By MARY UYEMATSU KAO
My first introduction to Mr. Nakamura was by email. He was asking to buy my book “Rockin’ the Boat.” His email explains how he knows my mother:
“Please give your mom my best regards. She and other student leaders at Butte High School in the Gila Concentration Camp were responsible for encouraging my growth as a collegiate enthusiast, professional, and all that I have become. I feel fortunate that she and I are among the few from our ’43 class still around! I was honored by her attending the Hillcrest Festival of Fine Arts when I was a featured artist with sculptor Armando Baeza. She inspired many at Butte High School.“ (July 2020)
Yosh would send me email messages from time to time, and I would update him on what was happening with Mom. Most recently, he invited us to an exhibit showcasing 75 years of his artwork at Whittier Art Gallery.
Opening Reception of “Yoshio Nakamura: 75 Years of Artistry”
Oct. 7 was the opening reception for Yosh’s one-man show. The gallery was crowded with people. The exhibit’s biography of Yosh tells how he first got interested in art:
“During his tour of duty in Italy, with the 442nd Regiment Combat Team, his observations ignited his interest in the great artworks all over Florence. Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, Florentine architecture, stained glass and galleries created a foundation for Yosh’s move into the arts.”
Rafu readers are familiar with Yosh through his active involvement in many community events as a 442 veteran. A recent email from Yosh:
“Yes, I’ve been kept busy, much as a vet. I’m exhausted from participating in ‘Go For Broke Spirit: Legacy in Portraits’ at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. The museum did a fine job of telling the story of the Nisei during WWII, including our incarceration and becoming the highest-decorated unit in U.S. armed forces history for its size.”
In 2018, Whittier Daily News writer Mike Sprague wrote about Yosh’s wartime experience:
“Nakamura was called up in June 1944 as a replacement. He was initially dispatched to southern France, but his most serious combat came in Italy.
“Nakamura was in a mortar company where he was an ammunition carrier. They were assigned to break the Gothic Line, the German defensive line of the Italian campaign, to climb steep Mount Folgorito by night.
“’There was no talking,’ Nakamura recalled. ‘It was a torturous climb. By daybreak, we surprised the German outpost and started advancing. We were supposed to be a diversionary force, but we were way ahead of the other troops. That push knocked out the German outpost.’”
Finding Grace and Community Activism
Yosh took advantage of the GI Bill to get his BFA (Magna Cum Laude) and MFA at USC. “I couldn’t get jobs at a lot of school districts,” he said. “School boards were afraid (the public) would not look kindly at someone with Japanese ancestry.”
Yosh married Aiko Grace Shinoda in 1950. They shared a love of painting and community activism. Their three children, Linda, Daniel, and Joel, are all artists. Family outings were study field trips nurturing a family bond through the love of nature and creating art.
Linda is a photographer and attorney; Daniel is an origami artist and retired math and science teacher; and Joel is an internationally known artist (i.e. 2002 Winter Olympics opening and closing ceremonies programs) and teacher/owner of an aikido studio.
At the Manzanar National Historic Site in Independence, there is an area called Tarpaper City where you can hear stories from detainees. You can hear Grace’s voice telling what it was like when they arrived at Manzanar:
“The shades had been drawn on the bus and on the train so we couldn’t see anything, we couldn’t see where we were going and when we got off the bus, that’s when we saw what Manzanar was like. People were just speechless … that in itself was a trauma.”
Grace’s obituary in 2017 (Whittier Daily News) describes her fighting humanitarian spirit up until she passed at age 90:
“’The last big mission for her,’ he [Yosh] said, ‘was speaking against the anti-Muslim rhetoric during the presidential campaign. She was giving talks all last year because she saw history repeating itself. She warned to be suspicious of those who create a climate of fear.’”
Grace supported the Whittier Oil Watch and protested against cell towers near East Whittier Middle School, among many other issues.
Grace had one sibling, the late Larry Shinoda, who designed the 1963 Stingray Corvette. Brother and sister shared a passion for drawing.
An Educator for Life
In 1952, Nakamura was hired as an art teacher at Whittier High School, chairing the Fine Arts Department from 1956 to 1963. He was Rio Hondo College’s first faculty member to be given a contract in 1963. He retired in 1992 as a college vice president of community services and institutional development.
“In April , he will be inducted into the Whittier High School Hall of Fame — an honor that recognizes the scope of Nakamura’s impact — a role so strong students still stop him to say how much his classes influenced their lives.”
Yosh’s Art: Abstract Impressionism
I’m no art historian, but I do have a BA in pictorial arts, UCLA. However that may qualify me to say, my best summation of Nakamura’s work is that of abstract impressionism. His use of subtle color changes through abstractions of nature — his works bring about your own interpretation when matching the title to the visual. His work spans a wide variety of media: woodblock print, digital print, stencil graphic monotype, encaustic, pastel, acrylic on canvas, and wire and sculpt metal.
The titles to his works are just as intriguing: “Tuolumne Mystery,” “Samusen,” “Apring Foliage,” “Roots at NZ Three” … or how about “Sierra Chi”?
After acknowledgements to many folks who helped make this 75-year exhibit a reality, the mike was handed over to 98-year-old Yoshio Nakamura. Sitting in his walker/wheelchair, Yosh gave very heartfelt thanks to his adult children:
“They’re not only talented artists, but they are very good human beings, and have done well professionally. But probably, from my standpoint, the most important thing is that they are friends among themselves, and that they support each other, and it’s just great to have three in our family that get along so well. So I want to thank them because they were very inspirational in my growth.
“I appreciate the opportunity to do the exhibit here … I feel privileged to be a part of this and I hope this gallery will keep going for a long time.”
His bio for the exhibit ends with: “He feels very fortunate to have had such an interesting and fulfilling life as an artist, educator, parent, supporter of the arts in the community and being a spokesperson for the brave men of the 442nd RCT, the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in the U.S. armed forces history.”
A perfect summation of Yosh Nakamura, a man of many talents and a whole lotta heart.
“Yoshio Nakamura: 75 Years of Artistry” will be on exhibit until the closing reception (2-5 p.m.) on Oct. 28 at the Whittier Art Gallery, 8035 Painter Ave., Whittier; (562) 698-8710; www.whittierartgallery.org.
50% of the proceeds from purchases of Yosh’s works are being donated to support the Whittier Art Gallery, which in his own words is “a gemstone of our community.”
Mary Uyematsu Kao published her photography book “Rockin’ the Boat: Flashbacks of the 1970s Asian Movement” in June 2020. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo. Comments and feedback are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.