Kenjiro Nomura

Name Kenjiro Nomura
Born November 10 1896
Died June 30 1956
Birth Location Gifu, Japan
Generational Identifier


Kenjiro Nomura (1896-1956), an Issei , was a highly regarded artist in Seattle, whose paintings during the 1930s were frequently selected to represent Seattle and Washington State in national exhibitions. Incarcerated during World War II, he produced more than one hundred paintings, drawings, and sketches of the Puyallup temporary detention site and the Minidoka War Relocation Authority camp. He returned to Seattle after the war, and after a period of hardships, turned again to painting, for which he won new recognition.

Youth and Prewar Years

Nomura was born in 1896 in Gifu Prefecture in central Japan, where for generations his family had been farmers. [1] His father had broken with family practice to become a tailor and had worked in Alaska's Yukon Territory during the gold rush. When Nomura was ten, his father again headed to America, this time settling his young family in Tacoma, Washington, and opening a tailoring business in the city's Nihonmachi. Nomura attended a public school for immigrant children and later, also the Japanese language school , where the teacher excelled in calligraphy instruction. His family eventually returned to Japan, but Nomura, then sixteen, remained. He left school, worked in several labor-intensive jobs, and in 1916 moved to Seattle.

Nomura apprenticed to a sign-painter, where he could make productive use of his calligraphy training, and in 1922, opened his own sign-painting business, Noto Sign Company, with fellow Issei Show Toda. From 1916 to 1921 he studied painting with Dutch immigrant artist Fokko Tadama, whose teaching studio included several Issei, among them the more experienced Azo Nakagawa, Toshi Shimizu, and Yasushi Tanaka. Nomura must have shown exceptional promise, for his paintings exhibited alongside theirs in 1916 won praise in the mainstream press. His study with Tadama was probably intermittent; later exhibition literature describes him as mostly self-taught. In 1924 Nomura and a group of young artists formed Shunjukai, or Spring and Autumn Club, named for their semiannual exhibitions.

One of the club members was Kamekichi Tokita , who had learned Western-style oil painting from Nomura and in 1928 replaced Show Toda as a partner in the Noto Sign Company. Their shop served as their studio and their home until each married. It became a meeting place for Nikkei artists, who gathered there to socialize and critique one another's work, and on Sundays took sketching trips in the city and nearby countryside. The younger George Tsutakawa remembered, "I used to drop by after school or weekends, and those guys were always working, seven days a week. . . . [T]here were several young Japanese art students, as well as Chinese art students. . . . And we'd sit there and talk about art, and they were already . . . very knowledgeable. They [had] studied European art, American painting, and they were doing some very fine work." [2]

Nomura's work of the 1930s established his reputation. His subjects were the streetscapes of Nihonmachi , the working waterfront, and nearby farmlands. He painted in an American realist style with a distinctive sense of geometric form, complementary colors, and clear light. He exhibited regularly in Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area. Given a solo exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum in 1933, he was called "one of the leading progressive painters of Seattle." [3] He was among the six Seattle-area artists selected for the Museum of Modern Art's Painting and Sculpture from 16 American Cities that year. In 1934, he, Tokita, and Bay Area artists Masuta Narahara and Henry Sugimoto were featured in an exhibition Oil Paintings by Four Japanese Artists of the West Coast , which was co-organized by the Seattle Art Museum and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and toured West Coast cities. In 1935 Nomura, together with Tokita and Takuichi Fujii , was invited to join the Group of Twelve, a collective of Seattle-area modernist painters who exhibited together frequently for several years; their catalogue remains one of the few statements of intention by the Issei artists. [4] The three were among ten artists representing Washington State in the First National Exhibition of American Art in New York in 1936. Nomura's work was included again in the second and third sequels. Culminating his prewar record, he was one of four artists to represent Washington at the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939.

Nomura married Fumiko Mukai (1908-1946), a Kibei , in 1928, and in 1930 their only child, George (1930-2017), was born. Despite his artistic success in the 1930s, his personal life was buffeted by the Depression. As business shrank, he secured four weeks' employment in the 1934 Public Works of Art Project (forerunner to the Federal Art Project, Works Progress Administration), when he produced six paintings to be distributed to public institutions. One was selected for exhibition in Washington, DC, at the project's close. [5] He and Fumiko then managed a grocery store, which failed, and in 1936 he and Tokita closed the sign shop. The couple at last achieved stability by opening a dry-cleaning business in Seattle's University [of Washington] District, and by 1941 had hopes of buying a home in Fumiko's name. [6]

