Rea Tajiri: History & Memory – The Q&A
Q&A with filmmaker Rea Tajiri and ethnic studies professor Vincent Schleitwiler, moderated by art historian Chelsea Foxwell, following an online presentation of History & Memory: For Akiko and Takashige and a slideshow of photos by Vince Tajiri of the resettlement of Japanese-Americans following their World War 2 internment on November 7, 2020. The event was co-sponsored by South Side Projections and the University of Chicago Center for East Asian Studies.
Rea Tajiri: Before this evening Vince and I were chatting, and we were just talking about the shifting perspectives. When I made this film, for instance, it was in 1991, and it was after one of the milestones in the history of the Japanese American community when the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was passed. And one of the impetuses for making the film was a reflection on the, at that time, buried history, and the lack of materials or representation that really looked at the impact of the incarceration, and also my family’s own silence around it, and how I was able to find materials by going to the National Archives. I think in the period after that a significant milestone was 9/11, and then History and Memory was also resurrected and looked at again, and this time it was in the context of the rise of Islamophobia, discussion of detention camps. It was one of the beginnings of this period where the Japanese American community begins to organize in solidarity with the Muslim community. In this moment now, I’ve been reflecting on the recent work of a lot of Japanese American movements: Tsuru for Solidarity, the Nikkei Resisters, Nikkei Uprising, and the availability of materials online through Densho, which is an incredible collection of images and archival photos and materials that are shared through the Japanese American Legacy Project. And I also was thinking about the way in which museums are now in this phase of presenting artists of color and inserting different works into the canonical historical exhibits of different time periods. We’re seeing works that were previously overlooked or dismissed. And I think in doing so, we’re seeing the contours filling in, and history is being brought into definition. I think it deepens our own understanding of history.
In a similar way, we wanted to present this book. It’s an unpublished monograph of photographs taken by my father, who was a photographer. He started out as a photojournalist. These were taken in Chicago from the period of 1945 to 1950. And the funny thing about this – sort of similar to the moment in History and Memory where I stumble upon a photograph and when I read the caption, I suddenly see the significance of what was a seemingly insignificant object. Just a bird, you know, I didn’t understand what it meant. Growing up, there were these outtakes of these photographs of people. I think they stuck out to me because, at that time, there weren’t a lot of photographs of Japanese American people. I was used to seeing magazines, mostly white people. And just suddenly there were these little photos all over the house. And I think when I was talking to Vince, maybe now it’s going on ten, twelve years ago, he was saying he was actually researching the Nikkei in Chicago and the resettlement period, but at that point he was not seeing a lot of images. And it dawned on me that actually those images that I had seen growing up were significant historically, and could really fill in those contours and be important to my nephew’s research. And then, in looking through some storage stuff, I discovered that there was actually a whole monograph that I had forgotten about, a book that my father put together and tried to get published, and it remains unpublished. So we wanted to share that.
I’m going to share my screen, and I hope everybody can see that. You can see it? Great. I’ll just start by – (Laughs) Just something I put in here. This is actually something from earlier today. This was the gathering of voters celebrating their victory, and this is APIPA. I just wanted to put that in there. Again, just interesting in this moment looking at where we’re standing now. This is a photo of my father. My father was actually born in 1919 in Long Beach, California. He is one of five siblings. His oldest brother was Larry Tajiri, and Larry was a journalist, and actually influenced my father to become a photojournalist and gave my father his first camera. When my father turned eighteen he moved to San Francisco and he worked for the Nichi Bei, and he had a column called “The Rigamarole.” Eventually my father was drafted, pre-Pearl Harbor, and went and served in the army. He married my mother, who came out of camp to marry him in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. They ended up, after the war, resettling in Chicago on the South Side. I believe it was the South Shore, Hyde Park area. And during that period he started to document the community, and around 1953 he gets hired by Playboy, and I guess this is the story that everybody knows. He was the Playboy photo editor from ’53 until roughly around 1969. And recently this article came out in Playboy. This is my father in the center with his staff of photographers. This article can be found online if you want to look at it. So this is actually the title of the book, it’s called Chicago in Black and White: Photo-Documents of Japanese American Resettlement in 1945-1949. Actually that’s not the subtitle, that’s my subtitle to describe the book.
This is the cover of the book. Vince and I decided that we would pick an image that haunted us, and resonated with us, and maybe go into some commentary about these images. This particular image was interesting because I kept coming across it when I was a kid, and I was really befuddled about what this was. First of all, I think for me to see Japanese American bodies, and what were these animals, these little chicks? What were they doing? And when I asked that question, my parents explained to me that these were my uncles, and that they were chick sexing. And I said, “What is that?” And apparently this is a whole industry. It was contract work, Japanese Americans apparently were very good at this. And it was seasonal work. I think my uncle and aunt traveled from California and went to Minneapolis to do this work. It was a very high-paying job. Actually I think this is what kept them out of the camps, because they happened to be in Minnesota when incarceration happened, so they just ended up waiting out the war and doing this kind of work. It was very lucrative apparently. There’s actually a whole industry based around this. There’s a little history of this online as well. There was a national chick sexing association. I know there’s one in Pennsylvania as well. But this was one in Chicago, and they even had a school. The Speed-O-Sex Chick Sexing Institute. So there you see people chick sexing. Basically this was to determine the sex of these baby chicks, and the ones that were female, which could lay eggs, were put aside. The males apparently were – we just found out – maybe incinerated, which is awful. But anyway, that particular photo was something that really resonated with me, and also the chick sexing industry is discussed in one of my favorite novels by Cynthia Kadohata, called The Floating World, where she describes her family also participating in this work.
