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For many accomplished Japanese Americans in the aftermath of World War II incarceration, public visibility was a vexed proposition at best, and professional success meant dwelling somewhere in the shadows between celebration and forgetting. In the case of the influential Seattle-based painter Kenjiro Nomura (1896–1956), whose career had cycled between obscurity and national recognition even before the war, this ambiguous status has persisted through at least two or three posthumous efforts to establish his significance. Kenjiro Nomura, American Modernist: An Issei Artist’s Journey, a fine recent exhibition and companion volume from the Cascadia Art Museum, may finally do so.
The exhibition, curated by David F. Martin, elegantly delineated the scope of Nomura’s accomplishments. A central room displaying the distinctive prewar and postwar pinnacles of his mature career was framed by two adjacent rooms: one contextualized his early work alongside his contemporaries in a strikingly diverse prewar Seattle art scene, and the other surveyed his wartime output while incarcerated in US concentration camps at Puyallup and Minidoka. Together, they offered a persuasive, understated interpretation of Nomura’s eventful life.
Though it shares its title with the exhibition, Barbara Johns’s book stands on its own merits, alongside her earlier volumes on Nomura’s associates Paul Horiuchi, Kamekichi Tokita, and Takuichi Fujii. It features Johns’s comprehensive biography of the artist, plus an extensive essay, situating Nomura in the Northwest modernist art scene, by Martin, author of books on Soichi Sunami and on his fellow Issei photographers of the Seattle Camera Club.
Together, the exhibition and book join a growing field of interest in Japanese American modernist creative production, in both visual and literary arts. Researchers in the pre-World War II period include art historian ShiPu Wang, photography scholar Dennis Reed, historian Greg Robinson, literary scholar Andrew Leong, and poet and translator Kenji C. Liu, who build on earlier recovery work, associated with the Asian American movement of the 1960s and 1970s, by writers and anthologists including Frank Chin, Shawn Wong, Lawson Inada, Jeffery Chan, and Alan Lau. Meanwhile, increasing attention has been paid to artists, designers, and writers who emerged after the war, including Ruth Asawa, George Nakashima, Neil Fujita, George Tsutakawa, and Shinkichi Tajiri, along with the better-known Isamu Noguchi and John Okada.
Nomura’s posthumous career illustrates the challenge of calling attention to Japanese American modernist artists. A 1960 exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, recalling Nomura’s solo show at the museum’s 1933 opening, aimed to secure Nomura’s longstanding reputation within the region, but came too early to register with the young activists who redefined Asian American arts in the following decade.
Nomura’s artworks from camp, crucial for understanding his career trajectory, were absent from the 1960 exhibition. Later rediscovered by his son, they appeared in a 1991 exhibition at the Wing Luke, Seattle’s Asian American community museum, that traveled intermittently for decades. Yet, for non-Japanese American audiences, the extraordinary circumstances of their production were so exotic that this historical interest could impede artistic recognition.
The issue here is not between universality and particularity, as debates over 1980s–1990s multiculturalism had it, nor between historicism and formalism. Rather, it’s that the ongoing marginalization of BIPOC histories leave most US audiences with little awareness of elements of the Japanese American experience so fundamental that they should barely register as “historical” at all. The term “modern,” in an unmarked Eurocentric context, can connote a turning point in an unstated historical metanarrative without explicit digression into the history of technology or economic development or geopolitics—yet an event like the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans is both historically and racially marked, in a way that compels explication.
To be clear, Nomura’s modernism does not thematize Japanese American identity or particularity—unlike many post-1960s artistic currents, such as Chin’s arguments for literary development based on distinctive Asian American varieties of English. Rather, Nomura’s Japanese American modernism can be so characterized because it unselfconsciously centers a specifically Japanese American perspective. This shapes the work in identifiable, yet unmarked ways, which cannot be appreciated if the underlying history remains absent, marginalized, or undigested.
A review of some basic elements of that history is therefore in order. As the subtitle notes, Nomura was an “Issei”—or “first generation,” a term for Japanese American immigrants. After exclusion laws targeted Chinese American laborers, a wave of Issei came to the US beginning in the 1880s, until they were also excluded, by a series of diplomatic agreements and US laws culminating in a 1924 act restricting all Asian immigration.
