|Born||July 16 1897|
|Died||October 7 1948|
|Birth Location||Shizuoka, Japan|
Kamekichi Tokita (1897-1948) immigrated to Seattle in 1919, where he became a small businessman and a well-recognized artist, described in 1930 as "the leader of the Japanese painters in Seattle." He and his family were incarcerated during World War II. His main project in wartime was a diary that begins on December 7, 1941, and is a rare account among first-person documents for its attention to the months from Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor until the mass removal.
Youth and Artistic Recognition
Tokita was born in 1897 in the port city of Shizuoka in Shizuoka Prefecture. He was the second son among five children in the family, whose household included servants as well as his paternal grandparents. His father owned a dry tea shop and a soy sauce brewing company. Expected to follow his father in the tea business, Tokita completed five years of high school, a level of education second only to university, and graduated with a business degree. His father sent him to China to sell tea, and then to Manchuria. Tokita, however, had become interested in painting. In defiance of his father, he studied Chinese landscape painting and became highly skilled in calligraphy. When he was sent yet farther to sell tea in Chicago, he sailed to Seattle in 1919 and stayed there to make the city his home.
By the early 1920s Tokita had found a place within the creative community of Seattle's Nihonmachi. He experimented with poetry and learned the basics of oil painting from the young Issei artist Kenjiro Nomura. The two were part of a group of painters who called themselves Shunjukai, named for their spring and autumn exhibitions. In 1928 he became Nomura's partner in a sign-painting business, Noto Sign Company. Their shop in Nihonmachi served as their studio and an important gathering place for Nikkei artists until its closure in 1936 amid the Depression. On Sundays, when they were free from business, the artists took sketching trips in the city and nearby countryside.
Tokita's paintings of the late 1920s and 1930s are primarily urban landscapes: the buildings and streetscapes of the neighborhoods where he lived and worked and the waterfront where fishing boats docked. He painted in an American realist style, with a keen color sensibility and a dramatic use of compositional framing that reflects his interest in photography and earned him praise as a modernist. Having exhibited in Nihonmachi in the 1920s, in 1929 he began showing his paintings in region-wide annual exhibitions in Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area. He quickly won awards and public recognition. The Art Institute of Seattle and its successor organization, the Seattle Art Museum, gave him solo exhibitions in 1930 and 1935. His work, along with Nomura's, was featured with that of Bay Area artists Masuta Narahara and Henry Sugimoto in Oil Paintings by Four Japanese of the Pacific Coast, an exhibition co-organized in 1934 by the Seattle Art Museum and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. The same year, amid the Depression, he was hired by the federal Public Works of Art Project (forerunner to the Federal Art Project, Works Progress Administration) and produced six paintings during his four-week employment for eventual distribution to public institutions. In 1936 Tokita, along with Nomura and Takuichi Fujii, was among ten artists chosen to represent Washington State at the First National Exhibition of American Art in New York.
As a mark of the respect accorded the three Issei artists, Tokita, Nomura, and Fujii were invited to become founding members of the Group of Twelve, a collective of Seattle-area artists formed in 1935 to advance modernist painting in the region. The Group of Twelve exhibited frequently for several years and published a catalogue that provides a singular statement of Tokita's intention. In it, he declares his interest in combining Western and Asian artistic practices and cites the French modernist Paul Cézanne and the fifteenth-century Zen priest Sesshū Tōyō as models.
Despite Tokita's success, his artistic production ceased by the late 1930s because of the demands of family and business. In 1932 he married Haruko Suzuki (1907-1990), whose family had immigrated to Seattle from Tokyo, and by 1940 they had a family of five children: Shokichi (b. 1934), Shizuko (1936-1996), Yasuo (b. 1938), Yuzo (b. 1939), and Yoshiko (b. 1940). After the sign shop closed in 1936, he took over the management of a workers' and pensioners' hotel and additionally continued sign-painting without Nomura, his former partner. Over the next five years he built the hotel business successfully enough that it provided relative comfort for his family.
Tokita lost nearly everything during World War II. He and his family were incarcerated at the Puyallup temporary detention site south of Seattle, and then at the Minidoka War Relocation Authority camp in Idaho. Two sons, Masao Kenneth (b. 1942) and Goro (b. 1943) were born during their years of confinement. Tokita initially did maintenance work for his block at Minidoka and subsequently worked as a sign-painter in the camp's cabinet shop. The family remained at Minidoka until its closing in October 1945.
