield high school, her mother passed away at the young age of 44. It was after some time that her father eventually remarried and Ruthie and Lois were blessed with two younger siblings, David and Cathy, both of whom Ruthie proudly remarks “are such a delight in my life.”

As far back as she can remember Ruthie has always had an interest in arts and crafts. While in high school, she volunteered at the Boys and Girls Club and taught an arts and crafts class. One such activity she taught to a group of girls was a creative earring-making lesson. They made the earrings out of rick rack by rolling the zigzag strips of ribbon trim into fun shapes and adhering them to earring posts. Ruthie also found joy in her activities as a Cub Scout Den Mother for her younger brother David. After enrolling him in Cub Scouts though, she unexpectedly found herself volunteered for the role of Den Mother. However unexpected though, her love for crafts shone brightly as they “always had the best craft projects to show and tell at the monthly troop meetings.”

Despite a keen interest in arts and crafts from a young age, Ruthie did not have much experience with origami until much later in her life, and furthermore, she admits that at first, she was not very good at it. It was at her younger brother David’s wedding in the summer of 1992 that Ruthie first remembers learning origami as she assisted in folding hundreds of gold foil cranes for decoration. A neophyte in the world of origami, Ruthie remembers that her cranes ended up on the reception tables—hidden amongst the floral arrangements. When her younger sister Cathy married two years later, Ruthie recalled that no one asked her to help that time around in creating the cranes and she took no offense.

Later that year in 1992, Ruthie’s older sister Lois—already a JANM volunteer—convinced her to attend some origami classes at the museum. Lois, who Ruthie insists was much better at origami than she ever was, began classes and soon became a volunteer at the museum in October 1992. As a volunteer, she not only helped at the origami table but she also worked as a docent and helped visitors with the concentration camp database. But it was in those first origami classes with Shibata Sensei that she explored her interest in the art of origami. Through practice and dedication over the years, Ruthie honed her origami technique and became able to create cranes and many other figures far superior to the cranes from David’s wedding.

In 1998, Lois passed away. A dedicated, passionate, and respected JANM volunteer, the museum staff and volunteers who knew her mourned her passing. But no one was more grieved than Ruthie. “I was so sad and grief-stricken and I felt so alone,” Ruthie remembers, but “then I looked around and saw David, Cathy and four nephews and suddenly that sadness was lifted and I felt my heart overflow with love.” She continued to volunteer at the museum and later that same year, Shibata Sensei asked Ruthie if she would like to be her assistant in the origami classes. Humbled by the proposition, Ruthie happily accepted. She now teaches her own origami classes at the museum and to children on Target Free Family Saturdays at “Ruthie’s Origami Corner.”

Ruthie's Origami Corner at Target Free Family Saturday (Photo by Hal Keimi. Photo courtesy of Ruthie Kitagawa)

Ruthie’s most recent craft project for the museum is currently on view in the exhibition, Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami, which explores the history of paper folding as well as the beauty and versatility of it as both an art and a science. International artists contributed to this collection, displaying the various interpretations and styles of origami across the world. As Ruthie explains, “Origami has expanded but still has the common bond of beauty. This exhibit shows the diversity of origami.”

In the planning stages for the exhibition, Ruthie was approached to create traditional Japanese origami forms like the crane, frog, and samurai helmet. Beyond these Japanese traditional forms however, Ruthie was also asked to create some pieces based on Spanish and German traditional paper folding customs—forms of origami she had never before encountered. One of the pieces is a German star, which uses multiple sheets of paper and takes over forty folding steps to create—a feat Ruthie had yet to accomplish up to that point—that challenged her to the last fold.

“Though I’ve always enjoyed arts and crafts,” Ruthie admits, “I think if it wasn’t for the museum, I probably wouldn’t be so involved with origami.” And if was not for Lois, her younger sister Ruthie would not have been so inspired to volunteer her time and dedicated efforts to the museum. Grateful for Lois’s guidance and inspiration throughout their years together, the description next to Ruthie’s origami pieces in the exhibit appropriately reads, “Traditional Japanese Origami Forms…in honor of her sister Lois Teruko Padilla.”

Thanksgiving 2011. Kanamaru Family Reunion at Montebello Plymouh Congregational Church. (Photo courtesy of Ruthie Kitagawa)

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Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami is currently on view at the Japanese American National Museum through August 26, 2012. Come visit Ruthie’s Origami Corner on Target Free Family Saturdays. The next event is on Saturday, July 14, 2012 from 11 AM – 4 PM. Please check the website for future event dates and details:

© 2012 Myra Nishizaki

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