To view Roger Shimomura’s art is an exciting, even dangerous experience –
for his work is provocative, jarring, and vigorously challenges our notions of history, ethnic images, popular culture, and American ideals. In “Minidoka on My Mind,” he takes us head-on into the racial conflicts of World War II and the unjust imprisonment of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans (over 60% being citizens). He says that these “images are scraped from the linings of my mind – not necessarily what I remembered specifically, but what I respond with when I think of camp…”
Shimomura’s latest series of camp paintings often portrays school-aged children and teens. Two of the more haunting images are shadow figures. In “Shadow of the Enemy,” a young girl jumps rope, her image reflected through the barrack walls. “American Alien #3” presents an eerie doorway scene of a mother sweeping and the ghostlike silhouette of her tiny son holding a baseball bat. Shimomura was just two when his family entered Minidoka, one of the ten “relocation centers” and the only camp based in Idaho. In a painting aptly titled, “The Lesson,”
The little boy studies his book -
Surrounded by barrack walls
Contained within barbed wire fences
Guarded by soldiers with guns.
Shimomura’s “Classmates” portrays two young students – the one resembling Shirley Temple sports a matching maroon coat and beret; next to her, but behind barbed wire, a nisei boy is also nattily dressed, with his jacket and cap, a prisoner’s ID tag pinned to his lapel.
Some of the paintings, on first viewing, depict nisei teens laughing and
dancing the jitterbug on a typical Saturday night. But Shimomura forces us to examine the scene more carefully. A seemingly carefree evening is set against stark tar paper-covered walls. In “Block Dance Break” girls dressed in their finest party clothes must line up outdoors to use the public latrine:
Admiring eyes watch the girl
in her red plaid dress
and carefully angled
black brimmed hat –
above her head a door sign
clearly marked “WOMEN”
in both English and kanji.
“The Minidoka Irrigator” was a weekly camp newspaper that covered everything from national news to local camp events. A typical item:
“Block 8 YPC Dance” – “For the boys who will be leaving their civilian
lives to enter into the army on August 25…” A recent L.A. Times
article on the camp newspapers quoted Minidoka nisei, Cherry Kinoshita -
“Issue after issue, another one would be reported deceased.” Minidoka
had the unfortunate distinction of having more battlefield deaths (73) than any other camp.
Young nisei soldiers are featured in the second panel of Shimomura’s
compelling three-part canvas, “Nikkei Story.” He juxtaposes them next
to a giant Uncle Sam, who unmercifully spanks a young Japanese American
drawn in the popular buck-toothed-buffoon cartoon style of the 40’s. Not only would nisei born in the U.S. be imprisoned – despite their citizen status – at Minidoka and other camps, but nisei men, some still in their teens, would then be called up for military duty and assigned to some of the most dangerous battlefronts in both Europe and Asia. Shimomura’s view of the heavy burden the nisei generation had to bear with regard to the camps and the war is evident in these powerful central images.
In the same massive triptych, Shimomura masterfully covers over a century’s worth of Japanese American history. While tackling serious subject matter, he also winks at us with images of Wonder Bread, hot dogs, and Barbie dolls with Asian faces – aspects of popular American culture that are inter-woven in the Nikkei experience. Floating across each of the three generational-panels are rice cookers, connecting each generation in a celebration of rice:
Issei, Nisei, Sansei –
From picture brides to alien land laws,
Concentration camps, reparations –
Through it all, we insist
On that perfect bowl of rice –
Tin pots giving way to one-button
Steamers then hi-tech cookers
With automatic warming –
A chawan of gohan
Any time of the day.
Through this important fourth body of over 30 camp paintings, artist Shimomura continues his personal exploration of what it means to be Japanese American. He reminds us that racist stereotypes of Nikkei persist and that the image of all Asian Americans remains that of the eternal outsider. “Enemy Alien” features a self-portrait, with a nod to Japanese woodblock style:
Forever branded, I am
your not-so-silent conscience -
always foreign, sometimes kimono-clad,
a samurai who now stands vigil
from a Minidoka barrack,
a paintbrush in my upraised hand.
Roger Shimomura is not afraid to take risks, painting images which boldly provoke and confront us into forming a deeper, more critical, and honest perspective of our history and culture. In “Minidoka on My Mind,” he offers a beautifully rendered visual rant on what it means to be Japanese American and why camps like Minidoka must not be forgotten.
Poet and Teacher
Amy Uyematsu is an award winning sansei poet and high school math teacher from Los Angeles. Her publications include Stone Bow Prayer (Copper Canyon, 2005), Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain (Story Line, 1998), and 30 Miles from J-Town (Story Line, 1992). A recipient of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize she was also co-editor of one of the earliest Asian American anthologies, Roots: An Asian American Reader (UCLA Asian American Press, 1972).