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I don't regard the wartime artwork created by Obata, Miné Okubo, Hisako and Matsusaburo Hibi or even Yasuo Kuniyoshi as necessarily documentary in nature. And I see them as visual representations or interpretations of the challenging situations they were living through. I think looking at them, they were sharing with us their subjective point of view, but also emotional experience in that moment. Their interviews offer some context in which I can then place their particular artwork and try to understand, to the extent possible, what they were going through at the time of creating that image.
Rihoko Ueno: Hello and welcome to ARTiculated. I’m Rihoko Ueno, I work as an archivist here at the Archives of American Art. This podcast receives support from the Alice L. Walton Foundation.
Since 1958, the Archives of American Art has been building the largest collection of oral histories related to the visual arts in the world. These more than 2500 long-form interviews give witness to history as it unfolded through the voices of the figures who shaped and reimagined it.
This is the second of two episodes on the arts and Japanese American Incarceration during World War II. In this episode, we will learn about the aftermath of the incarceration and its reverberations still felt today. If you're just tuning in, go back and listen to season three episode one for more historical context and firsthand accounts of life within the camps.
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From 1942 to 1946, more than 125,000 Japanese Americans were forcefully relocated into roughly 75 incarceration camps. While the War Relocation Authority had sought to bring incarceration to an end in early 1944, the election delayed action until December of that year, when the Supreme Court issued a decision stating that the US Government could not continue to keep “concededly loyal” citizens imprisoned in camps any longer. The Roosevelt administration then rescinded Executive Order 9066 that had led to the establishment of the camps which had now been operating for 2 years.
As camps closed throughout 1945 and 1946, Japanese Americans began their reverse migration back to the lives they had been forced to leave behind. They had lost their homes, jobs, businesses, and belongings. Many returned to the West Coast to replant roots after their hardships, while others started anew in different areas of the country. Everyone was forced to start over.
Before he was a leading abstract painter of the Pacific Northwest, Frank Okada and his family were removed from Seattle and sent to the incarceration camps when he was 11 years old. During the war, both of his older brothers served in the US Army after Japanese American citizens were allowed to join the military effort in 1943.
After the war, Okada studied fine arts in Seattle and traveled the world, eventually settling in Oregon in 1969, where he painted and taught from 1969 until his death in 2000. In his 1990 oral history with Barbara Johns, he described the nation's long reconciliation with history as well as his own:
Barbara Johns: What do you remember about camp and the conditions in which you lived?
Frank Okada: “I wasn’t really indignant, because it seemed like a lot of fun [to me] .” You know, it was like an extended summer camp, in a sense.
Barbara Johns: When you’re eleven and twelve.
Frank Okada: Yeah. The indignities certainly, oh, come, or some conscious sort of thoughts, after you’re matured, and you look back.
Barbara Johns: When did you get angry?
Frank Okada: Well, I didn’t get angry. But it was an indignity, and I think the older people really suffered, you know, there were great sacrifices. I think a lot of people never made it, really. Killed their will. I mean, they come back and they’re—
Barbara Johns: Of your parents’ generation?
Frank Okada: Yeah. Come back, they’re almost sixty and had to start all over again. Some people just could never make it. Which is the sad part. It’s more about a sadness. To say that I’m indignant is like, indignant at who? In a sense, except the system. My indignity or my consciousness about that came, oh, much later.
Barbara Johns: In about what time do you place that?
Frank Okada: I suppose, probably in the late sixties, when the idea of the importance of your cultural heritage and a cultural identity was important, with the Chicanos, and with the Blacks, and with Asian American movements. And I suppose my interest came because of the. . . . The Asian American thing, I think artistically was a literary movement initially. People like Frank Chin or Lawson Inada. They’re the people who had my brother’s book republished [combined Asian American Resources Project, Inc., Seattle and San Francisco,] . And being an abstract—
Barbara Johns: You’re talking about an ethnic consciousness in the sixties.
Frank Okada: Yeah, Asian American thing.
Barbara Johns: That you identify as a literary movement.
Frank Okada: And so I became aware of it. And the written word is so much more precise, in terms of describing things. And the way I paint [chuckles] is hard to align with that kind of thing. But you think about it a lot. But I think to a great degree the kind of ambience of my painting has…You know, when I think about painting, I always think about—at least in my stage, you know, because I’m going to be 59 in November, I’ve lived three-quarters of my life at least—my painting as a more dedicatory object than something that’s says something.
