The Descension of Memory
Artists Patrick Shiroishi and Rob Sato speak about their parallel experiences as Japanese-Americans and the persistent relevance of WWII's Japanese-American concentration camps in contemporary America.
Rob Sato (Left) and Patrick Shiroishi in conversation, Los Angeles Winter 2019.
Patrick Shiroishi is an artist that engages historical issues on a deeply personal level. Some of his most poignant works have explored the Japanese-American experience, most particularly the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II and its continuing relevance in contemporary America. His recently released album, Descension, is his most powerful work to date to focus on these themes.
Shiroishi asked renowned artist Rob Sato to create artwork for Decension. Sato's own work has explored similar topics and on the occasion of the album's release Shiroishi and Sato sat down to discuss their experiences as Japanese-Americans, growing up in California, wrestling with their own family histories in the concentration camps and the progress, or lack thereof, since WWII.
P - Patrick Shiroishi
R- Rob Sato
P: I like having the art of a record reflect and become the identity of the music, and after I made Descension I only had you in mind, and thankfully you said yes. Do you want to talk about your process and how you came to the current images?
R: Well you sent me the music and I found it really powerful. I thought it was holy music. It gave me the feeling of what I wanted to experience in church as opposed to the things that I have experienced in church. So I thought okay, I’m going to honor this with what I’m going to draw. I went at it meticulously like I always do, starting with thumb nailing ideas, but really fast, trying not to over-think and get as many images out as I could. I was also experiencing the music combined with these emotions for the first time, trying to not over-intellectualize and be in the moment. Because the subject matter that we’re dealing with is very emotional, it’s beyond politics—how do you say, very human? The subject matter is super political, but what’s underneath everything that you want to get at is the humanity, and that’s where I was trying to get to with all of these fast thumbnails. For once I didn’t want to negotiate my feelings with rational thought or anything else that’s been said on the subject. I just let my emotions spill all over and allowed myself to be really angry about what had happened and what is happening. At first I was thinking each individual thumbnail drawing was potentially the cover image, but after awhile I realized the collection of drawings was the cover.
P: You drew how many images…?
R: Hundreds. I was really trying to get to the core of something. Up until recently I never really thought that hard in a certain way about Japanese American incarceration, taking it for granted that Americans know the story and why what happened was wrong, but I started feeling a duty to engage with it more because of what is going on currently with our administration and after finding out how little people actually know about what our families went through.
P: For people that don’t know, what did your family go through during World War II?
R: They were put in prison for being ethnically Japanese.
P: Didn’t you also have some family members in the 442nd? (1)
R: Yes, my grandfather was in the 442 and my grandmother’s extended family was also served in the 442. My grandmother’s family lived in the mid-west during the war so her family didn’t actually go to camp(2), but they volunteered to join the 442 to show that they were pro-American.
P: My family didn’t see action.
R: I mean they were in Tule Lake(3), that’s like Guantanamo of the camps.
P: Yeah, and that’s where my grandparents actually met and then got married while still in the camps, which is this nice, beautiful thing that came out of something so dark. My grandfather didn’t see action but growing up I heard stories of the 442nd, how they were constantly talked down upon and still went into battle. They became the most decorated unit in history, correct?
R: Yes, for the size and length of service, the 442 was the most decorated unit in American history.
P: I feel like that’s something so Japanese, to do your best even in that kind of situation.
R: Definitely, and it fed to some degree into the model minority stereotype, but its also one of those things which is genuinely great; they made the contribution and made the American-ness of Japanese Americans completely undeniable to the rest of the country.
Shiroishi's Descension LP featuring Sato's original artwork.
For more information on the album, including audio and photographs or to purchase please Click Here.
1) The 442nd Regiment during World War II was a racially segregated combat unit in the U.S. Army composed almost entirely of Japanese-Americans. Many Japanese Americans in the 442nd had volunteered or been drafted directly from the concentration camps. The 442 became a highly experienced and elite fighting unit in Europe, seeing some of the heaviest combat and suffering some of the heaviest casualties of the war. Many died while their families remained in the camps
2) 120,000 Japanese Americans who lived in the “Western Exclusion Zone” (the mainland western coastal states of the U.S.) set up by the military were forced into concentration camps. The relatively few who lived outside of the western states were able to avoid incarceration. For example, Rob’s grandfather’s family and Patrick’s grandparents’ family lived in California and were forcibly removed from their homes and imprisoned, while Rob’s grandmother’s family lived in Colorado, and were not.
