Japanese-American Artists Revisit the Painful Legacy of WWII


On this year’s warm and tranquil New Year’s Day, I was visiting the shrine in my hometown of Okazaki with friends and family. The small yard was bustling with worshippers celebrating their first visit of the year. Suddenly a sensation akin to a strong jolt surged through me, and everyone’s mobile alerts began to ring out at once. I then felt a slow, distinctly perceptible tremor, triggering memories of similar ones I’ve experienced in Japan. After that, I received breaking news about a major earthquake striking Japan’s Noto Peninsula. When I returned home, I discovered that the usually lively New Year’s television programs had all been replaced by urgent earthquake alerts and graphic images of the disaster’s aftermath. In an instant, the peaceful life of Noto — a beautiful land rich in enduring traditions and customs — had been horribly shattered.

On social media, messages expressing concern for those immediately impacted, and information about rescue efforts, support systems, and emergency responses at evacuation centers were being exchanged. As the days passed, posts also discussed the outlook for reconstruction. Among the discussions were parallels between these tragic scenes of towns devastated by the earthquake and wartime images of scorched landscapes. Pictures of collapsed houses and crushed vehicles were shared simultaneously and repeatedly online, overlapping with the ongoing reports of war in Ukraine and Gaza.

01 Sugo Jinja
菅生神社 Sugoh Jinja Shinto shrine (photo Machiko Harada/Hyperallergic)

It all reminded me of social media posts from 13 years ago, immediately following the unprecedented Great East Japan Earthquake, which was accompanied by a massive tsunami and secondary disasters at the Fukushima nuclear plant. During that time Japan experienced a surge in nationalistic sentiments, and the tense relief efforts and collective sense of recovery seemed to stimulate a feeling of belonging that wasn’t typical in peacetime. Multiple Japanese artists, inspired by this earthquake, have since embarked on projects addressing wartime events. Among them, the work of Gaku Tsutaja and Aisuke Kondo particularly caught my eye since both depict the specific conditions of wartime in the United States and both of them live outside of Japan, as do I.

I have been living in Santa Fe for three years now. As a Japanese person, I have a complicated relationship with New Mexico. On this enchanted and beautiful land of the Pueblo, Diné, and Apache people are bitter symbolic and physical traces of World War II, such as Los Alamos, the Trinity site, and three Department of Justice internment camps. The narratives for these places are quite different from a Japanese perspective.

03 109 E Palace
Plaque of 109 East Palace (photo Machiko Harada/Hyperallergic)
02 DOJ SFcamp
Department of Justice Santa Fe Internment Camp monument (photo Machiko Harada/Hyperallergic)

When I started researching Japanese diaspora artists in the US, I was shocked to hear artist Roger Shimomura comment during a lecture that “Japanese and Japanese Americans are different people.” I gradually realized that this difference resulted from the outcome of WWII, when Japanese and Japanese Americans were held in concentration camps and suffered persistent discrimination. How does someone who has not experienced war, or the extreme racism that drove the incarceration campaign, adequately access these painful memories. How have artists attempted to convey the feeling of war to those who haven’t lived through it?

Roger Shimomura is a third-generation Japanese-American artist born in Seattle. In artwork that encompasses painting, printmaking, performance, and more, he addresses sociopolitical issues related to ethnicity. Shimomura’s artistic style depicting war is reminiscent of American Pop art, or Japanese Ukiyo-e prints and Yamato-e painting. An example is “American Infamy #2,” in which he employs Yamato-e, the traditional Japanese painting technique, to depict military police in a dark silhouette as they monitor prisoners. Stylized clouds separate the background and foreground, creating a sense of distance.

The content of his WWII images is based on stories he’s heard from his parents, grandparents, and community, supplemented by his own memories. Many of his perceptions of the concentration camps were gathered from his grandmother’s diary. Despite being a young child during the war, the artworks based on the wartime memories he’s reconstructed carry profound meaning.

In this project, I examine recent works of art related to WWII to update our understanding of a war that ended almost 80 years ago, while looking forward to the possibility of peace. Tsutaja and Kondo, mentioned earlier, as well as TT Takemoto, Carrie Yamaoka, and Ken Okiishi are all from a generation unfamiliar with war as a lived experience, yet they’ve focused on its long-lasting effects on Japanese and Japanese-American people. My next essay will look at these artists and what their renewed perspectives on war means for us today.


Editor’s Note: This is part of the 2023/24 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators and the first 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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