The friendship between Lawrence Matsuda and Roger Shimomura began with an art sale. Both are Japanese-American, and Matsuda was among the first Japanese-Americans to purchase a piece of Shimomura’s art. Shimomura invited Matsuda to lunch, and they bonded over Bruce Lee stories, a love for salmon fishing and sharing the same middle name — Yutaka. They first met about 10 years ago.
It was only a matter of time before the poet and artist, both successful in their respective fields, collaborated on a project.
The pair brought together words and images to highlight their shared experience as children living under forced incarceration and the enduring effect it had on their families.
In the book “Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner” Matsuda provided the poetry and Shimomura the artwork. The book is inspired by Japanese-American experiences beginning with the American concentration camps, a dark time in U.S. history. Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942. The president’s decision led to the forced incarceration of 120,000 Japanese people who were living on the West Coast. Their lives behind barbed wire lasted for three years. Their only crime was being Japanese.
One of the 10 camps was the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho. It’s another commonality the two men share. Shimomura arrived there as a toddler with his family in 1942. Matsuda was born there in 1945. The duo’s work from the book is the centerpiece of the exhibition “Year of Remembrance: Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner” at Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific Experience. The show commemorates the 75th anniversary of the forced removal and examines racism, discrimination and human rights. The poems and artwork are accompanied by newspaper headlines from the era — many of which referred to people of Japanese descent as “Japs” — historical photos and a wartime ad to join the military billed as a “Japanese Hunting License.” In February, Matsuda and Shimomura held a talk at Wing Luke as part of the opening.
The exhibition also includes works by Shimomura that draw parallels between the war hysteria of the early ’40s and Islamophobia today.
Shimomura is known for his pop art style, which incorporates Americana themes. In one piece a Japanese woman and a woman wearing a hijab stand behind barbed wire. Barbed wire is found in many of Shimomura’s works to the dismay of some who were interested in buying his art early on in his career.
Buyers have asked Shimomura to paint the barbed wire out.
“I refused to take them out,” he said.
Because of his stance the work took longer to sell.
Matsuda doesn’t mince words when it comes to describing the effects of the American concentration camps on its inhabitants. He likens the forced removal to an entire community being raped.
“One day you’re going to work, you have dignity, you’re a real person and in a week you’re in jail because of your race,” Matsuda said. “You have no dignity. You have no work. You have no identity anymore and not only that but you’re in a camp with 7-, 8-, 9-, 10,000 other people who are undergoing the same grief, the same loss, the same anger, the same denial, the same depression.”
When they were allowed to leave Minidoka, Matsuda said they received 25 dollars in cash and a train ticket. His family returned to Seattle, but their lives were permanently altered. Matsuda’s father wasn’t able to run a grocery store again; the grocery business had changed.
“He became a janitor. Not something real happy for somebody who used to run his own business, be his own boss, determine his own hours,” Matsuda said. “And so you have a number of cases of people who underwent things like that. Some people even committed suicide in the camps, after the camps.”
As each family worked to rebuild their lives, memories of the camps lingered.
“When we grew up there was the sense that you have to behave yourself because your behavior reflects on the whole community,” Matsuda said. “The other thing is there was this underlying fear that we could be taken again.”
Shimomura heard a similar message from his grandmother: “She said whatever you do in life good or bad will reflect upon the entire race and she lived by that.”
A heavy burden to bear yet a similar sentiment is passed along by the elders of other minority communities to the younger generation. Shimomura also didn’t grow up with Japanese items around the house.
“We didn’t want to look Japanese again,” Shimomura said. “We wanted to make sure they knew we were American. It’s sad.”
In the poem “Barry the Psychiatrist,” Matsuda addresses the theory that trauma is passed down through the generations. It begins:
Without a greeting at Thanksgiving,
Barry approaches me and insists that
my mother was under
great stress before my Minidoka birth.
He believes my DNA stress switches
were turned off in the womb
and anxiety tolerance levels raised.
The poem goes on to say Barry is a survivor of a Jewish resettlement camp in Poland.
“I talked to a psychiatrist friend and when he sees someone with huge issues he says, ‘Tell me about your grandparents,’ because he feels traumatic things last three generations,” Matsuda said. “So it may not have been your parents, it was your grandparents that passed it on. You feel it, you don’t know where it came from.”
The book also addresses Asian stereotypes in Hollywood and the legacy of their ordeal. Both men have experienced being “othered” despite being born and raised in America. In 1969, Shimomura became a professor of art at the University of Kansas. He still lives in Lawrence, Kansas.
“Lawrence is about as liberal of a community as there is in this country,” Shimomura said. “But nonetheless there’s a lot of stupidity, ignorance and silliness that goes along with living within a group of people that are not exposed to a variety, other than the university.”
The exhibit and book are more than a history lesson. They take on a new relevance in light of the current political climate. Both men had a visceral reaction to President Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban, which was issued through an executive order.
Matsuda explained the current political climate with a quote attributed to Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
“We are not going to be taken again but someone else may be taken, or taken in a different way, or for a slightly different reason, instead of race it might be religion,” Matsuda said.
by Lawrence Matsuda
Like gandy dancers pounding spikes
for the Great Northern Railroad
German Americans straddle
our former Minidoka barrack,
cut straight kerf through this
1948 land lottery prize.
Twin Falls church elders
in canvas overalls and heavy black
gather for the house raising –
chop wood, fill cracks,
pound six penny nails
straight into barrack bones.
Tight grain lumber
traps Minidoka sorrow.
Letters from Italy and Hiroshima
once tacked here.
White paint covers all.
Does anything remain of us?
I wonder – Did they find
my matchstick darts,
marbles buried by the stairs,
or touch my dreams
crumpled like red and white
Babe Ruth wrappers
lodged in cracks?
"Idaho Homesteader" appears in "Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner."