Artist Taiji Terasaki uses mist as a medium to contemplate social issues. His exhibition “Transcendients: Heroes at Borders” opened on Feb. 1 at the Japanese American National Museum.

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

Entering a steel shipping container on the plaza of the Japanese American National Museum — a confined black box space — artist Taiji Terasaki forces the viewer to confront parallels between incarceration of Japanese Americans and the current detention of migrants.

One side is in black and white, with photos of Issei and Nisei families. On the other, in vivid color, are photos of migrant families being placed in vans. In the middle, the viewer walks through mist projected with a convergence of Japanese Americans and Latino refugee families, all detained behind a wire fence.

For Terasaki the issue is personal. His simple question: “Should anyone be treated this way?”

“My grandparents and parents were in the concentration camps. So it’s very timely issue right now that’s being brought up again in people’s minds,” Terasaki said in an interview with The Rafu Shimpo.

“Transcendients: Heroes at Borders” opens this weekend and is a meditation on the camp experience and a celebration of heroes in the Japanese American community as well as local activists in the arts, interfaith and LGBTQ communities.

Among the “heroes” featured are Nobuko Miyamoto, founder of Great Leap, colorfully resplendent in a large lenticular print installed in the JANM Central Hall. Other local leaders highlighted throughout “Transcendients” include environmental artist Lauran Bon, Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, and historic figures such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony. Nikkei notables include Kazuo Masuda, Toyo Miyatake, Dean Matsubayashi, George Takei, Bill Watanabe, traci kato kiriyama and Satsuki Ina.

Terasaki said the exhibition came about following a discussion with JANM CEO Ann Burroughs nine months ago.

“It was surprising that we had a common mission, and so the concept of the show was born,” Terasaki said.

Boxes filled with mementoes representing community heroes.

In a statement, curator Emily Anderson said, “As an institution born of a community’s unjust World War II-era incarceration and the aftermath, JANM has long focused its attention on the consequences of prejudice, fear, and misuses of power. ‘Transcendients’ shines a light on both celebrated and unknown ‘heroes in our midst’ who have dedicated their work to dismantling borders, speaking truth to power, and promoting reconciliation and understanding.”

Terasaki says the title of the exhibition comes from the idea of transcending in a spiritual sense and the transient nature of life. Working with mist, Terasaki plays with light and shadow, movement and metamorphosis.

“What I like most is it’s a very spiritual medium through which I can talk about many different things,” he said. “From there I’ve been projecting all kinds of things. Now I’m focusing on people and their lives and how they leave things behind.”

In one of the most arresting installations, a short movie of Satsuki Ina of Tsuru for Solidarity is projected through mist that undulates and moves with a somber grace, as she recites her poem “We Came Back for You.”

Ina recites:

In protest we chanted, we raised our fists,
we sang in Spanish, “De colores.
We held hands,
we sang in Japanese, “Kutsu ga Naru.”

Projections juxtaposing wartime incarceration and the current detention of migrants fill a converted shipping container in JANM Plaza.

Although a Hawaii resident, Terasaki grew up in Los Angeles and is the son of Dr. Paul and Hisako Terasaki. In 2017, Terasaki’s first solo exhibition, “Feeding the Immortals,” debuted at Ravizza Brownfield Gallery in Honolulu and was a meditation on the loss of his father, who was known both for his philanthrophy in the JA community and as a pioneering scientist in the field of tissue typing.

“We are a family of artists and scientists,” Terasaki stated. “The need to create — that’s obvious for artists, but scientists are that way, and I know my father was that way.”

“Transcendients: Heroes at Borders,” a contemporary art exhibit by Taiji Terasaki, is on view from Feb. 1 to March 29 at JANM, 100 N. Central Ave., Little Tokyo. For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or visit

Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo





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