In the seventh grade, Katie Yamasaki’s teacher denied that the Japanese American incarceration during World War II ever happened. Outside of class, her classmates often made slanted-eye and karate-chopping gestures at her. On her younger sister’s first day of school, a boy exclaimed, “I don’t want to sit by no Jap.”
As a middle schooler, Yamasaki faced similar prejudice to what her Japanese American grandparents’ families experienced more than 40 years before. When the government evicted more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from their homes on the West Coast after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Yamasakis and their extended family, including her grandmother’s sister and parents and her grandfather’s family, were placed in the Tule Lake, Manzanar, and Amache concentration camps. Many Japanese American citizens lost their homes and personal belongings when they were forced into these camps, and when they returned after the war, they continued to suffer from hate crimes both insidious and violent.
Flash forward 80 years, and Yamasaki’s family story is now taught in fourth grade classrooms. Her children’s book, Fish for Jimmy, which is included in McGraw-Hill’s latest fourth grade anthology textbook, teaches a fictionalized account from her grandfather’s uncle’s internment experience. Jimmy, having lost his appetite after his father was taken away by the FBI, finds his strength again after his brother Taro sneaks out of Manzanar to catch fish for him.
Yamasaki, 41, has spent the last 15 years creating art that honors her family’s incarceration experience by reflecting contemporary civil liberties issues including wrongful imprisonment of women and people of color. Her murals are seen outside museums, women’s prisons, mental health centers, and elementary schools around the world, from Detroit to Cosquín, Argentina, to Chiapas, Mexico.
I got in touch with the Brooklyn-based artist to find out what it was like to grow up biracial (French-Canadian, Irish, and fourth-generation Japanese American) and face prejudice in the 1980s, as well as how she compares that experience to the racism and intolerance we’ve seen under the Trump administration. Here’s what Katie Yamasaki has to say:
Katie Yamasaki (KY): I grew up in Michigan, in a small factory town north of Detroit. It was an interesting place to live as Japanese Americans during the ‘80s because it was all factory town, all Detroit auto companies, and there was a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment.
When I started graduate school, it was the week before 9/11 happened, and that was very intense for all of us. It was really intense for me because my grandfather was the architect of the World Trade Center. Then the Twin Towers sort of became a symbol for pro-war propaganda for the Bush administration. I know my grandfather never would’ve wanted that to be the case, that you would show people a picture of the buildings and make people want to go to war.
I found children’s book illustration by having an internship with an illustrator named Ed Young, who’s a Chinese illustrator. I started with a story about my grandmother and her sister during World War II. My grandmother was in New York City, and her sister was at the [Amache] camp in Colorado. I had all these letters that they had written back and forth during that time. I edited those letters and illustrated them and made them into a book. That set me on a path of wanting to find stories to tell, and doing them in the form of children’s books.
KY: That was definitely a motivating force for me, for a long time. Right away, you heard internment-type talk after the Towers came down, as if the internment had never happened. So when I published a book, Fish for Jimmy, I was thinking this would be a book that resonates with Muslim Americans, this concept of detention and being separated from your families and loss of civil liberties. I did get feedback that it did resonate with people, like Syrian refugees.
I have done a lot of school visits for that book, and a lot of Latin American kids connected with it because they felt like this idea, this fear of being separated from their parents or this idea of containment, is something that they’re living with on a daily basis, especially with this new administration. That’s a damn shame that here we are, 75 years later, and kids are so afraid that their parents are going to be taken away.
McGraw-Hill, they picked up Fish for Jimmy very shortly after Trump started talking about the Muslim ban, in the earlier days. My [middle school] teacher literally told me [Japanese internment] never happened. So when an institution like McGraw-Hill takes a stand like that, it’s like saying that it did happen, and this is happening right now.
KY: I’ve always identified as Japanese American, but it’s interesting because we grew up where the only other Japanese Americans were our family. My mom’s French Canadian and Irish, and she has eight siblings who almost all married interracially, so mixed race identity was very common in our family.
And I think my last name being Yamasaki is something that, as a kid, even if you don’t want to be that different — which I never really minded being different — it’s not anything you can hide from. But then I moved to New York, and people ask me in Spanish if I married a Japanese person when they see my last name. When I got married, the idea of giving up my last name didn’t even cross my mind. It felt like it would be surrendering an identity that is really important to me.
KY: Even when people said racist stuff to us, which they totally did, it didn’t reach me in a way that was damaging because we had so much support in our home and in our community. I think that where we grew up, this idea of Japanese people was this abstract threat of auto manufacturers who were the devil taking away [American] jobs.
People would also kind of say things about [my grandpa], like “He was a kamikaze pilot.” They would learn about a word or learn about something to do with Japan and then associate it with us. That particular incident didn’t even reach me. I kind of knew my grandfather was awesome, so I didn’t care. The shielding didn’t have as much to do with having a famous grandfather as it did me having a really supportive home life.
KY: Whatever people are feeling urgently needs to be expressed is a great place to be working for me. Right now, there’s a lot of ability to engage in art around topics of incarceration. That’s something I like to relate back to the internment, and I relate to this experience of people being racially profiled, targeted and arrested, oftentimes without having done anything. Art is my tool that I can create a platform with, and on that platform invite different communities of people. Listening is at the heart of [art], even when it’s not convenient or necessarily what you want to hear.