Barbara Johns: You say “dedicatory.” Do you mean meditative or reflective?
Frank Okada: Dedicatory in terms of, mmm, maybe like a kind of a monument dedicated to the dead, or something like the Chinese stele with a sutra sort of carved in the back. I’d see it like that because I sort of sensed that sort of remembrance of the past.
Rihoko Ueno: One of the leaders in memorial projects around the incarceration is Wendy Maruyama, a woodworker and furniture designer who has made a life teaching and creating around the globe. Born in Colorado, Maruyama’s maternal family rarely spoke of the pain they experienced during incarceration, and she has spent decades unpacking what it means to engage with tradition, heritage, and trauma through her work and pedagogy.
Since 2009, she has been at work on the series, Executive Order 9066, in which she painstakingly recreates the more than 120,000 tags that Japanese Americans wore during the incarceration, which included names, ID numbers, and designated camps. Maruyama positioned this project within broader cultural currents in her 2010 oral history with Mija Riedel:
Wendy Maruyama: I do know that some excellent African-American artists have been doing this for years, and I've admired them for doing that. I've often wondered how I could interpret an ethnic or a historical experience through my work, and I'm only now dabbling in that. It's difficult. It takes time.
I mean, right now I feel like a year ago the work that I started doing was certainly a beginning, but they're not fully resolved. If anything, it's almost an elementary attempt at this point, because right now I'm using the obvious visual clues, like photographs of the barracks and the tags, the ID tags, and the barbed wire.
Mija Riedel: Right, tar paper.
Wendy Maruyama: But somehow trying to find a language that would imply those things without being literal. It's been a huge challenge for me, and that's something I'm working on right now.
Mija Riedel: The new work that I'm thinking of is E.O. [Executive Order] 9066 and the Tag Project. They feel like such a fusion of personal and political work. The materials, the forms, in between the personal and the political, or the fusion of the personal and the political, seems to have created a very poetic new kind of work, more so than—it feels especially poetic
to me. Does it feel that way to you, too?
Wendy Maruyama: I do. It would certainly be my hope that people would get that feeling from the work. I think it's been more rewarding for me, reconnecting with the Japanese-American community that I rejected years ago because of my perceived—my perception of their judgment on me at that time maybe. It's kind of hard to put my finger on that.
Mija Riedel: With time and distance, you've been able to reexamine it, and something—I don't know if it—
Wendy Maruyama: Certainly coming back to— [inaudible]—and an Asian American can be an artist and still be successful. We don't all have to be lawyers and doctors and landscape architects, you know? There is some satisfaction in being able to bring that into play.
Mija Riedel: Yes.
Wendy Maruyama: But, no, that's being— that's a small part of it that I wouldn't really want to emphasize. But if anything, it's the bringing together of the community. There are people who were interned or evacuated from California that are still alive, and they're participating in this project and telling me their stories.
At the same time, young people are coming to this thing and learning from the stories that are being told and getting kind of a—as they write the tag, I mean, hopefully, they're thinking about what that person who originally wore the tag must have been thinking in 1942, when they were being shipped off to God knows where. So that experience has been, for them, very powerful to contribute to this project.
Mija Riedel: Right, and this project, the Tag Project, we should say for people who are listening or reading, is also very different for you than anything you've done before.
Wendy Maruyama: It is very different. Why I even thought to do it is beyond me, but I think the photographs—I mean, my only—let's see. My only connection with what happened there was through my family's experience, okay? But there's no photographs. They never told stories about that. They never talked about it. So I have no—nothing to grab onto.
Mija Riedel: It was your mother's family?
Wendy Maruyama: My mother's family, yeah.
Mija Riedel: That was in one of the camps.
Wendy Maruyama: They didn't go to camps. Everybody was told to evacuate, and so if you got the hell out of this exclusion zone by a certain time, you didn't have to go to camp. So the problem was most people didn't have anywhere to go. So they went to camp, and my parents—my mother's family - didn't have anywhere to go either, but they went anyway, which was probably a mistake, thinking back on it, because they were pulled away from that community. So they were left to fend for themselves out in Utah and —
Mija Riedel: Is that where they went, to Utah?
Wendy Maruyama: I'm sure that they experienced some prejudicial difficulties while they were trying to find a place to go.
Mija Riedel: I'm sure.
