New book lends artistry to trauma of Japanese internment
Were someone to create the ballet of the Japanese internment during WWII, it wouldn’t be any more meaningful than “Balancing Cultures,” the book created by Japanese American artist and photographer Jerry Takigawa, to convey his family’s experiences and confront the racism
perpetuated by the confinement. While there is nothing beautiful about the American concentration camps, giving artistry to such a project invites viewers into the story and keeps them from turning away from the truth.
Jerry Takigawa should have been born on the West Coast. Instead, he was born in Chicago, where his parents moved following their release from internment in Arkansas. In 1950, when he was 5 years old, his parents returned with him to Monterey.
Although he was never interned, although his parents never discussed their experiences with him, although he did not discover the photographs that chronicled his parents’ years in Arkansas until he was grown, Takigawa was raised by people who had endured the indignity.
He learned something of the camps in school and through other sources as he grew older, but he had never associated the stories with the look in his mother’s eyes. Takigawa’s growing-up years were influenced and affected by something he hadn’t experienced. There is sentiment in silence.
Once he studied the photographs his mother had stored, he understood she needed no symbol or reminder to keep her memories present. Not all scars are visible. He also began to understand aspects of himself — why he is so driven to make a difference where change is warranted, to speak up for those that can’t stick up for themselves, to heal injustice with equity, keep plastics and other “false food” out of the mouths of sea life, and become a photographer who makes pictures of how people feel.
“My whole family was in prison for two years because of racism, hysteria, and economic opportunity,” Takigawa said. “This kind of emotional trauma doesn’t go away, doesn’t have a statute of limitations, and doesn’t have to be voiced to exist.”
Silence can serve as a stealth transmission of trauma. Not talking about it, he says, eventually transfers the effects of the very thing we’re trying to conceal.
Takigawa ultimately used his parents’ photographs to embark on an investigation that would become “Balancing Cultures,” part of an award-winning artistic installation unveiled in January, through which he explored the uneasy space between an idea or experience and its
understanding. This summer, he released the project as a 96-page book, using collaged photographs, artifacts, documents, and text, to explore his family’s journey from immigration to incarceration to reintegration and, ultimately, to some degree of reassimilation.
“As I got further into the project,” he said, “I began to develop an expressive vocabulary by making pictures that mean something to me, gradually building the strength and stamina that would enable me to say something personal about the ‘elephant in the room.’”
Throughout his process, Takigawa sought to find out more about what happened to his family to help him understand more about himself while recognizing that his statement piece about racial subjugation dovetailed with ongoing national politics.
“I started the project in 2016,” he said, “during a revival of racist talk and encouragement for people to hate each other. I didn’t plan that; I had been working up the courage to do something that was very much a part of the bigger panorama.”
Positive feedback gave him confidence that he should pursue his project if only to learn and to teach about what had happened during WWII and its lasting impact on society and sentiment.
“Jerry tells a story that’s really important and visceral and, in some cases, political,” said Helaine Glick, who curated his exhibition at the Center for Photographic Art in January. “But he doesn’t hit us over the head with it. Instead, he presents it in such an aesthetically beautiful way, it gets
in subliminally, while we appreciate his images.”
When Takigawa invited his high school friend and college roommate, author and poet John Hamamura, to write the foreword to his book, his friend wasn’t sure he had the time or the perspective to do so. In the end, he found he had both, recognizing he “did not choose these
stories but was born into them,” as he developed his piece into a long-form poem.
“Jerry Takigawa and I,” he wrote, “are Japanese-American, now more often written without the hyphen as Japanese American. Even before we learned to read and write, we felt like we stood balanced on that wire-thin hyphen. Minus a hyphen, we became the bridge, with a foot on each
side, more or less weight on one or the other, depending on the situation.”
Hamamura’s poetry precedes Takigawa’s photographs yet introduces its own images, as he used his own artistry to interpret what Takigawa’s photographs represent.
“So much of our family histories were lost,” he wrote, “because our families could not bear the pain of telling the stories. Our mothers, lovely and gentle, deeply sensitive women, were barely out of their teens when they were sent to the camps. The war shattered their spirits like grenades
thrown against their hearts. . .”
As Takigawa considers the book that has given both imagery and verse to his family’s experience and legacy, he appreciates that the whole collection of his parents’ pictures is now in one place, paired with his prose and Hamamura’s poetry.
“The book is not an end in itself. It is a conversation,” he said, “which, I hope, will continue during upcoming exhibitions, as the book and ‘Balancing Cultures’ installation remain on tour during the next five years.”
“Balancing Cultures” is available at BookWorks in Pacific Grove and Carl Cherry Center for the Arts, Center for Photographic Art, The Weston Gallery, Pilgrim’s Way, and Riverhouse Books in Carmel.