Archive for Tuesday, December 6, 2011

For local Japanese-American artist, time spent in internment camps fueled a lifetime of work

Retired Kansas University professor Roger Shimomura spent part of his childhood in interment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Behind him is one of several paintings he's done from his experiences in the camps, entitled "Classmates."

Retired Kansas University professor Roger Shimomura spent part of his childhood in interment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Behind him is one of several paintings he's done from his experiences in the camps, entitled "Classmates."

December 6, 2011


Editor’s note: This concludes our three-part series marking the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which occurred on Dec. 7, 1941.

For 35 years, it looked like it was going to be your typical immigrant story.

The 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 70 years ago today changed the United States. It also changed the lives of three men. Vincent Muirhead, Lawrence, and Dorwin Lamkin, Mission, both served aboard ships at Pearl Harbor. Lawrence artist Roger Shimomura spent part of his youth in internment camps. Our special project includes their stories, archived newspaper and audio reports, and a photo gallery of the events of Dec. 7, 1941.

Audio Clips
Audio reports of the Pearl Harbor attacks

Roger Shimomura’s grandfather comes to America from Japan, looking for a better life. The year was 1906 and Japan was building a new empire to the drumbeat of nationalism and renewed military might. Shimomura’s grandfather wasn’t so interested in that. He wanted to become a dentist.

But even back then, America didn’t welcome immigrants quite that easily. Shimomura’s grandfather never neared dentistry. In America, he worked as a janitor and a cook and other such blue-collar professions. But his son, well, that’s another matter. He became a pharmacist. Not a dentist, but not bad.

Yeah, life was shaping up well. If they were Italian or Irish, their story could be the plot of one of those “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” movies. The grandfather didn’t know it at the time, but even his grandson Roger would do the family proud: He’d go on to become a renowned artist and professor whose work at Kansas University would be collected by the Smithsonian Institution.

The story was on track until almost the very end of 1941.

Shimomura’s grandmother, who came to America in 1912, wrote 56 years’ worth of daily dairies while in America. Shimomura quotes the entry from Dec. 7, 1941, by memory.

“Today I came home from church and heard the dreamlike news that Japanese airplanes had bombed Hawaii. I was scared beyond belief. It was said that at 6 a.m. Japan declared war on the United States.

“Our future has become gloomy.”


One of Roger Shimomura’s first memories is of the Washington State Fairgrounds.

He wasn’t at the fair.

He and about 7,000 other Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were detained inside the fairground’s Assembly Hall.

“They were mostly horse stables. There were some makeshift accommodations under the grandstands,” Shimomura recalls partly from memory and partly from stories that his family later told him.

Shimomura was 2 years old at the time. He would live among the horse stables for three months. Then, it was on to the south Idaho desert region of Minidoka. It housed one of 10 “relocation” camps built by the U.S. government to detain Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Shimomura and about 20 members of his extended family were in the camp. He doesn’t directly remember much from the camp, mainly the change in weather from his Seattle home, the outdoor privies and the large group of kids who always were available for a play date.

Shimomura spent two years in the camp. He has spent the rest of his life trying to point out the injustice behind it.

Shimomura spent more than 35 years teaching art at Kansas University and gained international acclaim for paintings — almost comic book-like depictions — of U.S. concentration camps and post-war Japanese-Americans.

Shimomura was born in the United States — Seattle — and so were both of his parents.

“My parents both passed away without ever setting foot in Japan,” he said.

But a lifetime on American soil didn’t save you from a concentration camp, and even today it doesn’t save you from some “insulting” questions.

“For a long time I would have people ask me where I was from,” Shimomura said. “And I would say Seattle. But then they would ask how long I’ve lived in the country. No matter how you cut it, I couldn’t be American.”


In the hours following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a phrase began to spread across America: “This is our Pearl Harbor.”

Shimomura remembers it well.

“When I heard that, it made me shudder,” he said.

It certainly wasn’t the first time that Shimomura had recoiled from an American image. He remembers being a regular at a Lawrence concert venue and seeing the poster on the wall of a Japanese pilot with slanted eyes in a Zero plane in full dive-bomb mode. The words underneath the image advertised Kamikaze shots for $2.

