Japanese Diasporic Artists Take On Intergenerational Trauma

In my previous article, I looked at how the experience of incarceration during World War II has helped define the Japanese diaspora in the United States. This history continues to be significant, and for some contemporary Japanese and Japanese-American artists this is an urgent matter. The five artists discussed here turn to the concentration camps as symbolic of today’s political crises. The experience of incarceration in the concentration camps has helped define Japanese-American identity. This ordeal accelerated the process of assimilation, by which Japanese culture was radically abandoned.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese military on December 7, 1941, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the imprisonment of approximately 120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry residing in Washington, Oregon, California, southern Arizona, and the territory of Hawai‘i. They were immediately relocated to concentration camps that were rapidly built in isolated sites around the country. These camps were rudimentary barracks surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed military police. Two-thirds of the internees were second- or third-generation Japanese Americans. Although these events occurred more than 80 years ago, they still resonate with today’s relevant issues, such as immigration, racism, nationalism, and cultural identity.

Though all of the artists here were born after WWII, they each reference the concentration camps in their art. Their distance from the camps varies both temporally and spatially, but all make an effort to explore archives and inherited memories — supplemented by imagination — to shed light on events that have been hidden or overlooked. Their retracing of time has rescued the histories of many marginalized people.

TT Takemoto is a fourth-generation Japanese-American artist, professor, and Dean of Humanities and Sciences at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Takemoto investigates issues and perspectives related to intimacy, sexuality, and queer identity through performance, film, installations, and other media. While the artist’s grandparents and others close to them were incarcerated in the camps, those memories were seldom shared within the family. Their awareness of this history began during junior high school when their grandmother gained media attention for her participation in the Redress Movement, which sought restitution for the detrimental effects of incarceration. Takemoto would later incorporate an album from their grandmother’s time in the camp in their work. In 2009, they became aware of the story of Jiro Onuma while participating in Lineage: Matchmaking in the Archive, a project by the artist E.G. Crichton. The idea was to align contemporary artists with historical LGBTQ+ subjects in order to elicit an artistic response. Onuma was a gay bachelor, imprisoned at the Topaz War Relocation Center, a concentration camp in Utah, whose life was enigmatic. Based on extensive research into Onuma’s sparse archive, Takemoto created a series of drawings and sculptures titled Gentlemans Gaman (2009), followed by a performance and video titled “Looking for Jiro” (2011), which they describe as “a queer meditation on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.”

Two more videos by the artist further examine queer life during the period of incarceration. “Warning Shot” (2016) focuses on the tragic killing by military police of James Wakasa, a professional chef incarcerated at Topaz. While the shooting was investigated by the military, the murder was covered up. “On the Line” (2018) is a more abstract vision that depicts an incarcerated woman daydreaming about her earlier work at a cannery in San Diego. In the video, Takemoto portrays “women who cleaned the tuna, worked the assembly line, and found same-sex intimacy amid sake and fish guts while the men were off to sea.”

Like Takemoto, the Japanese-born and Berlin-based artist Aisuke Kondo turns to archival materials to examine personal and collective memories. Kondo’s paternal great-grandparents were first-generation immigrants from different regions of Japan who settled in San Francisco. They married in 1917 and gave birth to Kimio Kondo, the artist’s grandfather, in 1920. Five years later, Kiyo Kondo, his great-grandmother, returned to Japan along with Kimio, leaving behind her husband, Miki Kondo, who was later incarcerated at the Santa Anita Detention Center in California, and then transferred to the Topaz concentration camp. Kimio was unable to return to the United States after the war, but he reunited with Miki in Japan upon the birth of Mitsuhiko, Kondo’s father. Kiyo had already passed away.

As an immigrant in Germany, Kondo has experienced racism personally and seen structural racism deployed in the name of nationalism. In 2011, as patriotism heightened in Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake, he embarked on a series of projects tracing the footsteps of his great-grandfather. The rise of nationalism in both Germany and Japan provided the background for his investigation. His series of works started by tracing and reconstructing his great-grandfather’s journey, then his investigation gradually shifted to collective memories and systematic racism seen in “Yellow Peel” (2023), a video the artist described as “based on research into the history of the racial concept of the Yellow Race as it was established in Europe in the 18th century.”

