Gentaro Kenneth Hikogawa


Name Gentaro Kenneth Hikogawa
Born April 3 1902
Died August 3 1963
Birth Location Shikoku Island, Japan
Generational Identifier

Issei

Gentaro Kenneth Hikogawa (1902-63) was a master Issei carpenter who influenced iconic 20th century woodworker George Nakashima during their incarceration at the Minidoka concentration camp in 1942. He taught Nakashima the ways of the Japanese daiku master carpenter including methods of joinery and the proper use of Japanese hand tools. Following his release in 1945, Hikogawa practiced carpentry informally but professionally applied his expertise as a gardener and bonsai artist. In 1960 he and his brother-in-law opened the Oriental Garden Center in Federal Way, Washington, which remains within the family to this day.

From Japan to America

Born in 1902 on the Japanese island of Shikoku, Gentaro Hikogawa began his long apprenticeship toward becoming a traditional Japanese carpenter, or daiku, at age 15 as his father had done before him. In 1924, steeped in the skills of traditional carpentry but driven by economic need, Gentaro stowed away with his younger brother Ikuyoshi on a steamer bound for Seattle. That same year President Coolidge signed the Asian Exclusion Act into law and with anti-Japanese sentiments running high there was no opportunity to practice his trade. His War Relocation Authority (WRA) file lists various jobs including "waiter, dishwasher and fish grinder for the Kumamoto Fish Company" until 1935 when he resumed doing "house repair and building furniture." A year later, though prohibited as an Issei from owning property or buying land, he was able to rent and manage a small store and restaurant in Tacoma known as The Best Grocery. He met Amy Asahara during this time, the Nisei daughter of Yokoru and Samu Asahara. The Asaharas owned a 25 acre farm in Sumner that had been purchased through a farm loan by the eldest son Yosh whose five siblings helped to pay off the loan. Although twelve years her senior, Kenny (as he was known to family) and Amy were married by arrangement in 1937 and had a son, Ben, in 1938.[1]

Incarceration

Then, on May 14, 1942, Hikogawa, his son, wife and her family were forcibly removed to the Puyallup Assembly Center where they remained incarcerated until August 21 when they were sent to the Minidoka concentration camp in Hunt, Idaho. It was here that Gentaro met George Nakashima, a man who was later to become one of the 20th century's leading furniture designers, and the two began to work together designing and constructing improvements for the skeletal barracks in which families were forced to live.

Building furniture was an immediate need and a risky challenge for imprisoned families, as materials had to be scavenged or surreptitiously taken from guarded government stockpiles. Nails had to be pulled from old crates and straightened for reuse or found in the detritus of the hastily built barracks.[2] It is a credit to Hikogawa's mastery that he built sturdy, aesthetically pleasing furniture from packing crate wood and native scrub trees. The only evidence of his work during this time is a photo of a chest with handles made of greasewood, a native shrub of Idaho. This fits with his WRA portrait in which he is working a piece of this wood. And while there is no evidence to support a direct correlation, it is interesting to note the parallel between Nakashima's trademark use of a board's natural edges and the handles of Hikogawa's chest of drawers. Nakashima spoke appreciatively of his "apprenticeship" with Hikogawa, stating in a 1979 interview with Fine Woodworking, "The time was not entirely lost. There was wood, and a very fine Japanese carpenter, so I became his designer and his apprentice at the same time."[3] It was during the year of their incarceration together that Hikogawa shared his mastery of carpentry, specifically his reverence for trees, the use of Japanese hand tools and the traditional methods of joinery.

An Influential Master Carpenter

For a traditionally trained Japanese carpenter, trees had deeply spiritual, even sacred value demanding lifelong devotion. There was no distinction between work of the spirit and that of the hand; the spiritual life of the tree remained vital from harvesting to finishing. Hikogawa's training grew out of this ancient reverence for wood and spoke deeply to Nakashima who deplored the twentieth century's obsession with mass production and synthetic materials. Reinforced by his previous visits to Japan during which he gained an appreciation for Japan's spiritual traditions, Nakashima was well primed to benefit from Gentaro's spiritual connection to wood.

