Gwen Muranaka
Courtesy: Rafu Shimpo

The Japanese American National Museum took a “leap” into the virtual world on April 18, live-streaming its annual gala to homes in lieu of the black-tie event that was to be held that night.

In a mix of pretaped and live segments, the show went on, with speeches, music and a resolve that the story of the Japanese American experience must be shared for generations to come.

Ann Burroughs, JANM president and CEO, standing in front of the Heart Mountain barracks display, said, “More than ever we need to support one another and lift each other’s spirits. We hope that tonight will bring you a program that distills JANM to its essence.”

Among the casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic have been the fundraisers and events that raise critical operating funds for nonprofit organizations, large and small, in the Japanese American community.

Ann Burroughs, president and CEO of the Japanese American National Museum, speaks at the virtual gala which was streamed live on April 18.
Ann Burroughs, president and CEO of the Japanese American National Museum, speaks at the virtual gala which was streamed live on April 18.

In response to the dinner cancellation, auction items were placed online and viewers were encouraged to donate to the Bid for Education, which raises money for local children to visit the museum. By 6:30 p.m., the Bid for Education had raised $115,000.

Dinner co-chairs Kari Nakama and Susan Morita offered thanks to the staff of the museum for putting together the event.

Morita said, “We’re excited about our online auction, grateful to the wonders of technology and JANM staff.”

Somber yet celebratory tones were present in tributes to the late Irene Hirano Inouye,  who passed April 7, as many remembered her pivotal role in building the museum and even showcased her virtuosity on the accordion.

KTLA news anchor Frank Buckley, who was to have emceed the gala, said, “Her leadership at the Japanese American National Museum was chief among her many accomplishments. It was Irene and her smarts and hard work and gentle, insistent leadership that grew the museum into the anchor institution in Little Tokyo and Downtown L.A.”

Not every moment was somber.

JANM staff, sheltering in place in their own homes, perform “All By Myself” in a finale for the gala. (Photos courtesy of JANM).
JANM staff, sheltering in place in their own homes, perform “All By Myself” in a finale for the gala. (Photos courtesy of JANM).

Actor George Takei, chairman emeritus of the JANM Board of Trustees, sharply dressed in a black tie, offered a toast, saying, “Live long and prosper.”

Derek Mio, star of AMC’s “The Terror,” captured the spirit of a gala made to be watched on computer screens.

“This is weird, the first-ever virtual gala, hopefully, the last. Don’t worry, I’m not wearing pants, either,” Mio quipped.

Mio and actress Keiko Agena read passages from Stanley Hayami and Yuri Kochiyama, respectively, written during their incarceration in concentration camps. The words resonated in today’s current world, as if they were speaking from the past to the present.

Hawai‘i-born actress Keiko Agena.
Hawai‘i-born actress Keiko Agena.

A passage from Hayami’s diary reflected on his confinement in Heart Mountain: “Here I am today, hoping that next year at this time I’ll be home or someplace else outside of camp.” As a member of the 442nd RCT, Hayami would perish in combat in Italy.

Kochiyama’s writings from Jerome, Ark., foreshadowed her later work in civil rights: “We need love. We need understanding. We need broad mindedness. We need tolerance and yet a strong grasp on righteousness. We need perseverance to live what may seem a drab life but fortitude to forge on to a better life.”

Tributes were given by major supporters of the museum, including MUFG Union Bank Executive Chairman Kazuo Koshi, Linda and Sakaye Aratani, the Yuki family, George Sugimoto and Taiji Terasaki, whose exhibition, “Transcendients,” is on display at the museum.

Lonnie Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was to have been the gala’s keynote speaker. Bunch was previously director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

In taped remarks, Bunch noted his long association with JANM, recalling the joy he felt in walking through the historic Nishi building when it opened.

“During a time of crisis, museums like the Japanese American National Museum and the Museum of African American History are there. They’re there because museums are more important now than ever before. Museums are the glue that hold the country together,” Bunch said.

A highlight of every gala is the Lexus opportunity drawing, and the virtual gala was no exception. Tracy Doi, chief financial officer of Toyota Motor North America, gave introductory remarks. In a live segment, the winning ticket was drawn.

Nahan Gluck, a longtime volunteer docent, was the winner of the Lexus RX 450h. He has been a volunteer at JANM since early 1994.

At the conclusion, the staff of JANM had one last surprise. In a coordinated performance, some dressed in costumes and others playing keyboards, ‘ukulele and guitars, they sang in unison “All by Myself.”

The JANM Virtual Gala is available for viewing online on YouTube (

Gwen Muranaka is a yonsei and senior editor of the Rafu Shimpo, a bilingual Japanese newspaper based in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. She manages the newspapers’s staff, of the newspaper, overseeing a team of reporters, graphic designers and outside contributors in the production of the newspaper, as well as special-themed publications.


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