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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 2, 2001

Exhibit captures internment life

Associated Press

"Still, a lot of people do not know about it. It's still not in the history books. For 40 years people didn't want to talk about it."

– Roger Shimomura

Artist Roger Shimomura sits in front of three of his pieces from a set of lithographs titled "An American Diary," at the Boise Art Museum in Idaho.

Shimomura's work depicts life in the Minidoka Relocation Center, a World War II Japanese American internment camp.

Associated Press

On the Web: Boise Art Museum:

Artist Roger Shimomura vividly remembers the day in 1942 when a friend came to visit him at the internment camp.

Shimomura was 3 years old, and his family had just been transported from Seattle to the Minidoka Relocation Center northeast of Twin Falls, Idaho, during World War II.

The camp was one of 10 sites where 120,000 West Coast Americans of Japanese origin were held during the ethnic hysteria that followed the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

"They were not set up to have guests," Shimomura recalls. The camp had just been built, and the visitor area was yet to be completed.

The scene is recorded in Shimomura's 1997 lithograph, "Memories From Childhood," which depicts a small Japanese boy separated by barbed wire from a young white visitor holding a ball. The work is part of Shimomura's "An American Diary" exhibit, appearing at the Boise Art Museum through Sunday.

Fifty-six years after the so-called Hunt Camp's last detainees were released, only remnants of a stone guard tower and a visitors' waiting room remain.

But the exhibit, partly financed by the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, offers an intimate perspective of camp life and events leading up to internment.

Since 1998, the paintings have appeared in several museums and art galleries, including Philadelphia's Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

The works are based on what Toku Shimomura — the artist's late grandmother — recorded in her diary.

In Seattle, on Dec. 7, 1941, she wrote: "When I came back from church today, I heard the dreamlike news that Japanese airplanes had bombed Hawai'i. I was shocked beyond belief. I sat in front of the radio and listened to the news all day. They said that at 6 a.m. Japan declared war on the United States. Our future has become gloomy. I pray that God will stay with us."

The painting with which her grandson accompanies the passage shows a Japanese woman listening to a 1940s-style radio, gazing out a window. Nearly half her face is covered by shadow as the sun sets for the evening.

After Toku left Japan in 1912 to get married, she began keeping a journal, which she maintained until she died in 1968.

The pop art images and flat, comic-book style characters outlined in black that Shimomura uses to illustrate his grandmother's entries recall traditional Japanese imagery. The exhibit of 11-by-14-inch paintings progresses chronologically, showing the everyday realities of Japanese Americans in the concentration camp.

"I wish to forewarn my fellow Minidoka internees that while all of the events depicted are true, architectural and physical details may not be," wrote Shimomura, a professor at the University of Kansas School of Fine Arts.

His grandmother arrived at the Minidoka Relocation Center on Aug. 17, 1942. Part of her journal entry that day describes traveling by bus in 112-degree heat to the desolate location.

"Barely alive, we continued on," she wrote. "Though the camp was still unfinished, we could see the grand scale of this city near the mountains. We stared in amazement."

Barbed wire is a recurring theme, seen in several individual paintings. A painted barbed-wire fence encircles the exhibit, running along the wall and above each painting.

In January, President Clinton named the Minidoka Relocation Center one of seven newly selected national monuments.

Shimomura says the designation was long overdue.

"Still, a lot of people do not know about it," he says. "It's still not in the history books. For 40 years, people didn't want to talk about it."