Brenda Wong Aoki, in red kimono, explains the elements of artist Nancy Hom’s Japantown Mandala, composed of hundreds of historical references to the history of San Francisco’s Japantown, one of three Japantowns remaining in the U.S.


A firestorm of protests by Japanese Americans and others across the country forced the Rago Arts and Auction house of New Jersey last week to suspend the planned sale of artifacts and artworks made inside 10 World War II concentration camps in seven states. The furor took the firm’s founding partner, David Rago, by surprise.

“We know what the internment camps were,” he told the Associated Press. “We know that it was a disgraceful period in American history, but we did not understand the continued emotional impact embodied within the material. We just didn’t get it.”

Detail of the Japantown Mandala, including contributions from Nihonmachi Little Friends.

That Rago identified “emotional impact embodied within the material” as the triggering factor suggests that he belatedly grasped the profound connection that Japanese Americans felt to the handmade items that told a story of creativity, resilience, suffering and injustice.

Created from found materials, the items included cigarette cases woven from string bags for onions, hand-carved barrack nameplates, and tiny bird pins whose legs were meticulously formed using the wire leavings of screen-door mesh.

Made under psychological duress and while behind barbed wire, the selling of these personal items on the auction block — especially because they were given to the original collector, Allen Eaton — unleashed deeply buried pain.

Wrote one of nearly 7,000 members of a Facebook page set up to protest the auction, “This is outrageous!!!! I cannot believe this is happening! It should be returned to the families or placed in a museum! My father was interned at Gila Bend, AZ.”

The outpouring of anger is what poet Janice Mirikitani calls “breaking silence,” the title of one of her poems in which she reflects on her mother’s redress testimony in 1981. “The theme of my books is that silence kills us,” said Mirikitani in a recent interview.

“Silence of the shame of an experience: incest, battering, everything that happens to us. If we’re silent about it, it will kill us because it festers.”

Shedding silence through artistic exploration also can unify and uplift a community, Bay Area writer and storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki says. By reminding people of what is lost when one’s historical traces are erased, she said — whether that be a camp artifact or an entire neighborhood — awareness and appreciation of a people’s history can be renewed.

“I wanted to awaken people’s understanding of Japantown as a homeland,” she said. “When you no longer have a place that is yours, what does that mean?

Visitors to the gallery are invited to write a memory on a slip of paper and hang it on a sculpture by Kevin King that represents the top of the Peace Plaza pagoda. Many wrote about why they love Japantown and what they would miss if it was gone.

“I’m watching all the changes in our city and thinking, ‘We’ve got to do something; the whole place has been sold to developers.’ We’re artists. What can we do?”

The answer that she and musician Mark Izu came up with was to “uplift what is precious about J-Town” and collaborate with community organizations and emerging artists to artistically interpret the history and future of J-Town.

The result is three artistic projects to be held this month and in May called “Suite J-Town.”

All three are being held in the 2F Gallery space above Daiso at 22 Peace Plaza, in the east end of the Japan Center mall, Post and Buchanan streets in San Francisco.

The first project, which opened earlier this month at the gallery and ends May 16, features a visually stunning 10-foot mandala created by artist Nancy Hom. It tells the 100-year history of San Francisco Japantown through hundreds of objects collected and assembled by the artist.

Some objects were made and contributed by preschoolers at the Nihonmachi Little Friends school, elderly residents at the Kokoro and Kimochi community centers, and other items such as photographs depicting immigrant ancestors and handmade elements were added by community friends, such as community activist Karen Kai, who hand-folded dozens of cranes.

The concentric circles of Hom’s vibrant installation suggest tree rings and the community’s long history as a place that “turned segregation into congregation,” said Eryn Kimura in a recent radio interview. She is one of eight young, emerging artists Aoki has commissioned as “J-tells.” They are “next-gen” artists, Aoki said, many of whom are of mixed-blood heritage. “They will be the future peacemakers,” she said. ”They will tell the next chapter of J-Town.”

On Saturday, April 25 (4 to 6 p.m., admission free), poets Mirikitani and devorah majors, both former poet laureates of San Francisco, will talk with Aoki about the Afro-Asian cultural dynamic of J-Town. Kai Kāne Aoki Izu and Javonte Holloway will perform hip-hop and rap and reflect on growing up in the Western Addition neighborhood with arts activist Eryn Kimura.

Rev. Masato Kawahatsu of Konko Church of San Francisco blessed the exhibit at the gallery opening. He is standing in front of pre-war kabuki backdrops found in the Buddhist Church of San Francisco’s basement.

On Sunday, May 10 (1 p.m. and 3 p.m., suggested admission, reservations required), two performances of “A Walk Through Time” will use music, dance, and storytelling to remember Japantown history with Aoki, dancers Marina Fukushima and Ayana Yonesaka, vocalist Moy Eng, Mark Izu (bass and sho), and Shoko Hikage (koto). Kenny Endo will perform on taiko as the performance moves to the Peace Plaza in a grand finale.

Aoki’s grandfather was a founder of S.F. Japantown, so this suite of performances has personal meaning. “In order to use storytelling as a way to organize, you have to have a relationship to the community you’re working in,” she said.

Her grandfather, Father Chojiro Peter Aoki, eventually left San Francisco, however, “because the archdeacon was so angry with him that he sent Grandma and Grandpa to Utah to convert the Mormon miners,” she said.

They died outside California, leaving 11 children orphaned in Utah. Telling this and other stories about Japantown history and its diaspora is her duty as a granddaughter and a storyteller, she said. “I’d like to unearth why it’s not a good idea to demolish J-town and put up high rises.”

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Nancy Ukai Russell is a writer and researcher based in Berkeley. She formerly lived in Japan for 14 years, working as a reporter for the Asahi and Newsweek. She is a member of the Ad Hoc Committee to Oppose the Sale of Japanese American Historical Artifacts.

The staff and artists of Suite J-Town, a First Voice production. From left: Charlene Kelley, Yuki Maruyama, Elena Nielsen, Junho Kim, Marissa Bergmann, Brenda Wong Aoki, Mark Izu, Jill Shiraki, Rebeka Rodriguez, mandala artist Nancy Hom, Celi Tamayo-Lee, Eryn Kimura, Nicole Hsiang. Not pictured is Kevin King, Prayer Pagoda artist.
A small city of wooden “Manga Blocks” by emerging artist Yuki Maruyama reflects her bicultural upbringing in the U.S. and Japan. The sides of the blocks function loosely as comic frames, capturing different facets of Maruyama’s experience growing up in Honolulu, Tokyo, and elsewhere, with the edge of the blocks joining but also dividing her perspective.
Mark Izu and Brenda Wong Aoki marching for Suite J-Town in the Cherry Blossom Festival Grand Parade on Sunday with Suite J-Town community partner JARF (Japanese American Religious Federation).

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