California State University Japanese American Digitization Project Project History

It isn’t serendipity that many of the archives within the California State University (CSU) system have a great deal of primary source materials focused on the presence of Japanese Americans within the state.

Immigration patterns that determined where Japanese Americans (Nikkei) settled correspond to the location of some CSU campuses. For example, Sacramento, San José and Fresno had early Japanese American agricultural populations. The Nikkei populations of Little Tokyo, Terminal Island, Gardena and Palos Verdes in Los Angeles County are directly connected to the collections at CSU Dominguez Hills, Cal State Fullerton and CSUN.

Collections at Sacramento State came from citizens of the Florin neighborhood, noted as a Japanese immigrant community before World War II, and other agricultural areas of the San Joaquin Valley. Cal State Fullerton’s Japanese American oral histories were generated by residents of Orange County and other areas of southern California. San José State’s Flaherty Collection has important items that Colonel Hugh T. Fullerton collected from the Western Defense Command.

Highlights from other collections include:

  • Sonoma State’s focus on life north of the San Francisco Bay Area and the campus’s partnership with the local Japanese American Citizens League (JACL)
  • CSU Monterey Bay’s collaboration with its local JACL
  • Oral histories gathered by Cal State Long Beach dealing with life on Terminal Island and in the South Bay Area of Los Angeles
  • Yearbook excerpts from San Diego State and San Francisco State that document the lives of students prior to the WWII incarceration
  • Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s important Manzanar letters Stanislaus State’s materials from the Nisaburo Aibara Collection
The collections at CSU Dominguez Hills originate mostly from the South Bay Area of Los Angeles County, where some of the largest concentrations of Japanese Americans reside. Anti-Japanese land laws prevented Japanese Americans from owning land, forcing them to lease farm or ranch lands. Large agricultural landowners, such as those who owned the Rancho Dominguez, were required to keep extensive records, including birth certificates, passports and proof of residency for their Japanese American tenants.

Nearly 2,000 of those tenant records are part of the CSUJAD project. The records contain scores of leases and letters, both business-like and heartbreaking, that document everything from a tenant farmer’s removal by the federal government to the pleading of a tenant to his former landlord to vouch for a relative’s loyalty to the U.S. The attempts of businesses to work within the policies of the Alien Land Acts of the early 20th century are integral to understanding how immigration clashed with prejudice and commercial interests, leading to the WWII incarceration.

A particularly striking photograph (shown below) comes from a 1930s Gardena High School yearbook. It shows the school’s Spanish Club, made up of a majority of Japanese American students. The image harkens to a time when integration into the mainstream of the U.S. was in fact the norm for Japanese Americans.
When this project began in 2013, CSUDH had only a handful of collections focused on Japanese Americans, gathered with the help of Dr. Donald R. Hata, an emeritus professor of history at CSU Dominguez Hills. Since then, the collections held at CSUDH have expanded to more than 50, thanks to the heartfelt support of families throughout the Los Angeles basin.

How the csujad project began

The idea for the CSUJAD project grew out of discussions between CSU archivists at the 2012 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists and the 2013 annual meeting of the Society of California Archivists. The talks centered not only on the digitization of primary source collections but also on the desire to create an all-encompassing portal for the materials that each CSU archive possesses.

CSU archivists realized the importance of digitizing their collections and providing item-level descriptions to improve online discoverability in order to tell these “local” or “vernacular” stories about Japanese American history as opposed to governmental records or official interpretations.
The physical collections have always been accessible by visiting the various CSU campuses and exploring collection-level finding aids in the Online Archive of California, but most were not digitized or described at the item level. Even if some of the archival items had been digitized, the objects tended to be isolated and without standardized metadata or consistent terminology. The archivists realized that researchers now have a growing expectation that documents, in addition to photographs, must be available digitally to expanded groups of humanities scholars and decided that every archival object must be made more readily available.

CSU archivists are the primary players behind the CSUJAD project, with an extended group of important collaborators that include scholars, educators, artists, museum staff, information professionals, and other archivists who take an abiding interest in Japanese history.

