The Story of the 120,000 Tassel Tapestry

Leila Kubesh,  the teacher who inspired her 8th grade students to create the 120,000 Tassel Tapestry, will be coming to JAMsj on June 23, 2012 to talk about her project.

The Story of the 120,000 Tassel Tapestry  

By Leila Kubesch and Steve Fugita

The 120,000 Tassel Tapestry was on display in Palo Alto in 2008.

The amazing story of the 120,000 Tassel Tapestry began in Indiana, where foreign language teacher Leila Kubesch taught French, Spanish, and Japanese to 8th graders at Sunnyside and Tecumseh Middle Schools. As part of her responsibilities, Leila directed the foreign language club. Each year this club took on special interest projects.  The project that holds a special interest to JAMsj was the creation of a grand quilt commemorating the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in concentration camps during WWII.

Initially, Leila started teaching the history of Americans of Japanese Ancestry (AJAs) to encourage students to stop mocking Asians. She began by reading books such as The Bracelet and Hero. A few students were puzzled and asked, “Is this true?”  They had never heard anything about Japanese American history before.

Leila Kubesch

The students decided to turn the school courtyard into a Japanese Zen garden to honor the 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The next year, the second class added a large pond. In 2000, when the students learned about other military units like the 1800th, the MIS, and 522nd, they wanted them to be included, too. Their dream culminated in the building of a traveling exhibit that could be shown across America.  The exhibit would involve the making of  a very special quilt.

During the first semester of the next academic year, the tapestry was started at Tecumseh Middle School. In the beginning, the students were often told, “It cannot be done.” Leila was even turned down for a grant on the grounds that the project was too ambitious. To initiate the project, the students obtained a comprehensive list of AJA veterans from military archives. Using this list, they mailed more than 3,000 letters to the veterans. Many of the recipients wrote back and even sent their historic mementos.

When Leila moved to Sunnyside Middle School for the second semester, many students followed  so that they could continue working on the project. During the summer, students from both schools worked together until it was complete. This included weekends and holidays. Often, students and teacher went home past midnight. This brought the two rival schools, one well-to-do, the other inner city, closer together. Many of the students became good friends. Ultimately, 503 students from Sunnyside and Tecumseh Middle Schools worked on the quilt. When it was finished, it was proudly hung for the first time in the school gymnasium.

The students named the quilt the 120,000 Tassel Tapestry to represent all of the AJAs who endured WWII injustices. It measures 19 by 41 feet, dimensions chosen to represent 1941, the  year in which Pearl Harbor was attacked. It comes in 12 panels and looks like a Japanese shop curtain called noren. Because someone told the students that the kanji for noren is similar to the word ”goodwill,”  they insisted on using the noren style. The tapestry weighs some 350 pounds.

In 2008, Leila married and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where she teaches English as a Second Language at Sharonville Elementary School. But her Indiana students will never forget the special projects she inspired them to take on, in particular the 120,000 Tassel Tapestry.

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Leila will talk about the 120,000 Tassel Tapestry at 1:00 p.m on  June 23 at JAMsj. Please reserve your seat by contacting the JAMsj office (408) 294-3138 or by emailing events@jamsj.org.

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About JAMsj

The Japanese American Museum of San Jose's (JAMsj)mission is to collect, preserve, and share Japanese American art, history, and culture with an emphasis on the Greater Bay Area.
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