Lawrence Artist Roger Shimomura On Stereotypes, Japanese-American Internment Camps

Dec 7, 2016

Detail from Roger Shimomura's "Minidoka on My Mind."
Credit Régine Debatty / Flickr -- CC

Even though he was born in the United States, artist Roger Shimomura still gets asked where he’s from. Or he’s told that he speaks English really well.

“The presumption is that if you’re Asian, you must be foreign to this country,” he told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard.

Shimomura, a Lawrence-based artist, has explored the issues of ethnic identity during his long career. He has paintings and prints in more than 90 museums nationwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

In his current exhibit at the Belger Arts Center, An American Knockoff, he addresses the issues that Asian-Americans, particularly Japanese-Americans, have faced since World War II.

Shimomura was born in Seattle, Washington in 1939. During the war, he and his family were sent to Camp Minidoka, an internment camp in southern Idaho.

He calls it an incarceration camp.

“Franklin Roosevelt, who established those camps, himself referred to them as concentration camps,” he said.

“By definition, ‘internment camp’ is a misnomer. It plays down the severity of it as an incarceration camp,” he said. “I don’t think the U.S. government wanted it to be known or seen as one that put together concentration camps to incarcerate their own citizens.”

Even though he was sent there as a toddler, he’s been very careful about expanding on the few memories he does have of the camp, he said, which he’s cross-referenced with a diary his grandmother kept.

But his main memories were of the severity of the weather.

“All of the four seasons were so pronounced,” he said. “It was the coldest I’ve ever been, the hottest I’ve ever been, the dirtiest from the dust … it was located on a lava bed, so you can imagine the physical circumstances of the camps were highly undesirable and very rough and raw.”

He recalls getting measles while in the camp and being quarantined with his mother in a separate room for two or three weeks, with their food passed through a slot in the door.

“I remember how incredibly boring it was … I can’t imagine what my mother must have gone through during that period of time,” he said.

According to Shimomura, their time in the camp ended when the government decided that they weren’t a threat.

“Of course, they had completely disrupted our lives at that point since most of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans had virtually given away or sold at ridiculously low prices everything they owned; they could only take with them to camp what they could carry,” he said.

Shimomura said that after the camps, many Japanese-Americans had nothing to go back to. Plus, the political climate was very anti-Japanese.

“There were signs all over Seattle, where we returned, that said, ‘Japs not welcome, go away, stay away, this is no longer your home,’” he said.

He recalled one incident about how his family dealt with the racism. A couple of years after their return to Seattle, when Shimomura was seven, he and his parents went to Cannon Beach, Oregon for a vacation. When they arrived at a cabin resort, his father went in to register.

After about 15 minutes, his father came out and said the owner didn’t realize that they were Japanese and wouldn’t rent to them. Shimomura’s mother and father then sat outside in the car and talked “for the longest time.”

Then, they both went in, came out after 15 minutes, and quietly drove to a cabin that was further back in the woods, Shimomura said. That cabin hadn’t been taken care of in years; it was filthy and overgrown by weeds. His parents went to a nearby grocery store, bought cleaning supplies and spent a day cleaning the cabin.

“We spent one day cleaning this cabin and spent another five or six days trying to enjoy it,” he said.

And after returning to Seattle, Shimomura’s father received a letter from the owner of the resort, who thanked them for what they did and said that he would no longer put restrictions on who he rented to.

“And I think that was kind of typical of the way that Japanese-Americans did things after the war and how they fought that racism,” he said. “But that’s not to say that was the best way or the quickest way to resolve things.”

Shimomura has traveled around the country, lecturing at museums about his work on what he calls his Camp Series, which he said has been amazing.

However, he has encountered some disbelief.

“In Jackson, Mississippi, no one believed me. No one believed that this happened because it wasn’t in their history books,” he said.

That also happened in some parts of Texas.

“As I understand, Texas is revising a lot of their textbooks, and one of the things that they’re going to eliminate is any kind of education about the camps,” he said. “So we’ll have generations coming from the state of Texas that’s not going to know anything about this and how close this whole current-day Muslim issue is to what the Japanese-Americans went through.”

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org.

Roger Shimomura: An American Knockoff runs through January 21, 2017 at the Belger Arts Center, 2100 Walnut Street, Kansas City, Missouri. 816-474-3250.