A mural commissioned by the Los Angeles Unified School District and painted at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Koreatown by artist Beau Stanton in the spring of 2016 is at the center of a controversy over its resemblance to the imperial Japanese flag.
In response to complaints from the Wilshire Community Coalition and other Korean American groups, the LAUSD has agreed to paint over the mural during the year-end holiday break.
The mural depicts actress Ava Gardner against a ray motif that appears in many of Stanton’s murals. The image is an homage to the Wilshire Boulevard property’s history; the school stands on the site of the Ambassador Hotel, home of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, which Gardner and other Hollywood stars of the 1920s and ’30s frequented. The hotel, where presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, closed to guests in 1989 and was demolished in 2005.
Roberto Martinez, the senior school district superintendent for that region, said in a statement on Dec. 11, “Art is intended to celebrate the human spirit, but in this case, it has offended a group in our community. We will be removing the mural over the winter break, and we are looking forward to working … on next steps in the selection of a new mural.”
Phyllis Kim, executive director of the Korean American Forum of California, told Kyodo News, “Public use of (the) swastika is prohibited; so should the rising-sun flag.”
Last month, the WCC issued the following statement: “We understand that the school officials and the artists did not intend to offend anyone or promote hate crimes. However, the mural depicts the rising sun flag of the Japanese imperialism during the World War II. This flag symbolizes the Japanese military aggression that resulted in one of the most horrendous and gruesome crimes against humanity in human history.
“We value every culture and history. We love Japan and Germany! However, such cruel history against huamnity is not to be tolerated and repeated. This is why we condemn, denounce and ban hate symbols like swastika of German Nazism and anti-Semitism, and KKK of white supremacy. Yet, the unfortunate lack of education regarding the Japanese imperialism allows for such ignorance of the rising sun flag. We`d like to take this opportunity to briefly summarize the cruel history of Japanese imperial/military aggression.
“The rising sun flag served as ‘the sole emblem of Japan’s crimes against humanity during the wartime.’ The rising sun flag, symbolizing the Japanese imperialism, is equivalent to the swastika of German Nazism.
“The Japanese military aggression under the rising sun flag killed over 20 million people during the WWII in Asia, Europe and the United States. It is responsible for committing gruesome and horrible crimes against humanity during the war and the colonization period.
“It is associated with massive killings of innocent people motivated by racism. Moreover, it is responsible for inhumane and horrendous crimes against humanity. It used human as experimental tools to develop chemical weapons intended to wipe out targeted ethnic groups. Furthermore, it executed military aggression at the cost of women and girls as sex slaves, known as ‘comfort women,’ and innocent children and men as forced laborers.
“Therefore, the mural symbolizing Japan’s rising sun flag is not only extremely offensive and threatening to many survivors, descendants and community stakeholders in this community who stand in absolute opposition of crimes against humanity committed by the Japanese military aggression during the World War II, but also puts our values for humanity at risk.
“Just imagine having a mural of swastika along with the profile of Ava Gardner, combined with architectural elements and ornaments from the original site’s brass doors, Moorish arches, columns and palms, in the heart of Jewish community. This would no doubt bring an uproar from the entire Jewish American community as offensive and unacceptable.
“We request that the schools and LAUSD promptly remove the rising sun flag from its RFK Mural Festival.”
The National Coalition Against Censorship has launched its own online petition on Change.org, which reads as follows: “The superintendent of a Los Angeles school district has unilaterally decided to remove a mural on display on the exterior wall of RFK Community Schools’ theater after some members of the surrounding community complained that visual elements of the mural resembled the rising sun flag of imperialist Japan. The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) strongly disagrees with this decision and urges the school district to reconsider.
“Removing art should always be a last resort and never a decision made in haste. NCAC urges LAUSD to engage with the artist, the community, its teachers and students, and artistic freedom advocates, before committing to an irreversible removal of this mural.
“This mural was created as part of an arts initiative at the school, which involved workshops and seminars with students. Young people have a constitutional right to free expression and access to information, including art. School officials violate this right when they remove or restrict content on the basis of a specific viewpoint.
“The Kennedy Foundation grant-funded mural was vetted by the school district and is intended as an homage to actress Ava Gardner. The surrounding rays are a common device found in many of artist Beau Stanton’s murals. In fact, rays emanating from a central figure are a common artistic element. We also understand that some community members — represented by the Wilshire Community Coalition — are offended by the rays, which they associate with the Japanese imperialist flag, and have called for the erasure of the entire mural.
“While we appreciate LAUSD’s effort to distance itself from the hateful sentiments the mural’s rays may evoke for members of the WCC, removing the mural in response to their complaints sets a dangerous precedent of submission to public pressure in assessing art and allowing students’ access to diverse viewpoints and ideas.
“We strongly urge LAUSD to affirm its commitment to freedom of expression by reversing the decision to erase the mural. Instead, we encourage LAUSD to create forums for dialogue, to bring the school and the community into conversation. We also urge LAUSD to consult with a diverse body of community representatives, including teachers and students.
“By keeping the mural up, LAUSD can allow RFK Community Schools to model its stated vision of ‘openness to different perspectives (that) fosters empathy, integrity, collaboration and mutual respect’ in a vibrant learning community.”
Stanton, who has met with the opponents of his mural but was unable to assuage their concerns, expressed disappointment with the school district’s decision. He said in a Facebook post on Dec. 12: “The past 24 hours has been a really interesting experience discussing the different viewpoints about art censorship and the artists responsibility in communities. I appreciate all who weighed in about my soon-to-be-removed mural in Los Angeles.
“One fundamental point that troubled me is the misunderstanding of the term ‘censorship.’ I think the ACLU puts it best: ‘Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups.’”
Stanton has said that while he understands the objections, the sun-ray motif is common not only in his works, but also in many other designs such as the flags of Arizona and Tibet.
A similar controversy arose in Palo Alto earlier this year when a middle school was to be renamed after the late Fred Yamamoto, a local resident who served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II. Palo Alto’s first-generation Chinese American community opposed the name because it reminded them of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the leader of Japan’s wartime navy.
While the opponents acknowledged that Fred Yamamoto was an American war hero who was worthy of respect, they claimed that using his last name was the same as naming a school after Hitler. Supporters of the name, including Yamamoto’s family and other members of the Japanese American community, pointed out that Yamamoto is one of the most common Japanese surnames and that there are dozens of famous people who have it.
Ultimately, the school was given a different name and a scholarship fund was established in honor of Fred Yamamoto.