Reimagine Peace, No Matter How Long the Path

Next year marks the 80th anniversary of the end of World War II, yet the world still finds itself in uncertain circumstances, rampant with war and unjust violence. The Japanese-American concentration camps were the most inhumane consequence of WWII situated on the mainland of the US. For many Japanese and Japanese-American communities, the pain associated with it remains unforgettable. At its core, this issue raises crucial concerns for today’s global conflicts resulting from anti-immigration, racism, xenophobia, and forced assimilation.

As a Japanese person, I am aware of Japan’s imperialist impulses that led to its participation in the war. The horrific aftermath of that war has led the general public in Japan to feel a deeper sense of responsibility to continuously advocate for human rights and pacifism. RE/IMAGINE PEACE invites readers to look at a historical event through various narratives, perspectives, and imaginations, providing a more comprehensive picture of this history. These artistic interventions help us better understand and gain sympathy for others. While it may be impossible to fully comprehend the pain of others, I still believe that by imagining and empathizing we can come closer to peace.

This online exhibition features five contemporary Japanese and Japanese-American artists addressing the history of US concentration camps during WWII. 

A New Life

Japanese immigration to the United States began in 1868, the dawn of the Meiji era in Japan. Initially, many Japanese sought new opportunities by immigrating to Hawai‘i, which was not yet annexed, and later to the West Coast. As the number of Japanese immigrants increased, so did the level of discrimination they experienced. Before the enactment of the Immigration Act of 1924, approximately 200,000 Japanese migrated to Hawai‘i. Around 180,000 migrated to the mainland, landing at the ports of San Francisco, California, and Tacoma, Washington.

Carrie Yamaoka, “Archipelagoes panel #1” (1991-1994/2019), chemically altered gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 inches (courtesy of the artist)

“Angel Island: an island in San Francisco Bay. Site of immigration station from 1910 to 1940, through which many Asian, predominantly Chinese, immigrants passed, many of whom were held for extended periods of time awaiting entry to the US, often for months and years. Also functioned as a quarantine station.” — Carrie Yamaoka

Aisuke Kondo, “The Past in the Present in SF” (2017), single-channel digital video with sound, 6:33 minutes (©Aisuke Kondo, courtesy of the artist)

“The Past in the Present in SF” (2017), a video by Aisuke Kondo, who was born in Japan and is currently living in Berlin, explores his identity as a descendant of immigrants from Japan to the United States in the early 20th century. He traces the footsteps of Miki, his great-grandfather, who emigrated to America. Using photographs inherited from his great-grandfather, Kondo seeks out the locations where they were taken. He captures the same places, angles, and poses, attempting to align himself with the past, standing in the same spots his great-grandfather once stood. The resulting video work documents the hopeful journey through the time his great-grandfather spent in the new land of San Francisco.

Miki worked diligently and sent remittances to his family back home, and on his days off, he enjoyed leisure and participated in his new community. However, this peaceful life came to an end due to the heightened anti-Japanese sentiment resulting from the outbreak of war between Japan and the United States.

February 19, 1942, United States Executive Order 9066 was issued.

This executive order removed about 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans from their homes and incarcerated them in concentration camps in remote areas of the US.

All persons of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast and in southern Arizona were first assembled at temporary sites such as racetracks and state fairgrounds, until more inland concentration camps were constructed. They were allowed one suitcase and their names were replaced with registration numbers. They spent about three months in these makeshift facilities and were subsequently transported to 10 camps managed by the War Relocation Authority in eastern California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas.

Rounded Up

Aisuke Kondo, “Santa Anita” (2017), single-channel digital video with sound, 5:27 minutes (©Aisuke Kondo, courtesy of the artist) 

In his video “Santa Anita” (2017), Kondo visits the current Santa Anita racetrack in California and explores the site, investigating the space with the help of archival photos of the temporary assembly center. Carrying a cane that his great-grandfather carved during his incarceration period, Kondo slowly ascends the hill, playing the role of his elder.

The Santa Anita Temporary Assembly Center served as a residence for approximately 19,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans, primarily from California, before being transported to inland camps. Living conditions were harsh, with multiple families cohabiting in 400 tar paper barracks, some enduring life in stables and grandstands. Kondo, recognizing the tragedy of his great-grandfather’s forced incarceration, pays homage to the Santa Anita racetrack experience, the initial destination of his tragic journey. He empathizes with the sorrow, humiliation, and despair his great-grandfather must have felt. In this attempt to overlay memory onto the present, the clear blue sky, swaying palm trees, and the vibrant green of the grass amplify the sense of emptiness felt by the detainees.