This is the next image, and I’ll let Vince talk about this one.
Vince Schleitwiler: Rea, can you go two images back? So I wanted to start off by talking about this image, and to say first of all that I’m really excited to be back in my hometown of Chicago, even if it’s only virtually. I’m coming to you from the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle. But the past few years I’ve been very excited to watch from afar as there’s been what seems to me, anyway, to be a real Japanese American community renaissance in Chicago. A cultural and political renaissance. A lot of work of public history, including the article that you just showed from Ryan Yakota, a lot of work on social media by Nikkei Chicago and Windy City Nikkei, a lot of online articles on Discover Nikkei. And then also the activism that Rea mentioned, particularly the Nikkei Uprising group, which has been very inspiring to me. Thinking about the broader shape of Japanese American history, I think there has been a kind of renaissance that’s gone on not just in Chicago but around the country lately that is driven by an impulse towards solidarity that comes from the memory of Japanese American incarceration. So, as people often say in the Tsuru for Solidarity movement, as you look around and you see that some of the things that happened to our community in the past are happening again now, the slogan is that we need to be the allies that our community needed in 1942. Seeing how that solidarity is growing in Chicago has been something that has been very inspiring to me.
I grew up in Rogers Park in Chicago in the eighties and nineties, and at the time there wasn’t really a lot of Japanese American community around. I remember that I might go down to Toguri Mercantile when it was on Belmont, take the Howard L train down, or take the 22 Clark Street bus. But I didn’t have much of a sense of community. And it was only after I was in graduate school in Seattle that I came to discover the historic significance of the community where I grew up. And then, when Rea rediscovered this book, I saw this whole world open up in these photographs. So I’m really, really excited to share them with you. Most of us Japanese Americans who have ties to Chicago, our ties are in the resettlement period after the war. Before WWII, there was a really interesting pre-war Japanese American community. Takako Day is doing some really interesting research on this that has appeared in Discover Nikkei. But again, most of us are from the period after the war.
Early on during the war, early on during the incarceration of Japanese Americans, it became clear to the government, to the War Relocation Authority that ran the camps, that the concentration camps were really a political and administrative mess, and there was a real effort to get people out of these camps through programs of resettlement, programs that accelerated as the war came to an end. And the ideology behind resettlement from the government was to take the most respectable seeming, U.S. born, Nisei or second-generation, the ones who had the most education, the ones who were the most ambitious, and send them out into the country away from the West Coast communities they had come from, to try to get them to dissolve into white communities, go into small towns and cities across the Midwest in ones and twos. This was a terrible idea. This was an idea that did not survive first contact with reality. If you think about what it’s like to come out of a concentration camp that you’ve been sent to with your entire community for looking like the enemy, going off and being entirely on your own in a part of the country you’ve never been in before doesn’t really sound like a good idea. So instead, people congregated in Chicago, first in a community on the South Side, then on the Near North Side and elsewhere. Chicago, of course, was then and now a segregated city. So Japanese Americans were not congregating just because they were somehow self-segregating, but because there were only certain places they could live.
But Chicago after the war, unlike the Chicago I grew up in, was a capital city of Japanese America, and a capital city of resettlement. In 1945, 1946, 1947, there was a peak of about 20,000 Japanese Americans in Chicago, which is a huge portion of the community, and a really important portion of the Japanese American community at the time. Chicago at this time was the capital of a new future for Japanese Americans. This was the world they imagined that might come for them. That having gone through the trauma of incarceration, of being taken away from your homes and everything that you and your family had worked for all your lives to build, being held in concentration camps, going to war with the 442nd, this was the new world that you were coming into. This was a future that didn’t really work out. Within about a decade the majority of Japanese Americans that moved to Chicago gave up on that dream and went back to the West Coast. But some stayed. My family stayed, other folks stayed as well. When I look at these photos, you see the sense of anticipation in this image which is the beginning of a section of photos in the book that goes through sociologically what the Japanese American community is like. You see this sense of anticipation.
I see in these photos something that feels to me like the first images from the surface of the moon. Here is this new world they’ve come to. What is this world like? It’s full of wonder and strangeness. I also see something of – the very famous Japanese American historian Yuji Ichioka famously described Japanese American history as a buried past. You see something that’s buried here, you see a kind of lost world. The lost world that I see in these pictures is not lost because it’s stuck in the past. These are, for me, not images of the past, but these are images of a future that never happened. Images of a sense of possibility. So if we can move on, Rea, to two slides forward.
