The Tag Project: In Search of Cultural Memory

The Tag Project: In Search of Cultural Memory


The tags being "aged."

Joyce Lovelace interviews Wendy Maruyama, California furniture maker, about her “Tag Project.”

JL How did the idea for the Tag Project occur to you?

WM A couple of years ago my husband and I attended a memorial service in Denver with my aunt and uncle for the 442nd Infantry Regiment. This was a unit that fought in Europe during World War II; it consisted mostly of Japanese-American men who with their families had been consigned to internment camps by Executive Order 9066—the wartime presidential decree that incarcerated West Coast Japanese—but were released to fight in the war. It became the most decorated military unit in U.S. history, with 21 Medal of Honor winners, for instance. Uncle Roy lamented that the numbers attending this event used to be robust but were now dwindling. As I looked at the beautiful glistening marble memorial stone, I realized that I needed to embrace this part of my family history and become more informed about E.O. 9066.

I started looking for images, and the ones that struck me the most were the ones of small children, babies, entire families wearing tags that directed them to their camps. The photos taken by Dorothea Lange were the most compelling.

About 15 years ago I went to Hiroshima and visited the Peace Memorial there. I saw thousands of folded origami cranes strung together and was struck by the delicate nature of the paper, combined with the masses of them which conveyed the urgency and need for advocacy for peace after such a devastating event.

I started replicating tags for internees who came from my hometowns of San Diego and Chula Vista. I was surprised that despite the light, airy structure of these tags, they were also very heavy for their size. I started to imagine the impact of seeing 120,000 tags for all internees. I realized that this was going to be a monumental effort, but at the same time I saw it as a catalyst to bring communities together and make this a collaborative project.

JL How did the internment touch your family?

WM My maternal grandparents lived in San Pedro/Terminal Island, in the Los Angeles area, the center for the fishing and cannery industry in Southern California back then. When FDR issued E.O. 9066, Japanese Americans were given very little time to move out of the West Coast areas and had to abandon their jobs, their homes and most of their possessions (they were only allowed to take one bag per person). My mother’s father owned a thriving fishing company, which had to be given up. It is said that many non-Japanese became wealthy when they purchased houses and businesses at bottom prices (no one would pay more). My mother's family chose not to go to a camp (the Japanese Americans were given an option: either get out by a certain time or be sent to camps). My grandmother was very fragile mentally and had a nervous breakdown, and my grandfather feared that the camp environment was going to cause even more stress and she would not survive it.

They did not experience internment, but the displacement was still damaging. They lived in a tent and a freight car in Utah as they tried to make their way east. Eventually some friends invited them to relocate to Colorado, where they settled. They were never able to regain their financial security. They first worked on a farm and then ran hotels for a while. In the end, I suppose, the hardships, the discrimination, being uprooted from their homes taught them to persevere. Miraculously, they did not become embittered or angry people.

JL You’ve said that growing up, you heard little or no talk of the internment among your older relatives. Why was that, do you think? Do you recall anything about it ever expressed, verbally or otherwise?

WM The first time I ever heard about this was when I was about nine and we were living in Chula Vista (I was born in Colorado; my parents and I also lived on a farm in Hemet and San Jacinto from the time I was about four to eight, and then we moved to Chula Vista). I was asking my mother about the Holocaust since we were studying world history and I was wondering why the Jews were persecuted in Europe. Somehow that turned into a discussion about racism, and she told me what had happened to their family. I remember being shocked—and sort of angry—because I knew my family was working hard to make ends meet. Both my parents worked during my entire childhood, yet we lived next to people who had fancy houses, cars, swimming pools, etc., and I started to get it in my head that the internment and persecution of Japanese Americans denied us all of that. Of course, being a kid, I didn't understand that such stuff was not really important.

JL Before taking on this project, had you given the subject much thought?

WM It’s odd, but after that episode I never wanted to think about it. It actually left a bitter taste in my mouth, and at the time I had enough problems overcoming my hearing impairment and dealing with my speech impediment and the fact that we were Japanese American, which made us different from the rest of the kids at school. We had to deal with questions like "Does your dad know karate or judo?" Or "Are you Japanese or Chinese?" Or "Is it true that you people eat raw fish?” I didn't really want to think about the internment. I believe that quite a few other sanseis (third-generation Japanese Americans) like myself felt the same way.

That moment at the memorial service two years ago changed my perspective and made me think about the effect that the internment had on all of us Japanese Americans and how the community became splintered and assimilated into the rest of the American population much more readily than the Chinese Americans, or Korean Americans or any other ethnic group in the U.S.A. There are fewer thriving Japantowns or Little Tokyos. The generations that suffered from the evacuation and the internment are aging; most of them are gone now. I realized I needed to embrace this history somehow. I felt that it would bring me closer to my identity.

