The museum covers more than 130 years of Japanese-American history, dating to the first
Issei generation of immigrants. Its moving image archive contains over 100,000 feet (30,000 m) of 16 mm and 8 mm home movies made by and about Japanese Americans from the 1920s to the 1950s. It also contains artifacts, textiles, art, photographs, and
oral histories of Japanese Americans. The Japanese American National Museum of Los Angeles and the Academy Film Archive collaborate to care for and provide access to home movies that document the Japanese-American experience. Established in 1992, the JANM Collection at the Academy Film Archive currently contains over 250 home movies and continues to grow.
Activist Bruce Teruo Kaji (1926–2017) was the founding president of the museum. He worked alongside other prominent Japanese-Americans to create the museum. The community had become organized around gaining recognition of the injustice they had suffered from the federal government during World War II.
The museum was conceived as a way to preserve the positive aspects of their full history and culture in the United States. When it first opened in 1992, the museum was housed in the 1925 historic Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple building.
Irene Hirano served as its first executive director and later as president and CEO of the museum. In January 1999, the National Museum opened its current 85,000-square-foot (7,900 m2) Pavilion, designed under the supervision of architect
Gyo Obata, to the public. The temple building was used by government officials in 1942 to process Japanese Americans for
wartime confinement. It is now used for offices and storage.
In 1993 the museum was given hundreds of artifacts and letters from children in internment camps, which they had sent to San Diego librarian
Clara Breed. The material was featured in an exhibit, "Dear Miss Breed": Letters from Camp. It is now part of the museum's permanent collection.
In 1997, the Frank H. Watase Media Arts Center was established by
Robert A. Nakamura and
Karen L. Ishizuka, to develop new ways to document, preserve and make known the experience of Americans of Japanese ancestry. In 1999, the Manabi and Sumi Hirasaki National Resource Center (HNRC) was established to provide access to the museum's information and resources, both at the facility and online. It documents the life and culture of the
Akemi Kikumura Yano, author, was the museum's first curator. She succeeded
Irene Hirano as president and CEO from 2008 until 2011. During her tenure, in December 2010, the museum was awarded the National Medal for Museum and Library Service.
Greg Kimura, an Episcopal priest, was appointed the president and CEO of the museum, serving between 2012 and 2016. During his time the museum experienced an economic downturn as he looked to promote untraditional exhibits and let go core staff members. He resigned in May 2016 to pursue other work opportunities.
Ann Burroughs was announced to replace him as the new interim CEO and was officially selected shortly thereafter. Burroughs spoke of her role: "I am committed to reinvigorating and finding new ways to advance the museum’s key values, emphasizing the importance of being vigilant about democracy and stressing the value of diversity in our world today."
The museum has three on-going exhibitions. The Interactive StoryFile of Lawson Iichiro Sakai is an interactive exhibition in which Lawson has answered a thousand questions regarding himself and his legacy.Common Ground: The Heart of Community, covers 130 years of Japanese American history, from the
Issei and early immigration into the United States,
World War II incarceration, to the present. Lastly, Wakaji Matsumoto—An Artist in Two Worlds: Los Angeles and Hiroshima, 1917–1944 is an online exhibition featuring photographs of the
Japanese American community in Los Angeles prior to World War II and of urban life in
Hiroshima prior to the 1945
atomic bombing of the city.
Completed in 2022, the
Ireichō is the first comprehensive listing of the over 125,000 persons of Japanese ancestry who were
incarcerated by the U.S. government during World War 2. A physical book was printed and displayed at the museum for internees and their friends and family to acknowledge, honor, and if necessary, correct the record within the database.
Discover Nikkei, a multilingual, online resource that presents the global Nikkei experience through first-person narratives, historic photos and research, and opportunities for user engagement. The museum's International Nikkei Research Project produced the book New Worlds, New Lives (2002).