It has now been over four years since starting this project of capturing images of people from the Second World War, primarily in moments of quiet. Books and magazines for the past six decades have projected in both words and images, the brutality of war. It was never my intention to show any of that. It remains my clear goal.
When the touring exhibit of Ansel Adams’ photographs of the Japanese (American) internment camp Manzanar (Central Californian) came to the Palm Springs Air Museum in January 2015, along with it were images of magazine covers of the 1940s casting its anger at Japan in many forms. Some showed the Coke bottle thick round eyewear on bucktoothed Japanese men: the Emperor, Generals and fighting men. There were other more disturbing images, two in particular, of a Japanese soldier practicing bayoneting a blindfolded, bare chested Chinese man tied to the pole. The horrors of war in black and white. Thankfully those images are not what I walk by on my daily trip to my easel. I start my day with the expectation of wonder, both in painting and the conversations.
I am well aware of the bloody history between Japan, China and Korea that has gone on for centuries. I’m not going to delve into the specifics here but the awareness allows me, when talking to people of Asian culture, to first acknowledge (never guess) their heritage. How do the Chinese feel about seeing my paintings of Japanese Americans who were interned.? In finding out their heritage, it’s never to point fingers at one culture over another but to let them to know that even though I’m painting, for the most part, non-confrontational images, I can’t expect them to necessarily appreciate them or forget the past.
Last year I’d read a book about Japan’s highest fighter pilot ace: Saburo Sakai in which he talks about the brutality he and his other Navy pilots endured in training. The culture of completely removing “self” from the human being to become a total fighting machine operating without conscience explained a lot when reflecting on the brutality the Japanese army showed toward prisoners.
Right now I’m reading Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale For The Time Being about a sixteen year old contemporary Japanese schoolgirl whose diary washes up, after the 2011 tsunami hit the main island of Japan, on a small island off the coast of British Columbia and into the hands of a woman writer. In the diary, young Nao, talks about her late father’s uncle, a kamikaze pilot whose notes to his mother, written in French to hide his true personal feelings from his fellow pilots and superiors about war and his destiny to fly his aircraft into an enemy ship. Haruki #1 as Nao refers to him, reveals the emotional agony he’s experiencing days before his suicidal mission: “Will I bravely hold my plane’s course steady, knowing that at the moment of contact, my body will explode in a ball of flames and kill so many of my so-called enemy, whom I have never met and whom I cannot hate? Or will cowardice (or my better human nature) rally one last time, just long enough to nudge my hand on the control stick and turn my plane off course, so that by choosing to end my life in watery disgrace rather than inflamed heroics, I will at the very same instant forever alter the fate of those enemy troops on the battleship, as well as their mothers and sisters and brothers and wives and children?”
It was a powerful moment reading the heartache of someone, though fictional but probably true more than history has recorded, who had no choice but to die for something he no longer believed in and in Haruki’s case, never believed in. He had the soul of an artist. In the end, he became just one more body added to the millions lost in that war.
As I’ve said, it was never my intention to show the brutality of war and the story of Haruki cemented not only that for me, but has provided more incentive to paint his image in the form of some real kamikaze pilot whose story I will probably never know but hope that in those final moments of his own life, betrayed the stereotype of the maniacal pilot intent on killing the unknown enemy, sacrificing his own life in the name of humanity. War, as they say, is an unnecessary evil. Sadly we are bombarded by the worst in humankind almost daily. But within the ranks of all our so-called enemies out there, I must hang onto the hope that there are some who, like Haruki, loathe what they’ve been commanded to do and find some way to disappear within themselves, within their own humanity.