A new art exhibit at Tanforan Mall, the site of a former WWII Japanese American incarceration camp, portrays the stories of families’ experiences in the camps.

“Sansei Granddaughters’ Journey” exhibit artists, from left to right: Na Omi Judy Shintani, Reiko Fujii, Ellen Bepp, Shari Arai DeBoer and Kathy Fujii-Oka. (Photo by Bob Hsiang)

When bombs fell on Pearl Harbor in 1941, America became reactive to those who lived on our shores and were born in Japan (Issei) or born to the children of those who emigrated (Nissei). In 1942, after a declaration of war against Japan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt put forth Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the incarceration of approximately 122,000 Japanese Americans.

In 2018, five Bay Area third-generation (Sansei) Japanese American artists traveled to Manzanar WWII relocation camp in the Owens Valley near the towns of Lone Pine and Independence in the eastern part of California. Like many others whose family members were incarcerated in these camps, they bonded over their families’ shared experiences and cultural identities. The pilgrimage and the filming of their yet-be-released 2020 documentary, “Sansei Granddaughters’ Journey,” was the impetus for the exhibit “Sansei Granddaughters’ Journey,” on view through Sept. 3 at AZ Gallery in San Bruno’s Tanforan Mall, which was the site of a Japanese American temporary detention center during World War II.

Works displayed in the exhibit come from the artists’ personal collections and from art made during the pilgrimage or inspired by the trip. One of the artists, Half Moon Bay resident Na Omi Judy Shintani, explains how another artist, Reiko Fujii, had family members incarcerated at Manzanar. “We connected with a park ranger that had a map of where the barracks originally were, and Reiko was able to pinpoint the exact room where her family was incarcerated. We did a lot of rituals there on the bare land,” says Shintani.

Besides Shintani and Fujii, other artists include Shari Arai DeBoer, Ellen Bepp and Kathy Fujii-Oka. The artworks portray the stories of their families’ experiences before, during and post-camp. DeBoer’s “Locked Luggage” is a signature piece of the show. Friends of her family owned a hotel in Sacramento before their incarceration. The stacked luggage with the keys to their locks resting beside them symbolizes the memories that were brought to the camps and were lost or stored away.

Na Omi Judi Shintani’s “Illuminations” piece is part of her larger “Illuminations” series. The rope hanging above represents ropes that are hung above sacred spaces in Japan. (Photo by Na Omi Judy Shintani)

Shintani’s striking, vertically hung American flag, framed in barbed wire, is also on view. She describes “Pledge of Allegiance” and how she obtained the wood that serves as the flag’s “stripes.”

“The wood was collected near Klamath Falls, near the Tule Lake incarceration camp, where my father was incarcerated for four years as a teen,” she says. “We took a pilgrimage there, and soon after learned about a barrack that was about to be destroyed, so we went and salvaged some of the wood. My father, who hadn’t really talked about his experience before, began ripping the boards off the building with quite a bit of emotion. I was taken aback, as, I had never seen him like this before.” Tule Lake, the largest of the 10 camps, was a segregation and high-security camp for incarcerees who were labeled disloyal. Below the art is a framed photograph of her father at the site.

Shintani speaks about the ongoing debate on terminology describing this moment in American history and says, “A lot of the words that were used during this time were propaganda. Even Dorothea Lange’s photographs taken for the US government were used as such, though the military censored some of her work that they felt were too critical of the incarceration. We’re now very cognizant about the words we use. For example, ‘interned’ refers to non-natives held, and approximately two-thirds of those in camps were born here. Therefore, the proper word is ‘incarcerated.’”   

Words like “assembly” that were originally used to describe temporary relocation centers, like Tanforan, have been swapped out for more accurate language. Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, whose mission is to preserve the stories of those incarcerated, advocates for the removal of euphemisms and encourages people to think critically about terms like “internment” and “relocation.”

Kathy Fujii-Oka’s 3D textile cherry blossoms hang from the ceiling and surround the handsewn cherry-blossom dress she made and wore during the group’s pilgrimage. (Photo by Na Omi Judy Shintani)

 Some support the use of the phrase “concentration camp” when referring to these camps. A 1998 Ellis Island exhibit caused a stir when the Japanese American National Museum used the “concentration camp” phrase in its title. Much discussion ensued and both Jewish and Japanese representatives allowed the title to stay as long as a footnote was added, stating, per the National Parks Service, “A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they have committed, but simply because of who they are.” 

Shintani has experienced meaningful connections since the exhibit opened and says, “I spoke to a mother and daughter last week who said that their family helped an incarcerated Japanese family by storing all of their furniture. They told me that ‘Our family also emigrated here and they were ostracized by neighbors, calling them traitors.’”

“Anyone who has a family legacy of discrimination can experience our art and take that connection to a deeper place,” she adds.

She hopes that the exhibit stirs further conversations about discrimination happening today and says, “We consider it a moral obligation to stand up for other groups like Black Lives Matter, refugees being detained at the border, especially children being separated from their families.” Bepp reiterates the hope and says, “Through our collective art, we serve as a voice for those who no longer are able to tell their stories. We will continue to push for racial equity and social justice today and in the future.”

This Saturday, Aug. 13, artist Reiko Fujii will be giving a gallery tour at noon. At 1 p.m., Ruth Sasaki, author of “The Topaz Stories,” will be discussing her project, “Topaz Stories Project,” and how others incarcerated have contributed to the dialogue. On Sunday, Aug. 14, at 1 p.m., the gallery will be screening the documentary, “Sansei Granddaughters’ Journey.”

On Saturday, Aug. 27, there will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Tanforan Memorial at 1 p.m. at the memorial site at the San Bruno BART station.

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