3) Tule Lake, California: The largest and most controversial of the concentration camps. Following the ill-conceived loyalty questionnaire that was administered to the imprisoned population, inmates who refused to give unqualified "yes" responses were segregated to Tule Lake and unjustly labeled as “disloyal."
P: Currently you’re very active in the Japanese American community with your art. Did that start recently or is that something that was always in your mind and art?
R: Definitely, but not to this pitch. Before it was more atmospheric and it was just part of my life, I never really had to think about the energy I was putting into it or what kind of energy I was putting out. Just being part of the Japanese American community was a fact of life.
P: Was there a turning point?
R: When Trump was elected and I realized that I had been living sort of in a delusion.
P: It was the same for myself…I’m not sure it was the same for you but when I was growing up I wanted to be American and not Japanese American and I wanted to fit in. It wasn’t until after college where I was able to fully embrace my identity. And it’s funny you mention Trump because I recorded this record two days after he was elected and I was very emotional.
R: And you can feel it in the music.
P: And its nuts that he’s still in office.
R: It’s crazy that he’s there in the first place.
P: I don’t know if it’s all intentional or not but there’s a lot more hatred towards minorities now than what I previously remember.
R: …Yes, but I can also track back and see that it was always there.
P: You’re right, I guess now its more evident and out in the open than before.
R: I realized that I believed in progress and I believed in America more than I thought I did, and I took a lot for granted.
P: Things are fucked, you know? I look at all the bad things that are happening and just think, we’re in 2019…there was a review that I read yesterday and this person called both me and Arturo (4) “jap gonks.” I don’t know what a gonk is but…
R: And he’s not Japanese?
P: Nope. And it was shocking to read, to hear that used to describe me in 2019, right now.
R: That’s so casual.
P: It was used super casually, there is a lot of weight that that word carries.
R: Right. I think that enough time has passed where kids today cannot fathom being called a Jap in anger. It could feel like it’s a joke, like how could anyone say that and really mean it? And that guy probably doesn’t mean it in anger, but still…
P: There’s a lot of history to that word.
R: I remember when I was a kid being called a Jap in anger, I mean the hate was still around, maybe as recently as the late 80s when veterans were still referring to us that way. I don’t look that Japanese and fuckers would refer to people as Japs around me and I would be like “hey, I’m Japanese”.
P: How did you feel?
R: I have this story….so I got my first job as a paperboy and I got my first paycheck and it was for $111 and I was like holy shit, I can’t believe how much money this is.
P: Yeah dude, how old were you?
P: That’s a lot of money for an 11 year old! I remember when I would get $20 and be so excited.
R: I think my allowance up to that point was less than a dollar so I was like, oh my god. I really wanted to go buy comics but then I thought, no, that’s childish. I’m a man now with all this money. I’m going to go get dressed up and go to the barber shop and get a haircut. So I went to the barber shop and it was everything I wanted it to be. There was a bunch of old dudes bullshitting in there and I loved that even though I was a kid they were not holding back and they were cursing. I thought I was in heaven. This was in old town Elk Grove (near Sacramento), actually only a couple blocks from the train station where my grandfather’s and my wife’s family were put on trains to be sent to the camps. Anyways, these guys start talking about how the Japanese were economically taking over the world with electronics and cars, that no one was buying American-made anymore, and then one of guys says we should have killed all of those mother fuckers in the war. They started to talk about the war—they were veterans of the Pacific—and one of them goes we even had all of those Jap fuckers in those camps and we could have just killed them all there.
R: And I was mildly upset but also pretty naive.
P: Yeah I mean, you were 11.
R: So I was like hey, I’m half Japanese, my family was in those camps. They were dead silent and things got super uncomfortable. I thought that I said the wrong thing and then after a while, the barber said, “Don’t listen to us kid, we’re just stupid old men,” but of course that story stayed with me.