I want to talk a little bit about this image, and then we’re going to go through a whole bunch more of them and maybe some of you out there will recognize them. Maybe you’ll see places you know or people you know, and we can talk about that in whatever time we have for Q&A. This image is one that is really appealing to me for a number of reasons. This is an image of an African American storefront church called Rising Sun Spiritual Church. This image captures for me my grandfather’s sense of humor, as well as something of the peculiarity of the racial status of Japanese American resettlers in Chicago. So this is Vince, this is my grandfather. And this is kind of a stern image of him. In most images there’s a sense of humor you can feel in the image. When Vince Tajiri was growing up in the West Coast, this face was the face of a “race problem.” It was called a “race problem” at the time. In cities like Los Angeles where he grew up, Japanese Americans lived in overlapping segregated neighborhoods with Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans, Black folks, Mexican Americans, Jewish folks, in spaces that were segregated and seen as part of a problem. The idea of resettlement as it was engineered by the government was to disperse Japanese Americans into places where race was defined not in terms of Asians or Mexican Americans or other groups, but specifically in Black and white. And the idea was to encourage Japanese American resettlers to associate with and assimilate to and live in proximity with white people.
At the time of resettlement, Chicago was also continuing to expand as what was called the Black Metropolis, as the capital of a Black future that was formed by the migration of Southern migrants, agricultural workers from the South who came to the North and was called the Great Migration. The Black community in Chicago, unlike the Black community that Vince grew up with on the West Coast, were normally people who did not have much contact with Japanese people. However, they did have ideas about Japan. And so when my grandfather looks at this image and sees the Rising Sun, which is a term that’s associated with Japanese imperialism, and sees this other sense of race and of a so-called “race problem” that’s different from his, I wonder what he sees.
There were, in African American communities in the twentieth century going back to 1904, 1905, there’s a long-standing interest in Japan, and in imperial Japan particularly, going back to Japan’s victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, which was seen as a really important strike against white powers by African Americans and people of color all over the world. Into the 1930s, in the Mississippi Delta, on up to Chicago, over across the cities of the Great Lakes region, as far as New York City, there was a loose collection of nationalist groups and religious groups, often inspired by Marcus Garvey’s Black Nationalism, who had a kind of internationalist politics that was connected to this idea that Japan might be a champion of the darker races. In Chicago in 1942, so just a couple years before my grandfather had gotten there, there were large arrests by the FBI in Chicago, and actually St. Louis and other parts of the country, of Black nationalist leaders, including Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, and a number of others who were seen as having pro-Japanese sentiment. So they were arrested essentially for sedition, for loyalty to the other side in the war. This revelation, that there was a kind of pro-Japanese sentiment in some parts of African American communities, was kind of scandalous. So the Chicago Defender, a famous Black newspaper based in Chicago, around this time hired a new slate of columnists to help motivate people to support the war effort. One of those columnists was Japanese American, a guy named S. I. Hayakawa, who was actually a Canadian-born Nisei, who was a professor in Chicago at the time. He went on, famously or infamously, to become the president of San Francisco State during the Third World student strikes in the 1960s. He went on to become a Republican senator from California, who among other things opposed Japanese American Redress.
So, all kinds of lines of history intersecting in this moment. I don’t know how much of this my grandfather would have known. But I think that when he saw this scene that he decided to photograph, I just wonder what it is that spoke to him, what it is that resonated with him, to see a community of people that looked like the people who he lived with and among in Los Angeles, but who didn’t recognize him. Who had ideas about Japan that maybe he didn’t have. During the war he was stationed in Mississippi. He got married to my grandmother in New Orleans. They lived in the South before moving, just like Black migrants, up to the North. So this is an image that I think is really powerful for me, and I think it’s something that goes through all these images. This question of, how are Japanese Americans now being placed in this Black and white Chicago? So that’s a bit of a pun in the title of the book as well.
I should probably stop there, and we should maybe cycle through some more of these images. Rea, do you want to do that?
RT: Yes. So I’m going to share these. We don’t really know where a lot of these locations are. They have this strange feeling of being both familiar and at the same time unplaceable, I guess. I don’t know how to say that. This bookstore looks really familiar to me. I feel like I may have been taken to that space as a kid, but I’m not really sure. These are a series of portraits of Nisei who are newly arrived and entering the professional class. These are actually two mechanics.
VS: Well, a couple things. One is that this research that has gone on in Chicago is showing that – we know pretty well thanks to the researchers in Chicago the shape of the communities on the South Side and North Side where these things would have happened. What’s interesting in these photos is that it kind of goes through – social science was really powerful in Chicago at this time, and it really impacted race relations. So these images go through work and leisure, different generations, different social issues. It goes through the generations: Issei, Nisei, Sansei. First, second, third generation. The different kinds of work people are doing. Some people have opportunities to be scientists, like the guy who is shown looking at the beaker of some kind of chemical. And there are other folks who take these jobs like chick sexing where you go around the country and you work really hard. It’s a migrant labor thing, right? It’s not something that you want to do for a long period of time. But you work really hard for a short period of time and hopefully you save money. This is an image of Shinkichi, his brother. Shinkichi, who at the time still, I guess – or at least his brother still used his name George. Shinkichi, who became a famous artist in Holland after he left Chicago. He was injured in the war with the 442nd and moved to Europe afterwards.
RT: He was actually living in Chicago for a short period, maybe a year, right after the war. He studied at the Art Institute I believe. I think this was in that period. This is when he was still in Chicago if I’m not mistaken.
