When Hiroshi Watanabe went looking for traces of the disappearing Japantown in San Jose, California, the Los Angeles-based photographer was not drawn to the neighborhood’s old storefronts but to a flower brooch made with tiny shells.
The brooch was sitting inside one of the dusty cardboard boxes at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, together with other memorabilia, such as Japanese textbooks and dishes used at the World War II internment camps for Japanese-Americans.
“I thought things inside these boxes could be the essence of Japantown,” the 61-year-old Watanabe said during a visit to Tokyo in July to prepare for an exhibition in September at the Nikon Salon in Ginza, Tokyo.
“Some were things people used and others were what people made at the Japanese internment camps. And many of these (still) belong to the survivors living in San Jose.”
Since 2009, the Hokkaido native has been documenting these works of art as well as daily commodities used by people of Japanese descent, or “nikkei,” in the camps with a photography project called “artifacts.”
The internees made these items, such as flower brooches and carved birds, to find solace from the harsh conditions. The material could be anything, from chunks of wood to garbage.
Some of the objects, like the flower brooch that first captivated Watanabe, were crafted out of shells gathered from the dry lake bed at the Tule Lake internment camp in Newell, Northern California.
It is only in recent years that these works have gained recognition for their artistic and historic value, decades after the U.S. tried to make amends for incarcerating its own citizens merely because of their ethnic heritage.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum held a special exhibit in 2010 on the art of “gaman,” or bearing the unbearable with dignity and patience, to highlight how these people managed to create highly artistic objects under the hard-hearted treatment by the U.S. government.
Such items have been used politically by nikkei to criticize the internment. But Watanabe, a fine-art photographer, had no intention of politicizing them when he was commissioned for a project by the San Jose Museum of Art. Rather than calling the project “gaman,” which would only highlight the hardships endured by the nikkei, he chose to call it “artifacts” because he wanted his audience to make their own interpretation of camp life.
“I have no right to speak about the injustice and hardship that the U.S. government had inflicted upon the people, as I was born and raised after the war in Japan,” Watanabe said.
He moved to the United States after he graduated from the department of photography at Nihon University in Tokyo in 1975.
Even though Watanabe shies away from being an advocate for nikkei, JoAnne Northrup, former chief curator of the San Jose Museum of Art, believes Watanabe has succeeded in bearing witness to a chapter in U.S. history that Americans must not forget.
“I feel that having the perspective of an artist who was born in Japan and continues to live in Japan part time enables Watanabe to approach his work differently than a Japanese-American with deeper roots in the U.S.,” said Northrup, now director of contemporary art initiatives at the Nevada Museum of Art. She commissioned Watanabe for the San Jose project.
Watanabe’s works differ from the Smithsonian exhibition as he included everyday items that the internees left behind at the Tule Lake camp more than 60 years ago.
While he was photographing the artworks, he was told that when the nikkei were finally freed, many left their belongings in a dump near the camp because they no longer had homes to which they could return, and would have to start over from scratch.
So he visited Tule Lake, which came to be nicknamed the “NO-NO camp” because many of the people sent there did not take a vow of “unqualified allegiance to the United States” or renounce obedience to the Japanese emperor. Many ended up renouncing their U.S. citizenship.
“Not many nikkei know about the dump,” said Hiroshi Shimizu, a 69-year-old third-generation Japanese-American from San Francisco who took Watanabe to the dump in April 2011. Shimizu’s parents renounced their U.S. citizenship along with 5,500 Tule Lake internees.
As Watanabe and Shimizu dug into the earth, they found a mixture of Japanese and American life — hairbrushes, a General Electric light bulb, a can of Maxwell House coffee, Japanese porcelain — that had been sitting there intact more than 60 years after the war.
Watanabe said these artifacts convey unsettling emotions about their identity, which resonates with him.
“When they were asked directly, ‘Which side are you on?’ they must have not been able to close their eyes from the paradox their very essence brought to themselves,” said Watanabe, who himself became a U.S. citizen in 2003.
“The real tragedy for the Japanese-Americans who lived in that era was that they could not have a single place to stand on, America or Japan. That seems to apply for me who is living a life in the present tense.”