Your country is suddenly at war with your family’s ancestral home. Strangers — who were already racist to you — look at you with increased suspicion and fear. They boycott your family’s business and force friends to resign from their government jobs. Slurs and hate speech proliferate from the halls of Congress to schoolyards to the paper of record. Leaders in your community are rounded up by the secret police. Rumors circulate that the worst is still to come.
“Would you resist?”
These words transport you back to the chilly and fearful days of winter 1942, when Japanese Americans faced this exact conundrum. In the new Wing Luke Museum exhibit “Resisters: A Legacy Of Movement From The Japanese American Incarceration,” writer Tamiko Nimura challenges visitors to reflect on what it takes to resist your own oppression.
“Resisters” aims to re-center the histories of resistance and agency of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were excluded and interned in concentration camps by the U.S. military during World War II. The exhibit takes the form of a mixed-media art show, featuring contemporaneous and modern works of writing, painting, photography, videography and more from survivors of the camps and their descendants. It also draws connections, parallels and intersections with other struggles for liberation, including the fight for reparations for slavery, campaigns to shutdown immigration detention and the movement for justice and healing for survivors of Indian boarding schools.
At its core, “Resisters” delivers visitors a powerful — if at times controversial — message: no act of resistance is too small; no act of resistance against oppression is illegitimate.
The exhibit originates with the 2021 historical nonfiction graphic novel “We Hereby Refuse,” a multiyear collaborative project written by local authors Frank Abe and Nimura, illustrated by Ross Ishikawa and Matt Sasaki and published by the Wing Luke Museum and Chin Music Press. According to Mikala Woodward, the senior exhibit developer at Wing Luke Museum, the graphic novel team was joined by other community members who collectively produced the full-fledged exhibit.
The beginning of “Resisters” showcases various forms of resistance people took before, during and after incarceration. A reproduced watercolor by Gene Sogioka shows a vivid scene of Poston concentration camp inmates lighting a bonfire and striking on Nov. 18, 1942, to protest the indiscriminate detention of 50 people. Sogioka was an illustrator at Disney before he and his family were incarcerated. He was hired by the U.S. government to document experiences of the camp.
Another contemporary art work featured in the exhibit is Henry Sugimoto’s “Reverend Yamazaki was Beaten in Camp Jerome.” The oil painting, which depicts a brutal scene of Yamazaki being beaten by two other incarcerated people, was recently restored for its first public display. After being incarcerated, Sugimoto resolved to document the realities around him as a form of protest, often resorting to improvised materials such as sheets, pillowcases and canvas mattresses.
Excerpts from Ishikawa and Sasaki’s illustrations are also featured, providing narrative and describing protests and other forms of resistance inside and outside the camps. One of the three main characters of the graphic novel is Mitsuye Endo, a clerical worker with the California state government who was suspended from her job and subsequently incarcerated in 1942. She sued the U.S. government and was a plaintiff in one of four cases to make it to the Supreme Court and the only one to have a favorable ruling.
The exhibit shows the central, but often invisible, role which women played in the resistance. When 63-year-old James Hatsuaki Wakasa was murdered by a camp guard while walking his dog near the perimeter fence of the Topaz concentration camp, authorities forbade the erection of a monument at the site of his death. Camp residents defied this warning and built a monument anyway; they also held a funeral to honor his life. Women from every block contributed paper flowers to create 30 wreaths. Visitors are invited to fold paper flowers in honor of Wakasa’s memory.
Incarceration led to political disagreements within communities and exacerbated existing cleavages. Organizations such as the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) were accused of being collaborators. JACL limited its membership to Nisei — children of immigrants who were born in the U.S. — and excluded non-citizen Issei, or first generation immigrants. JACL cooperated with U.S. authorities in an attempt to mitigate further violence against its communities. Moreover, many young men enlisted in the military to show that they were just as patriotic as other Americans. The structural oppression of incarceration separated families and created painful divisions among survivors of the camps.
Some men also refused to enlist or even renounced their citizenship in protest of incarceration. “No-No Boy,” a 1957 novel written by veteran John Okada, depicts the struggles of a young conscientious objector. Based on the experiences of some of Okada’s friends, the book was initially shunned by the Japanese American community and mainstream audiences. A new generation of activists reclaimed the book from obscurity. Today, “No-No Boy” is taught to high schoolers in many U.S history classes.
In the historiography and pedagogy of Japanese internment, narratives of patriotism, loyalty and “mainstream” forms of resistance have overshadowed other, dissenting narratives. “Resisters” tries to undo this internalized oppression by highlighting the variety of decisions Japanese Americans made in response to incarceration. The so-called “no-no boys” references the 12,000 young men who refused to pledge loyalty to the U.S. government in a military questionnaire. Such sentiment has long been demonized as anti-American and only over the past few decades have these alternative narratives of resistance — which fall outside of the “model minority” myth — been reclaimed.
“You and your community have been studied, marveled at, praised for not being bitter. Not like those other minority groups,” one of Nimura’s text panels read. “… Or you might resist the division between your community and other ‘Third World’ peoples.”
“Resisters” highlights how each of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who survived wartime incarceration had different coping mechanisms and ways of reconciling with their experiences. Most families lost their property and livelihoods and were forced to rebuild their lives, shattered and forever changed. The trauma also created a sort of code of silence, making it difficult for survivors to share their experiences.
In the 1960s and 1970s with the civil rights movement, members of the Japanese American community began to break their silence over what they had experienced and demanded redress.
The exhibit features an invitation for the first Day of Remembrance held on Nov. 25, 1978, to commemorate and reenact the incarceration of Japanese Americans at the Puyallup transit camp. As the movement began to pick up steam, survivors and activists petitioned the U.S. government for reparations and some measure of justice. Congressional hearings and powerful testimony helped change the popular narrative. Finally, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted $20,000 in reparations to survivors of the camps who were still alive.
“Resisters” uplifts the work of the group Tsuru for Solidarity, which builds upon the legacy of the redress movement and calls for the U.S. to stop repeating history. The organization has coordinated demonstrations in support of immigrants incarcerated in detention centers.
One of the pieces which inspired the exhibit is “Dream Refuge” by California-based artist Na Omi Judy Shintani. It is composed of 12 cots arranged in a half moon. On the cots are illustrations of incarcerated Japanese American, Indigenous and Central American children, sleeping. In the center, more children are drawn sleeping on mylar and fabric blankets. Shintani invites observers to “experience this sacred space with reverence and thoughtfulness.” Overhead, testimony from childhood survivors of incarceration can be heard.
“Dream Refuge” obliges the visitor to envision the realities of living in a concentration camp, detention center or Indian boarding school as a child. Sleep becomes one of the only moments of peace for those children, when the unconscious shields itself from the daily horrors of incarceration. At the same time, true rest free of nightmares and restlessness remains out of reach.
Throughout “Resisters,” visitors are invited to give blessings in honor of those who are experiencing, and have experienced, incarceration and other forms of oppression. The exhibit explores what it means to heal from the long afterlife of intergenerational trauma and how political action is necessary to make communities whole.
Woodward said that one of the things that really comes through in the exhibit is the idea that discussing the harms of incarceration helped Japanese Americans to heal and demand that it never happens again.
“It took the Japanese American community quite a while to process that trauma, and new generations are still processing it,” she said. “But part of that process has been to face what happened, and tell what happened, and share those stories and use those stories to kind of command and demand redress. Not just because people wanted to get $20,000 repaid or whatever, but because they wanted to make sure that this didn’t happen again to anyone else ever and to make the country better, to hold the country to its own promises.”
Read more of the Nov. 16-22, 2022 issue.