VS: That sculpture I remember in the house I grew up in. And I remember that we finally got it out of there after we moved out of that house. It was just sitting in the basement. (Laughs) But you see this series of artists as well, and I think that’s important too. There is this sense of these young artists of which my grandfather was one, who are seeing this possibility that in this new world, in this new future they’ve fallen into, maybe there can be this sense of community. Maybe there can be this group of artists who are going to go off and show something of the Nisei experience.
RT: So the next two are artists, and this is [Miyoko] Ito, who I believe I met when I was a child. Oops, there was a picture of Byron, but I guess we lost that one. Did I pass it? Yeah. There’s Byron Goto. It’s a candlelit mobile. He’s actually featured later on in some exhibitions of Japanese American artists who are making artwork while they were in camps. And then this is a series of locations that are not necessarily specific to the Japanese American community, but places that I think he wanted to photograph. He also had a love for music and jazz, and I remember this photo was in the basement for a long time, hanging on a wall. It was kind of strange. And I believe that this is Maxwell Street. He used to talk a lot about Maxwell Street and the open markets. And there’s some photos in here. He really loved people who collected and assembled junk and repurposed things. He liked buying gadgets and different things like this. So yeah, this is a vendor. I don’t know the location of this, but it’s a nice street photograph. There’s a couple of street photography images in here. Do you think that’s Clark Street? No. Hard to say.
VS: Another thing research has shown recently is how important photography was in the Japanese American community, going back to immigrant photographers a generation earlier. So there’s a lot of stuff in this section that doesn’t depict Japanese American people, that’s about composition and image, and really, really beautiful pictures. The book is organized in one section that is called “The Japanese in Chicago.” Another section is called “Chicago Is Mostly People.” And there you see this other depiction of the city that he’s experiencing, and I think we were talking about this, Rea. For me what’s really interesting is the sense of a kind of Japanese American Nisei perspective and subjectivity that is shaping what’s being looked at, and trying to find its place in this Black and white Chicago.
This image is so powerful, the one that says “American Wrecking” in the back. I’ve written about this before, and tried to figure out what that boy is holding in his hands and between his legs.
RT: This one has always struck me as being so iconic, because of course it’s the L, and it’s the L that I remember from my childhood, when they still had those weird loop straps to hold onto. It’s also just a beautiful image of a man sleeping.
VS: The images of Italians here I think are really interesting too. Vince also wrote an article about what it was like to be in the army when Pearl Harbor was hit, and it appeared a year after Pearl Harbor. His brother Larry published it. And at the end he tells this story about how these two guys he was friends with at the military camp in the Pacific Northwest that he was stationed at went on patrol, and nobody remembered to call them back, so they spent the whole time out there. And what’s striking about that is that one of those guys was Japanese American and the other guy was Italian. And so he’s kind of making the point that these guys are defending the country even though their homelands are at war.
RT: This is actually my maternal grandparents. What strikes me is that I think this is their Sunday best. And I think that they’re of the generation that if someone came out with a camera, you had to get your Sunday best on. I never saw them dressed like this. I knew them as farmers, and they were always dressed very casually. So when I see this, my grandfather in his suit, he put this on obviously for the photo. And I’m guessing it’s a period when they may have been in Chicago, living close by. A lot of the Issei after they got out of camp didn’t have anywhere to go, and they didn’t have any way to start over, take up a career, have a job, have a profession. And also it’s striking to me that they were both farmers. So to see them in a suit, sitting in a middle-class, nice house – not that they wouldn’t have a nice house, but it just strikes me as a contrast from what I knew of them later on. I don’t know the whole story, maybe my cousins if they’re watching this can fill me in.
VS: I think later as you scroll through this, more images of an older Issei man who doesn’t have family – I think maybe it’s the next one. I love this one. This appeared in an article about the plight of the Issei. Historian Greg Robinson sent me a copy of the article this appears in. I think there’s an image right after this of his room, or maybe one more? Maybe it’s a little bit later. But a lot of these folks lost everything. They lost everything they had worked for. So this, again, is trying to depict something of the scope of that Issei experience as well. These are the folks who didn’t have a bunch of young children to take care of them.
RT: I’ll just say this is funny, because I know it’s not true, but when I was a kid I used to hear these stories about how my father’s father was a great Go player. And so in my mind I thought that this was my grandfather on my father’s side, who had died. But it’s not. But this is what I imagined that he looked like. And I think these are Americanization classes that were really popular during the resettlement, trying to teach English language skills to a lot of the Issei, the first generation. I remember seeing different images of these, I guess this was my father doing his version of the classes.
VS: When I look at that I think that guy’s about to reject a loan. (Laughs)
RT: This is a guy drilling a ceramic figurine. I don’t know. Oh, here’s that guy again. This is a really striking image because it’s suits hanging on a pipe in somebody’s living space, and they have the newspapers hanging over them. I guess it’s to protect them, maybe this is before they had plastic. But I’m not sure if that’s because of the dust from the ceiling. It looks like maybe this could be in a basement apartment. On the dresser you see there’s a photo of a young couple.
VS: I think this is associated with the other image that we saw of the guy sitting across the back of a chair. And this is the Issei who’s kind of on his own. This is the narrative I’m getting out of this, whether it’s true or not. Somebody who is suffering on his own, but has that image of the kind of respectability that his children aspire to, that has been lost to him because of what he lost during the war.