Wendy Maruyama: What was I talking about that before that?
Mija Riedel: The Tag Project and community.
Wendy Maruyama: The what?
Mija Riedel: The Tag Project.
Wendy Maruyama: Oh, yeah, I'm trying to think. So anyway, how I came up with the Tag Project, the most compelling—so I did a bit of research, and Dorothea Lange, she photographed for the most. To me, the best way to imagine what was going on during that time and what really stuck in my mind were the photographs of families wearing their tags, getting ready to be shipped off to God knows where.
I just remember those tags were so significant, just paper but like a very heavy object, you know, especially when you think about 120,000 of them. So I decided that that would be kind of a—
why I thought of this, I don't know. Part of me wishes I never did it. It's a lot of tags, you know?
Four of the other camps are finished, as far as the names and the numbers go. But I still have to age them. Then I have about three more camps - wait a minute, five more camps - to finish. I keep saying it's going to be done in two years, but it's already been a year, and I don't see this being finished in one year. I think, realistically, four years would be more likely, unless I figure out a way to get some funding to hire somebody to kind of help.
It's kind of hard to do this and teach and do my own work and have a domestic life, feed the dogs. It's been a challenge. But the community has been fantastic. My mother and her friends and the church, the Buddhist temple, the local high schools have all been fantastic. Then we're having another tag project at the Smithsonian, which I think would be really interesting.
Rihoko Ueno: We spoke with ShiPu Wang, a scholar of Asian American art and curator of an upcoming show, Pictures of Belonging: Miki Hayakawa, Hisako Hibi, and Miné Okubo, which explores the oeuvres of those three Japanese American artists. The incarceration and the long shadow of xenophobia obscured the work of these women, and Wang has undertaken the monumental task of recuperating and reframing their achievements:
ShiPu Wang: I'm ShiPu Wang, Professor of Art History and the coach endowed chair in the arts at the University of California Merced. For the past 20 years, my work has focused on rediscovering and re-reintroducing the work of less studied Pre-World War II American artists of Japanese descent to a border audience through publications and exhibitions.
The exhibition is called Pictures of Belonging: Miki Hayakawa, Hisako Hibi, and Miné Okubo, and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles is the organizing institution for a five-venue, three-year tour, and the show will first open in February, 2024 at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, then travel to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Monterey Museum of Art before concluding in Los Angeles in January 2027. Pictures of Belonging features more than 100 pieces of artwork by three American artists who share the distinction of being trailblazing women of Japanese descent of the pre-World War II generations from California. And while these were less-known names—save for Okubo, perhaps—my research shows that they were in fact critically acclaimed artists with illustrious careers that spanned eight decades.
ShiPu Wang: And their long careers are especially remarkable considering that they live through the exclusion era, 1882 to 1965, characterized by US laws that restricted immigration and prevented Asian immigrants from becoming naturalized American citizens among other consequential policies. Such pervasive xenophobia contributed to the removal and incarceration of some 120,000 Japanese Americans after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and indeed, Miné Okubo was imprisoned at the Topaz camp in Utah and later relocated to New York. Miki Hayakawa, on the other hand, left California, her home for more than 30 years, and moved to New Mexico, yet persevering through challenging circumstances, all three artists never stopped making art.
So in this exhibition, by placing the artists’ representative works in dialogue with each other for the first time, I'm hoping to highlight the range and depth of these artists' engagement with and contributions to 20th-century American art, as well as their connections with one another that have not been explored in exhibitions or publications. But more crucially, Pictures of Belonging broadens the existing, almost exclusive spotlight on Japanese Americans' wartime trauma toward illuminating what the American experience looked like through these artists' work made before, during, and after the war.
It explores the myriad ways in which art for these artists served as a vital means to capture lived experiences, navigate through good times and bad, and build relationships in diverse communities from San Francisco to Santa Fe to New York City.
So the exhibition asks the visitors to consider how artmaking enabled these artists to take up space, to use its positive connotation; to make their presence and existence visible; and to assert that they belonged.
I think one of the things I've learned to try to highlight is, while the history of World War II and the incarceration is important, sometimes we forget that these artists were active members in different communities before the war and after the war, that they tried to rebuild their lives.