P: As you grew older, when did you really process that?
R: It’s kind of this thing, where you know, I’m this happa (half Japanese) dude so the average white man isn’t going to see me as an Asian, so I was privy to a lot of this weird casual racism among other things. I don’t know, it was just how shit sticks around. I think I’m still processing it. I mean now, I can’t believe that I piped up and said something to them, that I was so naive that I put myself in harms way or put myself in this situation that I didn’t think I was in and said that. At the same time I think that naivety was beneficial.
P: Definitely. There’s so much that happens now that’s wrong, but people are scared or they feel like they shouldn’t make a fuss and its not confronted. I think what you did was a great thing, truly.
R: I hope that I made a difference in at least one of those old dude’s lives.
P: That’s what’s great about growing up. If I was 11 I think I would have done the same thing, but if I was 16 maybe I wouldn’t have said anything because I wouldn’t want to cause a scene or have any confrontation, and now, being over 30 I will definitely say something.
R: It’s wild. That was the most direct…no never mind, that was the second most direct racism I ever felt. I had this coach on my baseball team, and he would offer it up out of nowhere, telling me that my grandfather was put in the camps for his own good. Repeatedly. Super weird.
P: Did your grandfather ever talk about the camps to you?
R: Yes, but he would never say anything directly derogatory…there’s very few negative things he would say about it
P: That’s so Japanese of him.
R: He would never shit on the United States government, would never shit on any of the guards, just wouldn’t say anything bad. Unless I said something about his experience in a positive light, and then he would say “ Wait, no, it was bad”.
P: My grandfather passed away before I was born, I was named after him, so I only knew my grandmother on my fathers side who went to the camps. I remember around 7th or 8th grade after history class, there was one paragraph in our history book and that was it. I asked my grandmother about it and she totally shut down, didn’t answer my question, and being 12 I thought it was my fault, that I did something wrong, so I dropped it and I never asked her again. She passed away when I was around 25 and part of me regrets not asking her again and hearing her stories first hand. A lot of people from that generation are passing away and not many of them are telling their stories. It makes sense, it was a very traumatic experience.
R: It was annihilating. My great-grandfather, nobody says anything but there are hints that he never recovered from that experience. He lived only a couple more years after the camp before passing away. Some people told me that he became an alcoholic when he was in the camps, and my great-grandmother didn’t say anything about the camps until just before she died, around 1987, when she finally told my grandfather that she was still very bitter about what had happened to them.
P: I mean of course, they lost everything save for one suitcase or whatever they were allowed to take with them.
R: Right. My great-grandfather came to the US in about 1900, he lived here for 42 years and everything he’d worked toward up to that point was taken away from him.
P: My grandmother was third generation here, so she was born here. And then a one-week notice or whatever it was, and then everything was gone.
R: Were they here in LA?
P: Yes, in east LA.
R: That’s crazy. I think also that Tule Lake experience was way more intense, I don’t know how divided it is, but it does seem like the Buddhist and Christians had slightly separate experiences. Buddhist’s were typically No-No people…do you know what I’m talking about?
R: So people in camp were given this loyalty questionnaire, and questions 27 and 28 (5) are infamous. They asked if you will pledge allegiance to the United States and, even more insulting, give up your loyalty to the Emperor of Japan, of which none of our families ever had to begin with. The overwhelming majority of people in camp had never set foot in Japan or even spoke Japanese, but the US government assumed that they were loyal to Japan, and then it asked if you would be willing to join the armed forces. So these questions divide the JA community. Those who swallow their pride and answer “yes” to both questions are called Yes-Yes, and those who answer “no”, many out of out of anger at this humiliation and many answered “no” deliberately to exercise their right as American citizens to challenge and protest their illegal imprisonment, are called No-Nos. If you were No-No you were often sent to the Tule Lake camp and were subject to deportation. My family was a Yes-Yes family. According to my grandfather at least, a lot of the Buddhists advocated for answering No-No and while the Christians would most of the time answer Yes-Yes, but both of the sides I have complete sympathy for. Your family is Buddhist correct(6) ?
P: Yes they are.