RT: This is my sister, actually. Vince’s mother.
VS: Hi, mom!
RT: (Laughs) It’s a really great picture. And that is my sister with another girl, a playmate. I don’t know anything about this. What do you think?
VS: I think this is also – in the second section of the book there’s a depiction of different kinds of community spaces, but also different kinds of ethnic populations. Chicago being a place that did not have a large Asian presence or Japanese presence, but was very much a segregated, ethnically divided city, as it is today. Maybe we should try to move towards the end so we can get to some questions, but I know you probably had another one you wanted to talk about.
RT: I think that’s the last one. This is, for both of us, a really resonant photo because I think – and I was actually talking about this photo in my class the other day – the notion of positionality, which, if you don’t know the photographer you wouldn’t maybe think about this, but for us it’s about my father looking upon this scene. It links back to a story that my father would say. He would say that there was a guy that he knew who went to Stanford to study architecture, and when he got out, he really couldn’t find any employment. And his way of using his degree was to build towers of oranges in the grocery store or in the market. And so that was my father’s reasoning, like, was it worth it for him to go to college? And he really couldn’t afford it, so he didn’t go. And so we were looking at this and there’s a guy, he looks like he might be an immigrant, Italian, and he is selling some tangerines to African American boys in their Sunday suits. You know, just sort of thinking about Vince in this position of being in between, and being perceived as the foreigner, being the other in this new place, in Chicago. He grew up in a very mixed community in Los Angeles, and now he’s kind of in this other position of being the outsider. Vince, maybe you want to say something else about this?
VS: Yeah, I was going to say that the joke that he told you about the guy stacking the oranges is a kind of iconic story of the Nisei before the war, who might go to places like Stanford or Berkeley, seek degrees in engineering, and then discover – and this is the story, right? What do you do with that degree? You go back and you work at a fruit and vegetable stand, because that’s the only job that you can get. So for somebody like Vince, he said, “Why do I need that education? It’s not going to give me an opportunity anyway.” So this is very different from what people were experiencing and hoping for after the resettlement. They’d gone through this horrible experience and been forced to repress that experience, but with this promise of something else. And so in this scene the photographer sees this guy who’s working the fruit and vegetable stand that could be him. And then you see these two boys, that are like the boys that he grew up with in Los Angeles. Those boys could be him as well. In the place that he’s from, he could be in all those positions. But in the place that he is now, none of those people recognize him. None of those people recognize him as people he would identify with, and now there’s a new future and he doesn’t know where he fits into any of this. So for me, even if you don’t know that history, that sense of mystery and uncertainty, even in the expressions and the positions of the body there, I think carry through that sense of, “What is this new world that I’ve come to? And where is my place in it?”
RT: So that’s it, that takes us to the end of the photos in the book. We would like to open this up for discussion and Q&A.
Chelsea Foxwell: Thank you so much for the film. Thank you Rea, and thank you Vince, and thanks also to your father and grandfather, Vincent Tajiri, for these really exquisite and moving photographs. Some of us may be familiar, for example, with the photographs of Yasuhiro Ishimoto of Chicago, living in Chicago and seeing those. But here, to see these together with these very personal insights from both of you, and juxtaposed with the insights from the film, have been really great.
So welcome to the audience. I encourage you to keep sending in your questions and comments for us. Maybe I could just start with a comment from “Z Librarian,” who writes, “Just as there were layers of meaning in the film, there are equally fascinating intersections and connections in the history that Vince describes. The photographs are intriguing to me as a Seattleite who has only visited Chicago, and am only recently learning more about the Japanese American historical presence in Chicago.” And then a question along similar lines. This is a question about specifically the artistic community during resettlement, which is something that we saw through your photographs. The question is from Steph S. E. Lee. It says, “Thank you both for this inspiring conversation. Could you speak to the artistic community during resettlement? For instance, were there Nisei artists in conversation with artists of the Black Chicago renaissance?”
VS: I’ll say something and maybe Rea can add. There might even be – I don’t know who has managed to stick around through all this time on this crazy night with us, but I know that there are other historians out there. I know a little bit more about the literary history, the literary side of it. So the Nisei before the war had – as Greg Robinson and others have shown – a fairly thriving, ambitious group of folks who were interested in the arts, in writing, in photography. And a small community formed on the West Coast, where they really had these interactions with each other. And then going into camps, this was going on as well. I think the most famous thing that came out immediately after the camps was Mine Okubo’s Citizen 13660. But really, really close networks of artists in camps. I think in the early days in Chicago they had those same kinds of ambitions. This is mostly speculative on my part. I know that Shinkichi was connected with a lot of interesting folks there. But that little world broke up very quickly. As people dealt with the demands of life after the war, those very strong Nisei communities of artists and writers were much harder to maintain. So people had some individual relationships, but a lot of the people who were really successful – and this is coming out a lot more now – as artists or in other creative fields, did so in ways that were very isolated. So Shinkichi had to go off to Europe. There were other artists that are now being recollected and seen as a strong Nisei community, but who are still being discovered one or two at a time. You read these books about these painters, now there’s all this work on these designers coming out, and sometimes it’s hard to figure out how they’re all connected. So I think people are just making those connections now. And certainly I think there would have been a real interest among these artists and writers to connect with African Americans, but it also would have been very different, because they would have had a very different context for that in Chicago. I think that one of the most important connections between Japanese Americans and African Americans in Chicago happened with the sociologist Horace Cayton, who is from Seattle, but that was very different.