JL What was the nature of the research you did, and what struck you the most?

WM I wanted to start from the beginning and read all about the internments, starting with a brief overview of Japanese American immigration to the U.S. I wanted to know about the camps, and what they looked like—to get a feel for it. Dorothea Lange's photographs were the most realistic. I felt that Ansel Adams's portrayal of smiling faces was a farce and underplayed the severity of the incarceration. Lange's photos of the families preparing to board the trains with their few possessions and wearing the ID tags stuck in my mind. These images showed the fear of not knowing where they were going and the loss of things and places familiar to them.
I have visited a couple of camps (Poston and Manzanar), and seeing such desolate areas helped me to better understand what our grandparents and parents had to endure. It also helped me understand how our Japanese-American culture has been shaped and altered by this experience.

JL You’ve stated that part of your quest was to understand the effects of the internment on the Japanese-American psyche. Have you reached any conclusions about that?

WM I am still thinking about that and still trying to figure that out. I think there is a certain behavior that has come from that experience. I remember that Mom told us all the time that we needed to be on our best behavior in public because we were Japanese Americans, that we needed to be model citizens. Some behaviors may be cultural, stemming from Japan—to not complain, to do as we are told in school, to not bring attention to ourselves, etc.—but I think the root of it all was that, because of the internment, Japanese Americans had a burning desire to be accepted as "real" Americans and so they tried to raise their families to be as American as possible. Very few sansei learned to speak Japanese, nor were we encouraged to do so. We had to be "perfect." Not being deemed perfect in the eyes of elder Japanese Americans had consequences for some of us. Perhaps that has compelled me to become an artist, so that I could "act out" through my work since I had to practice restraint as a child/teenager/young adult. And then I turned the corner and became more outspoken as time went on. I will probably become an impossibly cantankerous old lady by the time I am 65.

JL Your show “Executive Order 9066” at the Richard and Dolly Maas Gallery at SUNY Purchase (Jan. 12-Feb. 6) opened with a guest lecture titled “Japanese Roots, American Soil” by George Nakashima’s daughter, Mira, who as an infant was evacuated with her family. Have you had conversations with her about the internment and about Japanese-American identity?

WM We became friends and spent some time together in recent years, but we never talked about the camps until last fall. I never had the opportunity to meet her father, but I recall a feeling of pride about his accomplishments not only as a furniture maker but also as a Japanese American. Later, I realized that he and his family had been interned. Mira and I conducted a conversation via email about the internment. When I visited her studio, we looked at books she had been collecting about the internment camps and talked about her first experience visiting Minidoka. She showed me some lovely drawings and sketches of her father’s designs to “improve the barrack lifestyle” via design. It was almost satirical and yet it was a creative concept. While she was quite young so she doesn't have memories of that experience, it nevertheless is part of her personal history.

We exhibited together at Penland in a show called "Makers without Borders." We were asked to submit a paragraph for the catalog. Mine is pretty much the paragraph above. An excerpt of Mira's follows:

I first met Wendy Maruyama at a Furniture Society Conference and recognized the common bond of not only being a female furniture maker, but being Japanese-American as well. I was asked to speak on my own internment experience during the opening of Wendy’s Executive Order 9066-inspired show at SUNY Purchase. Researching, discussing and presenting my talk on the internment further cemented the ties between us. When my own “Nature, Form and Spirit” exhibit traveled to the Sun Valley Art Center in Idaho, I visited for the first time the site where [my family] had been during the war. There was not much left but the stone entry gate, guard house, one barrack converted into a stable, a crumbling root cellar, and an eerie sense of having been there before. The tireless irrigation efforts of our fellow internees turned the desert into fertile farmland and the bitterbrush my father and his mentor Gentaro Hikogawa used to collect no longer grows there.

I have taken one of my father’s last remaining pieces of slow-growing bitterbrush and mounted it on a base of maple burl from Oregon, where my grandparents used to live, and finished it with an Akari lampshade designed by Isamu Noguchi. This lamp embodies the pain, suffering and struggle to survive of both the bitterbrush and Japanese-Americans on the deserts of North America. The base is rooted in the land of our ancestors on the West Coast. The Akari shade represents Light and Peace by the transformation of suffering and conflict through hope and creativity.

JL In general, how is the subject viewed and discussed among young Japanese Americans today?

