Exhibit promotes ‘accepting’ Queer Nikkei in S.F.’s JA community

Midori’s “Kimono 2.” photo by Derek Tahara/Nichi Bei Weekly

In December 2021, Elena Nielsen, a Japanese American Citizens League San Francisco chapter board member and Japantown Rainbow Coalition member, approached Tomo Hirai to help solicit support for the JACL’s LGBTQ Pride flag raising project. It will celebrate Pride next month in San Francisco Japantown’s Peace Plaza. In asking for support from the National Japanese American Historical Society, the group was offered gallery space to host an LGBTQ exhibit.

Put together in six months, the “We Are LGBTQ Nikkei” exhibit curators Hirai and Lilith Benjamin, the historical society’s collections manager, changed the original idea of a show on LGBTQ Nikkei history in the United States to present community artists displaying their work at NJAHS, Hirai said.

The exhibit “has become something much grander than what I had ever envisioned,” Hirai, who is a trans woman, said in a Zoom interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Benjamin, who is a trans-lesbian woman, added that the exhibit was also about “showing the depth and variety of the community” in curating the art pieces, she said in the Zoom interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly.

The art pieces in the exhibit represent a lived culture of LGBTQ Nikkei experiences and not just the trauma of LGBTQ Nikkei artists, she said. She noted that both curators did not want the artists to create new work in part due to time constraints.

Both Hirai and Benjamin thought it was important to tell representative stories about queer Nikkei. Benjamin said she wanted to help curate the exhibit as “an opportunity to create and hold space for two communities (where) our interests are more shared than they are different.”

For queer Nikkei representation, Hirai said it’s important because “it’s a minority within a minority,” which needs more attention.

File_854, Tue Nov 10, 2020, 1:51:35 PM, 16C, 4756×6464, (871+920), 100%, Default Settin, 1/12 s, R66.9, G40.9, B61.5

One piece, “A Glimmer,” depicts a child wearing a gas mask and holding a stuffed bunny with butterflies floating above her head in acrylic paint on a wooden panel. Julia LaChica created it to “show the resilience of children, in a time of need of immigration reform, especially for Black Indigenous People of Color,” the description states.

Midori’s piece displays a kimono draped around a TV screen playing a video challenging the audience to “face the lived realities of Asian American women,” the description says. An antique Noh mask hangs above the kimono.

According to the description, Midori’s artwork examines the “internalized expectations of performance of gender, race, cultures, beauty, histories and commodification of the Japanese American woman…”

Hirai said one of her pieces, entitled, “Good Night,” has a murphy bed in a cigar box so she can “comfortably rest anywhere I go.” “Words Unheard” addresses her experience with her father who is hard of hearing.

She said she wanted to address what it’s like to experience communication difficulties with someone who is hard of hearing.

Hirai said the exhibit can help teach the broader Japanese American community more about accepting people in the LGBTQ community.

“There’s LGBTQ people within the Nikkei community and they are a part of the community. You should accept them with open arms,” Hirai, a Shin-Nisei, said.

The Berkeley JACL chapter and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence funded the exhibit, Hirai noted.

The National Japanese American Historical Society will host “We Are LGBTQ Nikkei” through July 15 at the NJAHS gallery, 1648 Post St., S.F.’s Japantown. The exhibit features queer Nikkei artists creating space for queer Japanese American culture in Japantown for Pride Month. “Since the earliest days of Japanese migration to the United States, there have been Japanese Americans who defy traditional gender and sexuality.” The exhibit aims to “give Nikkei space to queer Nikkei to not only send a message that LGBTQ Nikkei they are welcome and embraced within San Francisco’s Japantown community, but to show the greater Japanese American community that LGBTQ people are amongst them.” Gallery open Monday through Friday and every first Saturday of the month from noon to 5 p.m. Info: visit, www.njahs.org or call (415) 921-5007.

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