Greg Williams, Director of Archives and Special Collections at CSUDH, took the lead by writing the grants, assuming the role of project director/principal investigator, and taking on the responsibility for the central hub for all CSUJAD grant projects.

digitizing of collections begins

In 2013, the CSUDH Archives and Special Collections applied for funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to begin a concerted effort to digitize CSU’s extensive holdings of Japanese American historical materials and to develop a web portal to deliver the content.

A Humanities Collections and Reference Resources (HCRR) planning grant was provided the following year to help with the formative stages of this initiative. The archives that were most eager to participate included the six CSU campuses with the most extensive holdings of historical materials related to Japanese American history and the WWII incarceration.

Before the end of this initial grant a year later, nine additional CSU campuses took an interest and contributed digitized archival materials, even though they were not part of the original grant proposal. After the pilot project was completed, NEH encouraged the CSU to apply for a full HCRR implementation grant, which was funded in 2016.

Meanwhile, this demonstration of collaboration and follow-through led to a second grant from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites program to digitize more Japanese American materials, another 10,000 archival items (textual documents, images, etc.), and 100 oral histories.

This important seed funding led to expanded partnerships, new donations of archival items from the community and more crucial grant funding from a variety of granting agencies and foundations. This aggressive approach to project funding has resulted in more than 45,000 items being digitized and fully cataloged over seven years.

A very special collection is saved

Among the most significant materials acquired since the CSUJAD project began is the Ninomiya Photo Studio Collection, which was first separated and then reunited through the use of social media. That is, after years of trying to figure out what to do with the work of this portrait and community photo studio located in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood, Ninomiya family members were unable to find any institution willing to accept their collection of more than 100,000 prints and negatives.

Years later, when the building where the images were stored was being remodeled, a contractor found and saved the material. Rather than dumping the images, he placed an ad on Craig’s List trying to find a home for more than 40 years of photography. The collection was divided into at least three separate groups as interested parties took portions of the collection. One new owner wanted to digitize the images and create a website; another wanted the images for her daughter, who was interested in photography; and the third considered selling the images or scraping off the silver each print may have contained.

It took CSUDH’s Greg Williams five years to locate the Ninomiya materials from the three parties and acquire the photographs for the CSUDH Archives. The collection contains two generations of family and event photos from Little Tokyo and further afield in the Los Angeles area. There are more than 100,000 negatives and prints in the Ninomiya Collection within 15,000 packets (one packet per job). More than 10,000 of these items have been digitized and cataloged within the CSUJAD project.

A collection like Ninomiya demonstrates how an archival collection can resonate with the public, as well as the importance of connecting these works to the community. While the primary work of the project has been to digitize material to make it readily accessible, each grant has required additional educational and outreach work. This has included the creation of archival and art exhibitions (in-person and online), teacher and student workshops, lesson plans, user guides, classroom presentations, a book chapter, news releases, conference presentations, scanning days, and many other types of interactions with interested communities.

With the Ninomiya Collection, a collaboration with the CSUDH Praxis Program brought a visiting artist to explore the archival materials and lead workshops for high school and college students. They visited the archives and used the Ninomiya Photo Studio Collection materials creatively to develop an art exhibition and zine publication that expressed students’ reactions to the WWII incarceration. CSUDH continues to explore ways to involve the community in identifying people and events in the Ninomiya Collection that enhance the descriptive information for these materials.

A more Nuanced History of Japanese Americans

Bringing together once hidden and dispersed archival materials into a central online database provides easy access to primary source evidence and documentation that’s useful to students, scholars and the interested public, who can use it to interpret and create a more nuanced history of Japanese Americans in the U.S.

Whether backing up facts, shedding light on outdated interpretations or finding a personal story that resonates, these materials humanize past experiences and democratize the historical record.

The compounding connections between digitization, accurate description, contextualization and expanding collecting opportunities allows for not only a broader historical interpretation, but also a focus on the building blocks of community-based collection development.

As of 2021, the CSUJAD project continues to move forward, looking for new partners, collections, grants, insights, and opportunities for collaboration.