When Redding artist Michi Takemoto first dabbed a paintbrush in oil and put it to canvas about 18 months ago, she had no idea the journey would link her with hundreds of other Japanese-Americans who share a 70-year-old piece of painful history.
But on July 1, she stood in the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church, talking to dozens of visitors who viewed a gallery of her work depicting the experiences of those sent to internment camps—called “incarceration camps” by a growing number of Japanese-Americans and historians—in the U.S. during World War II.
“I’m truly honored to share this,” said Takemoto, who was born in the Topaz camp in Utah in 1944. “I have seen people moved to tears – that is very meaningful as an artist.”
An estimated 270 people stopped at the church Friday as part of a bi-annual pilgrimage to Tule Lake, site of a segregation center from 1942 to 1946 for more than 18,000 Japanese-Americans and those of Japanese descent who were considered potential enemies of the country after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Nationwide, more than 120,000 Japanese were relocated, 77,000 of them U.S. citizens.
The Methodist Church in Redding has hosted lunch for the pilgrims for about 20 years, organizer Damon Cropsey estimated. The visitors travel by bus from Sacramento, San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland. Another 180 visitors, coming from points north, were also making the trek to Tule Lake this year – making the July 1-4 event one of the largest pilgrimages to date, according to a member of the Tule Lake Committee, which organizes the trip to northeastern Siskiyou County.
About 25 volunteers from the church helped with set-up and were there to welcome, guide and talk to visitors, who included camp survivors, their children and grandchildren, as well as others interested in the history.
The oldest member of the pilgrimage, 97-year-old Riichi Fuwa of Sacramento, was on the second bus to stop at the church. Traveling unaccompanied, he ate a sandwich for lunch and nibbled a cookie as he shared about why he was there.
“I want to see the place for the last time,” he said. “I want to see how it is now.”
Fuwa was a 24-year-old farmer in Bellevue, Wash., when he and his ailing mother were evacuated to the camp.
“The war started, and they told us we had three weeks to move,” he said. “We took whatever we could carry in our two hands.”
His mother had just had surgery to remove a tumor and had to be taken by ambulance to the train that transported them to Tule Lake, Fuwa recalled.
“You lose everything you have, you don’t know what to do,” he said. For the next four years, they lived in a 20-by-20-foot room, and he drove a tractor at the camp farm. When they eventually returned to their farm in Bellevue, it had been abandoned by the renter.
Fuwa left Washington and moved to Sacramento, where he did landscape gardening. He and his wife had two children; he has five grandchildren. He has told them about his time at the camp, he said.
Other visitors were on their way to Tule Lake to learn more about a time in their parents’ or grandparents’ lives they hadn’t heard much about.
“My parents were quiet about it,” said Ken Okabayashi of Elk Grove, as he viewed Takemoto’s paintings with Beverly Miyao Tanaka of Sacramento. “They would visit friends they had made at ‘camp,’ and I would think they were talking about summer camp.”
He didn’t realize the extent of their history until his late teens, he said.
Tanaka, who had grandparents, parents, siblings and other relatives housed at Tule Lake, said she started learning more when she was in college.
“I remember Mom once said, ‘You would not like to live with guns looking down at you,’” she said, a reference to guards stationed in towers around the perimeter of the camp.
She later learned her father-in-law was a rice-and-potato “bootlegger” in the camp, which closed seven months after the end of World War II and housed the largest number of Japanese-Americans of the 10 centers in the U.S. During the camp’s four years of operation, about 1,500 babies were born and more than 300 people died.
Okabayashi said the only thing that his parents, who were farmers, would say about the traumatic time of evacuation in 1942 was, “It was the best year they had ever had for strawberries, and they couldn’t harvest them.”
He pointed out two of Takemoto’s paintings that he recognized from well-known photos kept in the National Archives. Takemoto said she spent about a year working on the series of about 15 pieces, looking at hundreds of photos online from the Japanese Relocation.
“It was difficult,” she said. “I had to take breaks. But if a photo resonated with me, I tried to paint it.”
Though she does not remember her family’s time at the Topaz camp, which housed 8,000 Japanese, it is part of her heritage. When her parents returned to Sacramento in 1945 with her and her older brother, everything they owned was gone—looted and stolen, she said.
“Like a lot of Japanese-Americans, we moved to the center of the country to get away from the racism,” Takemoto said. She grew up in Chicago, where her family had a grocery business. When her parents retired, they returned to California. Takemoto had a career as a family therapist in Redding before her retirement.
While taking a painting class from Redding artist Chuck Prudhomme at the O Street Gallery, Takemoto was encouraged to “paint your story — paint your passion” by Prudhomme, said Shelly Shively, curator of the gallery.
Family and friends encouraged Takemoto to paint the story of the Japanese Relocation. All the paintings are based on archival photos except one, depicting a young Japanese-American family, sitting on porch steps in the camp.
“That painting is from the only photo of her family: a young husband, a pregnant wife, and their young son,” Shively said. “Michi was the unborn child.”
Takemoto noted that cameras were considered contraband in the camp, but she is thankful that “somehow they got that one.”
Deeply moved by the works capturing a “dark era” in American history, Shively asked Takemoto to be part of an October exhibit at the gallery. It was Takemoto’s first show, and when members of the Methodist church saw her works, they knew the series would be an ideal fit for the next Tule Lake pilgrimage stop.
Friday’s church visitors also included scholars from Japan interested in the history of the time period.
Dr. Junko Kobayashi, a lecturer at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies in the Center for Language Education and Development, was on the four-day pilgrimage to present a workshop titled “Camp Artifacts: Giving Voice and Bearing Witness,” with co-presenters Nancy Ukai and Dr. Satsuki Ina.
Ukai is a Bay Area researcher and writer involved in a social media protest that helped stop Rago Arts and Auction Center from auctioning off 450 artifacts from the camps in 2015. Kobayashi has translated into English some of the Japanese essays and poems written by those held at Tule Lake.
“Tule Lake, because of its concentration of Japanese language speakers, had some of the best quality literature (from that era),” she said.
Moderated by Ina, the trio’s workshop includes a discussion by Kobayashi of “rarely available materials that give voice to personal anguish, creativity and protest against incarceration.”
Takemoto is hopeful that her paintings will continue to help “give voice” to fellow Japanese camp survivors and their families. She was asked Friday about showing her works in two other venues, including at the Manzanar National Historic Site, operated by the U.S. National Park Service and home to the Manzanar War Relocation Center.
“It’s truly meaningful and gratifying,” she said.
Takemoto’s paintings will be on display in the church sanctuary through August, with a reception scheduled for 3 to 6 p.m. July 19. She has prints available for sale.
Learn more about the Tule Lake pilgrimage at tulelake.org.