Rihoko Ueno: From the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, Kristen Hayashi told us about the life and work of Miné Okubo, one of the subjects of Wang's show and a force in 20th-century American art. She detailed how Okubo's documentary efforts in the camps shaped the historical and political reception of the incarceration while forming an indelible artistic legacy:
Kristen Hayashi: I'm Kristen Hayashi. I'm Director of Collections Management and Access and a curator at the Japanese American National Museum, which is located in Los Angeles, California. And we are the largest repository of Japanese American material culture, archives, and artwork ephemera in the world.
And so our collection is very large. We're a very active collecting institution. And it's comprised of a number of collections including the Miné Okubo collection, which came into the museum in 2000, and it's this amazing treasure trove of artwork by the artist Miné Okubo, mostly her World War II artwork and also post-war artwork that she created sort of late into life.
In 2021, we realized that it was a very significant milestone anniversary for Citizen 13660, which was an illustrative memoir by Miné Okubo It was the first book length memoir by a former incarceree, and it was also one of the first like illustrative or graphic memoirs, I think, to be created. And so Miné Okubo publish this illustrative memoir in 1946 and JANM felt like, you know, we were in a unique position to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the first publishing because we have all of what we call the original illustrations that comprised the memoir as well as so many of the quick sketches that I think inspired a lot of the illustrations that Miné Okubo created while she was incarcerated, both at Tanforan temporary detention center in San Bruno, California, as well as the Topaz concentration camp in Utah. She was born in 1912 in Riverside, California, and she and her siblings were encouraged by their parents to be artists. And Miné Okubo started at Community College here in Riverside, but she finished her education at the University of California Berkeley.
She got a bachelor's and an MFA in art in the 1920s, 1930s, which is pretty amazing, you know, I think for a woman she showed a lot of promise. She got this very prestigious art fellowship, which allowed her to go to Europe and she was learning under all these masters and then, you know, war broke out in Europe and her friends there suggested that she returned to the US so she didn't get caught in Europe during this war.
So she returned to the United States and had this really burgeoning art career. I mean, she was working for the Federal Arts Project and working under Diego Rivera on a fresco mural in San Francisco and just had this really promising career. And then 1942 really upends her life. She and her brother were forced to leave their home and community in the Bay Area in Berkeley.
And you know, I think she really shifts her artistic practice and her focus. At that time, Japanese Americans who were forced to leave their homes and communities were not allowed to take cameras. And so she felt from very early on that she needed to document this experience of the forced removal.
And so with a pen and sketchbook in hand, she was creating these sketches of her neighbors, her fellow Japanese Americans who had piles of their belonging on curbs outside of their homes getting ready for this forced removal. And then she just continued to sketch. She was known for always having a sketchbook and pen or pencil in hand and just created, so prolifically, thousands of these quicker minute sketches, just documenting daily life both at Tanforan and at Topaz.
And she was very intent not only on capturing this experience but also sharing it with others, especially friends on the outside to let them know what was going on. So Citizen 13660 was published in 1946 by Columbia University Press at a time when the incarceration experience was still a current event. It wasn't even recent history yet. And so it's, it's really amazing to think like, how was she able to publish that?
What I think is also so masterful about Citizen 13660, it's an illustrative memoir comprised of 198 illustrations, each accompanied by a caption. And I think the art and the text work together to tell a more comprehensive story of what she experienced, but the illustrations themselves are quite accessible. I think they draw you in and maybe sometimes at first glance, it seems like she's using humor, but I think as you take a closer look and you're drawn in, you can really see the layered complexity in the drawings. Miné Okubo she participated in the CWRIC [Commission for the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians] hearings. So the federal government established this Commission for the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to better understand the impacts and the consequences of the incarceration. Okubo testified and she read excerpts from Citizen 13660 And I think maybe that's when it got, you know, I think a lot of attention and from then on, I think has been seen as this really important literature in this fight for social justice
It's hard to say that I have a favorite, but I kind of do. There's one that I think is just so effective in communicating this complexity. There's an illustration where Miné and her brother Toku arrive at Topaz. So this is after this long train journey from the Bay Area in California to this remote part of Utah.
And they arrive to the Topaz concentration camp to a welcome sign that says, "Welcome to Topaz" and there's a boy scout drum and bugle corps that's playing almost like this welcoming in the background, and in the foreground, you see Miné, her brother, and some recent arrivals, like shielding their faces from these harsh elements, from the wind, the dust, and the sun. You know I think it sort of prompts this question of how can like this inhospitable climate be welcoming? And the answer is, it can't. Right? There's the irony right there. So I think that's a really effective illustration that shows. But yeah, there's, there's so many. I think because we have this comprehensive collection, there are so many favorites because you know, we can see her process. We have all of the illustrations that comprise Citizen 13660 available on JANM’s website.
