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Voices of the Volunteers: The Building Blocks of the Japanese American National Museum

Richard Michio Murakami

Richard Murakami. Photo by The Japanese Daily Sun.

Richard Murakami’s wartime experience was an odyssey that saw his family moved from one camp to another. By the end of WWII, they had lived in three concentration camps—in Tule Lake, California; Jerome, Arkansas; and Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

At the outbreak of the war, Richard was living in Lakewood, California, a community with very few Japanese Americans. He recalls that after the Pearl Harbor attack, his hakujin friends advised him not to come to school for a few days. When the Murakamis were eventually imprisoned in camp, it was a unique experience for Richard, who suddenly found himself in a solely Japanese environment.

Richard’s father believed in America even though he was a Kibei. He was sure that his family would be released after six months and that he would be allowed to set up a farm.

The farmland offered was in North Dakota, a place full of snow and ice with terrain that had not been successfully cultivated before. He was willing to try but asked for a two-year commitment so he could be assured his family would eat for at least two years. The government refused.

Richard’s father became disillusioned after that. He thought of returning to Japan, where two of his sons were living in Hiroshima. But Richard’s mother discouraged the idea. “If we go to Japan, how will we live?” Her words seared through the momentary anger. His father answered “yes–yes” to the loyalty questions.

Richard, who was 10 years old when the war broke out, drew strength from the camp experience. He says that he learned to admire the Japanese spirit of the Issei and Nisei, who exemplified gaman, the quality of enduring with dignity.

He believes that the Japanese culture and spirit are responsible for the postwar success of Japanese Americans. “My father was a farmer, but he didn’t want us [kids] to be farmers. He wanted us to go to college and [enter] stable professions. We went to camp, and we could have been negative after that. We could have gone down, but we didn’t. We became better.”

He added that service of the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and Military Intelligence Service changed perceptions of Japanese Americans after the war.

Speaking as a volunteer, he believes that the Japanese American National Museum’s second major exhibition, America’s Concentration Camps, was the one that “put us on the map.”

“That’s when I came here to volunteer to do more things,” he states. “I looked around and saw everyone working so hard—volunteers and staff. I thought if people are working that hard, it must be a good place to volunteer.”

Richard had been active in the Optimist Club since 1969 and was looking for a way to give back to his community upon his retirement from his job as head of a state division that licenses and regulates health plans. In 1994, his unique perspective made him an ideal candidate for JANM docent.

These days, Richard oversees a team of photographers who cover JANM events. “They’re all so good,” he says. “That makes it fun for me.”

Photo courtesy of the Japanese American National Museum.


* Richard Murakami was interviewed by Tomomi Kanemaru and this article was written by Ellen Endo for Voices of the Volunteers: Building Blocks of the Japanese American National Museum, a book presented by Nitto Tire and published by The Rafu Shimpo. This story has been modified slightly from the original.


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© 2015 The Rafu Shimpo

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About this series

This series introduces the experiences of the volunteers at the Japanese American National Museum from the book Voices of the Volunteers: The Building Blocks of the Japanese American National Museum, which was sponsored by Nitto Tire and published by The Rafu Shimpo.

A few years ago, Nitto Tire began working with the Los Angeles Japanese-language newspaper The Japanese Daily Sun to interview the Japanese American National Museum (JANM)’s volunteers. When Nitto Tire approached The Rafu Shimpo in late 2014 to edit and compile these interviews into a book, we were happy to do it. As a former JANM intern, I knew how important the volunteers were, how hard they worked, and how much their presence humanized history.

In the process of editing this book, I read each story so many times I began to dream about them. I know that I’m not alone in this absorption. Everyone who gave his or her time to this book lived within these stories and felt their effect. That’s the power of a first-hand account.When visitors come to JANM for a guided tour, they experience a similar kind of accelerated intimacy that brings the Common Ground exhibit to life. The volunteers have been putting a face to history for thirty years. For all that time, they have upheld the story of our community. It’s time now for us to uphold their stories.

Edited by Mia Nakaji Monnier with additional thanks to Contributing Editor Chris Komai; Japanese Editors Maki Hirano, Takashi Ishihara, and Ryoko Onishi; and Volunteer Liaison Richard Murakami. Interviews conducted by Tomomi Kanemaru (The Japanese Daily Sun), Alice Hama (The Japanese Daily Sun), and Mia Nakaji Monnier.

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