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Roger Shimomura: reviving ancestral voices.

For Roger Shimomura the importance of his work resides in "the idea that is underneath." Some of Shimomura's ideas come from the ways that Japanese-Americans value family, and the immigrant experiences of successive generations. Shimomura is a sansei (third generation) Tapanese-American. He empathizes with another generation's experience through the diaries of his issie (first generation) grandmother Toko Shimomura. Toko recorded her life from before 1921, when she immigrated to the United States as a picture-bride, until her death in 1968.

The Diary Series

Diary: December 7, 1941, is one work in the Diary Series, that uses artmaking as a means to witness Toko's experiences. This series is personal, in that each painting pays respect to Toko's concerns, and political, in that each painting is a commentary upon the conditions that define Japanese-Americans.

Diary: December 7, 1941 is also a continuation of Pop Art's use of popular culture, flatly painted surfaces and ironic humor. Shimomura was born and raised in Seattle. He graduated from the University of Seattle in commercial art, served in the military and, like several other pop artists, practiced as a commercial artist. He became disenchanted with the constraints of that profession and went back to school to study fine art, first at the University of Washington and finally at Syracuse University. It was there that he developed a style influenced by the Pop Art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.


On December 7, 1941 (now remembered as Pearl Harbor Day), Toko wrote, "When I came back from church I heard the dreamlike news that Japanese airplanes had bombed Hawaii. I was surprised beyond belief. I sat in front of the radio and listened to the news all day. It was said that this morning at six p.m. Japan declared war on the United States, our future has become gloomy. I pray that God will stay with us." President Roosevelt interrupted the Shimomuras' lives when in 1942 he ordered all Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast to be placed into internment camps. Roger Shimomura spent close to three years as a young child with Toko Shimomura and his parents in Camp Minidoka in Idaho, while his three nesei (second-generation) uncles fought in the War for the United States.

Shimomura's early artistic interests did not include Japanese art or culture. While teaching art at the University of Kansas, Shimomura went to an auction. There he met a Kansas farmer who asked him where he was from. Shimomura replied "Lawrence [Kansas]." The farmer continued his query looking for hints of Shimomura's ancestry. After responding that he was from Seattle and his parents were from Seattle and Idaho, he eventually conceded that his grandparents were of Japanese ancestry. The farmer noted his own experiences with Japanese art. The meeting provoked Shimomura to immediately pick up a coloring book of Oriental masterpieces.

Understanding the Subject

Shimomura appropriated Ukiyo-e (floating world picture), the popular visual culture of eighteenth and nineteenth century Japan just as Warhol appropriated twentieth century advertising images from the United States. Ukiyo-e artists, such as Utamaro, Hokusai, and Hiroshigi, depicted the common life of Japanese people, Japanese landscapes, Kabuki theater, and Japanese traditions.

Shimomura places references to popular culture within each painting, in this case the radio that carried the news of Pearl Harbor around the world and into Toko's American home. Behind the woman in Diary: December 7, 1941 stands a shoji screen or window, a traditional element in Japanese architecture. Shoji screens are wood framed structures with surfaces covered with thin paper. Shofi screens soften the light and sound that enter the space but they exclude visual images. In this painting, the screen stands between the woman and the outside world.


Corwin, N. Roger Shimomura: Delayed Reactions. Lawrence, Kansas: Spencer Museum of Art, 1995.

Lippard, Lucy. Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America. New York: Pantheon. 1990.

Serwer, Jacquelyn. American Kaleidoscope: Themes and Perspectives in Recent Art. Washington DC: National Museum of American Art, 1996.

John Howell White is an associate professor at Kutztown University, Kutztown, Pennsylvania.


A reverence for common life and its complexities inspire much of Shimomura's art. The floating world of Ukiyo-e refers to the sensual here and now, rather than the perfect worlds of aristocrates or gods. Pop Art appropriates images of sensation and pleasure from consumer culture. The daily thoughts of Tokyo Shimomura and the shared experiences of family members and Japanese-Americans all point to Shimomura's reverence for everyday experience. It is a civilian that hears the news of Pearl Harbor.

Questions, raised through storytelling, characterize another aesthetic dimension of Shimomura's work. In his own way Shimomura continues an aesthetic tradition developed most dramatically through collage. Diary: December 7, 1941 is a visually integrated image but a symbolically complex confluence of ideas and traditions. The traditionally dressed Japanese woman posed alongside a 1940s radio sets up questions related to time and place. A 1983 artist paints a 1941 event with eighteenth century imagery. What does this work say about each period? Shimomura's artworks are metaphors that contain image-elements that both align with and repel each other. Diary: December 7u, 1941 provokes complex questions about identity that are important for Shimomura, Japanese-Americans, and all immigrant groups.



Discuss Diary: December 7, 1941 with your students. Work with a history or classroom teacher to develop a unit around historic events. Have students interview their grandparents (or other older adult) about an event that affected them. Show the students the picture of Toko Shimomura. How is she different from the image in the painting? Discuss how Andy Warhol and Utamaro influence Shimomura. Have each student choose several elements (color, pattern, repetition, placement, etc.) from Diary: December 7, 1941 that they would like to use in their own work. Have students complete an oil pastel drawing depicting their grandparents learning about a historic event that influenced their lives.


Have students work in inquiry groups that correspond to their shared ancestries. Work with a history teacher to develop a unit around World War II and the relationships people within the outside the United States had with this war. Use Diary: December 7, 1941 to discuss how Shimomura uses art to retell the story of Japanese-American responses to Pearl Harbor. Have each group research familial and historical accounts of their ancestors' roles in the war. Using stylistic elements derived from Shimomura's Pop Art vocabulary have each group create a mural related to a World War II event that involved their ancestors.

High School

In constructuring this work Shimomura brought together three time periods: eighteenth century Japan, 1940s America, and his present (1983). By analog: 1) Have your students research and appropriate artworks from the distant past that are relevant to their ancestry; 2) Have students interview or research their grandparents for personal stories related to past world events (or work with autobiographies); 3) Have students use Shimomura's Pop Art style to depict the historical images and the life stories they have researched. Advanced students could choose their own contemporary influences just as Shimomura chose Warhol and Lichtenstein.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Japanese-American artist
Author:White, John Howell
Publication:School Arts
Date:Dec 1, 1997
Previous Article:Expressing emotions through cartoons.
Next Article:From scribble to printed abstraction.

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