THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Shinkichi George Tajiri’s artistic legacy depicts a diverse lifetime of hardships


Amid the innumerable topics that make up the tapestry of Japanese American history, one little-noticed theme is that of Nisei in Europe. While the exploits of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Italy and France during World War II have been thoroughly studied and commemorated, the large presence of Nisei students, soldiers and expatriates in the surrounding years has passed largely unnoticed. Fortunately, a series of Nisei memoirs over the years has afforded us insight into the lives and careers of some of the individuals who have resided in Europe.

Dancer Sono Osato’s “Distant Dances” covers the years she spent as a schoolgirl in Paris and then as a ballerina touring with the Ballet Russes in the 1930s. The journalist Gene Oishi’s “In Search of Hiroshi” tells the story of his military service in postwar Europe and his stint as a jazz musician in the Verdun band. Paul Okimoto’s recent “Oh! Poston, Why Don’t You Cry For Me? And Other Stops Along The Way” recounts his medical studies in France.

Particularly prominent and striking is the contribution of Nisei in the arts, beginning in the years before the war. In 1929, singer Agnes Yoshiko Miyakawa moved from Sacramento to Paris, where she earned international renown singing “Madame Butterfly” at L’Opera Comique. In 1936 soprano Toshiko Hasegawa started an opera career in Italy that led to her becoming a lead singer at La Scala in Milan. In the late 1930s, Newton Tani moved from San Francisco to Paris to study piano. Such well-known artists as Henry Sugimoto and Isamu Noguchi studied art in Europe in the late 1920s. There they mixed with such eminent Japanese-born creative artists as the painter Leonard Foujita (Tsuguharu Fujita) and dancer Michio Ito. Miné Okubo, thanks to a fellowship, toured the Continent in 1937 and 1938 and studied the Great Masters.

In the years after the end of the war, there were new connections. Lillian Oka (Tcherkassky) danced with the Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo. Steve Shigeo Wada used the GI Bill to travel to France and study painting with Fernand Leger. Hiroshi Tamura was awarded a fellowship in Paris by the Art Institute of Chicago. Hawai‘i-born Dorothy Furuya studied for three years at L’Académie Julien in Paris. Poet Kikuko Miyakawa (Packness), who won a fellowship to study silver work in Copenhagan, married a Danish official and settled down there.

The most eminent, and surely the most versatile, of the Nisei artists who went to Europe was Shinkichi Tajiri, a California-born Japanese American who became a nationally known figure in his adopted nation of the Netherlands. He was born Shinkichi George Tajiri on Dec. 7, 1923 (he would turn 18 on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack!), one of six surviving children of Ryukichi Tajiri, a descendant of a samurai family, and his wife Fuyo. He spent his childhood in a multiracial area of South Central Los Angeles, where he later noted that all of his friends were African Americans. When he was 13, his father found a new job as representative of the San Diego Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, and the family moved to San Diego, where the young George (as he was then known) attended high school. There he suffered successive shocks when his father died suddenly, and then he was struck by a prolonged illness that kept him bedridden for months. By this time, he had already grown interested in art. In the summer of 1941, he attended a Works Progress Administration-financed sculpture class in San Diego’s Balboa Park. The instructor, Ruth Ball, brought him to sculptor Donal Hord, a modernist famous for his Aztec-inspired stone works and buildings. Hord took him on as a pupil and instructed him in sculpture and drawing.

By this time, George’s older siblings were already out of the house and beginning to make a name for themselves. His eldest brother Larry Tajiri, editor of the Nichi Bei Shimbun in San Francisco, would become the era’s most prominent Nisei journalist as editor of the Pacific Citizen during and after World War II before being named columnist and drama critic for the Denver Post. (When Larry died suddenly in 1965, his younger brother agreed to serve on the board for the Larry Tajiri Theater Award, established in his honor, and designed the statuettes for the “Larry.”) George’s second brother, Vincent Tajiri, who was a sports reporter and short story writer for the Nichi Bei Shimbun, would go on after the war to become founding photographic and art director of Playboy magazine.