Nakshima also credits Hikogawa with teaching him the proper use and care of dogu, the tools of the carpenter. Dogu literally means the "way of the tool" and demanded rigorous and respectful training. It was not uncommon to spend four hours of sharpening to every six hours of sawing or hand planing a board.[4] As an apprentice, Hikogawa would have spent a year or more just learning to sharpen before his master would allow him to touch metal to wood. He imparted this standard to Nakashima who later expected an equivalent skill from both himself and his employees.

Hikogawa's greatest influence on Nakashima may have been his mastery of Japanese joinery, an art form rooted in the nature of his native Japan. Japan's earthquake-prone geology required the use of a staggering variety of ingenious joinery patterns designed to provide flexibility and shock-absorption in an earthquake. Driven by the beauty and abundance of wood in their land and the need for sturdy, flexible construction, Japanese carpenters set the standard for precise and creative joinery. Nakashima wrote appreciatively about Hikogawa teaching him the tenets of fine Japanese joinery. His Conoid Chair exemplifies his mastery of joinery in the tradition of beauty, precision and strength. It is a credit to Hikogawa's early influence.

Post-Incarceration

Hikogawa, along with Amy and Ben, remained incarcerated until October 16, 1945. As did many of the 120,000 Issei and Nisei Japanese Americans who never regained access to their property, he started over after the war. He briefly managed the Travelers Hotel in Tacoma, catering to railway porters passing through the nearby depot. Amy's family sold their farm in anticipation of the land being requisitioned for a highway project and divided the proceeds among the six children. The Hikogawas settled in Tacoma and Kenny began work as a gardener, building on the knowledge of bonsai he learned in Japan. He continued his carpentry informally by renovating his own and others' homes and building furniture. A blanket chest and three-drawer, sliding panel cabinet remain in the family today. Their construction and the marvelously applied finishes attest to his skill in creating beautiful objects from relatively mundane materials, much as he did during his incarceration. In the words of John Asahara, Kenny's brother-in-law:

Kenny was a very talented person. He made furniture in Japan. When he and my sister Amy got married he bought a fixer-upper and remodeled the whole thing. And he made everybody in the family a chair. We used to call them loafer chairs. They were very, very comfortable! John Asahara, Brother-in-Law, 2015

In 1960 he and his brother-in-law Joe Asahara opened the Oriental Garden Center in Federal Way, Washington. Kenny taught his wife Amy the art of bonsai and she began offering classes at the garden center to interested clientele. Kenny had become well enough known locally for his bonsai expertise to be featured in a late 1950s TV program on the topic. Shortly after opening the garden center, however, Kenny contracted multiple sclerosis. Seeking treatment but being turned away from clinics due to his Japanese-American heritage, he remained bed-ridden at home on dialysis and looked after by a caring neighbor and nurse, Marie Landree. He died on August 3, 1963. He was, by his brother-in-law John Asahara's account, "a very talented person," whose knowledge gained in Japan and shared during his incarceration contributed to the life work of a much more famous Nisei woodworker.

Authored by David Lane

For More Information

Coaldrake, William. The Way of the Carpenter. New York: Weatherhill, 1990.

Dusselier, Jane. Artifacts of Loss: Crafting Survival in Japanese-American Concentration Camps. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2008.

Nakashima, George. The Soul of a Tree. Tokyo, New York: Kodansha International, 1981.

Nakashima, Mira. Nature, Form and Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

Footnotes

  1. National Archives and Records Administration. War Relocation Authority, RG210. Evacuee Case Files. Application for Leave Clearance for Kenny Gentaro Hikogawa, April 24, 1943 (College Park, MD: NARA); Tacoma City Directories from the 1930s; interviews with family.
  2. Jane Dusselier, Artifacts of Loss: Crafting Survival in Japanese-American Concentration Camps (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 19–27.
  3. John Kelsey, "George Nakashima: For Each Plant There's One Perfect Use," Fine Woodworking, January/February 1979, 40–46.
  4. William Coaldrake, The Way of the Carpenter (New York: Weatherhill, 1990), 81.