By Will Kaku
Although some JAMsj docents have advanced degrees in education or in Asian American Studies, a large majority of them do not. Coming from many diverse life experiences and ethnic backgrounds, these JAMsj docents enrich the museum visitor’s experience by incorporating their own personal insights into their roles as historical interpreters. The volunteer docents are trained to provide a visitor experience that is both educational and entertaining.
Rich Saito is a former San Jose police officer who recently signed on to be a JAMsj docent. “When I learned the new museum facility was opening and seeking volunteers, I wanted to get involved,” Saito said. “I wanted to get involved for three reasons: I wanted to serve the community by contributing to the sense of community, I wanted to learn about our community’s history, and I wanted to preserve Japantown as a cohesive Japanese American community for future generations.”
Rich loves the highly interactive exchanges with museum visitors that are encouraged by the JAMsj docent training workshops. “I love learning with people,” Saito stated. “I try to learn something from everyone who comes into the museum. As a docent, I try to create a sharing relationship with others where we exchange not only facts, but also emotions and perspectives about the Japanese American experience. Sharing knowledge is very rewarding.”
Rich remembers giving a museum tour in February to former San Jose mayor Susan Hammer. He recalled, “She told me that Norm Mineta’s former insurance business and home, located next to JAMsj, were preserved by George Starbird, a former mayor (Mineta is a former commerce and transportation secretary, congressman , and mayor of San Jose). I also learned about an attorney named JB Peckham, who had numerous properties deeded to him so he could preserve them for the internees while they were in camp.”
Although Rich was already a highly respected San Jose police man, he felt that he still needed to give back to the community where he was raised. “I have always felt a wonderful sense of community in Japantown,” Saito remarked. “My family moved here from Oakland in 1961 when my dad, David Saito, was transferred to the new San Jose branch of Sumitomo Bank on First Street.” After graduating from San Jose State University, Saito joined the San Jose police force and retired in 2006 after thirty years of service.
“I’ve been involved with Japantown my whole life, attending Wesley Methodist Church; working at community events such as the San Jose Obon Festival; overseeing traffic control for the Japantown Run; and providing security for the Nikkei Matsuri, Aki Matsuri, and the San Jose Day of Remembrance events.”
Rich is pleased that JAMsj gives an opportunity for all volunteers to provide feedback on the direction of the museum. “I’ve been able to offer suggestions about changes to the museum, including a display about the people who helped the Japanese Americans during WWII,” he said.
Summing up his experience as a docent and reflecting on JAMsj’s value to the community, he concludes, “As a docent, we have the ability to contribute to the growth of the museum. We have so much to be proud of, and this special place collects these experiences.”