R: My family was Yes-Yes, but they did have difficulty answering that way. Their church had a Methodist minister that was encouraging them to answer Yes-Yes, and so they decided to go that way collectively as a church. But this guy…I actually found a copy of his last sermon before being sent to camp online and he was talking about how we have failed as a people, the Japanese American community failed to show Caucasians our loyalty.
R: And in camp he would get beat up by Buddhist No-No people. Reading that sermon I felt like I wanted to beat him up too. So No-No families often were sent to Tule Lake. Do you know if your grandparents were there from the beginning?
P: I want to say yes, but I’m not 100 percent sure. I don’t think they really talked about it to my father and my aunt as well. I know a lot of people don’t talk about it. Tessaku (7) is doing a great job documenting the stories while the people are still alive though.
R: The stories of the resisters are only really starting to come out lately. You started to hear more about it in the late 90’s. People are more accepting of them in the Japanese American community now, but it really divided people a lot.
P: I understand though, to go with the flow is very ingrained in the Japanese way of life.
R: For sure, and also if you spoke out it really counted against you. You just don’t make waves.
P: I love that about your work, that you are speaking out through your work, and you did that entire 442nd graphic novel. It’s hard, I don’t think I would have been able to do this 5 years ago or whenever I started making this solo music.
R: It’s still hard. My gut is wrenched about that all the time. I don’t like doing it, it doesn’t feel good. It goes against my grain. I definitely absorbed that “don’t make waves” quality from my Japanese-American upbringing, and I’m really, really averse to sounding self-righteous even though I probably am (laughs).
P: But I think it’s necessary. Growing up my parents took me to the Japanese American National Museum, I read books about it as a child, but again my classmates and everyone I knew, all they knew was just in that one paragraph in the history books. Their parents aren’t going to take them to the museum, they’re not going to seek it out.
R: Did you know about that in high school where you saw the paragraph in the history book and you just knew in your head that nobody is going to see anymore than this?
P: More than anything I was shocked that this whole event was just summed up in 8 sentences, that all of these stories that I heard as a kid was just described right there in that paragraph.
R: And you knew that it had so much more of an impact that that.
P: Definitely, and I remember going to the museum and seeing the shacks or “houses” from one of the camps and its trash. I could make a better house than that, you know?
P: I know you visited Mazanar (8) a couple of times. I want to ask you about that. I got to visit Tule Lake 2 years ago and it was surreal, it was just an open field and a monument there. I remember as I stepped out of the car and I just felt an intense sadness…the whole thing was such a weird experience for me physically and mentally. I wanted to ask if you had a similar experience when you went to Manzanar.
R: My family was incarcerated in Jerome and Rohwer (9) , Arkansas and I think if I went there I would feel very personally haunted…you go to places like these and it feels like sacred ground. It’s a weird, holy place where humans suffered and made the best of a horrible situation on a massive level. I feel haunted and sad at Manzanar as well, but luckily Manzanar has the benefit of being a recognized place. It’s a monument in the national parks system, unlike many of the other camp sites. So there’s this spark of light at Manzanar. There’s a gladness there, or at least some relief that the tragedy is being recognized which counteracts the sadness somewhat. I think there’s just a plaque in Jerome where my family was. I know at Tule Lake there was some local resistance to it being made a national monument. I’ve heard they want to build an airport there or something?
P: I believe it, driving through that town it felt a little uncomfortable. The area wasn’t diverse at all and every house had an American flag waving in the lawns.
R: How do you feel about patriotism?
P: It’s tough because I feel like there are a lot of opportunities here and we’re really able to speak our minds compared to other countries who have no choice, and if they do there is severe punishment. But at the same time, it isn’t really as free as it seems…country of the free. How free are we really? There are kids going into detention camps now and dying in there. It’s fucking horrible. What harm could these kids cause or pose against the country?
R: There’s where I think…that’s the similarity. A lot of people think that’s not the same thing as what happened to our families, but it is. This demonization of immigrants and the attempts to pass draconian laws that allow for these terrible things to happen to them. For our families, the paths to the camps didn’t start at Pearl Harbor. It was half a century and more of rights being systematically stripped away from Asian-Americans which allowed “Internment” to happen and a persistent demonization in the media of Asian immigrants that spanned generations. The camps were just another domino in a long line that fell. All that shit that happened to our families was legal—technically, constitutionally legal. And they still haven’t overturned it. There are several Supreme Court justices who’ve said that it’s bad law, but it’s still law. They can use those same laws to do the same now. They probably won’t…
P: But they could.