RT: There is something that I found in a folio of letters that were from my uncle Larry Tajiri. I don’t know if this rings a bell, Vince. But either he’s writing to Langston Hughes or – and then I heard a story that was connected where there was a meeting in a diner or something? Do you know this story? I’m sorry, it’s a fragment. (Laughs)
VS: Larry was actually kind of drawn in or identified by a lot of national media organizations that were vaguely leftist or liberal that were trying to bring together a sense of multiracial solidarity. And so he was involved with some publications that were happening that had some fairly big names in that period. He was working out of Colorado at the time. So that was kind of different. But there were connections. Vince was associated with Noguchi. So there were these broader national networks that were connecting to Chicago.
CF: Thank you. There are a couple of questions about your photo-book from John Taine, and I will just pose them together. The first question is, “I think I heard the photos were taken in 1945-1950. Could the speakers say when the album itself was put together?”
RT: I have to say I honestly don’t know. It’s just one of these things, because I was born in 1958. And like I said, as a kid I’m seeing these things just lying around the house, and it’s all vague recollection. So I’m guessing it could have been in the late fifties, early sixties? I really don’t know. Maybe he put it together beforehand. There’s actually quite a bit of writing that goes with this book. A little essay that’s typed out as well. So we’re not really sure.
VS: He was initially actually more ambitious as a writer than he was as a photographer. I think it was only the Playboy job that really shifted that for him. A couple things: the sociological style of it is reminiscent to me of 12 Million Black Voices, Richard Wright’s photo-textbook from the period. Wright was commissioned, I think, to look at a series of photographs and collect them, and to tell a sociologically informed story about the Black experience. And then in response to that, which came out I think in ’55, The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes, which is a very, very different kind of take on what the community was like. Rea, you said to me – this is not it, but I know that this was in his collection, right?
RT: Yeah. That book was very influential to him.
VS: So, we don’t know when this stuff was done. It might have been assembled and reassembled at various points in time, but I think there’s certainly a kind of ambition at the moment. I think he’s taking all these pictures for Japanese American newspapers as well. But I think there was a kind of ambition that is very tied to photo-textbooks of the forties and early fifties.
CF: Thank you. And John Taine also asks, about the book, if you can talk about the labeling and the different sections or sequencing of the images. I think maybe you might not have all the answers, but…
RT: Actually these are out of sequence. I kind of messed up the sequence a little bit. Also there’s two different versions of this book, so I don’t understand why that is. One of them is more complete and has more photos. I think the photos are sequenced slightly differently. I also think, but I’m not sure, that on the bottom of the pages there’s a handwritten caption, and I feel that that was later because I think originally there were these typed captions that were pasted on there, and then they fell off. I think that he went back at some point and relabeled some of the photos. So like I said, there are these two different versions which we have to reconcile.
VS: I was trying to say that I think there’s a kind of logic to the order of the photos that’s thematic. In the first section, which I think is a little more complete, the Japanese in Chicago section, it follows a thematic logic as it moves through experiences of the Issei, different forms of work, different forms of leisure. I can imagine him in conversation with somebody who’s talking from a social scientist perspective about how you describe this community, and trying to describe them that way.
CF: Thank you. There is a comment from Midori Tajiri, who writes, “Vince, that was such a poetic and beautiful way to describe the perspective of the photographer in this last photo, the one that’s on the screen now. I love and recognize the idea of him identifying with each character in the last photo, especially the young man in the front, who has the attitude I remember in him.”
RT: Thank you, Midori.
CF: There’s another question about this photograph. This is from Raiko in Brooklyn. “Thank you for sharing these precious photos by Rea’s dad. I wanted to know the context of this very photo, the orange seller and two Black boys. I’m glad you came back to this photo. I have a question to Vince. I read about Satokata Takahashi, Nakane Naka, and W.E.B. Du Bois’ support for Japan during WWII. Throughout your study, did you find any political association between Japanese Americans and African Americans in South Side Chicago after WWII?”
VS: The problem was actually that that was absolutely the wrong way for people to connect, because Japanese Americans in Chicago would have been very, very anxious of anything that would remotely suggest support for Japan. Whereas for Black folks in Chicago, there was this memory of Japan as signifying the possibility of a challenge to white supremacy. Japanese imperialism made promises to people of color around the world of liberation that were not true, and that caused a great deal of suffering. But it is true that the challenge that Japan presented to the United States and to the West in WWII, as people like Du Bois actually predicted decades earlier, led to the conditions that produced new civil rights movements. So there’s a kind of misfiring; that Rising Sun picture makes me think about that. Those lines can’t connect at that time. Malcolm X at the time was apolitical. Malcolm X during WWII was not thinking in political terms, but Malcolm X during WWII managed to escape the draft by pretending to have sympathies for Japan. And then decades later, that joke turned into an Afro-Asian internationalist politics that he developed and very famously, in Japanese American circles, connected to Yuri Kochiyama, who was inspired by him. And Rea made a film about her. So there is a connection between these politics, but it actually can’t happen at that time, because the support for Japan is the last thing anybody in Chicago wants to talk about at the end of the war.