Carrie Yamaoka, “purple x grey redux” (1997/2022), reflective polyester film and mixed media on wood panel, urethane resin and mixed media, dimensions variable (image courtesy the artist)

In contrast to the stories of people who inspire Takemoto and Kondo, Carrie Yamaoka looks at the history associated with a place. She was born to a second-generation Japanese-American father and a Japanese and White mother in Manhasset, New York, on Long Island. Because her parents resided on the East Coast, they were not subject to incarceration. However, her maternal grandfather was on the A-B-C list — comprised of people considered “high-risk” by the US military — and was apprehended shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and detained on Ellis Island for a few months, and later repatriated to Japan. 

As a third-generation Japanese American and a founding member of the Fierce Pussy collective, Yamaoka’s identity is integral, but not overt, in her work. For many of her minimalist and abstract pieces, she layers reflective film and resin, introducing distortions that arise by chance; these create a complex surface that changes with the viewer’s movements and the passage of time. To me, her art reflects the Japanese aesthetic of 移ろい (Utsuroi), grounded in the beauty of transience, mixed with an element of uncertainty. 

Ken Okiishi focused on this history of incarceration when planning a road trip to Los Angeles; he found Delta, Utah, on the map and decided to visit the former Topaz camp. Okiishi is a fourth-generation Japanese American from Iowa whose paternal great-grandparents migrated from Hiroshima Prefecture to Hawai‘i before it was colonized by the US. Upon the outbreak of WWII, approximately 160,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans lived on the islands, composing about 40% of the entire population. Due to their high population, constituting an essential portion of the workforce, only around 400 people — including many in leadership positions — were detained. Concerned that possessing Japanese cultural materials would lead to their arrests, many people destroyed their family heirlooms and other treasures, including books, letters, and furnishings. Some even burned their Japanese passports. While Okiishi’s family managed to avoid incarceration, Japanese culture disappeared from their home, leading to a sense of separation from their ancestral homeland. Among his works that attempt to reconstruct a family archive is A Model Childhood, an elaborate installation project that includes a blown-up version of the black and white photograph his father gave him before his trip to Topaz. The image shows his father celebrating 初節句 (Hatsu Zekku), his first “boy’s day celebration,” surrounded by 50 武者人形 (Musha Ningyou), samurai dolls. 

Gaku Tsutaja similarly begins her projects with historical research. However, she replaces historical figures with nonhuman creatures and situates historical narratives within fictional worlds. Triggered by the Fukushima nuclear disaster that occurred in the aftermath of the Great Japan Earthquake in 2011, she questions the world’s historical and contemporary commitment to nuclear power. In developing “Enola’s Head,” a work that surveys the bombing of Hiroshima, she visited Washington, DC, where she encountered the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During WWII, prompting her to learn about the history of the US concentration camps. She delved into this subject further in a 2019 artist residency at the Fort Missoula Historical Museum in Montana.

During the war, the Department of Justice Internment Camp in Missoula held around 1,000 Japanese men, about half of the total population of the camp, which also included prisoners from Germany, Italy, and South America. All the Japanese people at this camp — community leaders such as doctors, teachers, and religious figures listed on the FBI’s A-B-C list — were isolated from their families and subjected to loyalty hearings to clear suspicions of espionage. Most other camps were managed by the War Relocation Authority and housed prisoners who were considered low risk. Fort Missoula was inspirational for Tsutaja, who produced “The Beautiful Sky Golf Course” (2019) as a result. This video features a golf course created by Japanese internees to keep their health and sanity while they were waiting for their loyalty hearing. This surreal setting becomes the backdrop for the tragic story of Masuo Yasui, who committed suicide after his release from the camp as the result of his traumatic experience there.

While each artist engages with different personal histories, they all undertook significant projects during a time of crisis in the US — the Trump presidency. Since then, the United States and much of the world face deepening divisions fueled by a rise in nationalism. The racial and cultural backgrounds of these artists, along with the legacy of the concentration camps, resonate with today’s tumultuous social climate and warmongering politics. In this context, these works remain both poignant and urgent.

Editor’s Note: This is part of the 2023/24 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators and the second of three posts by the authorthe third of which will be an online exhibition published on Hyperallergic and sent to all newsletter subscribers. Register here for Machiko Harada’s virtual event moderated by Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian on Tuesday, March 12, at 6pm (EST).

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