‘Resisters’ Finds Lines of Solidarity Between Japanese American Incarceration and Other Movements Against Racism and Oppression
by Amanda Ong
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor during WW2, 112,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast were forced into prison camps. Innocent civilians, elders, and children were uprooted, and many had their property seized. Many from Seattle’s vibrant Japanese American communities were imprisoned at Pullayup’s disingenuously named Camp Harmony and later taken by train to Camp Minidoka near Jerome, Idaho. They were forced to live there until 1945 — with the last camp closing in 1946 — and it wasn’t until 1988 that congress issued an apology. While this history has been much undershared, excluded from our history books and school curricula, it has played a critical role in Japanese American history and American history as a whole.
The Wing Luke Museum has often recognized this traumatic historical event and its impact on Seattle’s once vibrant Japanese American community, and it seasonally offers tours of Nihonmachi — Chinatown International District’s historic Japantown. But now they are telling the stories of resistance that followed Japanese American incarceration as they trace incarceration to the movements for civil rights, Asian American studies, redress, and even the fallacy of the model minority, through art, poetry, and more.
This October, the Wing Luke Museum revealed their newest exhibit, “Resisters” in their Special Exhibition Gallery. “Resisters” brings together Japanese American stories and art made in resistance around incarceration. The exhibit has been woven together by talented writer Tamiko Nimura, whose compelling exhibit labels bring the injustice of Japanese incarceration into modern context, asking visitors to imagine how they would act in the face of injustice.
“The resistance continues,” exhibit developer Mikala Woodward said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “The world changed around Japanese Americans, and the next generation went on to face questions of how to feel American, how to still raise their kids to be American after these atrocities. Meanwhile, the civil rights movement is happening, the anti-war movement is happening, the gay rights movement is happening.”
This message is highlighted by the exhibit’s sense of solidarity. One section draws a comparison to the devastating losses faced by Indigenous communities at the boarding schools at Tulalip and Puyallup, where Indigenous children were removed from their families, held, abused, and forced to assimilate. Testimonies from Indigenous elders powerfully recall their time in boarding schools. The exhibit also calls on the voices of Japanese Americans who have spoken in solidarity with Black power, Indigenous groups, and Muslims.
“We all have a stake in righting things that were wrong, and the first step is really to acknowledge wrongs and tell the stories,” Woodward said. “Telling these stories is a step along the way to naming what needs to happen, and fighting together … giving visitors an invitation to become part of that is what we really wanted.”
The gallery’s central piece is an art exhibit by Na Omi Judy Shintani, “Dream Refuge for Children Imprisoned.” Encircling the room are small cots, each with a tender image of a sleeping child: the Japanese children incarcerated during World War II, the Indigenous children at boarding schools, while immigrant children held at the border sleep at the center of the room on mylar sheets. The piece is both sweet and tender as these children have a moment of rest and reprieve, and it evokes the pain and heartache of the losses caused by these atrocities.
“Resisters” brings together these voices of suffering as they morph and shift into voices of resistance and call on visitors to ask how they, too, will resist.
“You can be the person to intervene in injustices happening now,” Woodward said. “It can feel hopeless to battle these huge systems, but it can be empowering to work with others against them. Even if you cannot defeat the system in your lifetime, you can create the community that you want to have by fighting against them.”
Visit Resisters at the Wing Luke Museum at 719 South King Street from now to September 2023.
Note: The author was involved in the development of this exhibit in a temporary position.
Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
📸 Featured Image: One of the works on display at the Wing Luke Museum’s “Resisters” exhibit, showing art related to Japanese American incarceration during World War II. (Photo: Max Chan, courtesy of the Wing Luke Museum)
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