Photo depicting Michelle Kumata in a blue shibori dress standing in front of her artwork.

OPINION: What It Means to Be Japanese American — Michelle Kumata’s Artistic Exploration

by Glenn Nelson


Though Michelle Kumata can make your eyes pop with her colors and imagery, if you don’t examine her pieces carefully, detect the nuances and Easter eggs, and cogitate upon all of them, you are bound to miss something profound. 

In that way, the artist and her art are like holding a highly polished mirror to her Japanese American heritage. Hers is a community whose connective tissue is its experience with mass incarceration by its own government. The melding of Japanese customs and response to a very American-concocted collective trauma has resulted in a community whose definition evades clarity, even to its own members.

Many Japanese Americans consequently are hard-pressed to explain themselves, even though we are asked constantly. You almost have to be part of the community or extremely awakened to know that tomorrow is Day of Remembrance. It marks the date in 1942 when Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, paving the way for the forced removal and incarceration of some 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry. Feb. 19 marks 80 years since a day that ought to live in infamy but really does not.

So try explaining yourself when the most overpowering period of your history is not known to most other Americans. By many, it’s not even been acknowledged as truth. Then stir into that all the complicated consequences that have impacted how you and your community define yourselves.

This is the kind of challenge that awaits at the Bonfire storefront gallery, next to the Panama Hotel on South Main Street in Seattle’s resurgent Japantown, or Nihonmachi. There, Kumata’s mixed-media exhibition, “Regeneration,” will be on display through March 26. Walking from Bonfire’s doors, angling slightly right, leads you straight to an example of how Kumata’s works are composed of so many subtly splendored things.

The hanging piece, “No Bones,” is maybe not the most artistically striking work in the show, but I found it poignantly resonant with the complicated culture and history that I share. The Seattle writer Ken Mochizuki’s quote about the almost-hidden atrocity of World War II incarceration helps explain the conundrum I laid out above: “It was the skeleton with no bones in the closet.” Those words are stenciled on six stitched-together handkerchiefs, meant for un-cried tears, which in turn are represented by muted paint splotches throughout.

Kumata used a Japanese tie-dyeing technique, shibori, which employs thread to register repeated points on fabric. Some of the patterns resemble clenched teeth, symbolizing the camp survivors’ collective resistance to relating their experiences. Some appear as scars or stitches, for all the wounds inflicted, and others as the barbed wire of confinement. All is rendered in shades of blue, a color prevalent in Japanese culture, representing the purity, security, and calmness derived from the sea and sky surrounding the island nation.

“I feel like I’ve been going through this process of thinking about what it means to be a Japanese American and how or why we even have to say what it is, because it’s different for everybody,” said Kumata, whose parents were born at Minidoka, in Idaho, where most people of Japanese descent in Seattle were taken. “There’s not one way to be Japanese American. Why do People of Color have to explain themselves? To make other people feel more comfortable, I guess. This really just adds more pressure on us to try defining something that is always changing.”

In that regard, our elders believed they were protecting their descendants by holding their tongues about WWII incarceration. Yet, in a lot of ways, they were not doing us many favors. Japanese culture already contains strong threads of conformity and not standing out — ergo the proverb, “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” Many camp survivors also approached their experience according to the Buddhist notion of Gaman — enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity. Throw into the mix the collective trauma response of blending in, the better to evade the terrible wrath of this country.

Because of all that, first-hand accounts of the mass incarceration didn’t really begin to emerge until halfway through these 80 years since. It was the fight for redress, granted to 82,250 former detainees in 1990, that pushed camp survivors to begin sharing their past. The narrative has been further coaxed by subsequent generations of Japanese Americans, which are further removed from the customs and responses that produced the great silence in the first place.

Photo depicting Michelle Kumata's art piece "No Bones," which features white fabric shibori-dyed with a quote in blue text by Ken Mochizuki. A pattern of dyed stitching weaves across the piece.
“No Bones” by Michelle Kumata. Photo courtesy of Bonfire Gallery.

I didn’t seek out Michelle Kumata just because she has two timely exhibits (the other is “Emerging Radiance: Honoring the Nikkei Farmers of Bellevue,” in the lobby of the Bellevue Arts Museum) tied to the incarceration experience. With Day of Remembrance on the horizon, I’ve been thinking a lot about how far behind other U.S. racial groups — even other Asian Americans — Japanese Americans seem to be in terms of artistic expression and performance. Maybe I’ve been watching too many Marvel films and noticing that representation does not tend to include us.

Last week, I spoke to Dr. Satsuki Ina, a psychotherapist and thinker renowned in the Japanese American community for her work on healing the collective traumatic response to the camp experience. She was born at the Tule Lake Segregation Center in northern California, to so-called “no-no” parents, whose two answers on a government-administered loyalty test subjected them and some 12,000 others to further separation and punishments. Her point about some of the ways parents passed their traumatic responses to their children seemed to account for Japanese American disparity in creative pursuits.

“We lived under this fear that our parents transmitted to us,” Ina said. “If you’re not the best student in the class, the hardest working, the most compliant, then terrible things will happen to you. That’s the pall that hung over many of us. And I started to realize how many of my Japanese American friends were strivers — very deliberate and focused and intent on becoming educated enough to become professionals. It was very fear based. If we didn’t do the right things to belong in America, to be a part of American society, we could be punished severely.”