WM The younger generation of Japanese Americans, the ones that are in their 20s and younger, are a little more bright-eyed and enthusiastic in wanting to understand this history. When I visited Manzanar, during a wonderful annual event called the Manzanar Pilgirmage, which I would encourage others to attend, it impressed me that there were a lot younger people and children facing this history not with bitterness but with the goal of preserving the memory of this terrible experience and working towards peace and against racism and intolerance. I wish I’d had that experience or attitude when I was younger.

Part of the reason why this is happening is that it was only recently that the Japanese Americans who were involved in the internment began talking about it openly. There are more advocacy groups, there are museums that address the internment and interpretive centers at the campsites themselves designed to educate the general public. What started as a shameful experience for the internees became one of advocacy and education. This sentiment grew after 9/11, when we were seeing discrimination and hate crimes against Arab Americans. The Japanese-American groups became more vocal because there seemed to be a danger that what happened in 1942 could repeat itself with the Muslim community.

JL You’re well known as a woodworker/furniture maker who has done some highly innovative work, such as incorporating video into your pieces. Is the Tag Project an extension of your interest in exploring different means and media?

WM The Tag Project just happened on its own, based on my fixation on the Lange photographs. But in general, I am trying to work with whatever materials or processes would provide depth and relevance to what I am making. It may seem that at times I am bouncing all over the place, but I do like to try different things. The repetitive process of working on this project is very close to what I do as a maker: I am '”crafting” this assemblage of tags, working with its texture, to age the paper, etc.

JL As an artist, what has been your approach to making installation art out of the tags, and do you plan to vary this? Visually, what is the effect of the displays?

WM As I am working on these, I am keeping the tags separated by camp. Perhaps there will be 10 separate groups, representing all 10 camps. Ideally, I envision the tags as being a large mass, or I would love the opportunity to see them that way at least once. I envision that some groups will be sent out to their respective camps and interpretive centers. The goal is to convey the sheer numbers of people who were uprooted, and the mass will be dense, visually heavy and imposing.

JL Was the project conceived specifically as a collaborative work?

WM Yes it was. I had volunteers in New York, and the best part about working with volunteers is being able to talk to them about it. Many of my non-Japanese-American friends don't really know much about the internment. Some had no Idea that it ever happened. I find this to be disturbing, and it makes me all the more determined to create this project.

On the other hand, a lot of former internees are helping me, and I am learning about their personal experiences in the camps. I am feeling close to my family—I am finally meeting a lot of their friends through this project. The familial camaraderie is being replayed at the various Tag Project events; the spirit is ebullient. Older Japanese Americans are chatting with non-Japanese-Americans and describing their lives in camp. Others are writing name after name after name, and in that process, one begins to envision that period. It is very therapeutic and somewhat meditative.

JL What response have you received?

WM I have received an enormous response from both individuals and groups wanting to help. And on Facebook, I have had many respond to my questions of how they found out about the internment and what their personal stories are. I have received lots of letters from my volunteers, sharing their stories. I have posted most of these letters on my blogspot.

JL In what ways has immersing yourself in the subject matter affected you personally?

WM It has brought me closer to my own family history. Around the dinner table, my mother and her sister share stories of the evacuation. My grandparents are gone now but it's brought a sense of closure to know what they personally went through. Although my father's side of the family was not affected by the evacuation (they were living in Colorado), they felt the effects of discrimination. My life feels richer now, especially because of meeting other Japanese-Americans through this project. I did not grow up with a lot of Japanese-Americans and still do not know very many through my profession as an artist and educator. But now I feel like I have found an extended family through these volunteer events, and I feel like I belong in a new society, but in the sense of rediscovering a family that existed all along.

JL What is the larger message of the Tag Project, and how does it resonate for all of us today?

WM The fact that some people still do not know about this, and in some areas of the country it is not even taught in history classes, made it important for me to make this piece as an educational device. Secondly, it gives me an opportunity to teach myself about the internment. Two years ago I don't think I could list all 10 camps. That is shameful, actually.

Thirdly it helps me to come to grips with this, and allows me to gain some understanding of what our families went through. As I am writing thousands of names, I am thinking, how did they deal with this horrible ordeal? What must have been going through their minds as they were taken by train to unknown destinations with the blinds drawn?

Fourthly, as we now have our first African-American president, I am seeing acts of racism and disrespect shown to our president by our own American citizens. It tells me that discrimination and racism are far from eradicated. And as we just passed our eighth anniversary of 9/11, I think again of the prejudice shown against the American Muslim community. It sadly seems never-ending.

JL What’s next for the project, and where do you see it going?

WM Well, aside from finishing this daunting task, I hope to find a venue for exhibiting it—along with a body of work that I have been making (yes, if you can imagine, I am trying to make other pieces, too!)—and eventually I hope to find homes for the groups of tags.