In my community we honor Day of Remembrance so that we never forget and never repeat February 19, 1942, the day President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcing the removal and incarceration of 126,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast. This year I received a painful reminder that some would prefer this history to be erased, even at a time when it is being repeated on many levels.
Before WWII, my grandparents George and Yasuko Shigaki owned a small home with an abundant garden in Seattle’s Central Area. They had a boy and a girl, ages 5 and 3. George had an architecture degree from the University of Washington. Yasuko owned a successful sewing school and tailoring business. Like so many children of immigrants, they were fulfilling the dream that brought their parents to America. Incarceration destroyed this dream. For three and a half years, the Shigaki family lived in inhumane conditions in the Minidoka concentration camp. Their third child, my father John, was born there, delivered in the absence of a medical doctor by a horse veterinarian.
My work as a public artist explores the effects of this history, as well as the way it is echoed in the atrocious treatment migrant children and families now face at our southern border. So when I was invited by Bellevue College to install the “Never Again is Now” mural on campus, I was excited but also a little apprehensive because of another recent incident that took place in Bellevue.
Last fall I was invited to participate in the City of Bellevue’s Bellwether Festival, a 10-day group exhibition that encouraged artists to reflect on the roots of Bellevue. I decided to make two large sculptural pieces in honor of my parents’ trophy shop. One celebrated my father’s birth inside of Minidoka and another told the story of the Japanese farmers who settled in Bellevue before the war. What follows is an excerpt from my original text for the accompanying art tag description:
Dishonorable Mention 1 & 2, 2019
Plaster, plywood, acrylic paint, rope
The plaque commemorates the back-breaking and dangerous work of the Japanese immigrants and their descendants, who cleared the land and made Bellevue suitable for farming and homes. After decades of anti-Japanese agitation, led by Eastside businessman Miller Freeman and others, Executive Order 9066 authorized the mass incarceration of 126,000 Japanese Americans, including the 60 families who farmed Bellevue. The Freeman family was amongst the biggest beneficiaries of the appropriation of these farms. Today, the same family, headed by property developer Kemper Freeman Jr., remains a powerful force in Bellevue. This commemorative plaque is a reminder that America’s racial policies have always had many economic motives and beneficiaries.
The bolded text was removed from my art tag without my consultation. I was told that a Festival organizer had said he was afraid he might lose his job if the Freeman name was not removed from this history. Another artist, Khadija Tarver, was also forced to remove the Freeman name from her work, and a third, James Snowden, was asked to strike what he wrote about an anti-Asian slur heard on the streets of present day downtown Bellevue.
So when I found out that the Day of Remembrance mural I had installed at Bellevue College had been defaced just days after it went up, I was angry and shocked, but not entirely surprised. The mural of two Japanese American children going into a World War II incarceration camp was untouched, but a reference to the Freeman family was literally whited out:
After decades of anti-Japanese agitation, led by Eastside businessman Miller Freeman and others, the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans included the 60 families (300 individuals) who farmed Bellevue.
Unfortunately, the City of Bellevue has not apologized or fully addressed the incident, even after a facilitated discussion led by the Seattle chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. It is only by acknowledging the disgraceful history of our region and honoring the victims of these racist purges that we can begin to move beyond it. Nor has the Freeman family spoken out to acknowledge their history and the role their name played in this incident.
Like my family, the Freemans have also lived in the Seattle area for generations. However, instead of suffering the trauma of incarceration, they appear to have benefitted from it. Bellevue Square, the Freeman’s central holding, is built on the very land Japanese Americans were stripped of in 1942. The Freeman family continues to hold a great deal of influence in Bellevue and are major donors to Bellevue College.
The United States’ history of racism should not be erased or modified, just because some find it difficult to come to terms with, or because it names people whose generational wealth and power is entwined with that racism. In fact, it is this constant desire to whitewash the past that dooms us to repeat it. Three generations later, the cruel and thoughtless attempt to silence my art stirs up the same emotions my ancestors felt but were unable to speak of in order to survive their incarceration: sorrow, anger, confusion, mistrust, dismissal, disrespect, shame, and self-hate.
I am grateful for Bellevue College’s Asian Pacific Islander (API) faculty, students and their allies for standing up and forcing the college administration to act. The administrator who defaced my art is on administrative leave, the College has pledged to provide more equity training and education about the incarceration and related histories. I am eager to see them follow through on those promises.
In the Japanese American community, we remember that few people stood up for us when the U.S. government stripped us of our lives, possessions, and rights during WWII. My art celebrates the lives of those who were imprisoned and hopes to ensure that this never happens again to ANY people. Given my traumatic family history I feel a deep moral imperative and authority to speak up on behalf of those who are being silenced today.
As an artist, an organizer of the Minidoka Pilgrimage, and an activist with Tsuru for Solidarity, my goal is to help people heal from trauma; to teach this history; to close all U.S. concentration camps; and to build solidarity with other communities that have experienced forced removal, detention, deportation, and family separation. While I am angered that my art was defaced for fear of angering the wealthy and powerful among us, I will continue to make work that commemorates this past, speaks for the powerless in the present, and reminds us that “never again is now.“ We will not let history repeat itself.
Erin Shigaki, a south Seattle artist, has created murals and installation focused on the experiences of communities of color, especially the incarceration of 126,000 people of Japanese ancestry, including her own family. Erin is passionate about highlighting similarities between that history and today’s immigrant crisis, and to other systematic injustices black and brown people continue to face. Ironically, the hostile treatment of her mural by Bellevue College amplifies her focus on intergenerational trauma, renewing old wounds to formerly incarcerated Japanese Americans of her parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Erin is an activist leader in the following upcoming events:
MinidokaPilgrimage.org Twin Falls, ID July 9-12, 2020
TsuruForSolidarity.org Washington DC Pilgrimage to Close the Camps June 5-7, 2020
She can also be reached via Instagram @purplegatedesign .
For more information about the role of the Freeman family regarding the Japanese American community, see David Niewart’s book Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community and his column last week.