A Conversation with Jason Finkelman, Curator: Nikkeijin Illinois overview image

A Conversation with Jason Finkelman, Curator: Nikkeijin Illinois

  • Post Date: 02/06/2023
  • Author: Emily Venturella
  • Reading Time: 6 minute read

Jason Finkelman is the Director of Global Arts Performance Initiatives at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also the curator of the upcoming exhibition, Nikkeijin Illinois. We sat down with Jason to discuss the origins of this unique exhibit.

[Spurlock Museum] Jason, we’re all very excited for Nikkeijin Illinois to open in February. But we’d love to hear a little about how this exhibition came about in the first place.
[Jason Finkelman] Of course. Nikkeijin Illinois came about because the director of the museum, Elizabeth Sutton, was interested in the research I was conducting about my own family. She invited me to curate an exhibition on the Japanese American experience. I’m half Japanese and I was looking into my maternal family’s history, as far back as I could go. And, of course, I wanted to learn about my family’s experience with incarceration during World War II, as well as what they were doing before the war and where they ended up after the war. I was particularly mindful of how the internment experience impacted my grandparents, my parents, and by extension my generation, the grandchildren.

When Elizabeth asked me to curate an exhibition on the Japanese American experience, I had to think about the way I wanted to address this history... how I wanted to present this story. I decided I wanted to tell the story of Japanese Americans who had been a part of this institution.

I think presenting the experience of Japanese Americans was something Elizabeth always wanted to do, once she understood that she was sheltered from the history of Japanese internment, though she grew up in the area where that experience happened. We talked a little about this in the magazine.

[SM] Why do you think that now is the perfect moment for this exhibition? Is there a relevancy to this current moment in history?
[JF] Oh, definitely. Elizabeth’s invitation to me came about during a conversation we were having about my own family. I had done quite a bit of genealogical research during the first COVID shutdown. I think it’s very important that we share the histories of Japanese Americans, always, but especially as we’re experiencing this rise in anti-Asian hate that has occurred concurrently with COVID-19. We have to understand that this anti-Asian hate is not new. It’s a return to something that has, historically, happened before. By learning about the Japanese American experience in Illinois and at UIUC, we can better understand and support our community members.
[SM] What can visitors expect when they come to the museum to see this exhibition?
[JF] Nikkeijin Illinois has multiple focus areas. The exhibition features the stories of twelve Japanese Americans who were connected to UIUC as students, faculty, or staff. There are profiles of two Japanese Americans from before the war, two Japanese Americans who were here during the war, there are profiles of a group of Chicago-based Japanese Americans who came to the university just after the war, and then there’s a group of stories from people who are more contemporary (including myself, Yuki Okinaga Hayakawa Llewellyn, and Ray Sasaki).

Another aspect of the exhibition is the story of how the University of Illinois responded to Japanese Americans seeking to enroll in school during the war years. I'm sorry to report the leadership of this institution did not look favorably upon this idea. This history is fundamentally important to understanding the experience of Japanese American students of the past, as well as today.

Additionally, there is a portion of the exhibition that features historic relics and artifacts of the internment period, which will provide an immediacy for visitors who may not be familiar with the history of the Japanese American internment camps.

Lastly, portions of the exhibit include WWII, anti-Japanese propaganda materials collected by scholar and curator Rob Buscher, along with selected works from his collaborative exhibition American Peril: Faces of the Enemy, created with photographer Justin L. Chiu, who graduated from UIUC in 2005. These portraits depicting members of the Japanese American and Muslim American communities impacted by negative Japanese and Islamophobic propaganda, will be on display for the first time outside of their original showing in Philadelphia.

[SM] How can visitors get more involved in this exhibit?
[JF] There’s a digital platform we hope will continually generate activity over the course of the exhibition. We’re encouraging Japanese American members of the UIUC community (both past and present) to share their stories here. Through these submissions, we aim to expand the kinds of stories being told in this space. We invite the stories of the fourth or fifth generations of Japanese Americans (Yonsei and Gosei), to learn about their unique experiences, along with stories of our elders, the second and third generation (Nisei and Sansei) Japanese Americans, told by themselves or by their descendants.
If you are a Japanese American student, or staff member, please fill out our form to share your story (external link).
[SM] What were the challenges of putting together this exhibition?
[JF] I found that, in many cases, generations that were removed from the internment experience had very little or even no knowledge of it from their parents or grandparents. This is not uncommon. Many of those who were incarcerated did not want to speak about the ordeal at all. But the response from both the subjects I interviewed, as well as the family members of those I researched, has been overwhelmingly positive. That has been gratifying.
[SM] Any final words for future visitors?
[JF] I encourage everyone to come more than once. The exhibition is a lot to take in. There is information that will be helpful to those who know nothing about the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. But, visitors who already have knowledge of the incarceration experience will discover plenty of new information, too. This exhibition seeks to create a place of gathering, a space to share stories, and a unique venue for all visitors to gain a better understanding of the experiences of Japanese Americans through the lens of UIUC community members.

Nikkeijin Illinois opens on February 19, and will be on display throughout the year. Visit our website and blog for periodic updates on the exhibition and associated events.

Nikkeijin Illinois is presented by the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures with support from the Yuen Tze Lo and Sara De Mundo Lo Scholars Studio Fund and the H. Ross and Helen Workman Gallery of East Asian Cultures Fund.