The young George and his family were caught in the roundup of West Coast Japanese under Executive Order 9066, and were removed to Santa Anita, Calif. and Poston, Ariz. During the war their home in San Diego, with all of the family’s belongings, was literally pulled up and carted away with all their furnishings, and after being sold at an auction, it disappeared forever. At Santa Anita, he took art classes with Hideo Date. While at Poston, he met Isamu Noguchi (a warm friend of his elder brother Larry’s), whom he helped lead Poston’s art department. Tajiri passed the time in camp by making crayon drawings using art materials donated by Donal Hord. In May 1943 he had his first exhibition, a show of his paintings and charcoal drawings at Poston High School.

After the U.S. Army established an all-Nisei volunteer combat unit (the future 442nd Regimental Combat Team) in early 1942, Tajiri decided that, as the oldest son in camp, he should volunteer as a patriotic gesture. He may also have thought that at 110 pounds, with a heart flutter, poor eyesight and a history of pneumonia, he would not be accepted! In the event, however, he was enlisted. After 11 months of intensive training (during which time he also served as a staff illustrator of the unit’s yearbook), he shopped out with his unit to Italy, where he took part in the battle of Anzio. On July 9, 1944 he was wounded in the leg. After spending six months recovering in an Army hospital, he was transferred to noncombatant duty as a postal worker and hotel concierge. Along with his friend Milton Hartfield, he was then assigned to Special Services, where he did drawings of displaced persons.

In 1946, Tajiri was discharged, and went to join his family, who had resettled in Chicago. There, with help from the GI Bill, he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. He helped form the Gaka Art Guild, a cooperative of Nisei and white artists, eventually serving as its president, and supervised their exhibit at the South Side Community Art Center, which included his stone sculpture “Father and Son.” However, embittered by wartime confinement and distressed by the anti-Japanese prejudice he encountered in postwar Chicago, Tajiri decided to leave the United States. He resolved to return to Europe, where he could perfect his art. He remained in “self-imposed exile,” as he later termed it, for the rest of his life. In the process, he decided to drop the name George — from then on he would be known only as Shinkichi.

In fall of 1948, Shinkichi Tajiri sailed to France in order to study with the noted sculptor Ossip Zadkine. He also took painting classes from Ferdinand Leger and studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. His work began to center on abstract forms constructed of iron and plaster. He soon undertook what he called his “Junk” series, sculptures of recycled split bronze from rubble heaps around abandoned factories, which were welded together with wire or brass (he scoured the banks of the Seine for discarded metal to use in his works). He also began his “Brick” series, small scale bronze sculptures formed from a mould of carved firebricks. After meeting artist Karel Appel in Paris, Tajiri grew close to the members of COBRA, an avant garde art and social protest group, and participated in their 1949 show at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, then a second one in 1952.

After his GI Bill stipend ran out in 1951, Tajiri supported himself for a time by teaching art and by designing patterns for a wallpaper factory in Wuppertal, Germany, then returned to Paris in 1953. Although he sold some of his sculpture, and gave seminars on the use of the acetylene torch in sculpture, he was forced to take odd jobs to support himself (he also was supported in part by his first wife, who had nursed him at the American Hospital in Neuilly after he contracted hepatitis). Soon after, he met Ferdina “Ferdi” Jensen, a young Dutch sculptor and jewelry designer who would become his second wife and chief muse. He also discovered filmmaking. In 1955, together with the filmmaker Baird Bryant, he made a short film, “The Vipers,” which won a Golden Lion award at the Cannes Film Festival. The work, set to a soundtrack by Stan Kenton’s band, explored in surreal imagery the “high” experienced by a marijuana smoker. Following this success, Tajiri produced his second film, a documentary on Ferdi’s jewelry design.

Even as his films enjoyed success, his artistic career picked up. In the following years he exhibited at one-man shows in Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and The Hague, as well as participating in group shows in Europe, in Chicago and at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. He exhibited at three of the famous “Documenta” shows in Kassel. The Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired one of his pieces for its collection. In 1959 he won the William and Norma Copley prize for achievement in sculpture, and the following year a John Hay Whitney Fellowship. A large sculpture of his won the Mainichi Shimbun prize at a Tokyo Biennale, and was installed in the garden of the city’s Meiji Insurance company. Another piece of his was placed in the garden of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. The city of Arnhem (Ferdi’s birthplace) commissioned him to create a giant sculpture for its town square to commemorate the rebuilding of the city, and other commissions followed. So much of Tajiri’s work, in fact, was placed in outdoor spaces that he abandoned iron sculpture for bronze, which would stand up better to the elements.