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Carrie Yamaoka, “Archipelagoes panel #15A” (1991-1994/2019), chemically altered gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 inches (courtesy of the artist)

“Heart Mountain: WWII concentration camp for Japanese Americans in Wyoming. Originally named Heart Mountain by the Native American Crow tribe because they said the mountain resembled a buffalo heart. One of my aunts and two of my uncles were interned there. ” — Carrie Yamaoka

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Carrie Yamaoka, “Archipelagoes panel #8” (1991-1994/2019), chemically altered gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 inches (courtesy of the artist)

“Topaz: WWII concentration camp for Japanese Americans in Utah. A semi-precious stone ranging in color from orange-yellow to orange-red to blue to green to purple. Birthstone for the month of November. 

Tornillo: a town on the border of the US and Mexico, in Texas. Site of temporary tent city detainment facility for migrant children separated from their parents from June 2018 to January 2019. Closed and then re-opened as a Customs and Border Protection detainment facility for adults. Means ‘screw’ in Spanish. 

Tule Lake: an intermittent lake in northern California, fed by the Lost River. Site of WWII concentration camp for Japanese Americans.” — Carrie Yamaoka

Topaz, depicted in the work above, is one of the concentration camps that was established in the harsh desert environment in Utah. It is estimated that over 11,000 people, primarily from the San Francisco Bay area, were interned here. It was officially called the Central Utah Relocation Center by the government and was designed as a self-contained community. It had residential tar paper barracks along with amenities such as mess halls, hospitals, schools, and churches. However, the camp was surrounded by barbed wire, with seven watchtowers and guard posts. This was not merely a “relocation center.” It was a concentration camp, indeed.

TT Takemoto learned about the life of Jiro Onuma, a single gay man incarcerated at Topaz, through an art project they attended in 2009. Takemoto delved into Onuma’s photographs and personal belongings, as well as various archives about the camp. As a result, the artist created Gentleman’s Gaman, an elaborate installation recreating Onuma’s surroundings at the camp. Subsequently, Takemoto furthered their research and developed the video “Looking for Jiro.” This resulted in the creation of a trilogy of video works examining the life and events during the incarceration period, meticulously exploring this significant history. Takemoto depicts the unique personalities of three individuals using entirely different visual approaches, thoughtfully re-examining queer subjectivity at the camps.

TT Takemoto, excerpts from “Looking for Jiro”(2011), single-channel digital video with sound, 5:45 minutes (©TT Takemoto; courtesy of the artist)

In “Looking for Jiro” (2011) Takemoto incorporates a mashup of footage of a bodybuilder Onuma admired, US military propaganda, and a homoerotic bread-making drag king performance.

TT Takemoto, Excerpts from “Warning Shot”(2016), single-channel digital video with sound, 9:50 minutes (©TT Takemoto; courtesy of the artist)

“Warning Shot” (2016) features James Hatsuaki Wakasa, also incarcerated at Topaz. This work depicts an incident in which Wakasa, a professional chef before his internment, was fatally shot by a military police officer under questionable circumstances. The artist applied the Rashomon effect – a storytelling method used by filmmakers to create contradictory plots, leaving the truth ambiguous – to juxtapose conflicting accounts of Wakasa’s passing. The portrayal toward the end, highlighting the shooting incident by military police in the camp, conveys how this “relocation center” was in reality a deadly concentration camp.

TT Takemoto, excerpts from “On the Line”(2018), single-channel digital video with sound, 6:45 minutes (©TT Takemoto; courtesy of the artist)

In 2018, “On the Line” shifted the focus to the lives of women working in a cannery, showcasing Isa Shimoda, the first female Japanese-American business owner. The video incorporates images such as a woman wielding a naginata, making mochi, plum flower patterns from stoneware, and fish lining up on a processing line. These visuals, coupled with the sound of crashing waves, create a retrospective portrayal that seems abstract, akin to gazing into the distant past of pre-incarceration days. Described by the artist as “a queer meditation on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II,” the piece provides a unique perspective on this historical period.

Aisuke Kondo, “Here Where You Stood” (2017), single-channel digital video with sound, 5:44 minutes (©Aisuke Kondo; courtesy of the artist) 

Kondo’s great-grandfather was also incarcerated in Topaz. Contemplating how his great-grandfather, who was already over 60 years old at the time, lived in the harsh desert environment, the artist created a series of works set in Topaz. In the video “Here Where You Stood” (2017), he documents his trip to Topaz, engaging with the landscape, which at times reveals traces of the camp. As the video approaches the end, we see him walking with a cane, playing the role of his great-grandfather. Suddenly he stops and begins brandishing the cane as a sword, wildly swinging it as if he is fighting something invisible. Accidentally he ends up breaking the cane he inherited from his great-grandfather. It is an emotional outburst as if the unjust, pent-up anger of all those confined here has possessed the moment.

