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America’s Worst Idea

Like many, I have been enjoying Ken Burns’ The National Parks, America’s Best Idea. I found the fifth episode especially interesting. Among the artists profiled was Chiura Obata, a painter, Berkeley resident, art teacher at the University of California, and a victim of the harsh treatment of Japanese people during World War II. I discovered Obata’s story during a visit to the de Young Museum in San Francisco in late December 2000. The museum building was going to be demolished so that a new earthquake-resistant facility could be constructed. The old de Young had been damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake, and the collection was at considerable risk.

One of the final shows at the de Young was of the Quaker painter Edward Hicks, known for his Peaceable Kingdom paintings. This inspired some Friends at Berkeley Meeting to organize a group visit to the museum to view the exhibit. Some of us from other local meetings accepted their invitation to join them.

The show was worth the visit, but another Friend had an idea of not stopping there. He asked me to join him in a walk to the Obata exhibit in another room. I am glad I did. We saw the Yosemite paintings that were shown on the Burns’ documentary. Most striking were the sketches he drew of the internment camp he was forced to call home in Topaz, UT. A letter from Eleanor Roosevelt thanked him for the painting he had sent her.

Many Bay Area Japanese were relocated in World War II, including busloads of Berkeley residents. I sought out the address on Ellsworth Street that was listed on the documents, but, alas, Obata’s house has been since replaced with an apartment building.

Just the week before, I was reminded of the Obata story when I saw another documentary about a homeless, Japanese artist in New York during 9/11, the Cats of Mirikitani. Jimmy Mirikitani was living on the streets and painting pictures of cats just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. After the towers fell, a film editor invited him to stay temporarily with her while she helped him find shelter. She ended up making the documentary as he told her of his life, including his internment at Tule Lake. The film makes a power statement of how we treat those different from ourselves. Back then, Japanese people were the villains. Today, it is the Muslim people. In the film, Mirikitani sadly shook his head, knowing how little has changed.

I did not think much about the treatment of Japanese in World War II until my adoption by Tadashi and Alice Yamaguchi in 1969. Tad said his family was sent to live in a camp along the Colorado River when he was a boy. His parents, who came to the United States when they were very young, lost everything they owned, including their farm in Cucamonga. What happened to these citizens is inexcusable. If parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone are America’s best idea, camps like Topaz and Tule Lake* were our worst.

* To that worst list I should add the reservations where our government shipped our native peoples after stealing their land.

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October 2, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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