Henry Sugimoto exhibition on wartime incarceration opens in Yokohama


HERDED AWAY — Sugimoto’s “Our Bus” illustrates the inhumane treatment of Nikkei during WWII. image courtesy of the Wakayama Civic Library


HERDED AWAY — Sugimoto’s “Our Bus” illustrates the inhumane treatment of Nikkei during WWII. image courtesy of the Wakayama Civic Library

YOKOHAMA, Japan — Many Japanese people learn in school that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 8, 1941 (Dec. 7 in the United States). But not so many know what happened to Japanese Americans on Feb. 19, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066.

They are starting to find out, however, with the help of an exhibition in Yokohama.

“It’s visually compelling. It tells us a lot about camp,” said Tomiko Takahashi, who visited the exhibition that features artwork by the late Nikkei painter Henry Sugimoto. “I’ve never learned about this in school.”

“Camp Scene — Japanese Americans during World War II — Henry Sugimoto Exhibition” opened in late January at the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum in Yokohama. The collection of 20 works of art by Sugimoto — on loan from the Wakayama Civic Library — offers a rare opportunity for Japanese people to visually learn about what Nikkei went through during World War II.

“A TV drama about camp was produced last year in Japan and was very popular. I thought this would be a great chance to have an exhibit on Nikkei when people still remember it,” said Mikako Kudo, deputy director of the Partnership Program Division at the Japan International Cooperation Agency, Yokohama International Center.

Last November, Tokyo Broadcasting System, a Tokyo-based Japanese television network, aired “Ninety-nine Years of Love: Japanese Americans,” a five-night TV drama series which drew in 2.6 million viewers on average.

A LASTING LEGACY — Tomoki Nakatani speaks about Henry Sugimoto's work at the JICA Yokohama Japanese Overseas Migration Museum. photo by JICA Yokohama Japanese Overseas Migration Museum

Born in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan in 1900, Sugimoto moved to the United States at 19 to join his parents, who had moved to the U.S. to seek better economic opportunities. As an aspiring painter, Sugimoto studied at art schools in the San Francisco Bay Area after high school in Hanford, Calif.

In 1928, he went to Paris to attend the Académie Colarossi and won an award at Salon d’Automne. After his return to America, his career took off and he won numerous awards.

His career was abruptly interrupted when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. Along with approximately 120,000 other people of Japanese descent — most of whom were American citizens — Sugimoto was forcibly incarcerated by the U.S. government. He was sent to the Jerome concentration camp in Arkansas, and was later transferred to the nearby camp at Rohwer, where he and his family stayed until August 1945.

While incarcerated, Sugimoto created roughly 100 paintings depicting prisoners of camp and their life. Sugimoto also served as an art consultant to the War Relocation Authority and taught art in camp from 1943 to 1944.

Viewers were touched by Sugimoto’s work.

“I knew about camp as a fact but I’ve never realized the camp experience was about violation of human rights before seeing artworks by Henry Sugimoto,” said a Yokohama resident, who was referring to the painting “Our Bus.” It portrays a scene where Nikkei were transferred to camp in a truck next to another truck carrying cattle. The painting implies Nikkei were treated like animals.

This is the first time in 30 years the collection has traveled outside of Wakayama City. In 1980, Sugimoto had his artwork exhibited in Japan and donated artwork to his birthplace of Wakayama City.

“Henry Sugimoto is famous in the U.S. but not so many Japanese people, even in Wakayama City, know about him,” said Tomoki Nakatani, a librarian at the Wakayama Civic Library, which has a research institution specializing in Japanese migration. Nakatani said even some school teachers who visit the library with their students are often surprised to learn about camp.

In fact, Japanese textbooks barely touch upon the Japanese American incarceration experience. Research by Nakatani shows that there were only two questions asked on the camps in the National Center Test for University Admissions, a Japanese equivalent of the Scholastic Assessment Test, since it was administered 22 years ago.

Nakatani says Wakayama City is recognizing the legacy of Nikkei in particular because Wakayama Prefecture has the fifth-largest migrating population in Japan. Prominent immigrants to the U.S. include Isamu Wada, an Oakland, Calif.-based produce dealer who was instrumental in the successful Olympic bids of Tokyo and Los Angeles. In an effort to honor Nikkei, Wakayama City listed Henry Sugimoto in its Hall of Fame in 2007.

“It’s very easy to go overseas nowadays, which is why the story of Nikkei and their hardship is hardly ever talked about,” said Nakatani. “I think Sugimoto’s paintings show he was a survivor in the American society, where a lot of Nikkei faced discrimination. He managed to become an established painter.”

“Camp Scene — Japanese Americans during World War II — Henry Sugimoto Exhibit” will be exhibited through Monday, March 21 at the JICA Yokohama Japanese Overseas Migration Museum located at 2-3-1, Shinko, Nakaku, Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Tuesday to Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, call +81-45-211-1781, or visit www.jomm.jp/index.html.

One response to “Henry Sugimoto exhibition on wartime incarceration opens in Yokohama”

  1. Katsuya Nakatani Avatar
    Katsuya Nakatani

    Unknown information?: Please, do not leave out the horse stables story in Santa Anita(Keiba jo) Assembly Center in Arcadia, California(1942). Seven of us were ordered to live in a stinky, dirty horse stable with only one light bulb. These stables were fit for one horse!. This part certainly needs to be mentioned.

    Thank you,

    Katsuya Nakatani

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