Rihoko Ueno: In 1980, President Jimmy Carter’s administration organized the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to study the effects of incarceration; in 1983, they recommended that reparations be paid to each living detainee. Nearly 50 years after Executive Order 9066 was decreed, President George H.W. Bush made an official apology for the “disgraces” of American history. Another decade passed before congress approved funds to preserve former camps as memorials in 2001, stating that these sites “will forever stand as reminders that this nation failed in its most sacred duty to protect its citizens against prejudice, greed, and political expediency.”
But traditions and families carried on in their own ways, with and against the grain of history. Mira Nakashima, a furniture designer and architect based in New Hope, Pennsylvania, recounted her family's time in the camps and her inheritance from her father, famed woodworker and key figure of the American Craft movement George Nakashima, in her 2010 oral history with James McElhinney:
Mira Nakashima: In 1942 I was born, and we were put in the camps. I was six weeks old when we were put in the camps in the desert.
James McElhinney: Which camp was it?
Mira Nakashima: Idaho, the Minidoka Camp.
Mom and Dad lived in a little apartment in Seattle, but I wasn't there very long. And Mom had a tough time. And my aunt went. This is the aunt that had been in Tokyo came back to Los Angeles. I guess she had been there for the wedding or something. And her father lived in Los Angeles. Anyway, since we were put in the camps, the Nakashima-Okajima family, decided if they had to be uprooted from where they were and what they were doing, the best thing they could do was to be together. So we were all together in that one camp, the Okajimas and the Nakashimas, as much as possible. So my grandparents were there and aunts and uncles. Oh, actually most of my uncles were in the service; so they weren't there.
James McElhinney: Yes, you spoke about that before. They were in the 442?
Mira Nakashima: Oh, yes, that's my Aunt Mary's husband. He just passed away.
James McElhinney: I'm sorry.
Mira Nakashima: But he was a good old soldier. He was the epitome of the art of gaman. You know the term gaman. I don't know what the best translation is. But it's basically a tough upper lip.
James McElhinney: Holding up under hardship.
Mira Nakashima: Yes, yes. Straight—what is it? Stiff upper lip. [Laughs.]
James McElhinney: Stiff upper lip, yes, the British stiff upper lip. Well, that unit was the most decorated and took the highest casualties in the war of any American infantry.
Mira Nakashima: Right. Well, they basically sent them out as disposable troops.
James McElhinney: Cannon fodder.
Mira Nakashima: Yes.
James McElhinney: Right. Well, they certainly did leave a distinguished record.
Mira Nakashima: They did, those that survived.
James McElhinney: Were you a part of the genesis of this exhibition at all?
Mira Nakashima: No. No, I was not. This was based on collections of artifacts that people had remaining after the camp era. And they said there was probably still stuff in people's attics and basements that hasn't been uncovered. But there was enough uncovered. Probably it must have been connected with the Japanese American National Museum. I haven't read that part of it yet. I don't know. But the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles was one of the first museums and probably the best museum to bring that whole situation to the light and to memorialize it and commemorate it and collect things from that.
James McElhinney: It's an interesting image because it's Heart Mountain, Wyoming, right outside of Cody. And I was there a couple of years ago, and actually there's a lot of effort underway to interpret the camps and to create a memorial. Or they have established it.
Mira Nakashima: Most of the campsites have been declared National Monuments. And they're trying to figure out what to do there. There's one in Bainbridge Island where most of the Japanese Americans in Washington were shipped out from first. And that's pretty well built. They've designed and built quite a memorial there. They were talking about doing one at Minidoka, and I don't think they've gotten really far. You know when they first—when was it, 1990—right after my dad died, they gave us reparations money finally. So Dad never saw it, but they gave it to Mother. But that was the result of a long period of negotiations, you know, trying to make the government recognize the fact that all these American citizens had been incarcerated wrongly.
James McElhinney: Half a century.
Mira Nakashima: Yes.
James McElhinney: Waiting.
Mira Nakashima: But, I mean, that's part of gaman, too. In the Japanese culture, you respect authority. You respect the government. You put up with whatever. You respect your husband even though he comes out and leaves you. [Laughs.] And you put up with it. And that was so deeply ingrained in the Japanese society that it wasn't until 50 years later when my generation decided it was time to speak up and do something.