R: Yes, and its getting to the point where nobody cares at all. The public seems dangerously uneducated about the past, and certain people in the government will keep using whatever they can to get what they want.
P: Do you have hope for the future? And if so, how would you hope that your work can drive towards that?
R: I do have hope…but at this point I have no idea how my art drives towards that other than I have to make it and I have to be as honest as possible with it.
P: I feel the same way, and its hard because my music doesn’t have any words. So for me I have to depend on song titles and the cover art, because it gives it its identity and a visual representation of the music so that people can interpret it as a whole, so thank you for giving it that identity. I feel like even if someone looks at this record they would at least become intrigued and if they really take a look, some questions will be raised.
4) Arturo Ibarra- Guitarist with whom Shiroishi released the cassette album “LA Blues”
442, a graphic novel about the 442nd regimental combat Illustrated by Sato, written byKoji Steven Sakai and Phinneas Kiyomura, published by Little Nalu Pictures in 2019.
5) WRA Loyalty Questionnaire, Line 27 & 28: In 1943, the War Department and the War Relocation Authority (WRA) joined forces to create a bureaucratic means of assessing the loyalty of all adults in the WRA camps, first, to prepare to extend the draft of the adult male population in camp and, second, to release "loyal" Japanese Americans from the camps for relocation to the non-restricted interior states. The final two questions on the forms created confusion and resentment.
Question number 27 asked if Nisei men were willing to serve on combat duty wherever ordered and asked everyone else if they would be willing to serve in other ways, such as serving in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. Question number 28 asked if individuals would swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and forswear any form of allegiance to the Emperor of Japan. Any answer other than an unqualified “Yes” to either question marked an individual as disloyal.
(6) Buddhists & Christians: Sato: “What I say here about this is too reductive and not entirely correct. There was a major rift in the community over the loyalty questions, but the Buddhist vs. Christian breakdown is not nearly as stark as I put it. Everyone I’ve ever talked to who had to deal with the questionnaire had a seriously difficult time with it as it put strain on nearly all their relationships. Based on not much more than my own subjective observations gathered from a few accounts I’ve read, Buddhist affiliated JA’s seemed to have a rougher time of it, tended to resist more with strikes and protests inside the camps and clashed with the War Relocation authorities more. Not in every case of course, but I think that was the tendency. Even before “Internment”, Buddhist priests and community leaders were seen as suspicious and were in particular targeted by the FBI. They were among the first to be rounded up after the attack on Pearl Harbor as potential “enemy aliens”. Buddhist organizations had fewer resources and, as you can imagine, suffered somewhat more from outsider stigmatization and as a result were significantly hampered in offering any support to JA’s in camp. JA Christians had, at the very least, slightly more mainstream American support coming in from outside of the camps, in particular from the United Methodist Church, which was able to work, admirably so, to get people released from camp by providing jobs and housing in the mid-west, especially in Chicago.
However, even the UMC didn’t officially condemn the Incarceration of Japanese Americans. The only organization in the entire United States who did was the Quakers, or the “American Friends Service Committee”. The Quakers, especially on the west coast, were openly and loudly critical of the government, and focused on Japanese American resettlement, taking lead of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council and established hostels in several U.S. cities to help Japanese American re-settlers adjust to life in their new communities."
(7) Tessaku: A magazine and website published by Diane Tsuchida collecting oral histories from the Japanese American Incarceration.
8) Manzanar, California Concentration Camp: Perhaps the most well known of the camps because of Jeanne Wakatsuki-Houston’s memoir “Farewell to Manzanar”. At its peak, the camp held 10,046 people.
(9) Jerome and Rohwer, Arkansas Concentration Camp: The euphemistically named "Jerome Relocation Center" in Arkansas. Along with the nearby Rohwer camp, Jerome and Rohwer were the easternmost of the WRA camps, and they were the only ones located in the Jim Crow South.