Beginning in the 1960s, Tajiri’s sculpture concentrated on two themes. One was the warrior. In part due to his own wartime experience, Tajiri held strong antiwar sentiments, and deplored the waste and danger of the arms race. In 1964, he made a series of eight large Machines inspired by streamlined Formula One cars (automobiles, and especially motorcycles, were an undying love of his) and jets and rockets. At the same time, he was drawn to Japanese folklore and to the figure of the samurai. In later years he would begin work on a monumental series based on the “47 Ronin,” the wandering samurai of Japanese legend. Meanwhile, in 1967 he started work on his “Knots” series, a set of twisted sculptures, which he considered had a universal and multiple human significance (he spoke with amusement about the many questions he received regarding sexual imagery in his work).

In addition to sculpture, Tajiri pursued many other arts. He illustrated books for authors from Henry Miller, Christopher Logue and Margaret Randall practiced photography, including a set of notable stereoscopic images of the entire Berlin Wall, and revived the long-defunct art of daguerreotypes (early photographic images on a silver plate). In 1970, while in Copenhagen, he produced a new documentary, “Bodil Joensen, a Summer Day” about the Danish actress and porn star of that name. Tajiri was also a pioneer in working artistically with videotape and creating experimental videos. He published several art books, and ultimately his memoirs (which appeared in a bilingual English-Dutch edition).
In 1956, Shinkichi and Ferdi moved to the Netherlands. They first settled in Amsterdam, where their two children, Giotta Fuyo and Ryu Vinci, were born (like the early American painter Charles Willson Peale, Shinkichi named his daughters for famous artists). However, in 1962, the couple discovered the small town of Baarlo, and near it Kasteel Scheres, a castle with a tower and a set of wings surrounding a courtyard. They managed to purchase the site, and relocated their studios and assistants there as well. Tajiri was proud of his acceptance by the Dutch, who commissioned several works and asked him to represent the Netherlands at the 1962 Venice Biennale. In the next years, he had numerous exhibitions of his work in Amsterdam, Arnhem and other cities. Meanwhile, Shinkichi was invited to do a show at the Tokyo Gallery, and in 1963 he made his first trip to Japan, a six-week voyage to Tokyo. A year later, he visited the United States, thanks to a residence in Minnesota as visiting professor at the Art Institute of Minneapolis, and also toured Mexico. Using the Art Institute’s foundry, he created 25 bronze sculptures, which he displayed at the school and which then served as the centerpiece of his first show in New York, at the André Emmerich Gallery. He also created a monumental public sculpture for the neighboring city of St. Paul.

In February 1969, Ferdi died in an accident, leaving the family devastated. Shinkichi threw himself into work, and began commuting to Berlin, where he was employed as a teacher at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste at Berlin. He remained as a professor there until 1989. However, he later explained that his wife’s death had made him realize that, despite his love for his daughters, he had been so consumed by his artistic creation that he had neglected his family. He invited a new woman, Suzanne van der Capellen, to come live with him and care for the children. The two were married in 1976 and would remain together until Tajiri’s death. Despite his punishing schedule, he also struggled to get closer to his daughters.

Tajiri attracted some American collectors. His “Granny Knot,” purchased by Nelson Rockefeller, eventually became part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s collection. In 1981, his sculpture “Friendship Knot,” representing the “unity between two cultures,” was installed in the Weller Court in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. He nonetheless remained far more celebrated in Holland. In 1992, Tajiri was named an officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau, a high honor for Dutch people akin to knighthood for the British. He continued working well into his eighties. He continued his “Ronin” series and put together a tribute to Ferdi and her art. During this period, he had the proud pleasure of exhibiting in shows together with art by his daughter Giotta and her children. A highlight of his career came in 2007, when “De Wachters” (“The Sentinels”) a set of four of his sculptures, was installed on a bridge near his home, in a ceremony featuring an unveiling by the Queen of the Netherlands. Shinkichi Tajiri died in Baarlo on March 15, 2009.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at

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