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Carrie Yamaoka, Archipelagoes (1991-1994/2019), installation view from the Henry Art Gallery exhibition recto/verso in 2019, cycle of 23 unique chemically altered gelatin silver prints, dimensions variable (photo by Mark Woods, courtesy of the artist) 

Carrie Yamaoka’s “Archipelagoes (details illustrated in figures 2, 5, and 6) is composed of 23 silver gelatin prints. Besides place names like Ellis Island, Guantanamo Bay, and Heart Mountain, it presents an unfinished alphabet, with blanks, initials, and partially bleached or abstracted images. It was created between 1991 and 1994 as a cycle of analogue photograms, in which photographic paper is exposed directly to light, without the use of a camera. The prints were underexposed, overexposed, solarized, or chemically altered. According to Yamaoka, the resulting images refer to “the AIDS crisis, the history of settler colonialism in the US, immigration issues, the internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans during WWII, the Holocaust, the sequestration of the mentally ill, 19th- and 20th-century landscape photography of the American West.” For her, “Archipelagoes” presents a distinctly American landscape. This work was not exhibited until more than a decade later, long after she had stopped working with text. In 2019, Yamaoka had the opportunity to exhibit it again. She added five new panels to the original set of 18. She felt compelled to do so by the parallels between the contemporary political atmosphere — with the emergence of Trump and the ultra-right-wing MAGA movement, particularly the anti-immigrant actions around the US Southern border — and the hysteric xenophobia of WWII.

“Archipelagoes” refer to sites such as hospitals, prisons, and detention camps — infrastructure designed to forcibly isolate people. The collective trauma of mass incarceration, discrimination, and human rights violations against other racial and ethnic groups is all too familiar to Japanese Americans; some have consistently raised their voices. Yamaoka’s work is one example. It operates from a perspective that transcends the particular histories of forced displacement and offers a more overarching view and re-consideration of how we understand American history.

Enemy Aliens

The incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II included camps under the jurisdiction of both the War Relocation Authority (WRA) and the Enemy Alien Internment System (EAIS). The Santa Fe Internment Camp, overseen by the Department of Justice, was the largest camp of the latter kind. Mainly Issei leaders in the Japanese community were incarcerated as enemy aliens suspected of espionage. They were listed on the A-B-C lists prepared before the war and apprehended by the FBI immediately after its outbreak, and were unable to reunite with their families for several years until its end.

Gaku Tsutaja participated in an Artist-in-Residence program at the Fort Missoula Historical Museum, where she created a series of works titled The WWII Club related to the Department of Justice’s internment camp for enemy aliens in Missoula, Montana.

Regardless of whether under the jurisdiction of the WRA or the DOJ, recreational activities were organized by detainees to maintain their mental and physical well-being in the camp. These activities ranged from cultural pursuits like painting and crafting to engaging in sports, such as baseball and golf. 

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Gaku Tsutaja, “Beautiful Sky Golf Course” (2019), still from HD video, 22 minutes (©Gaku Tsutaja; photo by artist, courtesy of Ulterior Gallery)
Gaku Tsutaja, “Beautiful Sky Golf Course” (2019),  HD video, 22 minutes (©Gaku Tsutaja; photo by artist, courtesy of Ulterior Gallery)
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Gaku Tsutaja, “The Funeral” (2019), sumi ink, gesso, cotton canvas, 47 1/2 x 63 1/2 inches (©Gaku Tsutaja; photo by artist, courtesy of Ulterior Gallery)

“The Beautiful Sky Golf Course” (2019) is a video work created by Gaku Tsutaja, inspired by her examination of the Missoula archives. The piece explores the detainees’ activities of picking up small stones on the premises, polishing them to create shiny objects, and constructing a golf course for themselves. Tsutaja’s interest was piqued by these aspects. She particularly liked the unexpected combination of Japanese Issei and golf, satirizing and challenging stereotypes and racism.

 The video also delves into the immigrant story of Masuo Yasui, who, traumatized by the internment experience, attempted suicide after his release, leaving a lasting impact on Tsutaja. Here, Japanese detainees are metaphorically represented as golf balls, while American figures are depicted with various animal heads on golf clubs, such as the President of the United States (Grizzly Bear), the Secretary of State (Black Bear), Border Guards (Coyote), FBI (Crow), Prosecutor (Wolf), Lawyer (Mountain Lion), Judge (Bison), and Translator (Badger). The narrative revolves around the loyalty hearing of Yasui. With the assistance of then-curator Ted Hughes and local journalist and professor at the University of Montana Carol Van Valkenburg, Tsutaja made efforts to accurately determine the location of the golf course, which was only vaguely known at the time. Her intention to Identify the golf course location was “the first step to create an imaginative space for digging into untold history” as she told me. The video also featured a preserved barrack and the museum’s accurate reproduction of the Loyalty Hearings room.

Tsutaja employs a metaphorical approach in her creative work, using animals, everyday items, and other elements to ambiguously depict characters’ races and nationalities. Even when dealing with painful historical facts, her fable-like technique, framing them as symbolic events in an alternate world, broadens the story’s accessibility. 

