Some Thoughts on National and Cultural Identity: Art by Contemporary Japanese and Japanese American Artists

By Higa, Karin | Art Journal, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Some Thoughts on National and Cultural Identity: Art by Contemporary Japanese and Japanese American Artists


Higa, Karin, Art Journal


Japanese and Americans of Japanese ancestry have been linked in the American political realm and in popular imagination since the beginning of Japanese migration to the United States in the late nineteenth century. Mostly, the conflation of a foreign Japanese identity with a Japanese American one has resulted in both tremendous racism and cultural misunderstanding. Anti-Japanese immigration and naturalization laws and the World War II incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese Americans are evidence of the former impulse; the continued expectation and interpretation of an essential "Japanese-ness" in the art and expression of Japanese Americans exemplifies the latter.

Contemporary artists of the last decade have challenged these cultural stereotypes by exploring, interrogating, and critiquing notions of national and cultural identity. In the United States and Japan, artists have begun to examine the contours of their ethnicity, to engage in a nuanced interpretation of national and cultural identity, both as a primary project and as the by-product of other concerns. The fact that such investigations are taking place against the recent fiftieth anniversary of World War II's end provides an especially compelling backdrop to reconsiderations of Japanese and Japanese American identity and expression. These Artists' Pages explore the tremendous range of such practices.

World War II left Japan defeated and devastated. The aggressive military actions and the attempt to establish, through force, the so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere were brought to a decisive halt. In an unprecedented radio broadcast, Emperor Hirohito, the divine ruler, announced surrender, and the United States began its postwar occupation that would continue into the next decade.

Yukinori Yanagi mines this period in U.S.-Japanese history to investigate the residue of Japanese nationalism in the postwar period, despite the explicit goals of the

Occupation to demilitarize and democratize Japan. In a recent exhibition at the Peter Blum gallery in New York, Yanagi paired The Chrysanthemum Carpet (1994) with an untitled photographic work of 1995. In the center of the deep red carpet is the outline of the imperial crest of Japan, the chrysanthemum. The central image is covered with a single brass petal. Scattered around are more brass chrysanthemum petals, and the phrase "he loves me, he loves me not" is embroidered in different Asian languages. Excerpts of the Japanese constitution, which was drafted under the jurisdiction of General Douglas MacArthur, are reproduced on the carpet's underside, impossible to see except by turning the carpet over. On the far wall is a photograph of MacArthur-whose official title, incidentally, was Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces-with Emperor Hirohito. A quotation from the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima on the emperor's renunciation of his divinity appears between the two figures. Here Yanagi deftly explores the wartime legacy of Japanese nationalism and its lingering effects, carefully constructing a critique that implicates the American occupiers as well.

During the war, on the other side of the Pacific, Americans of Japanese ancestry were branded enemy aliens, subjected to acrimonious treatment and, ultimately, unjustly incarcerated. Lynne Yamamoto uses the personal history of her "picture bride" grandmother as the starting point for creating objects and installations that explore issues of labor, domesticity, sexuality, identity, and death in the life of a Japanese American immigrant woman. It was only recently that Yamamoto discovered that her grandmother, who worked as a laundress on a sugar plantation in the territory of Hawai'i, committed suicide ten months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by drowning herself in an of uro, a Japanese bathtub. Submissions for Chiyo (1995) consists of 1,500 muslin squares arranged in a grid, each obsessively embroidered with nine stitches of the artist's hair. …

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