East is West: Roger Shimomura and Asian-American Identity

Michael Abatemarco
08/10/2012

If he were depicted with Asian features, as oppsed to Anglo or European ones, Superman might be taken for a foreign national. But such an uncommon Superman could actually be Asian American, and that is the case with Roger Shimomura’s self portrait as the Man of Steel in his painting American in Disguise. Shimomura’s new exhibit at Eight Modern, An American Knockoff, is a pointed commentary on the stereotypes and racism pervading American attitudes toward members of our nation’s own citizenry, including Japanese Americans. An American Knockoff pokes fun at the stereotypes and might just cause you to question your assumptions.

Shimomura incorporates his own visage into all the paintings on exhibit while taking on the racial profiling of Asian Americans. Shimomura toys with common misconceptions, such as the notion that most Asians have some experience in martial arts, that they all excel at math and science, and that “Asian is Asian” – and therefore “Japanese” is interchangeable with “Chinese.” Shimomura’s painting American vs. Japanese #3 underscores the culture gap between Japanese nationals and Americans such as himself who just happen to have Japanese ancestry. “It’s myself depicted as the martial-arts stereotype,” Shimomura told Pasatiempo by phone. “I’m tired of being mistaken for someone from Japan even though I’ve been in this country three generations. My parents were 100-percent Japanese blood, and both passed away having never stepped foot in Japan.” American vs. Japanese #3 shows the artist brandishing a sword, with Superman’s flying S emblazoned on his chest, surrounded by figures who look as if they’ve stepped out of a historic Japanese woodblock print. “It’s a matter of trying to look at these paintings and deciphering who I am trying to separate myself from. In a way I’m sacrificing my own identity into comic character heroes and other cultural icons.”

Even such beloved characters as Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Goofy are rendered as Shimomura, a reminder of the lack of Asian American characters in popular culture – unless they are being typecast. “As soon as they become Asian, then something is amiss,” said Shimomura. “That’s a microcosm of a bigger issue.”

As a Japanese American, Shimomura has been singles out for his Asian ancestry. He was incarcerated at the age of 3, along with his parents, in a camp for Japanese nationals and U.S. citizens of Japanese descent in Jerome County, Idaho, in the wake of the attack by Japanese forces on Pearl Harbor. Shimomura still makes an annual pilgrimage to the Minidoka National Historic Site, which commemorates the Minidoka War Relocation Center where he was held. An exhibition based on the camp, Minidoka on My Mind, was presented at Eight Modern in 2009. The theme is one Shimomura has visited several times in his career. “There was a certain amount of stereotyping that caused Japanese Americans to be put in the camps,” Shimomura said. “Majority culture couldn’t distinguish between the Japanese who were born in this country and the ones that were born abroad.” The term internment camp does not accurately reflect the nature of the camps, which are better described as concentration camps, Shimomura said. “Internment means something very specific. That’s not what happened in World War II. That was an incarceration, being held against your will. Now people use the word incarceration.”

Shimomura, a performance artists as well as a visual artist, taught at the University of Kansas for more than three decades. During that time he became the first fine-arts faculty member at the institution to be named a University Distinguished Professor. Since retiring in 2004, he has been traveling and lecturing extensively. He still encounters persistent stereotyping. “It is alive and thriving. As I travel around the country, I have an opportunity to see how people respond to these types of issues. These paintings are meant to ask that question about appearances and the false assumptions we make.”

Shimomura has been mistaken not only for a Japanese national but for a Chinese national as well. His paintings Chinese Imposter #5 and Chinese Imposter & Mao, the latter showing Shimomura among the proletariat, speak to the insensitive and inaccurate presumption of homogeneity among Asian and Asian American cultures. He also disarms the viewer with a good deal of humor. His adorable self-portrait as a Hello Kitty cartoon character in the painting Japan brings a smile even as it makes its point about the limited experience of Japanese Americans with the cultures of Japan. “My kids are fourth generation, and they don’t feel connected to Asia at all. I don’t think they have any idea that they’re Asian sometimes. Stereotyping still flares up in my life. That’s not to say it doesn’t flare up in my kids’ lives, but not as frequently as it used to. Nonetheless, when it does happen, it’s still harmful and painful and needs to be dealt with and corrected. Even stereotyping in a positive sense can be very damaging. If certain groups within the Asian family are doing better than average, the assumption is that all of them are doing better than average. It’s the ‘model minority’ myth. What happens is that Southeast Asians, for example, who are having an extremely difficult time, are not getting the support of other Asians.”

Shimomura is fighting the stereotypes one painting at a time. But until attitudes change in earnest, the typecasting and labeling will continue. “It has to affect your life in a personal way,” he said. “If not, it just doesn’t exist in a deep enough way that it’s going to have any kind of effect.”