The ink-drawn piece titled “The Funeral” (2019), featured in her videos, is based on a photograph of a funeral within the Department of Justice Missoula Internment Camp. Unfortunately, four individuals in this camp passed away without being able to reunite with their families.

No Relief

The struggles of Japanese Americans persisted into the postwar period. Following their release from the concentration camps, many faced the dilemma of returning to their hometowns or starting anew in different places. Regardless of the choice, a significant number of individuals experienced economic losses during wartime and grappled with the social injustices of racial discrimination and prejudice, hindering their rebuilding efforts. Within households, a desire to be seen as model citizens fueled a tendency to suppress Japanese identity in favor of assimilation into American society. For first- and second-generation individuals who experienced the camps, the trauma prevented them from openly discussing their internment experiences. Even Okishi’s father, born in Hawai‘i before the war, but not interned, has remained silent about memories from the wartime and postwar periods. Okishi recounts that he was told, “In Hawai‘i, with the outbreak of the war between Japan and the US, anything Japanese in our homes was discarded and thrown into Māmara Bay.”

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Ken Okiishi, installation view of A Model Childhood, the Mainland (Ames, Iowa), circa 1978–2001(2018), mixed media, dimensions variable (courtesy of the artist, Reena Spaulings Fine Art; Pilar Corrias, and Take Ninagawa) 
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Ken Okiishi, installation view of A Model Childhood, the Mainland (Ames, Iowa), circa 1978–2001 (2018), mixed media, dimensions variable (courtesy of the artist, Reena Spaulings Fine Art, Pilar Corrias, and Take Ninagawa)
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Ken Okiishi, installation view of A Model Childhood, the Mainland(Ames, Iowa), circa 1978–2001 (2018), mixed media, dimensions variable (courtesy of the artist, Reena Spaulings Fine Art, Pilar Corrias, and Take Ninagawa)

Ken Okiishi’s “Model Childhood(2018) is an intricate multimedia installation. The components of the artwork include belongings from his childhood stored in the basement of his parents’ house, a video recording of household items shot by the artist’s mother around 2009 for insurance purposes, a thorough 3D digital model of the artist’s parent’s basement, a large banner based on a prewar photo celebrating his father’s 初節句(Hatsu Zekku), the First Boys’ Day in Hawai‘i, and a video shot by the artist at the Topaz concentration camp site. This vast amount of information is gently enveloped by the song “White Ferrari” by Frank Ocean playing in the background.

The highlight of this work is the photo of the artist’s father celebrating his Hatsu Zekku and the road trip Ken Okishi takes to visit the Topaz site. Before his solo exhibition in LA, the artist decided to make a stop at Topaz, near the route connecting his hometown and LA. He informed his father about this plan, and in response, his father retrieved an old photo from a tray that had been stored away for a long time. The photo depicted his father as a one-year-old boy sitting in front of 50 samurai dolls, an image that should have been discarded after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

 The artist then packed all his childhood belongings into a minivan and embarked on the road trip. Passing through sandstorms in Nebraska and mountains in Colorado, and heading toward the deserts of Utah, this journey not only traverses the vast American landscape but also delves into the historical layers of the past.

The desolate grounds of Topaz and the basement records containing family memories are projected through the memorabilia of the artist’s exemplary childhood spent in the Midwest, casting shadows of various objects and the audience exploring them.

Condensed into about 20 plastic cases and cardboard boxes is the artist’s childhood, appearing minimal in material quantity yet revealing a subtle connection with Hawai‘i and Japan. The overwhelming expression of culture, extending beyond a single photo from the artist’s father, highlights the profound gap in cultural inheritance. This striking gap is a result of many Japanese Americans navigating life as model minorities within American society, compelled to suppress their language and culture, perhaps due to the mental pressure of conforming to survive.

Ongoing Struggles

The works introduced in this online exhibition are created by artists from a generation that did not witness the camp era. They read and interpret limited memories and archives, supplementing them with imagination to confront the challenging history. The experience of traversing time through the perspective of contemporary artists looking back at the past makes visible facts and connections that were not apparent from the position of the individuals involved, serving as momentum to anticipate the future from the present.

It is hoped that this viewing experience will linger in readers’ memories, providing an opportunity to reconsider approaches to peace in light of the current urgent conditions that ultimately result in war, as they did 80 years ago. 

I would like to thank  Roger Shimomura, Aisuke Kondo, Ken Okiishi, TT Takemoto, Gaku Tsutaja, and Carrie Yamaoka for their contribution to this research and exhibition.

Editor’s Note: This online exhibition is part of the 2023/24 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators and follows two posts by the author.

Machiko Harada will discuss her work and research in an online event moderated by Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian on Tuesday, March 12, at 6pm(EST). RSVP to attend.

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