New online exhibition highlights LGBTQ Japanese American pioneers


A PHOTO TO STODDARD ­— Yone Noguchi sent his signed portrait and wrote letters to Charles Warren Stoddard, a renown early 20th century gay poet. public domain image

A PHOTO TO STODDARD ­— Yone Noguchi sent his signed portrait and wrote letters to Charles Warren Stoddard, a renown early 20th century gay poet. public domain image

A new online historical exhibition hosted by J-Sei aims to shake up the notion of who the Issei were by exploring queer Japanese Americans prior to 1945.

Stan Yogi and Amy Sueyoshi, co-curators of the exhibit, discussed their efforts in an exhibit opening hosted via Zoom by J-Sei, a multi-generational Japanese American organization based in Emeryville, Calif.

Yogi, a co-chair of Los Angeles-based Okaeri: A Nikkei LGBTQ Gathering, said he conceived the idea in 2018, in hopes of creating an exhibit for Okaeri to host in 2020. With no formal funding, however, he was unable to hold the exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum, where the conference would have been held. A year later, Yogi’s long-time acquittance Jill Shiraki, program director at J-Sei, informed him of a potential California Humanities grant and an opportunity to work on a smaller and more focused project at the Northern California venue.

The gay Sansei curator added that he had an “emotional and almost kind of spiritual” motivation to organize the project.

“About four years ago, Okaeri organized a potluck for gay men over 40 who identify as Japanese Americans, and I participated in that. And we were lamenting that most of us didn’t know other gay men who are Japanese American, but we also lamented that we never knew any Nisei, let alone Issei, who identified as gay or lesbian, or queer in today’s language,” Yogi said.

Research from several scholars on Japanese American history and literature contributed to the exhibit. Yogi first tapped Sueyoshi, San Francisco State University’s dean of the College of Ethnic Studies, to co-curate the exhibit. Together, they compiled research from Sueyoshi’s own work, as well as that of Tina Takemoto, Andrew Leong, and Greg Robinson to find instances of Japanese Americans who might have been considered queer in their time.

The coronavirus pandemic canceled Yogi and Sueyoshi’s plans to hold the physical exhibit in Emeryvillle, causing the organizers to move to an online format last June.

The five-section exhibit is organized in a mix of chronological order and themes, outlining early examples of gender non-conformity and homo-social relationships among early Japanese immigrants to changing attitudes against same-sex sexuality in the 20th century, and what is known of gay inmates during the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“One of the arguments we make is that, in fact, same-sex sexuality, as well as what they call gender impersonation back then, was quite prevalent and also accepted to some degree in the Japanese immigrant community,” Sueyoshi said. “It’s not to say that same-sex sexuality and gender impersonation were embraced and totally lauded — that’s not what we’re seeing necessarily — but it was actually common in the Japanese American press and it wasn’t necessarily written about pejoratively.”

Yogi said homophobia grew more prevalent as Issei were encouraged to assimilate into American society by settling down in heterosexual relationships and create families.

“So there was like this conscious shift in the community’s attitudes, so that was both enlightening to me, and — also, to be frank — a little angering,” he said.

Kei Matsuda, a J-Sei board member, expressed his excitement over the exhibit.

“Growing up in Japan in the 1960s and 70s, it was not easy for me to find my place in the society as a gay person. I looked and largely failed to find historical figures that I could uphold as my role models,” he said. “Times have changed. I’m happy that today’s young LGBTQ persons have access to an exhibit like this, and perhaps feel less isolated and less unsure of their self worth.”

Seen and Unseen will be available online through February 2021 at For more information on J-Sei, including related programs to the exhibit, visit

In addition to the virtual exhibit, J-Sei will host a series of free online programs via Zoom. Amy Sueyoshi will present “Queer Compulsions: Love, Sex and Scandal in Turn of the Century Japanese America” Nov. 8 at 4 p.m. Andrew Leong, assistant professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, will present “We Were Here and Queer Before the Issei” Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. Queer filmmaker Tina Takemoto will speak on her films on queer Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II in “Queer Cinematic Visions of Nikkei History” Dec. 1.

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