The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district, and is one of many museum options in DTLA. While it’s not as high profile as other options, we consider it to be one of the most important museums you can visit. In this post, we’ll offer a review of the museum, plus a few tips for visiting.
Japanese American National Museum is a tale of two museums: it pays tribute to iconic Japanese American figures who have helped shaped our society, but also shines a light on the forced removal and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The elements of JANM focusing on this forced removal and incarceration are what make this museum so important. While the Japanese American National Museum has its share of “fun” and “cool” displays, the tone here is definitely much more solemn and the experience more sobering. Before you think, “that’s not what I’m looking for on vacation,” please at least give this museum some thought…
The main exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum is Common Ground: the Heart of Community. This is a sprawling exhibition that occupies a good portion of the museum’s upstairs, chronicling 130 years of Japanese American history, starting with early days of the first-generation Issei immigrants to present-day culture.
It also focuses on World War II concentration camps, which means that if the next (temporary) exhibition has already concluded when you visit, you’ll have a chance to learn about this shameful time in American history via the main exhibition. The highlight of this display is the reconstruction of Heart Mountain barracks, which is a preserved concentration camp brought from Wyoming.
During our visit, an exhibition titled Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066 was running. This only lasts another month, so there’s a strong chance you will not see this if you’re visiting at a future date, but a modest amount of this information is repeated in the permanent Common Ground exhibition upstairs.
This is a thought-provoking exhibit that is both illuminating and disheartening. It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of hysteria; a teachable moment that forces us to confront America’s past. This was unquestionably a shameful moment in American history, and one worthy of analyzing to see how our society could stand idly by and allow this to happen.
A big part of why this exhibition is depressing is not the miscarriage of justice and human rights violations made here, but how eager many Americans are to make these same mistakes again. It resonates deeply because it has contemporary relevance. It requires zero imagination to envision history repeating itself here.
This is what makes exhibits like Instructions to All Persons and the dialogues they start so important. Americans use the excuse of “learning from our past mistakes” as justification for preserving monuments paying tribute to bad moments and figures from our past; there is a clear and readily ascertainably difference between confronting past mistakes and celebrating past mistakes. This exhibit is unquestionably the former. The exhibit can make you a bit uncomfortable, but in a good way.
I have never seen such in depth treatment for the topic of Japanese American concentration camps. Even in history classes I’ve taken, it was almost treated as a historical footnote that we breezed past–something really bad that happened a long time ago, but that is over now and cannot happen again.
All of this is meant to underscore the point that I feel the Japanese American National Museum contains an incredibly important exhibition, and one that every American owes it to themselves to see. This is a travel blog focused on points of interest and things to do, so I’ll spare you more of my thoughts on this…
Another temporary exhibition we saw was New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. This celebrates the life of actor, activist, and social media icon George Takei.
Rather than “just” being a lighthearted celebration of Takei, this exhibition was essentially a glimpse of history through the prism of Takei. It was likewise an excellent exhibition.
When I wrote a few tips for visiting, I mean it. This museum does not really require any strategy to avoid crowds because it is not incredibly busy. We are in Little Tokyo quite a bit (to eat) and we’ve passed by this museum a number of times. We’ve never seen it particularly busy.
We finally decided to visit on a free admission Thursday evening (from 5 to 8 p.m.), and were expecting a horde of crowds. In actuality, we had the place almost entirely to ourselves. This was during the height of summer season…which is not really a ‘thing’ in downtown Los Angeles, but still.
The point here is that Japanese American National Museum is not exactly a busy museum. By Los Angeles museum standards, it’s definitely under the radar in terms of popularity (despite very strong reviews on sites like TripAdvisor). Part of this is undoubtedly its location, but it’s also not as fun and lighthearted as other museums. Why learn and think when you can take cute selfies at the Museum of Ice Cream?!
Directly next door to the Japanese American National Museum is the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. You might be tempted to visit this museum, but I would only recommend that if you’ve already paid for admission to MOCA’s main campus (in which case, you will not pay again). Exhibits at the Geffen can be outlandishly pretentious and very hit or miss. We recently visited and walked out after 15 minutes.
The Japanese American National Museum is relatively small as far as cultural history museums go. I’d allocate around 90 minutes to 2 hours here, perhaps more if you’re visiting during a special event. (Check JANM’s events calendar for a current schedule.)
Currently, admission is $10 for adults and $6 for kids at the Japanese American National Museum.
I’d encourage you to spend more time in Little Tokyo when you visit the Japanese American National Museum; there’s hourly parking at multiple garages nearby that turns into flat rate parking after you’re there long enough (with “long enough” usually being 2-3 hours).
We’ll cover Little Tokyo more in a separate post, but there are plenty of interesting shops and great food in the area.
Overall, we highly recommend the Japanese American National Museum. Just as Americans flock to Pearl Harbor to learn about the history of World War II and pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice, we should flock to JANM to learn about Japanese internment on American soil during the war. To my knowledge, there is no other museum in the United States that does this good of a job presenting the topic (there’s also Manzanar National Historic Site in California). While the Japanese American National Museum are very different from Pearl Harbor in obvious ways, it’s also incredibly similar. I’d argue that visiting each is equally patriotic, as well. JANM is also very different in tone from a lot of museums in Los Angeles, but the museum treats its subject with the depth and solemnity that it deserves.
If you’re planning a California vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to do. For Los Angeles-centric trips, we’ve found the most useful guidebook to be The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles: 1001 Ideas, which is written by locals (and we use it even as locals!). If you enjoyed this post, help spread the word by sharing it via social media. Thanks for reading!
Have you been to the Japanese American National Museum? What did you think of the museum? Did the historical exhibits focusing on internment appeal to you? Any additional thoughts to add? Any other suggestions for Little Tokyo? Any questions? Hearing from readers is both helpful and interesting, so if you have perspective from your own experiences, or questions, please share in the comments below!