By Mizu Sugimura
“Just Who Is Yellow?” is the title of a mixed-media collage that I made which appeared in the show “Beyond Talk: Redrawing Race” at the Wing Luke Museum in 2004. It was one of several originally made to address a particular member of the audience: my own family, and especially Mom.
You see, back in the day it was Mom and my own family who refused to be engaged about conversations about race! Oh yes. They did introduce my sibling and me to the concept — i.e. in this country there were primarily haku-jin (whites) and nihon-jin (us). Only years later I learned we actually needed to use a different word for half of that equation or “Nikkei,” which I use now.
Words were important and I learned that right away. Japanese-American parents were different in their presentation from those of my haku-jin classmates. It wasn’t limited to they way they looked. It couldn’t be explained just looking at social class, economic levels or choice of career or profession. And it couldn’t be completely understood using only individual personality and temperament. Part of it had to do with words, or more accurately, the lack of them. In some subject areas my parents were often speechless.
So I’ve always been curious about words. I went into journalism partly because I thought learning how to write more precisely could possibly be of help in figuring out how to do what was most difficult: communicating with my own family about what had or hadn’t happened in our family history.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I wanted to know about the World War II internment camps that they and the rest of the elders in my family had personally experienced. This was a subject they didn’t want to talk about. In fact, at the time, most of the whole Japanese-American community to whom they belonged did not want to talk about it. But I didn’t know that!
It’s a wonderful development that since that time society has come a long way and we can more readily discuss issues like race and racism –- not only in public but within our own ethnic communities and families. I had to use collages because pictures were less volatile and threatening to my mom and the rest of my family than words. When I used words, too many for their comfort, I was basically told I was not respecting my elders and that it was time for me to shut up.
So I let some time go by, and returned to engage the same people a number of years later, I had figured out that talking with pictures might be worth a try. It was a good choice. I’m sorry I didn’t think of it a long time before. Pictures have been very effective as a way of talking to people outside my family about race, racism and all of the myriad ways that individual human beings are different from each other. That’s the power of artistic expression. It’s revolutionary!
Since I started making pictures about my family’s experiences in the camps, and talking about painful issues in my community with pictures, I have learned how much of my parents’ and grandparents’ difficulties dealing with race and racism have personally affected the choices, options and horizons I was able to see available to me.
When you are putting yourself together, it isn’t easy to see how much your family and upbringing has insidiously implanted itself in your brain – so much that when it first comes out, you think of it as your own personal choice!
Back in the day it wasn’t just that my elders and I couldn’t find a common ground to talk about their internment camp experiences. We couldn’t talk about a lot of things, particularly issues that had a lot of emotional weight. This was partly because it was taking too much emotional energy for the older members of my family to not process the painful legacy of their teenage incarceration by their own government and their own fellow citizens.
In this way fragments related to war and the aftermath of World War II in my community still figure prominently in the background of our psyche and family lives, even when the principals who actually owned the original memories have died.
The Japanese-American community is not the only group in society that wrestles with a topic like this. We are not alone. Look about. Many, many groups within our country are dealing with this, and topics like this.
The retention of our memories as individuals, groups and communities can be a point of pride, or a cause for concern. We know change is inevitable and that times constantly challenge us. We must evolve. The issues I am talking about can be harnessed through art as an example, for good or not so good. It all depends upon how much we are aware that they still lie beneath the surface of our every day levels of reflection, perception and discernment.
About the Author. Mizu Sugimura is a self-taught artist of Japanese-American ancestry. For over three decades, she was married to a man from Japan. She is the mother of an adult son and a current member of the City of Fife Public Arts Commission.About 20 years ago, she was chairman of the first City of Federal Way Diversity Commission and testified at the 1981 hearings held by the US Congressional Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians as a member of the Sansei (third-generation) Panel.