Nomura arrived in the US in 1907, at the age of ten, and grew up in Tacoma, staying behind when his parents and US-born brothers returned to Japan in 1913. In today’s parlance, Nomura might be termed “1.5 generation,” a child immigrant whose cultural affinities are closer to the second generation, but in his time, “Issei” had a legal basis that overrode culture. By law, Asian immigrants could not become naturalized citizens, and were thereby barred from owning land. Nomura only became a citizen after the laws were changed, a few years before his death in 1956. (By contrast, the second-generation “Nisei” were theoretically entitled to the full rights of citizenship by birth—though this did not protect them from discrimination in housing and employment, nor prevent their incarceration.)
Even as Nomura’s painting garnered accolades, during his 1930s professional peak and postwar reemergence, he struggled to make a living in jobs typical for Issei and Nisei, sharing their experiences of racism. Notably, upon being ordered to report for camp with only what possessions he could carry, Nomura burned a number of his paintings—a scene echoed in many families. Even more tragically, his first wife, Fumiko, died by suicide in late 1946, amid the deep despair of West Coast communities after incarceration.
Understanding Japanese American historical experience as the ground of Nomura’s modernist endeavors explains the periods of obscurity that punctuate an otherwise successful career, while suggesting interpretive insights. For example, his signature prewar streetscapes, thrilling compositions that capture the jumbled buildings, bridges, and steeply sloped streets of Seattle’s urban core from its grittier backside, are largely devoid of human activity, with the occasional parked car underscoring a sense of absence. Yet Seattle’s geography was profoundly shaped by segregation, influencing the positions from which Nomura composed these scenes: invisible Japanese American perspectives on figureless racialized space.
By contrast, when his artwork at Puyallup and Minidoka takes up human figures—unquestionably Japanese American, though still identifiable more from the racialization of the spaces they inhabit than by their physical features—it does so in the service of understated political critique. The hunched posture of a woman hauling a bucket through snow to a barracks laundry, or of a man warming his hands in his pockets as he passes toilets prominently (and ironically) labeled “MEN,” expresses the grueling, dehumanizing conditions in camp. One striking watercolor, which assembles images from Puyallup under a dramatically lettered rendering of its euphemistic nickname, “Camp Harmony,” looks like a tourist poster, until you recognize its bitter commentary: in one scene, a man and toddler girl stand uncovered, in restrained impatience, at the back of a queue, and viewers must infer their rain-soaked condition from the gleaming puddles nearby.
In another painting, glorious flashes of blue sky and green and yellow vegetation, framed by the brown and beige clutter below a barracks-apartment window, evoke the extraordinary outpouring of artistic activity in camp—not just by professionals like Chiura Obata, Miné Okubo, and Toyo Miyatake, but by nonprofessional hobbyists, whose cultivation of beauty as everyday resistance to dehumanization has been analyzed by Delphine Hirasuna and Jane Dusselier.
After the war, Nomura did not immediately return to painting. When he did, the complex compositions of his earlier work gave way to exuberantly colored abstraction, with jittery squiggles and irregular small markings in advancing ranks spilling over bold strokes that loosely evoke Japanese calligraphy. Strikingly, these paintings reject the abandoned air of his figureless streetscapes for a riotously abstracted expression of human activity, in paintings like Folk Dance, Dragon Dance, and International Carnival—referencing a neighborhood festival in Seattle’s International District, a multiethnic Asian American area with long ties to overlapping BIPOC communities. Another painting, Shopping Center, suggests a larger irony, of which Nomura may not have been aware: the most influential shopping mall in the region, Bellevue Square, whose 1946 opening heralded an era of suburban white flight, was developed by Miller Freeman, a prominent anti-Asian activist who profited mightily from the removal of Japanese American farmers from Seattle’s Eastside.
As this exhibition and book bring Kenjiro Nomura deserved recognition, one wonders how his work might have developed had he not died a decade or so before the stirrings of an Asian American creative renaissance. Perhaps, like many Japanese Americans of his cohort, his reputation might still have lingered in the shadows, echoing the way his painting, across various styles and techniques, artfully hesitates at the threshold of a visibility whose perils he knew too well. Japanese American modernism finds its form as an ongoing haunting.
Assistant Teaching Professor, Department of American Ethnic Studies, University of Washington