In Alameda, Rhythmix Cultural Works will commemorate Feb. 19, the Japanese-American community’s annual Day of Remembrance, with the exhibit “The writing is on the wall” and a live performance in honor of Alameda’s lost Japantown, an area that flourished in the 1930s and ’40s with 822 residents, churches, schools and numerous businesses. Today, few know of its existence.
Across America, Japanese-American communities mark this day as the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, one that resulted in the internment of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast into 10 camps scattered throughout remote regions of the United States. The free event and reception is meant to bring attention to the removal of Japanese-American citizens, the loss of their homes and jobs and the disappearance of Alameda’s Japantown, all because they had “the face of the enemy.” The event is also intended to shift the focus forward to potential similar situations today.Rhythmix Cultural Works founder Janet Koike, who came to Alameda in 2002 and had no idea a Japantown had existed, curated the exhibit. She learned about Japantown a few years ago, also discovering that very few others knew of its existence. That spurred her on to create the event.
“Rhythmix is about honoring people’s cultures, so I thought we should do something,” she said. “I was shocked that there was a vital Japantown in Alameda and that what happened before is happening now. I wanted to bring attention to an expression in the Japanese-American community, “Mo Shimasen.” It means ‘never again.’ ”
It began with the K Gallery exhibit at Rhythmix, “The writing on the wall,” a saying that has its biblical origin on the wall of King Belshazzar’s Babylonian palace. Written by a disembodied hand and warning of the end of an unjust king’s reign, it’s an indication of imminent danger. Displayed are poems and letters from the days of the internment camps, photographs by Nahib Joe Hakim and paintings by Salma Arastu, both of which bring the focus forward into the present and recent past.
“Poems from Heart Mountain” are from a collection written in the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, internment camp by a group of Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants), who called themselves the Standing Flower Poetry Group. The poems show calligraphers and visual artists working together to create poetic images that portray a quiet dignity and profound insight for the beauty in life.
“The poems are beautiful, they show how the people interpreted their experience and how they transcended the situation and saw beauty,” Koike said. “They’re framed and displayed on the gallery wall. I wanted to make them special because they are special.”
Also on exhibit are “May’s Letters,” copies of typewritten letters from an internment camp, offered by May Okada’s daughter Kimi Okada. May Okada kept carbons of all the letters she typed in the camp. The beautifully written letters express a dry wit and provide a window into daily life and her uplifting ability to endure the indignities and confinement.
Hakim and Arastu bring the exhibit into the present and a more contemporary climate. Hakim, who works as a documentary and editorial photographer, displays photographs of Palestinian and Lebanese walls he took in 2006 as an American going back to learn about his country of origin, after war had destroyed much of the country. He transforms the devastation into poetic photographs of torn posters, graffiti and text.
Arastu draws on her Indian heritage and Islamic spirituality to create paintings inspired by the Quran, bringing Arabic calligraphy into dialogue with modern abstract painting and, for this exhibit, incorporating the words of activist Yuri Kochiyama, “Consciousness is Power,” into her paintings.
“All the paintings were made just for this show, and a number of them include Japanese calligraphy alongside the Arabic,” Koike said. “They’re very abstract, more like writing that forms into a dance.”
At 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19, the Rhythmix Theater will present a live performance including Koike’s group, Maze Daiko, a combination of taiko, marimba and violin, with guest Kallan Nishimoto performing some of the exhibited Heart Mountain poems.
The Rev. Michael Yoshii, of Alameda’s Buena Vista United Methodist Church, will also address the audience on the Day of Remembrance and present excerpts from the documentary “Honoring Alameda’s Japanese-American History,” a digital storytelling project recorded at the Alameda Free Library.
The Day of Remembrance is the kickoff for an event on Sept. 11 as part of Rhythmix’s Alameda Japantown art walk, with music and dance, to commemorate the memory of a lost Japantown in the physical sites where it was located. In planning the Day of Remembrance, Rhythmix is reaching out to the Japanese-American community in Alameda and invites anyone who enjoys beautiful visual art, who wishes to commemorate a beautiful culture and hear a good story, to attend.
“Our mission is to share world music and dance with people so that they will learn more about themselves and each other,” she said. “We’d like people to experience this together at our event and make their own decisions, to be open and in the moment and make a good decision with the information.”