The iconic George Takei (Mr. Sulu of Star Trek), the late Pat Morita (Mr. Miyagi of Karate Kid), or the late artist George Tsutakawa, a homegrown Seattleite, appear to counter my observation about creative latency among Japanese Americans. Notably, all three were WWII camp survivors — which included first-generation immigrants, or Issei, and their children, who were second generation or Nissei. It was subsequent generations who were steered from creative pursuits. The incarceration destroyed homes and businesses and chased its survivors into the shadows of American society, but Ina says one of its most damaging blows was wiping away a generation or two of artists and performers.

A third-generation Japanese American, Kumata both does and does not break the mold. Her emergence more closely mimics the slowly unfolding identity of her community.

Kumata’s father, Gerald, is a talented artist. She has fond memories of the elaborate pictures he used to draw on her lunch bags. His paintings hung on her grandmother’s walls. But he went into architecture, a profession, though one with outlets for expression. He and Kumata’s mother, Sakiko Shimizu, weren’t keen on their daughter’s interest in art. Inspired by an illustration internship with the International Examiner during high school, she took a subterranean route.

Back then, Kumata’s role models were Japanese American graphic artists — in other words, producers of practical art. She blazed a similarly roundabout trail, leading design of the blockbuster exhibition, “Executive Order 9066: 50 Years Before and 50 Years After,” for the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. After nine years as an illustrator and designer at The Seattle Times, Kumata returned to The Wing as a full-time exhibit developer until leaving in 2018, to pursue a more personal creative vision.

Kumata’s artistic journey has focused on her family, the Japanese American experience, and her familial links to Japanese Brazilians. All of that steered her to these exhibitions. 

“This past year, I really feel like I am just starting to find more clarity,” said Kumata, a homegrown Seattleite. “Some of the things I’ve been working on, I’ve not thought consciously or intentionally about what I was creating. When I started putting it together, I was like, ‘Oh, this is what you know, this is what’s coming out of me,’ and I was learning how to articulate that. This really has been an exploration.”

Taking a cue from the Wing Luke and its internationally celebrated model for community input, Kumata began the process for “Regeneration” with a survey of local Japanese Americans. She asked about their memories of a vibrant, self-sustaining, pre-WWII Japantown and the wartime incarceration experience. Some of the frank, very personal responses either made their way into the exhibit or informed and inspired Kumata’s creations.

Eleven small, framed portraits were inspired by black-and-white images from Takano Studios, a pre-war business in Seattle’s Japantown. Kumata intentionally chose unidentified subjects on the premise of elevating personal stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told. She uses boldly colored backgrounds, Japanese motifs on clothing, and unique, thrift-shop frames to give the subjects presence. She also chose people who were looking forward, to convey a sense of strength as well as counter a cultural tendency to avert eye contact.

Part of the framed series is a scene of a Maneki Neko, or beckoning cat, next to a cup of steaming black coffee. The Maneki Neko is a figurine meant to bring good luck to business owners and usually have a cheerier demeanor. Kumata’s wears a frown, reflecting what was happening to the Japanese American community at the time. The cup of coffee is meant to bring in an element of American culture, though the steam takes the form of Japanese-style cloud structure.

Photo depicting Michelle Kumata's art "Best Suit," featuring a Japanese- and male-presenting man in a bright-red suit with a ginko leaf pattern. The man's skin is colored yellow.
“Best Suit” by Michelle Kumata. Photo courtesy of Bonfire Gallery.

As much as her Seattle show is filled with understated niceties, Kumata uses a grander gesture in her Bellevue installation: the faces of her farmers and their family are a striking yellow.

“That was really intentional to address the racism that we as Japanese Americans, as Asian Americans, faced and continue to face now,” Kumata explained. “But I also use the yellow, and gold, to honor and pay reverence to our ancestors. Yellow is a color we should take and own because we want to share that our story, our people, are unique and beautiful.”

After Michelle Kumata recently explained her vision for the color choice to an Eastside youth group, a young woman approached her with gratitude. She seemed to take more pride in herself as a “yellow” person. Kumata knows well and good that Asian skin isn’t really yellow — that the color has been just another mechanism for othering her community. Seizing it maybe flips Yellow Peril into Yellow Power. That’s not a final answer, but it’s a start for a community whose American legacy is, well, complicated and not widely understood.

***

A behind-the-scenes look at “Emerging Radiance” will be part of a Day of Remembrance Livestream honoring Nikkei farmers who once resided in Bellevue. The virtual presentation, 12–1 p.m. on Saturday, will feature artist Michelle Kumata and creative director Tani Ikeda on Bellevue Arts Museum’s Facebook and YouTube accounts. RSVP for the event, sponsored by BAM, Meta (formerly Facebook), and other organizations on the Bellevue Arts Museum website.


The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.


Glenn Nelson, a contributing columnist, is a Japanese American journalist and lifetime South Seattle resident who founded The Trail Posse and has won numerous national and regional awards for his writings about race. Follow him @TrailPosse on Twitter or @TheTrailPosse on Instagram.

📸 Featured Image: Michelle Kumata. (Photo: John Lok)

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