James McElhinney: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]
Mira Nakashima: Actually it was, there were people in the Nisei generation who were brave enough to start the movement going.
James McElhinney: What did your father do in the camps?
Mira Nakashima: He and this fellow named Gentaro Hikogawa, who was a Japanese carpenter trained in Japan, worked together to try to make the barracks livable. And they—it was again one of those green projects—they used sustainable materials from whatever you could scrounge. They used packing boxes and little bits of bitterbrush that they found on the desert, which doesn't grow there anymore [laughs]. But in, I think, rushes—I found when I was in, I gave a talk in Sun Valley in 2004, when our show the "Nature Form and Spirit" show was there. And I asked if I could have a day or two down to go down and visit Minidoka because I had never been back. And there was a professor from, I think, the University of Boise or Idaho or somewhere who had photocopied records, just little sketches. They weren't detailed sketches.
But there was a sketch that my father had done as a way of making those barracks livable. It was convertible furniture. With a frame—you'd take two cot beds, two metal cots that you were given, put them together as a double bed and make a frame around them. And you'd use them as a table that folded up into the wall because there wasn't any room. And there was a bench where you could store coal underneath, and the top flipped up, and you could sit on it when you weren't taking coal out. And a whole series of things like that. And there were rushes were used somehow or other in decorative ways. They were taking some from the riverbanks. So he was busy just making stuff, I guess. Designing and making stuff. And there's pictures of him which the WRA took in front of a little shop in the camp.
And he actually had some tools.
James McElhinney: What kind of tools did he have available to him in the camp?
Mira Nakashima: Not a whole lot. I think it was mostly hand tools. In the beginning, they weren't allowed, I think, to have anything sharp. [Laughs.] But as time went on, they—Oh, there was a funny story that I heard when I was in Minidoka. They said that they were in such a rush to get the internees out of the halfway place into the permanent—semi-permanent—camps, that they weren't finished by the time they got there. You know, the backs of the barracks were half done. And they didn't have time to put up all the barbed wire around the barracks. So they were still working on it when the internees were there. So the Americans would go out and put up barbed wire fences during the day, and the Japanese would come out at night and take them all down. This went on for like several weeks. And they finally decided there was nowhere to go anyway. So [laughs] they gave up with the barbed wire. I think there were armed guards, and you weren't allowed to go out of certain areas. But Dad and this carpenter were allowed out to go and forage for materials. But as time went on, I think they gradually accumulated more tools. But I don't remember that there were any power tools. Maybe there were.
James McElhinney: Are any of the pieces that he built in those years in existence now?
Mira Nakashima: I believe so. I still have a toy box that he made from that time.
Rihoko Ueno: Patti Warashina, a ceramicist based in Seattle, wrote an addendum to her 2005 oral history that detailed the many disparate threads of the war experienced by her family, and how she felt the lingering tensions from the war in her own life. She recently recorded that segment for us:
Patti Warashina: After WWII started, my aunt Yoshi and my grandmother, Granny, were separated from their friends in Tacoma, and sent to Arkansas, Rohwer Relocation Center, because my aunt was a skilled dietitian. The government dispersed those who had practical skills that could be used in various relocation camps. She used to talk about going out of the camp compound and seeing green snakes hanging in the trees, and eating a lot of shrimplike creatures, possibly crayfish, which came out of the ground, to replace the tiresome Spam, which was the allocated protein.
When I was young, the Japanese in Spokane were not relocated to the camps because we lived east of the Columbia River, and perhaps because of our local Caucasian minister, Reverend Cobb, who was our minister at the Japanese Methodist Church. Mom thought he must have had some influence in the regional community.
In terms of my own immediate and other Japanese families, it was a difficult time, even though we did not go to camp and stayed in Spokane. My mother used to become teary-eyed when you broached the subject of the war. She told me that the bank accounts were frozen, and my immigrant dad was stopped from collecting dental fees for a period of time from his patients. My parents became friends of the Angeloffs, a German immigrant family, who also helped my parents by paying cash for my dad's dental work. I suppose they were also experiencing prejudice because of their German accents. I remember as a child going to their house on the South Hill at Christmastime after the war and admiring all the handcrafted German crèches, decorations, and cookies that we were offered by this very sweet, elderly German woman.
