Superman, World War II, and Japanese-American experience

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

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.

This Seeing America video was made possible by a generous grant from the Terra Foundation and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, looking at a painting by Roger Shimomura, “Diary — December 12, 1941.” This painting actually refers very specifically to an experience of his grandmother’s. That date might resonate, at least a date close to that, as the date that Pearl Harbor was bombed, December 7th in 1941.

Dr. Sarah Newman: [0:28] Immediately after Pearl Harbor was bombed, the American government froze the bank accounts of all Japanese citizens and Japanese Americans living in the US. Then a few days later, on December 12th, which is when this diary takes place, President Roosevelt gave the order that these Japanese Americans could withdraw up to $100 a month from their bank accounts.

[0:51] And so even though they were citizens and they have lived here, they were effectively treated as a national security threat.

Dr. Harris: [0:57] Shimomura was born in ’39, so in 1941, 1942, he’s a toddler. Like so many people of Japanese descent on the West Coast, he was relocated, he was imprisoned in what we refer to as an internment camp in Idaho.

Dr. Newman: [1:13] This is in the months before the internment camps were established in early 1942.

Dr. Harris: [1:20] The artist’s grandmother, on December 12th, five days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, wrote this in her diary.

Dr. Newman: [1:26] “I spent all day at home. Starting from today, we were permitted to withdraw $100 from the bank. This was for our sustenance of life. We who are enemy to them. I deeply felt America’s large-heartedness in dealing with us.”

Dr. Harris: [1:39] What an interesting statement, referring to the government of the United States as “large-hearted” in allowing them to withdraw $100 from their bank account.

Dr. Newman: [1:48] It reads very strange to us now. There is a large part of her that did feel gratitude to the United States dealing with a difficult circumstance, and she’s trying to understand their point of view as well.

Dr. Harris: [2:01] We notice a few things immediately. One is that she’s not in an American home. We see her rather in this very traditional Japanese environment.

Dr. Newman: [2:09] She is pictured as a young woman. She’s wearing a kimono. There are tatami mats on the floor, translucent rice-paper screens around her. She’s writing her diary, but she’s looking off into the distance. Behind her, you can see the silhouette in this shoji screen of Superman. He’s standing there, and he’s this large, heroic, looming figure, his cape rustling in the wind.

Dr. Harris: [2:33] But he has a menacing presence.

Dr. Newman: [2:36] The presence of Superman can be read in two separate ways. You can take him in a very straight way, looking at her diary and equating Superman to the large-hearted American. Obviously, Superman is a heroic figure. He’s a protective figure.

[2:50] He might be standing outside of her house to protect her, but at the same time I think you’re also getting part of the artist’s own perspective. Roger Shimomura read his grandmother’s diary in translation and came across that notion of the large-hearted American and puzzled over it and said, “Is this really as she intended it?”

[3:09] Although she kept 56 diaries over her lifetime, only 37 of them remain, and she actually burned a number of diaries that she kept during and after the war. So there’s the sense that she may have destroyed the diaries that were not so sympathetic to the Americans, so here we can see Superman looking over her shoulder and watching what she’s writing, or surveilling her.

Dr. Harris: [3:34] We do see him in the comic books defending the United States and going after the Axis Powers, going after Hitler, going after the Japanese, who are depicted often the comic books in a very offensive, stereotypical way.

Dr. Newman: [3:50] Superman was used in American war propaganda and he was often wrestling with these stereotypical Japanese figures.

Dr. Harris: [3:59] And actively looking for imagined Japanese conspirators who were looking to undermine the United States government war efforts.

Dr. Newman: [4:08] This looks like a very Japanese image. It looks like a ukiyo-e print, but when you think about his grandmother, she had come to the United States in 1912. She was an American at this point, she would not have wearing Japanese clothes, she did not live in a Japanese house.

[4:26] So by putting her in this very traditional Japanese environment, Shimomura is actively stereotyping her, so she was always a Japanese person in the eyes of the American government.

Dr. Harris: [4:39] This was something Shimomura himself experienced, this kind of discrimination.

Dr. Newman: [4:43] He would often encounter people who said, “How do you speak English so well, since you’re Japanese?”

Dr. Harris: [4:49] He couldn’t even speak or read Japanese.

Dr. Newman: [4:51] He grew up on comic books, and when he was young artist, he was a Pop artist, and you can see a lot of the same formal qualities of Pop Art and comic books and traditional Japanese ukiyo-e prints. They’re very similar, they have these black outlined figures, these large planes of flat, vibrant color.

[5:10] He saw his own identity as a Pop artist and someone who was interested in comic books mixed in interestingly with traditional Japanese culture.

Dr. Harris: [5:19] She’s got this beautiful kimono on, these lovely yellows and purples and oranges and greens, and then the space outside is also rendered in those colors.

[5:29] But on either side of her, these silhouettes, the grays, the cream color, it feels almost like a more threatening environment around her. Even the grid becomes here like the bars of a prison and reminiscent of the internment camps, the prisons that were set up for people of Japanese descent.

[5:50] His family was in Idaho, in a place called Minidoka, that actually had eight guard towers and barbed wire around it.

Dr. Newman: [5:59] There’s definitely the sense that she’s living in this beautiful environment but that there are shadows looming around her. While this depicts a scene that was before the internment camps, Roger Shimomura knows the history, knows what’s going to happen, so these shadows looming are real shadows.

[6:16] This is a history that profoundly affected his family. It profoundly affected all Japanese people living in the United States at this time, and it’s one that they struggle to recover from.

[6:26] [music]