Lange and Okiishi Capture the Japanese American Experiences Through Images and Artwork

Kristen Nemoto Jay

Out on display now at University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa are two noted artists whose mission of sharing Japanese American experiences through various mediums has produced thoughtful and compelling pieces of artwork. The “Dorothea Lange: The War Relocation Authority Assignment” — known for documenting photos of Japanese Americans within internment camps — is being shown for the first time within UH Mänoa’s John Young Museum of Art, and the Art Gallery is featuring “Ken Okiishi: A Model Childhood” exhibition.

Dorothea Lange was commissioned to document the relocation and internment of more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II after her time spent working for the Farm Security Administration. Her work with the FSA resulted in the iconic “Migrant Mother” photo, which featured a destitute mother looking outwards into the distance while cradling a sleeping baby in her arms and flanked by her two back-turned children. The picture would go on to become the face of the Great Depression and recognized as one of the most famous photos of the 20th century. 

When she was asked to document the government’s War Relocation Authority, Lange’s commitment to social justice through the lens of her camera was once again successfully portrayed. While on assignment she captured 800 images of Americans’ who were stripped of their properties and civil liberties based solely upon their Japanese ancestry. The images shown within the exhibit are among Lange’s least-known photographs and mostly unseen until 1972 when some were included in a book published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.  

Close up shot of one of Dorothea Lange’s photos from her War Relocation Authority Assignment.

Among one of the visitors to the Dorothea Lange exhibit on a Sunday afternoon was Jim Yoshioka and his father Thomas Yoshioka. While aided by a cane in hand, 100-years-young Thomas Yoshioka stopped to look at every single photo within the exhibit before reading its description that sealed the moment in time. A time that reflected a life that would have been his. Thomas Yoshioka was one of the “lucky” ones, said his son, as he escaped the Bay area with his elderly parents at the time of mass collections of Japanese people throughout California. Thomas Yoshioka knew his parents wouldn’t have been able to survive the conditions in an internment camp therefore sought refuge with friends in Utah and then Colorado before moving back to California when the war was over. Jim Yoshioka’s mother — who was a teenager at the time — was not able to escape when the relocations happened and had to endure the conditions that Lange’s photos has magnificently captured in the museum’s current exhibit.      

“My dad was able to escape this life while so many other families, like my mother and her family, were not able to,” said Jim Yoshioka, who works as a program coordinator for the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa’s National Foreign Language Resource Center and heard about the exhibit through campus news. “I’m glad the art department decided to have these up and I hope more people come to see them.”

Some of Lange’s scenes of experiences that Thomas Yoshioka and his parents escaped were of California residents of Japanese descent, nicely dressed in suits and coats, waiting patiently in lines to board a bus to their new lives surrounded by barbed wires and dust-covered mountains. Pictures such as a young boy embracing his grandfather’s neck from behind his back or a young girl standing amidst her classmates while reciting the pledge of allegiance are some of the images that Lange made sure to capture and take notice. In an essay written to her son in 1952, Lange criticized the current trend that contemporary photographers pursued at the time and called those artists’ need for a “spectacular” photo paid at the expense of taking a “familiar” and “intimate” one. She believed there needed to be more of a connection between photographer and its subjects in order for the audience to truly feel and understand the brevity of history that was taking place before them.

Visitor Thomas Yoshioka browses through the photos of the “Dorothea Lange: The War Relocation Authority Assignment” exhibit. (Photo by Kristen Nemoto Jay)

“That the familiar world is often unsatisfactory cannot be denied, but it is not, for all that, one that need abandon,” wrote Lange. “We need not be seduced into evasion of it any more than we need be appalled by it into silence … Bad as it is, the world is potentially full of good photographs. But to be good, photographs have to be full of the world.”

Ken Okiishi’s A Model Childhood exhibit continues to share the fraught legacy of Japanese American history and the aftermath effects of racism towards Japanese Americans after World War II. Okiishi’s paternal grandparents lived on a land lease farm near what is now Honolulu Zoo when the bombs rained over Pearl Harbor. In an email to Maika Pollack, director and chief curator of the John Young Museum of Art and University Galleries, Okiishi shared how his family’s possessions of Japanese cultural heritage were immediately destroyed or thrown away in fear of being suspected of treason. Okiishi’s exhibit expresses how his personal experience and upbringing as a Japanese American can highlight coinciding global issues on a larger scale such as family, immigration, and culture. Included in the exhibition is: a display of Okiishi’s childhood belongings, kept by his parents, who had settled into the university town of Ames, Iowa in the late 1950s; a video that’s projected on the wall that overlooks his childhood archived pieces, which includes a walkthrough of where the Topaz War Relocation Center — a concentration camp in Delta, Utah — once stood; a video that shows a virtual tour of the family’s basement; a video that documented every object within the Okiishi household in 2009, which was made for insurance purposes; a large banner that features a photograph taken of Okiishi’s father as an infant, surrounded by 50 Japanese dolls, portraying the life of a warrior. According to the text description of the banner, those dolls were among the many pieces of family belongings that were thrown into Mälama Bay after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

“Ken Okiishi: A Model Childhood” exhibit (Photo by Olivia Ambo/The Art Gallery at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa)

In a statement, Okiishi said that his exhibit shows how “everyone suffers from this history that has never been properly worked through and it continues to be played out on the faces and bodies of all Asian Americans up to and including in the present.” When Okiishi visited the Topaz War Relocation Center, he was reminded of how many Japanese Americans were being forced to adhere to the “model minority” mentality as there was no other way out other than prison or death. Many of which, he said, had to endure the “inescapable sense of knowing but unable to do anything other than witness and survive.”

Pollack had originally planned for Okiishi’s “A Model Childhood” exhibit to be shown this past spring but due to the pandemic and UH Mänoa’s prior closure to the public, the department decided to postpone it to this fall. It’s a good thing however as it coincides with Lange’s exhibit, which Pollack believes “speaks to the past of this horrible event but also its contemporary resonance.”

“I hope Okiishi and Lange’s exhibitions at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa add something to the dialogue on these historical events as we approach the 80th anniversary of the internment,” said Pollack.

The “Dorothea Lange: The War Relocation Authority Assignment” exhibit is held at The John Young Museum of Art, located at 2500 Dole St., Krauss Hall, from now through Thursday, Dec. 9. The “Ken Okiishi: A Model Childhood” exhibit will be on display from now through Thursday, May 5, 2022 at The Art Gallery, 2535 McCarthy Mall. Both exhibits are free and open to the public, Sunday through Thursday from 12-4 p.m. Closed on state holidays. 

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