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An Unforgettable Beginning

First of all, I would like to thank my awesome supervisors at the Japanese American National Museum, Vicky Murakami-Tsuda and Yoko Nishimura, as well as all of the warm and friendly staff and volunteers that I’ve gotten the pleasure to meet.  I also want to thank Stacy Toyota, the SoCal NCI coordinator this year, all those who helped run this incredible NCI program, and my fellow intern family.

Maya at her desk

I have absolutely loved being part of the Nikkei Community Internship this summer!  It has been a culturally, educationally, and emotionally rich experience that has opened my eyes to a whole other part of the Japanese American community that I’ve grown up in.

Interning at the Japanese American National Museum has definitely been a worthwhile experience because of the wonderful people I’ve gotten the chance to meet and work with, and the history that I’ve learned about— Nikkei communities locally and globally. I was even pleasantly surprised to discover more about my own family history along the way.

Throughout my internship, I’ve been working on the website, Discover Nikkei, which is a place where Nikkei around the world can connect and share their stories. Before Discover Nikkei, I used to think that Nikkei was just another way of saying Japanese American. This was just an assumption that I had made because Japanese communities outside of the U.S. had never really been discussed. I had heard briefly that there were Japanese who immigrated to Peru and other parts of South America, but I had no idea that Brazil had the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. This fact really put things into perspective for me. I started to think, why hadn’t I learned about this before? Opportunely, now I have that chance with Discover Nikkei!

Through the articles that I’ve written and albums I’ve posted, I was able to reflect on my own values and past experiences. I researched and uncovered previously unknown parts of my family history and interviewed important Japanese American figures in the community who have taught me it is not enough to have a dream or vision if you don’t act on it.

The projects that I’ve worked on include an article about growing up in the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute (GVJCI), an album about the GVJCI’s Carnival this year, an album about my grandma, Yuri Kochiyama, an album about the stories behind some of our volunteers’ names, and an album about NCI’s community impact, history, and future.

I also helped conduct the Discover Nikkei Survey for the XVI COPANI (Conventions of the Association of Pan American Nikkei) Conference to be held in Cancun, Mexico in September 2011. It was a new experience asking and collecting responses for the survey, but it was something that I thought was important, so it made my persuading and encouraging much easier. I’m happy to say that we obtained 683 responses, well above the 300 we were aiming for! I’m very excited to see the compiled responses and analysis.

I think one of the greatest parts about working on Discover Nikkei is that I now have a safe place to share my thoughts and opinions and even publish my own work! I definitely did not expect to do so much writing when I first applied to this internship. Though, it’s been quite refreshing coming from a Biology major background. I admit, after an academically difficult year, my confidence wasn’t so high. However, this internship and all the positive responses I’ve been getting regarding my projects have really given me that boost of spirits to tackle this upcoming year with full force!

So thank you everyone for all your kind words and support!

One thing I will never forget was while attending the CJACLC & JACL Nikkei Conference this year, I was talking to someone over lunch and when he asked my name, he immediately told me that he had read my article, “Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute: At the Heart of South Bay’s Japanese American Community,” I had written about growing up in the GVJCI. He said that it was a great article and I was a good writer. He even posted it on his Facebook and said that he wished he had been more involved in the JA community growing up like I had. I was so surprised and flattered to realize that there are people out there actually reading my work!

Furthermore, I’ve learned that like at the museum, an important part of NCI and the Japanese American community is keeping history alive, while incorporating the modern with the old whether it pertains to organizations, events, or art. The range of exhibits here at the museum embodies this notion.

Maya kneels next to a photo of her grandmother during World War II at the "Common Ground" exhibition of the Japanese Aemrican National Museum.

They have the core Common Ground: The Heart of Community exhibit about Japanese Americans during World War II, but you can also admire the creativity and craftsmanship of modern artists at the Year of the Labbit Custom Show exhibit, or rekindle those childhood comic book memories with Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo exhibit.  As you walk away from each exhibit, not only do you learn something new, you take with you a new sense of perspective, which I think is most important.

I’ve acquired a range of experience here at the museum from working on the website, helping out at programs, and setting up exhibits.  I don’t think most people realize how much work actually goes into putting together an exhibit.  This experience has definitely given me a whole new appreciation for museums, especially non-profit ones.  

One of the biggest differences I’ve seen in non-profits compared to profits is the high level of camaraderie and teamwork expressed in non-profits.  Volunteers are vital to the livelihood of this museum and really shape the experience that visitors have.  We’re so lucky to have so many individuals who are willing to share their fascinating stories and precious time with us as docents and committee members.

One thing I must mention is the amount of good food always available!  The Sashimi Lunch day was one of my most memorable events here at the museum.  Not only was there a superb selection of Japanese food served potluck style and freshly caught sashimi, but it was the fact that this food brought all the staff and volunteers together.  I feel like that’s something that most JA’s can relate to.  Eating good food with good people.

Maya with Vicky and Yoko

Moreover, What I’ve learned through NCI is that I have a voice and that my opinion is not only welcomed, by valued. NCI has truly empowered me.  Even as an intern at the Japanese American National Museum, I was treated as part of the Discover Nikkei team (which I know I’ll be forever, right Vicky and Yoko?).

When we visited different Japanese American non-profit community organizations around LA, it stood out to me that the leaders and staff that we met with would ask us our opinions about how to get more youth out to their centers or events.  These site visits also made me realize the significance of a safe space, a place of gathering, sharing, and connecting.  All these non-profit, cultural, community centers and organizations have provided this for our community.

Like Tuesday Night Café has provided us with a home for art and music, like the Japanese American National Museum and Discover Nikkei has given us a medium through which we can share history, like JACL and LTSC allows us to share our struggles, and like Little Tokyo presents us with a location for all this to happen, the need for and preservation of space is crucial.

The Japanese American community is constantly changing, growing and it is important for us to adapt to and welcome these changes.  As a result of this internship, I’ve added more depth to the way I define community.  I now see that communities cannot be complacent.  Communities need leaders to ignite the passion in the younger generation to ensure the livelihood and longevity of the community and that is what NCI has done for me.  

Through all the amazing guest speakers, site visits, and workshops, NCI has built me a bridge into the world of non-profit, community organizing and given me the reassurance that I, as the younger generation, can assume a leadership position in the JA community and that my ideas are welcome.

In conclusion, I think the best part of this internship has been the people: my fellow NCI interns, museum co-workers, and influential, community leaders.  The connections I’ve made will no doubt outlast the length of this short, 8-week internship.  What I’ve learned from all of their life experiences, profound ideas, and words of encouragement will stay with me forever and be that driving force to keep me coming back and giving back to this Japanese American community that I’ve grown so attached to.

2011 NCI interns

© 2011 Maya Kochiyama

community COPANI discover nikkei GVJCI internship jacl janm nci nikkei