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The Artist Belongs to the People : The Odyssey of Taro Yashima

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The Artist Belongs to the People : The Odyssey of Taro Yashima
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  "The Artist Belongs to the People": The Odyssey of Taro Yashima Naoko Shibusawa Journal of Asian American Studies, Volume 8, Number 3, October 2005,pp. 257-275 (Article) Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/jaas.2005.0053  For additional information about this article Access provided by Brown University (9 Oct 2013 08:02 GMT) http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/jaas/summary/v008/8.3shibusawa.html    257“THE ARTIST BELONGS TO THE PEOPLE”   • SHIBUSAWA • “THE ARTIST BELONGS TO THEPEOPLE” The Odyssey of Taro Yashima  naoko shibusawa JAAS   OCTOBER   2005   • 257–275 © THE   JOHNS   HOPKINS   UNIVERSITY   PRESS I N   JANUARY   1945 , HENRY   HOLT   AND   COMPANY , the New York-based pub-lishing house, put a full-page ad in the Saturday Review of Books  . Thisunusual ad announced a “publishing failure.” A little over a year earlier, inlate 1943, Henry Holt had released an autobiography by a Japanese po-litical refugee and artist named Taro Yashima (1908–1994). In the ad, thepublisher confessed that it did not expect this sympathetic depiction of the enemy Japanese to become a bestseller, but it published The New Sun  because Yashima’s struggle against Japanese imperialism and “for thesimple dignities of the democratic way of life is one of the most movingevidences of man’s incalculably slow progress in this weary world.” Hop-ing that The New Sun  would attract the attention of “opinion-moulders”as well as of “men and women of good will,” the publisher gave away 700advance copies “not only to [its] regular reviewers but to liberals in every walk of life—art, government, politics.” Despite excellent reviews, theoverall response to The New Sun  was disappointingly tepid. 1 Henry Holt’ssalesmen reported, “Nobody will buy a book from a Jap.” 2 Promoting thebook once more in January 1945, Henry Holt emphasized that it consid-ered the book a failure “not because it lost us a few thousand dollars butbecause, as far as we know, it has supplied no yeast for the American mind.”Their fellow Americans’ disregard of  The New Sun  was a “disheartening”indicator of their nation’s ability to lead “the rest of the world” after thewar. Appealing to the Saturday Review  ’s intellectual elite readership to  258• JAAS •   8:3 look beyond racist wartime hatreds, the ad’s last line noted that Yashimawas currently somewhere at sea, working for the U.S. Navy, “still drawingpictures against his enemies.” 3 This assertion was essentially true. In January 1945, Yashima was over-seas in the China-Burma-India Theater engaged in the U.S. war effortagainst his native country. First for the OWI (Office of War Information),and then for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) in its Morale Opera-tions, Yashima composed and drew propaganda leaflets that urged hiscountrymen to cease fighting. This wartime collaboration with the U.S.made him a traitor to the imperial Japanese state, he knew, but not to theJapanese people, he hoped. The narratives he produced during the war—both for the U.S. state and for a U.S. publishing house—were meant tospeed the war’s end and to challenge American caricatures of the buck-toothed, myopic “Jap.” As he later explained, the concept of  The New Sun  began with his conviction that the Japanese people were not naturally war-mongering and that Japanese militarism had a devastating effect onthe Japanese also. 4 In his prewar activities opposing Japanese imperialismand militarism, he had tried to persuade his fellow Japanese to recognizethis about themselves, and in his wartime cooperation with the U.S., hestrived to convince Americans and Japanese of their mutual humanity. 5 Japanese historian Rinjir¯o Sodei posited decades later that Yashimatook the risk to “transcend national boundaries” for this larger humani-tarian goal. 6 Yashima’s story, however, shows how difficult it was to dothis: however much an individual tried to rise above national boundaries,legal restrictions and external demands for loyalty to a single state usually prevented such transcendence. Due to his skills, Yashima was valued andappreciated by the U.S. state and found a political haven in his new home; yet he retained feelings of allegiance to his country of birth and to itspeople. Yashima’s story demonstrates how a transnational approach helpsto elucidate the stories of Asian/Americans by allowing us to see moreclearly the connections and interactions across national borders, but re-minds us that transnationalism should not be equated with nor celebratedas cosmopolitanism. 