Welcome to the Daniel K. Inouye National Center for the Preservation of Democracy at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM). As we relaunch the Democracy Center, our hope is that it is a place where visitors can examine the Asian American experience, past and present, and talk about race, identity, social justice, and the shaping of democracy.
The role of the Democracy Center is to:
- Convene and educate people of all ages about democracy to transform attitudes, celebrate culture, and promote civic engagement
- Educate and inform the public and public officials about important issues
- Create strength within and among communities to advocate for positive change
- Explore the values that shape American democracy
By highlighting the stories of Japanese Americans, JANM tells the American story. The Democracy Center explores the rights, freedoms, and enduring fragility of democracy to build bridges and find common ground between people of different backgrounds and opinions. The Democracy Center looks for solutions that engage communities in self advocacy, explore the evolving idea of what it means to be an American, and result in actions that bring everyone together.
When I am asked why I am taking on this role as director, I think of two things. The first is what is meant by “preserving democracy” in today’s fractured world. It seems like our American democracy is under attack. We have forgotten that democracy means people power. Millennia ago when the concept was first envisioned, people was narrowly defined—men who were property owners. But even in that narrow definition, the idea that it is the governed who decide how government is run was a radical idea. Indeed, the notion “of the people, by the people, and for the people” has changed over time. A modern democracy must be an inclusive one. And while a society can dictate the particular rights, roles, and responsibilities of those living under the democracy, the underlying truth is that a democracy must be responsible to all people. A democracy is not “majority rules” and it’s certainly not “rule by a few in a ruling class.” Rather it is a society moving everyone forward together. Too often these days we are so very willing to leave people behind. A democracy cannot stand and thrive with wide swaths of people looking in from the outside. Democracy demands participation from everyone.
The other thing that I think about are those people who feel left out, abandoned, forgotten. I think about myself as a child. As a kid I dreamed of public service and even dreamed of being president. But I was told by my friends that a life like that was not something for someone who looked like me. Even though I was born in the country, I still wasn’t American enough to even think about such lofty aspirations. My friends weren’t being mean nor racist. They simply saw the world around us for what it was back then. There was nothing that would lead us to believe that anyone but a white man could be president—or even serve in the highest offices of government.
We’ve come a long way in the intervening years. But the rhetoric of the past has been resurfacing. The taunts that followed me child—“Go back to where you came from!” “Show me your passport!” “You’re not really American!”—are more than echoes of the past. They are refrains heard anew on a daily basis and endured by millions across this country.
When I walk through JANM’s Plaza—a place where Democracy failed its citizens—I hear the voices of children crying. Parents and grandparents worried about what happens on the other side of that bus ride to America’s concentration camps. They were American citizens marginalized in the worst way. And I worry how close we are to history repeating itself in some form.
These are the things that I think about when I look at the Democracy Center’s future. Among our core beliefs as we relaunch the Democracy Center is that it shouldn’t matter what you look like, where you came from, who you worship, who you love, your economic or immigration status, or whether you are old or young; we all have a responsibility to preserve democracy. No one should be stopped from doing their part.
As we collectively look to the future, I trust that you will find the Democracy Center to be a place where communities like yours can gather to look for ways forward together. A place where no one ever feels left behind. A place of safe harbor for those looking to engage in these difficult conversations.
With access to a diverse range of thinkers, leaders, activists, artists, and scholars from across the nation, the Democracy Center seeks to bring their ideas and talents to our conversations, exhibitions, performances, and programs. Among the programs coming in the near future are:
- A Distinguished Lecture Series honoring the late Sec. Norman Y. Mineta and Irene Hirano Inouye
- Speaker Series on current events, arts, culture, and literature
- Arts and writing fellowships and residencies
- Youth programs on civic engagement
- Leadership development programs
The Democracy Center is an inclusive place, and I invite everyone to participate in the journey. You can do this by:
- Coming to our programs
- Telling your friends about our programs
- Liking us on social media and hitting the follow button
- Signing up for our mailing list
- Volunteering at our events
- Partnering with us on events and with organizations that you may be a part of in the community
- Donating to support our programs
- Connecting us to others in the community for financial and programming support
Another way is to share your ideas with us. While we cannot put on every wonderful program and event that we would like (see the last two bullets above), we welcome your ideas for future programming and partnership. Email us at email@example.com.
In the meantime, as we look at the turbulent times we live in, we may fear for what the future holds. But nothing can stand the test of time if it is not tempered. I find hope in the words of Jimmy Carter, “The experience of democracy is like the experience of life itself—always changing, infinite in its variety, sometimes turbulent, and all the more valuable for having been tested in adversity.”
Image captions and credits clockwise from left:
- James E. Herr, director of the Democracy Center. Photo by Kazz Morohashi.
- Daniel Ziblatt, author of Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point, in conversation with Terrence McNally. Photo by Kazz Morohashi.
- The Democracy Center on the campus of the Japanese American National Museum. Photo by Paloma Dooley.
- Former Black Panther Party members and Japanese American community members talk about the historical context of the Party’s work with Japanese Americans and what solidarity with all marginalized communities looks like in 2023 and beyond. Photo by Tsuneo Takasugi.