Tokita's primary creative project during the war was a diary, which he began on December 7, 1941. Two-thirds of the diary pertains to the nearly five months before his forced removal in late April. On an almost daily basis Tokita describes his anxiety and that of the Nikkei community, his concern for the families of the Issei men arrested by the FBI, his care of his own family, the continually changing government orders, and managing the hotel amid the uncertainty. He cites Japanese-language and English-language newspapers and tries to reconcile the conflicting accounts of the war. Once the family left Seattle, he wrote nothing more until they were finally settled at Minidoka in September 1942. When he resumed the diary, he describes living and working conditions at Minidoka, comments on interpersonal and intergenerational relations—often judging the ethical or moral conduct of those he describes—and continues to follow reports of the war. By spring 1943 the diary entries become intermittent and increasingly focus on war news. They end in July 1944 with the resignation of Japan's prime minister, Hideki Tōjō.
Tokita produced no paintings at Puyallup and only a few at Minidoka, modestly sized oil paintings of his barrack and familiar buildings. His work was featured in art exhibitions held at the camp and in nearby Twin Falls. In a different mode, he made dozens of pencil sketches of motifs from the nineteenth-century printmaker Hiroshige, as well as a few paintings in traditional Japanese styles. He also produced poetry, of which some forty poems remain.
Although fearful of the resistance and acts of violence reported from the West Coast, Tokita and his family returned to Seattle in fall 1945. They were helped in resettling by Father Leopold Tibesar of the Maryknoll Mission, who had followed his parish to Minidoka, and after the war secured housing and employment for the Tokitas, among others. The family moved into the former Japanese language school building, the "Hunt Hotel," where they were given the largest classroom as living quarters and shared a common kitchen with twenty-six Nikkei families. They soon had an eighth child, a daughter, Yaeko (1946-2005). Through Tibesar's arrangements, Tokita worked as a sign painter at St. Vincent de Paul.
Two years later Tokita and his wife bought a derelict workers' hotel, moved the family into the second floor, and began the hotel's rehabilitation in an effort to rebuild a financial base. Within a few months, however, Tokita became increasingly ill. He died in 1948 at the age of fifty-one. Haruko, widowed with eight children, managed the hotel with substantial help from the older children, refusing public assistance, and within a few years, bought or leased three more properties. All of the children completed school, and all went on to higher education.
Tokita's diary consists of three volumes written in prewar Japanese. After his death, Tokita's widow gave one volume to his family in Japan. The project to translate the diary was initiated by his niece in Japan, Kakuko Imoto, in the 1990s as Japan commemorated the end of the war, and brought to completion in the U.S. by his eldest son, Shokichi Tokita, who led the effort to have it published. The translators were Haruo Takasugi (prewar to modern Japanese) and Naomi Kusunoki-Martin (Japanese to English). The three original volumes are now with the Tokita papers at the Archives of American Art. Three-fourths of the diary in translation is published in Signs of Home by Barbara Johns.
For More Information
"Community Stories: I Put Down My Pen." Seattle Channel, 2014.
Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington. "Unsettled/Resettled: Seattle's Hunt Hotel."
Johns, Barbara. The Hope of Another Spring: Takuichi Fujii, Artist and Wartime Witness. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017. [A Seattle Issei who produced an illustrated diary and a large body of related work from Puyallup and Minidoka.]
———. Signs of Home: The Paintings and Wartime Diary of Kamekichi Tokita. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.
Kenjiro Nomura: At Artist's View of the Japanese American Internment. Essay by June Mukai McKivor. Seattle: Wing Luke Asian Museum, 1991. [A Seattle Issei whose paintings depict Puyallup and Minidoka.]
- Kenneth Callahan, "The Northwest Annual," Town Crier, December 5, 1931, 35.
- Biographical information is from Barbara Johns, Signs of Home: The Paintings and Wartime Diary of Kamekichi Tokita (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011).
- Only the painting given to the Seattle Art Museum can be located today. See Johns, Signs of Home, 230 n35.
- Some Work of the Group of Twelve (Seattle: Dogwood Press, 1937).
- A few are reproduced in Johns, Signs of Home.
- Kamekichi Tokita, Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; Johns, Signs of Home.