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Roger Shimomura Smashes Stereotypes With Art

Roger Shimomura wasn't even three years old when he and his family were sent to the Puyallup Assembly Center in 1942. He celebrated his third birthday there.

That's one of his earliest memories.

Shimomura and his family were among the thousands of Japanese Americans forced to leave their homes and jobs behind after President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Internment camps were created up and down the West Coast; Shimomura’s family went to Minidoka, Idaho.

“I don’t remember more than extremes of weather. Severe dust storms and ice in the winter, and the torrid heat in the summer,” Shimomura says.

Shimomura’s family never talked about their camp experiences after they left Minidoka, but the Seattle native believes it colored the rest of their lives. Always, he explains, they carried that experience of being behind barbed wire, being considered “less” than other American citizens.

“You know how you draw family portraits? I would draw my mother, my father, my sister and I. And I would draw my mother with blond hair and blue eyes,” Shimomura recalls.

Eventually, he even drew himself as a blond-haired boy.

Identity has been Shimomura’s primary subject for more than forty years of his professional career. He traces that focus back to 1969 when he moved to Lawrence, Kansas to teach at the University of Kansas art department.

That’s where Shimomura had a series of encounters with people who’d never met any Asian Americans. He says they found it hard to accept that somebody who didn’t look like them was born and raised in the U.S. So he made the first of many paintings that juxtaposed Asian themes and stereotypes with images of American popular culture.

Many of Shimomura’s paintings are self portraits, but not in the traditional sense. He puts himself in the boat with George Washington crossing the Delaware River. In one painting, Shimomura rips open his kimono to reveal a Superman outfit. In another, he’s included his own face in a kaleidoscope of portraits of Chinese military men. Many of these works are included in a major show at the Tacoma Art Museum called “An American Knockoff.”

Shimomura defines the term "knockoff" as something that’s fraudulent or fake. “And in some ways I see the Asian American, or specifically Japanese American population, sort of treated in that same way.”

In 1988, Congress passed a law that granted reparations to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. The legislation stated that the government’s actions had been based on racial prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.

Despite that act of redress, Shimomura says many sansei -- third generation Japanese Americans like himself -- need to confront their history. To that end, he’s been part of organized pilgrimages to Minidoka, where people share their stories.

But Shimomura began to visit the camp long before the pilgrimages started up.

“I’ve been driving from Lawrence, Kansas to Seattle now every summer for 47 years,” he explains. “As I would drive through southern Idaho, I would always pass a sign that said Minidoka County. And my curiosity just got the better of me one day.”

But there were no signs or markers for the camp. So Shimomura stopped to ask directions of a man he saw at a nearby gas station.

“And I asked, am I anywhere near where Minidoka was?”

Shimomura says the man leaned back and responded “Oh, you mean the Jap camps? Just keep going down that road.”

Shimomura lets out a wry chuckle at this story. But to him, it speaks volumes about lingering attitudes toward “the other” in American society.

Despite recent attention to racism in this country, Shimomura believes prejudice can exist on subliminal levels even in Seattle’s most overt liberals.

He’ll keep making art that addresses it. He doesn’t expect to change people’s opinions.

“But if you can plant something in their mind to take with them, you’ve really done something,” he says. 

“An American Knockoff” is at Tacoma Art Museum through September 13.