RT: Thank you Raiko for that question. Raiko is a documentary filmmaker who actually worked on the Yuri Kochiyama film as an intern at the end of her studies. Thanks.
CF: Thank you. There is a question by Yoshihiro Yagi. “I recall African slaves to North America being separated to ensure that nobody spoke the same language as a way of preventing a rebellion. Were Japanese Americans during their forced resettlement eastward in a similar situation? Were Japanese Americans separated to an extent that their isolation prevented some sort of reaction to their internment?”
VS: That’s a deep question. I think that one thing to remember is that the community itself is splitting at this point. So there are some folks who are being sent off to make their lives in Chicago and Philadelphia, in Cleveland and New York City, and they’re already resisting the assimilationist ideas they’ve been given by congregating in those spaces. But then there are other folks who want no part of this, and want to go back to the West Coast. And they go back to the West Coast and remake their lives there. And in the end the majority of the community actually goes back there. This is why for someone like me, you grow up in Chicago in the eighties and nineties, and don’t really see that community. But already in Chicago you see people are not simply accepting that dispersal. They’re actually reconnecting, and they’re making strong connections to African American groups as well.
RT: That’s interesting. I’ve actually thought about that a lot, that resettlement was a way of dispersing the community from the West Coast and sort of making it difficult for them to have this economic power that they were starting to build, in terms of farming on the West Coast. So it’s a question. I think that process, also, of assimilating, and everybody sort of, I don’t know. There was a sort of core community when I was growing up at least, but my family wasn’t part of that community. But we would go to the Japanese American festivals in the summer. So it was a very strange feeling to be part of this but not really part of it. And I feel like, myself, I was maybe removed from that community. In Rogers Park – I went to school at Armstrong – I think there were three other Japanese American families in that area at the time.
CF: Thank you. And circling back to Raiko’s question, I wanted to just insert that the Japanese Studies librarian at the University of Chicago Library, Dr. Ayako Yoshimura, has been organizing an exhibition on the Nikkei in the South Side of Chicago, our university being located very close to where you guys also had a connection, on the South Side. So that exhibition was supposed to open this summer, and has been postponed until we can welcome visitors to our library. It will be accompanied by a symposium. So please feel free to subscribe to the Center for East Asian Studies of the University of Chicago for those types of updates and other outreach opportunities.
VS: That’s really exciting, and I can’t wait to hear more about that.
RT: Yeah, that’s amazing.
VS: There’s this huge wave of folks – I know there’s another exhibit like that in Detroit that some folks have put together. Did I mention Naomi Hirahara’s book already?
CF: No, go ahead.
VS: Okay, so Naomi Hirahara, mystery novelist and community historian who has won a bunch of awards for her mystery novels, has a new book coming out next year called Clark and Division. Heavily, heavily researched mystery story about the Japanese American community in this period. I’m so excited to read that, and just excited to see how this history is suddenly coming to the surface now. And I’m interested to think about, why is it coming to the surface now?
RT: I also just want to mention, too, that part of the project that Vince and I are working on is to both publish these photos as they were meant to be seen, so sort of like a facsimile of the monograph that he created, and then to also add on some different essays, writing by Vince on the photos. So that’s one project. But then I also have a project in the works that I’m trying to formulate, around different locations, and working with these photos. I had an earlier project called Wataridori that I did in Philadelphia, where I took four different sites that were significant to Japanese American resettlement in Philadelphia, and created four different installations that were based on a family that ran a boarding house for resettlers. So I hope to do something similar in Chicago working with these photos.
CF: That’s really great. We have a couple of questions about the film, and I encourage audience members, if you have additional questions about the photographs, or Japanese Americans, or the film, please, you’re welcome on all those topics. The first question is from Ji-hae, who writes, “My question has to do with Rea Tajiri’s film and the role of snapshot and vernacular photographs within the film, creating tensions with archival images. I wonder if or how your father’s photographs in Chicago also traverse personal and public realms of image production and consumption.”
RT: That’s great. It’s complicated, and I think that it’s sort of a funny tension because some of the pictures where we have family members, for instance, in the photos, you’re sort of at once both seeing this attempt at a public presentation and sociological commentary, and at the same time you’re seeing a family member being looked at through that lens, which is very strange. And then there’s a photo like this one that’s holding on the screen, where both Vince and I have discussed my father’s positionality, and how he was seeing himself in this photo. The photo of the Rising Sun has come up in a couple of places. My nephew Vince wrote a really beautiful essay that was in the Center for Art and Thought that used that image. I also borrowed that image for Wataridori, where I based a design for a storefront on that image. And we created an installation in an old storefront that was meant to be a replica of a storefront owned by a Japanese American shop owner. We heard that one existed, we really couldn’t find any evidence, but we sort of recreated their shop, an imaginary shop. But the signage was borrowed from that image.