During the war Japanese Americans were confined to the city proper with a curfew. My folks started to sell some of their belongings, since they anticipated being sent to camps, as those on the coast were allowed two bags per person. I don't have any photos of my dad's early life in Japan, as my parents burned any photos of boys in school uniforms, which looked military but were just school uniforms. They destroyed anything that might look suspicious to the government or misinterpreted as having allegiance to Japan. After the “cleansing,” I recall the government searching our home. I was told they were looking into medicine cabinets for drugs, as well as guns, and shortwave radios. They also searched the steamer trunks in the bedroom that had kimonos in them. I’m not sure how my parents and their friends were able to survive that time, but what amazes me was how nonconfrontational the Japanese community was during and after the war.
I also remember my parents sending used clothing and care packages to dad’s family in Japan after the war, since the war had pretty much decimated their economy. About eight years after the war, they allowed Japanese Americans to return to Japan for visits to their families in there. It was a big deal, and I remember driving two days from Spokane to Seattle to reach the new Sea-Tac Airport
to pick up my dad when he returned. My father brought many reminders of my Japanese heritage, such as scrolls, artwork from his art teacher, colorful kimonos, jewelry, ceramics, and recent photos of my grandfather and grandmother outside the front gate of their farm, which my dad later helped them buy.
It made a big impression on me, since before that time I felt a repression of my culture in public because of political circumstances and the lack of its availability in Spokane. I remember feeling an innate connection to these articles and somehow that I was part of it, although I was living in eastern Washington, away from the large Japanese community on the coast.
Rihoko Ueno: We asked ShiPu Wang to describe his experience unpacking and preserving the histories of artists whose lives are marked by a traumatic event:
ShiPu Wang: And so I didn't have the pleasure of knowing these artists as some people do, so I had to rely quite a bit on their own words to get a better sense of their ideas on life and art and their emotional experiences of living through such challenging times. Their interviews offer some context in which I can then place their particular artwork and try to understand, to the extent possible, what they were going through at the time of creating that image. For example, in interviews that Hisako Hibi gave, she talked about surviving the wartime incarceration and losing her husband, fellow artist, George Hibi in 1947, barely two years after they regained freedom and moved to New York.
And she called that her gray period in her art. And we can in indeed see the changes of color palettes and subject matter in her paintings from the immediate post-war period to her later years when she found her vibrant colors and really tried to express herself in a creative. And in Miné Okubo's interviews and her letters to friends and colleagues—of which she kept numerous duplicates by the way—we can get a better sense of her as an artist trying to make ends meet in New York. Her critique of a prejudiced art world, her self-imposed a mission to unlearn her art training and return to the simplified forms in art. And as a friend who sent hand drawn greeting cards year after year. These materials all provide a different picture of the artist in addition to their artwork, that then we can get a fuller picture of them as creative beings.
I don't regard the wartime artwork created by Obata, Miné Okubo, Hisako and Matsusaburo Hibi or even Yasuo Kuniyoshi as necessarily documentary in nature. And I see them as visual representations or interpretations of the challenging situations they were living through. I think looking at them They were sharing with us their subjective point of view, but also emotional experience in that moment.
I hope the show will also encourage people to think about how do we define belonging? Who gets to belong to a certain group? And does it have to be one group or could it be multiple groups being poorest of their borders?
They traverse the boundaries, and it doesn't have to be just one category. I think these three artists really show that because they have so many decades of living in different communities. And hopefully, that's a story that inspires people to think more about how we define artists, how we sometimes, categories to put them in. And what are more productive and meaningful ways of talking about these artists in a more open-ended fashion.
[Outro music plays to end]
Rihoko Ueno: This podcast is produced by Ben Gillespie and Michelle Herman at the Archives of American Art. It was edited by the team at Better Lemon Creative Audio
our music comes from Sound and Smoke composed by Viet Cuong and performed by the Peabody Wind Ensemble with Harlan Parker conducting.
For show notes, work cited, and additional resources, visit aaa.si.edu/articulated.
The Archives is especially grateful to ShiPu Wang and Kristen Hayashi for their expertise and generosity in the realization of this episode.
Special thanks to Gabi Senno for her research, energy, and insight.
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The Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution is a nonprofit organization that relies on donations from individuals like you to sustain our ongoing operations and special programs like ARTiculated. To support our work, please visit aaa.si.edu/support. Thank you.