Superman, WWII, Japanese Americans

Roger Shimomura, Diary: December 12, 1941 (1980)

Roger Shimomura, Diary: December 12, 1941, 1980, acrylic on canvas, 127.6 x 152.4 cm (Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of the artist, © Roger Shimomura). A conversation with Dr. Sarah Newman, James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Dr. Beth Harris.


Superman makes an appearance in what looks (at first sight) like a Japanese print.

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Key points

  • After the bombing of the naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, people of Japanese descent in the U.S. were treated as threats to national security. Beginning in 1942, the government forced their relocation to internment camps built in remote locations and similar to prisons with guard towers and barbed wire perimeters. The artist, Roger Shimomura, was interred with his family at a camp in Idaho.
  • Although born in the U.S., Shimomura has experienced discrimination from those who still view him as primarily Japanese. In this painting, he deliberately employs Japanese stereotypes to represent his grandmother and highlight false assumptions about Japanese-Americans.
  • Superman was often depicted in World War II propaganda, fighting stereotypes of the Germans and Japanese. In Shimomura’s painting, it is difficult to tell whether Superman is there to protect or threaten his grandmother. The comic book reference also recalls the early influence of Pop Art on the artist, while evoking traditional Japanese ukiyo-e prints. Like American Pop Art, ukiyo-e images use black outlines and large planes of flat, vibrant color, so Shimomura’s style blurs boundaries within his cultural background.

Go deeper

This work at The Smithsonian American Art Museum

Shimomura’s website

Learn more about the role of Superman and other comic book heroes during World War II

Listen to actor and activist George Takei speak about his experiences as a child in an internment camp during World War II

Explore primary sources on the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s

Explore more primary sources on the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s

Learn more about Japanese culture and ukiyo-e prints in this online exhibition

Shimomura’s Diary – American Experience in the Classroom (The Smithsonian American Art Museum)

An American Diary: Artist talk with Roger Shimomura (The Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Smithsonian Learning Lab collection on Japanese American Internment, Propaganda, and Superheroes

Learn more about Pop Art at Smarthistory

More to think about

Consider the role of diaries to serve as primary source accounts of historical periods and events. How should we balance the writer’s idea, based on their individual experiences and perceptions, with other documents that provide broader perspective?

How would you interpret Toko Shimomura’s words, written in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor? What are some reasons you think might be why she chose to destroy many of the diaries she kept throughout her life?

“I spent all day at home. Starting from today we were permitted to withdraw 100 dollars from the bank. This was for our sustenance of life, we who are enemy to them. I deeply feel America’s large-heartedness in dealing with us.”

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.