‘Exiled to Motown: A History of Japanese Americans in Detroit’ Opens This Weekend

The exhibit will be at the Detroit Historical Museum through October
Exiled to Motown
Exiled to Motown looks at life for Japanese Americans in Detroit. // Photograph courtesy of Detroit Historical Museum

Anti-Asian sentiment and violence has been on the rise during the pandemic, but this isn’t new in the U.S. Following their imprisonment at internment camps during World War II, Japanese Americans migrated to cities across the Midwest, including Detroit, and while they found ways to celebrate their culture in their new home, their journey was marked by struggle.

As explored in the Japanese American Citizen League Detroit Chapter’s Exiled to Motown: A History of Japanese Americans in Detroit traveling exhibit, the U.S. government put a plan in motion to intentionally break up the Japanese American community through division and assimilation, sending them to the Midwest rather than already established Japantowns on the West Coast. In that, moving to Detroit didn’t just mean starting over — it also meant leaving community and customs that were familiar.

The exhibit, which comes to the Detroit Historical Society on July 17, looks at this past as well as themes of labor, race, and belonging. Attendees will get insight into Japanese-Arab American solidarity following 9/11; how Japanese Americans sought refuge after World War II and gained employment at Ford Motor Co.; the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man who was beaten to death by Detroit autoworkers in 1982; and more. They’ll also learn how, despite these hardships, the community made Detroit their own through activity like social action, local faires, and sock hops.

Exiled to Motown pulls from oral histories conducted by JACL Detroit, archival photograms, documents, and family heirlooms — there are more than 50 objects on display in the exhibit. It is co-curated by Dr. Mika Kennedy, a member of JACL Detroit and visiting assistant professor in English at Kalamazoo College, and Celeste Shimoura Goedert, the operations and program associate at Rising Voices, a Detroit nonprofit that works to increase the civic participation of Asian Americans in Michigan.

“As we built this exhibit, I have thought a lot about cultural assimilation and the state’s attempted cultural amnesia,” says Goedert in a press release. “Assimilation is an attempt to make us forget. It is a violent force that can be overt or more subtle. So what does it mean to remember?”

Exiled to Motown will be at the museum until Oct. 3. Entrance to the exhibit is included in general admission. The Detroit Historical Museum is currently observing abbreviated hours of 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday-Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

For more information, visit detroithistorical.org.