World War II

With the issuing of Executive Order 9066 , Nomura and his family received orders for exclusion in May 1942. Their sympathetic landlord stored Nomura's paintings and family belongings, sold their dry-cleaning equipment, and sent them the proceeds. They were confined first at the Puyallup temporary detention site south of Seattle, and then at the Minidoka War Relocation Authority camp in southern Idaho. In a small notebook, Nomura sketched the built environment and camp life at Puyallup, and from these, produced a series of paintings, all watercolor on paper of the same size, all signed and dated. Both pencil sketches and watercolors are composed with a carefully constructed spatial perspective and figurative rendering that reflect his formal training. Most feature Nikkei at work or leisure. These depict groups of people or solitary figures and, in general, do not focus on the hardships of camp life.

After being sent to Minidoka, Nomura worked on the cabinetmakers crew, who were responsible for providing signs and maintaining camp furnishings. He continued his own painting project at Minidoka, although his materials were less uniform than at Puyallup, employing ink, crayon, watercolor, and oil in variously sized pictures. The majority of those from Minidoka focus on the landscape rather than the human figure and display the starkness of the environment. A few were produced for the popular art and craft exhibitions organized by camp inmates, at which Nomura, Tokita, and Fujii were featured artists.


The Nomuras returned to Seattle in September 1945 as Minidoka was closing. Having lost their home and business, Nomura and his wife found work in a garment factory but struggled to make a living. Fumiko, depressed and ill, ended her life in 1946. In time, Nomura married Chiyo Fukasaki (1914-1956) but continued to struggle through another failed business and physically taxing employment, until he finally found sustaining work at a frame shop. For two years after the war, he painted nothing. At the urging of the younger Issei artist Paul Horiuchi, he began again to take sketching trips in the city, and within months his work was selected for exhibition at the 1947 Western Washington State Fair, on the fairground where he had been incarcerated five years earlier. More exhibitions and awards followed. His painting style quickly evolved from realist landscape to a gestural abstraction that is characterized by a dynamic combination of bold and delicate calligraphic marks, together with the luminosity and color sensibility that imbue his paintings of the 1930s. His work was championed by the pioneering Seattle gallerist Zoe Dusanne, who presented a solo exhibition in 1954 and was instrumental in Nomura's final artistic honor, the inclusion of a painting in the 1955 São Paulo International Biennial.

With the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 , Nomura became a naturalized citizen in 1953, and in 1954 at last bought a home in his own name. The rewards lasted only a short time. His wife, Chiyo, died in 1956, and only a few months later, Nomura died of complications from surgery. The Seattle Art Museum presented a posthumous exhibition in 1960. His artwork from the war, however, remained stored away until its rediscovery by his son in the late 1980s and its publication in 1991. [7] The paintings were exhibited frequently for two decades and are now, together with the sketchbooks, in the collection of the Tacoma Art Museum.

Authored by Barbara Johns

For More Information

Johns, Barbara. The Hope of Another Spring: Takuichi Fujii, Artist and Wartime Witness . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017. [A Seattle Issei who left an illustrated diary and extensive related artwork from World War II; includes half of the diary.]

———. Kenjiro Nomura, American Modernist . Foreword by Gail M. Nomura. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2021.

———. Signs of Home: The Paintings and Wartime Diary of Kamekichi Tokita . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011. [Nomura's business partner and colleague; includes the artist's diary from World War II.]

Kenjiro Nomura: An Artist's View of the Japanese American Internment . Seattle: Wing Luke Asian Museum, 1991. Essay by June Mukai McKivor. [Published shortly after the recovery of Nomura's wartime work, with an essay by the artist's niece.]


  1. Nomura's biography is based upon June Mukai McKivor's essay in Kenjiro Nomura: An Artist's View of the Japanese American Internment (Seattle: Wing Luke Asian Museum, 1991), and Barbara Johns, "Knowing Your Place: Issei Artists in Seattle; Kenjiro Nomura, Kamekichi Tokita, and Takuichi Fujii," PhD diss., University of Washington, 2014.
  2. George Tsutakawa, oral history interview, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1983.
  3. Kenneth Callahan, "Seattle Art Museum Fete Is Announced," Seattle Times , June 25, 1933.
  4. Some Work of the Group of Twelve (Seattle: Dogwood Press, 1937).
  5. One of his painting, Farm Buildings , was shown in the PWAP exhibition in Washington, DC, at the project's closure and distributed to a federal government office. It is now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
  6. Washington State's Alien Land Law (1921) barred Issei from owning real property.
  7. Kenjiro Nomura .

Last updated Nov. 3, 2021, 3:23 p.m..