7 Transnational individuals were not and could notlegally be “citizens of the world.” Even if they ascribed to widespread, “uni-versal” aspirations for justice, humane treatment, and peace, transnational    259“THE ARTIST BELONGS TO THE PEOPLE”   • SHIBUSAWA • individuals did not necessarily see themselves as members of a single glo-bal community. A transnational Asian American history, therefore, shoulddistinguish the power of the nationalism—how it came not only fromthe state but also from the historical actors themselves—from their abid-ing and deep sense of kinship with and loyalty to a particular group of people on land sacred to them. 8 Because of the internment, recognizing the nationalism of Japaneseimmigrants towards Imperial Japan has been difficult for AsianAmericanists to do and, indeed, remains politically risky. 9 Another rea-son why Asian Americanists have been slow to recognize the Japanesenationalism of many Japanese Americans—mostly Issei, but also someNisei—has been the inability to read Japanese among most AsianAmericanists. But as Japanologist John J. Stephan has pointed out, “ wa gun, ” or “our army,” in Japanese vernacular newspapers in Honolulu re-ferred to the Imperial Japanese Army  until  their December 8, 1941 issuewhen “ wa gun  ” suddenly meant the U.S. Army. Stephan argues that theJapanese Americans naively did not think that “loving Japan and lovingAmerica” was incompatible until December 7, 1941. 10 At that point, theJapanese Americans were forced to choose loyalties. To many, this was arather unnatural act, described by Issei Ko Wakatsuki as similar to havingto choose between one’s parents. 11 But, the state enforced a false binary that perhaps had to be replicated by scholars to emphasize the injustice of the interment. Thus, transnational stories like Yashima’s also challengethe traditional historiography of the WWII and postwar Japanese Ameri-can experience and make us consider how the newer interpretation thatvalorizes the draft resisters, the so-called No-No Boys, remains mired inan oversimplified framework of nationalist loyalties. 12 What follows be-low, then, is a narrative of how another draft resister tried to surmountnot only the legal structures enforced by nation-states but also the per-sonal edifice of emotions toward his nation. T HE N EW S UN Yashima’s book, The New Sun  , can be more accurately described as agraphic autobiography—like Miné Okubo’s graphic memoir of the in-  260• JAAS •   8:3 ternment, Citizen    13660  (1946) . With bold black brush strokes and sparsetext, Yashima outlined the story of his life and how he had become politi-cized through his art and his observations of Imperial Japan. His father,son of a lower-class samurai, had chosen medicine as his calling, and hetreated patients in a small farming village. Unlike most of his childhoodfriends in the village, Yashima went on to high school in a nearby city andthen matriculated into the Imperial Art Academy in Tokyo. Despite thisprivilege, Yashima found higher education rigid, uninspiring, and milita-rized. Meanwhile, on visits back to his village, he saw old friends lookinggloomy and farmers grumbling that students “didn’t even know the priceof rice.” On later visits, he found infant mortality rising and farmers un-fairly being saddled with debt; the poorest ones were losing their fieldsand were forced to migrate to earn a living elsewhere. Most disturbingly,the farmers—as well as urban workers—struggling to eke out a livingwere being pounded with a message to go to war for the “Peace of theEast.” It made no sense to Yashima: “Whose peace on earth would it bewhen that peace was made by forcing working people to use their handsto kill other working people?” 13 Expelled from the art academy for insubordination and for missing amilitary drill, he joined like-minded artist friends in “an art movementwhich had a progressive philosophy.” Giving up a future as a high schoolteacher with a comfortable apartment provided by the state, Yashima cameto believe that artists had an obligation to understand and bring greaterawareness about the struggles of ordinary people. He, his new wife—an-other artist in the movement—and their cohorts lived among farmers,talked to the urban unemployed, and put on a well-attended “people’s artexhibition,” which included work that ridiculed militarists. The artistsbelieved that they had to extract a power deep within the people to “stopthe militarism, the oppression, the fascism of our time.” To find and draw out this power, they sent out their “people’s art exhibit” on tour to “crowdedfactory zones,” as well as “farmers’ villages,” and had reproductions andpicture magazines published to get their progressive message “to the peoplein their homes.” 14 The anti-militarist movement was “active,” Yashima recounts, in “ev-ery field—law, medicine, music, motion pictures, literature, and drama.”
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