Once, Shimomura was shocked to learn that a popular clothing retailer in New York City has the name Yellow Rat Bastard. Then, to add to it, he learned some of its best customers are tourists from Japan.

“They don’t understand,” Shimomura said of the Japanese tourists. “It is the Japanese-Americans who have to live with it.”

For Shimomura the images can pop up everywhere, even in a cartoon. He remembers an editorial cartoon in a regional newspaper during the days of the auto wars with Japan. The cartoon depicted Japanese planes dropping Hondas and Nissans on Kansas City.

“You can’t tell me that it doesn’t still live on in people’s minds,” Shimomura said.

After the 9/11 attacks, Shimomura began to think about the stories his father had told him of the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. His father heard the news on the car radio. Immediately, he made a U-turn and went home.

“All of a sudden, he felt like he was living in a foreign country,” Shimomura said.

In 2001 Shimomura became worried that Muslims in the U.S. would be detained. Although large-scale U.S. detention camps weren’t created, there were multiple reports of U.S. citizens of Arab descent who were detained, often on the grounds that they may need to be called as a witness in a future trial.

Shimomura is convinced the detentions would have been even more widespread had it not been for some Japanese-American groups speaking out about the dangers of detaining people based solely on their ancestry.

“It was clear we hadn’t learned a damn thing,” Shimomura said of his thoughts post-9/11.

Like he always does — he paints every day — Shimomura put some of those thoughts on canvas. The painting was of a stereotypical Japanese character wearing a Muslim turban. In the background, a plane was crashing into a building. The title of the painting: “Not Pearl Harbor.”


It was an odd twist to say the least. The same U.S. government that detained Shimomura and his family in a south Idaho camp discovered that its depleted wartime economy needed pharmacists and other highly trained professionals like Shimomura’s father.

So, after a year, Shimomura’s father was released from the camp and told to find a job if he could. Eventually, a German-American family in Chicago hired him, but it took another year before he could find stable enough living accommodations to send for his family.

But finally, after two years, Shimomura, his mother and his sister, who was born in the camp but died two years after being released, were free.

His grandparents were released after three years. And then … life went on. Shimomura said their time in the camp became a “forbidden topic” in his household, so much so that his father became furious when Shimomura proposed writing a simple college paper on the subject.

Shimomura said he was never surprised by the silence from his family and from most families who were detained in a camp. His family took its cue from his grandparents, who epitomized a Japanese philosophy of Gaman.

“It means to endure,” Shimomura said. “You hold it in and silently suffer. They were Japanese. They were Japanese.”

Shimomura is not. At least not that type. He’s from Seattle. He didn’t bomb his country’s Naval base in Hawaii, but his country did surround him with barbed wire and guard towers.

Seventy years is a long time, but it is not that long.

“There is no doubt that bitterness fuels my work,” Shimomura said in a studio that included a partially finished work of a Japanese-American character in a Superman outfit. “But it allows me to put together a lot of pieces of life in a way that makes me understand that this has been a part of my life, and will continue to be a part of my life until I die.

“It is not going to become resolved.”

— City reporter Chad Lawhorn can be reached at 832-6362. Follow him at


Bill Lee 6 years, 6 months ago

Roger's work is some of the best I've ever seen. He's been such a local treasure for so long.

jj14 6 years, 6 months ago

We are so lucky to have him in our community!

tlraz 6 years, 6 months ago

I'm sorry your family had to endure this. I love your work.

Lisa Coble-Krings 6 years, 6 months ago

What a moving story, and Roger's work is amazing. Though I've only seen a few paintings, I love them - his style, his subject matter, etc. I am really looking forward to his upcoming exhibit at Byron Cohen Gallery in KC. Looks like he's their Jan/Feb 2012 show, just fyi folks.*Exhibitions.html

Fossick 6 years, 5 months ago

(it will "continue to be a part of my life until I die. ")

It's sad that Professor Shimomura has decided to die a bitter old man. If there one thing the world does not lack, it's dying, bitter old men.

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