VS: I’ll add, too, the status of this manuscript as something that was in family papers, right? Vince was a professional, a low-class professional. But this was stuff that couldn’t find a home. So it goes from being this public-facing kind of documentation to being a thing that you see around the house growing up, Rea, and a thing that you rediscover in the papers that are salvaged from the house after he’s dead. So it has this other kind of circulation, to imagine the reemerging knowledge.
CF: Thank you. And we can see beautiful footage from the Wataridori project on Vimeo, right? I think we’ll share that with you all. It’s really haunting. There is a question from S. Paridae, who writes, “Thank you for this wonderful presentation. I have a question for Rea going back to her film. I was curious to know more about the wood carving of the bird. What you knew about it, and if or how finding the photo of the wood carving class changed your perspective on it.”
RT: Yes. I had no idea that this bird carving thing was a thing that Issei did in camps. In fact, there have been whole exhibits of these birds. I’m sorry I’m blanking on the actual Japanese name. But this was something that they all kind of gathered together in the camps and produced. There are apparently hundreds of them, and they were in the Smithsonian, and they were traveling around the country for a while. But one of the things that I talk about a lot is about the way that you can have a relationship with something that feels very mundane, and then discover that it’s linked to this wider history and political context. So I found that very moving, and I try to replicate that sometimes in my work. And actually there is a project on Facebook right now called Fifty Objects of the – is it the Japanese American Internment? But it’s this incredible project where they take these mundane objects and just totally explode the significance, the story behind it. It could be a sealed box that was given to someone who was leaving camp, and his family held it and it was in a garage for sixty years. And they take it out to the middle of the desert and open it up, and it turns out there was a mattress inside. It turns out that bedding was a thing in the camps because they didn’t have any formal mattresses. You just had to stuff something with straw. So a mattress was like, oh my god. So I guess this person thought it was very precious, and they packed it in this crate, and was holding on to it. So stuff like that.
CF: That’s amazing.
VS: Just quickly, Rea, I have this thing on my desk that I’ve been meaning to give to you for a long time. It was a gift that I meant to give to you earlier, which is Kishi Bashi’s Omoiyari CD. But on the cover is the birds. So I’m thinking about the bird in the film. It has friends now. It found its people.
RT: Oh my god, that’s great.
CF: That’s incredible to have this object, and to realize that this bird is part of a flock, and that the owners shared an experience in a room, and now are dispersed all over the country or the world. And Wataridori also means “the birds of crossing,” so was that with this bird carving in mind, the title?
RT: Yeah. I think birds of passage has a lot of layered meanings. As I understand it, it was a term that the Issei would say. Like, “You don’t want to end up being a bird of passage,” meaning you don’t want to just go from place to place, wandering from place to place. You want to settle. And this was their aspiration, to settle. It turns out that actually on my mother’s side, their family did have to wander from place to place, because they couldn’t own land. So they would lease some land for like three years. They were growing strawberries and so I guess after three years you have to rotate your crop. So then they would just move, and they actually had a house that was on wheels that they would move to a new location.
VS: That’s also the title of a famous early film by Robert Nakamura. But also, that’s who the chick sexers are. That’s what that job is, that’s what that life is, to go from place to place doing that work.
RT: Before we go, too, I actually brought out the books. Here’s the physical copy of the book, just to see it. That’s actually my grandfather, my mother’s father, who was a farmer, who you saw earlier in the suit.
CF: Naomi has sent a comment. She says, “I was so moved by the Issei photos, especially of the man who looked so contemplative. Those types of resettlement photos are such a contrast to the WRAPS [War Relocation Authority’s Photographic Section] government images, which were used more as propaganda. In terms of photos that seem more realistic, Marion Palfi’s images of Los Angeles hostels come to mind.” I think on the chat on Twitch she shares a link.
RT: Oh, wow. Great.
VS: Thank you for that. There’s so much excellent work. I know that folks in Chicago are doing excellent work on Japanese American photography right now, and there’s so much stuff that we’re discovering that transforms our understanding of this period in visual culture.
RT: Yeah, I also want to mention that in addition to this book – unfortunately a lot of my father’s negatives were lost, and the negatives to this book were lost. But thanks to scanning, and Jino Lee helped me scan these, he’s probably here watching tonight. But my father was a wedding photographer. He was the Japanese American official wedding photographer. So I have I don’t know how many four-by-five negatives. I had started to have somebody scan them a while back, and I had maybe a portion of them scanned. But they are a really interesting sociological study about weddings, that period, even the dresses, who had money or who didn’t, styles. It was really, really fascinating. And in that I’m also finding certain families. I think we found Sasha Hori’s father William Hori and his wife. A friend of mine whose parents ended up in Washington state, we found their wedding photos. So we have to get those also processed and scanned and put up somewhere.
CF: Wow, that’s amazing. He was such a great photographer. It would be a dream to have him for a wedding. I think we just have time for one more question. Or if you have other questions, we can convey them to the speakers. Yoshihiro Yagi has a question. He says, “I realize that I haven’t seen any pictures of the family crests of Japanese Americans. Do you know your family crest?”
RT: We do. I don’t know if I can grab it. Where is it? Yeah, it’s downstairs.
VS: Actually, if the right relatives were here, they could show you the tattoos on their hands. My sister, Shinkichi, as well, actually had a tattoo of the crest.
CF: Wow, that’s amazing.