I never knew that two of Seattle's greatest painters were sent to the Japanese internment camps. While modernists like Kenneth Callahan were on their way to Life magazine fame, Callahan's friends and peers Kamekichi Tokita and Kenjiro Nomura were headed to barbed-wire pens in the Idaho desert. Tokita painted a few halfhearted pictures more and died of a heart attack two years after he got out, only 51. Nomura's paintings, always pregnant with clouds, turned hard, black, and abstract after the war; he died at 60. What's left only takes up a little room next to the admissions desk at Seattle Asian Art Museum. About 20 of their paintings hang there.
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Equally important is the book that goes along with the exhibition, called Signs of Home: The Paintings and Wartime Diary of Kamekichi Tokita. (The author and curator is sharp-minded Barbara Johns.) This is the first time the diary has been translated from its original old-style Japanese into English, and it's clear-eyed and devastating, bringing Anne Frank to mind. Tokita began writing it on December 7, 1941—the day he found himself trapped in a changed Seattle. "In a moment, we have lost all the value of our existence in this society," he wrote. "After more than two decades, we believed this place had become a second home to us. Were we merely travelers on a journey all this time?"
Both Tokita and Nomura were immigrants from Japan. Nomura came with his parents and stayed after they returned to Japan. He became the first person to have a solo show at Seattle Art Museum when it officially opened in 1933, and later, he was included in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His landscapes were often rural scenes, full of curvaceous forms, in tune with the American regionalism of the time. Together, in the 1930s, Nomura and Tokita owned a sign shop in Japantown that doubled as their studio—when they weren't out nearby, painting en plein air. The Depression shut down the shop.
Tokita had been a young man when his father sent him to the United States. He'd already been sent to China to make his way in business, but there, to his father's chagrin, he became enamored of art instead. The year he arrived in Seattle—1919—the Seattle Anti-Japanese League was formed by Miller Freeman, grandfather of current Bellevue Square owner Kemper Freeman Jr.
Tokita was a few years younger than Nomura, but a bolder and better painter. He was influenced by photography's new way of seeing the world, as a series of crops and odd angles, and he also cited two artists as inspirations: French proto-modernist Paul Cézanne and 15th-century Japanese painter Sesshu. Sesshu, himself influenced by older Chinese painting, depicted nature as though it were animated by a unifying force field—something like divinity. In Tokita's paintings from the 1930s, the lines wobble woozily, vibrating with life, while still capturing recognizably the angled curves of Yesler and Prefontaine, or an alley on Capitol Hill, or a corner in the International District. The views are from beneath bridges, between streets, around corners—views only a Seattleite knows. He's looking at his home.
When the sign shop closed, Tokita took over the Cadillac Hotel, and lived there with his wife and children (they'd have seven total) until their incarceration. This was where Tokita began writing his diary, where he watched and waited to be taken away. The hotel was a place for older folks and white workers who were down on their luck. In the internment, Tokita was forced to sell it at a deep discount. It still stands today, sign intact, a three-story Victorian Italianate brick building on Second Avenue South. On its first floors is the National Park Service's exhibit commemorating the Klondike Gold Rush.