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Japanese American internment and a place in the American landscape

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noe tanigawa
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Dorothea Lange. Detail from The War Relocation Authority Assignment series on view at UH Manoa John Young Gallery through Dec. 9, 2021.

Start at John Young gallery, for Dorothea Lange: The War Relocation Authority Assignment. Remember the famous photos of the dust bowl, the migrant mother with child, depression-era photos, and bread lines? Dorothea Lange took the images in your mind. She was commissioned by the federal government to take pictures of the roundup of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor.

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Dorothea Lange. Manzanar Relocation Camp

Lange completed the assignment, and the photos were never shown. They were suppressed until UCLA published them in a book in 1972. Since then, the photographs have become central images in the discussion about race and identity in America.

Maika Pollack is the director and chief curator for the John Young Museum and the UH Mānoa Art Gallery. She programmed the two resonant exhibitions to overlap on the UH Mānoa campus.

In the John Young Museum, at the very start of the show, is a photo of the original document that sent Japanese Americans to prison camps. It's dated May 3, 1942. This poster went up in places equivalent to shopping centers and supermarkets.

It reads: Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry. All persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated by 12 noon Saturday May 9th, 1942.

Pollack reads on, "And it says you can only bring bedding and linens, no mattress, toilet articles for each member of the family, extra clothing and essential personal effects. No personal items. No household goods."

"These were members of communities who had farms in some cases and businesses in others," says Pollack. "This guy had a flower farm, this is another farmer."

"Some of the farming groups in California actually supported the evacuation because they knew they could buy farmers' land at fire-sale prices. And the land was never returned to the people who were evacuated." Pollack points out that incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans happened swiftly, with few protests.

"You can see why maybe everyone in Kaimuki was burning their family histories and burning pictures of the Emperor and burning letters from home." Curator Maika Pollack says the threat to Japanese Americans that Lange recorded on the West Coast was felt in Hawaiʻi as well.

Newspaper headlines in Honolulu at the time show anti-Japanese sentiment had been growing well before Pearl Harbor. And after the bombing, many Japanese households burned, buried or sank anything they thought could be incriminating.

Thatʻs what Ken Okiishi's grandparents did.

At this point, we head to the UH Art building gallery. It's terrific to have these two shows here at once — Dorothea Lange's photos of Japanese internment and Japanese American Ken Okiishiʻs meditation on belonging, on being American.

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Ken Okiishi. A Model Childhood. Detail from the University of Hawaiʻ'i at Manoa installation.

Raised in Ames, Iowa, but with family ties in Hawaiʻi, the exhibition in the Art building is titled, Ken Okiishi: A Model Childhood.

Okiishi's installation involves the entire Art Building Gallery. Part of the installation features a huge banner depicting Okiishi's father in Honolulu in 1940, backed by a phalanx of traditional Boys' Day dolls. Those dolls were dumped into Māmala Bay a year after the photo was taken, after Pearl Harbor.

So Okiishi's identity story starts with this dumping of identity markers in order to seem American.

In comments, Okiishi refers to historical ruptures like internment, that affect individual lives and here, he explores this idea with objects, video, sculpture, projections, and paintings.

Weʻre piecing Okiishi's identity together as we move through the exhibit.

In one area, there's video of his home in Ames, Iowa and its contents, circa 2009.

Itʻs sort of a family video. It's actually a video catalogue of everything in the home for insurance purposes.

Can you imagine what a Japanese American familyʻs home contains in Ames, Iowa?

There's also a slide show with over 300 photographs from his road trip, the road trip Okiishi took to pick up his childhood belongings from his family home. The boxes of things his mom and dad kept have already shown in Marseilles and London. Finally in Honolulu, Okiishi's things are showing with the photo of his dad, and all the dolls that ended up in the bay here.

These are cardboard boxes with an old Halloween mask, diver's watch (never opened), DVDs, a flashlight keyring, coin purse, tablets, lots of what look like happy meal toys and stuffed animals. Nothing noticeably Japanese.

You start realizing an American childhood defined by this stuff is something Americans do have in common.

Okiishi went on a cross-country trip to pick up these boxes his parents kept. Slides of that road trip are projected across his belongings in the gallery. He visits a WWII relocation camp, captures a few disasters on the road, and experiences the sublime American landscape.

"That shot is about beauty right?" says Pollack. "The wet highway, the heaven-like clouds. And the shot's a little menacing, the guy in the Halliburton F-250, looking over."

"And I donʻt know if it matters to know this but, his partner, Nick, they're gay men, and Ken's Asian American. And I think these things might make you feel a little uncomfortable driving on this particular highway with all these big rigs looking downing your van full of your stuffed animals and childhood possessions."

It's a poignant picture.

A road trip, how Americana can you get?

Along the way, how American do you really feel? If you're Asian?

Or if you're from Hawaiʻi -- you're already different maybe.

Both John Young Museum and the UH Mānoa Art Gallery are open Sunday through Thursday from noon to 4 p.m. Pro tip, go on Sundays when the parking is free. It will be up through April 10.

Noe Tanigawa covers art, culture and ideas for Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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