New Year’s A-Comin’

Japanese American National Museum, Gift of George Teruo Esaki (96.25.8)

Look closely at this photograph and the handwritten text at the bottom.

  • What do you see?
  • What evidence in the photograph gives you clues about where this photograph may have been taken?
  • Does this photograph convey to you that the New Year holiday is coming?

The individuals in this photograph are making mochi while incarcerated at Gila River, Arizona. Mochi is a Japanese rice cake made by steaming and pounding rice and then forming it into small round shapes, as seen in this photograph. Sticky in texture, it is a very traditional food made and eaten by Japanese families during the New Year holiday. Often families have large gatherings and work together all day making mochi. It is a custom that continues today in many Japanese and Japanese American families.

Japanese American National Museum, Gift of George Teruo Esaki (96.25.8)

Look closely at this photograph.

  • What do you see?
  • Do you have any guesses about what is happening in this photograph?
  • Is there anything you wonder about what is happening in this photograph?

This photograph was taken at Gila River and shows the part of the mochi-making process in which the rice is steamed in preparation for pounding.

  • What do you notice about the people in this photograph?
Japanese American National Museum, Gift of George Teruo Esaki (96.25.2)

This is a page from the Gila News-Courier, the newspaper printed in the Gila River Concentration Camp in Arizona. Read the article titled “Rice for Mochi Arrives: Pre-Xmas Distribution Set” and consider the importance of this event to the incarcerated community at Gila River.

Here are some definitions that may be helpful as you read the article:

mochi-gome: sweet rice used to make mochi
mochi-tsuki: the making of mochi
Gilans: individuals living at Gila River

Mochi is associated with a happy time of year and mochi-making is an activity that brings Japanese American families and their communities together.

As you read the first sentence, ask yourself what types of feelings you think the Japanese and Japanese Americans associate with mochi.

Hisako Hibi, Untitled (New Year's Mochi), 1943, oil on canvas, Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Ibuki Hibi Lee (99.63.2)
  • Can you spot the mochi in this painting?
  • What else do you see depicted?
  • What would you say is the mood of this painting?

This painting was made by an artist named Hisako Hibi. During World War II, she was incarcerated in a concentration camp in Topaz, Utah, and it was there that she painted this image. The formation of two stacked mochi topped with a small citrus is called an okasane. It symbolizes hope for health and prosperity and is often displayed in homes during the New Year season.

  • Why might painting a picture of an okasane be important to Hibi while she is in camp?

On the back of this painting is an inscription that reads:

Hisako Hibi. Jan 1943 at Topaz. Japanese without mochi (pounded sweet rice) is no New Year! It was very sad oshogatsu (New Year). So, I painted okazari mochi in the internment camp.

  • Now that you know what is written on the back, does it change the mood of this painting for you? If so, how?
Japanese American National Museum, Gift of George Teruo Esaki (96.25.8)

As evidenced by the artifacts seen here, mochi and the communal process of making it represent very strong cultural traditions.

This is one aspect of their culture that Japanese American inmates, despite the harsh conditions in which they lived, could not give up. These artifacts show how traditions expressed in actions and art help to maintain community and culture.

  • Which aspects of your family’s or community’s culture do you maintain?
  • In what ways do you achieve this?

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