Yajiro Okamoto

Name Yajiro Okamoto
Born May 13 1891
Died August 27 1963
Birth Location Hiroshima, Japan
Generational Identifier


Yajiro Okamoto was a self-taught Issei artist, whose primary medium was oil painting.

He was born on May 13, 1891, in Hiroshima, Japan, and immigrated to Hawai'i in 1917. Soon after arriving, he joined the U.S. Army and served in World War I and remained active in Japanese American veteran groups such as San Francisco's Northern Veterans, the Tanforan and Topaz Legionnaires, and the Townsend Harris Post 438 of the American Legion before and after WWII, to address issues such as advocating for citizenship for veterans of Japanese ancestry. [1] Although it isn't known if Okamoto became a U.S. citizen, it is possible that he attained citizenship rights through the Nye-Lea law, which granted naturalization rights to "Oriental" aliens who had served in the U.S. armed forces in World War I. On March 22, 1924, he married Kuni Sumishige (who was four years older) in Honolulu, Hawai'i. Soon after, they moved to San Francisco and by 1930 he and his wife were living in Chinatown. He made a living as a barber, and had a barbershop in the Sunset district for many years.

During this period, Okamoto developed an interest in art, and began painting with some instruction from fellow Issei artist, Matsusaburi George Hibi . [2] Okamoto painted landscapes, still lifes, and figure studies, and exhibited several times with the San Francisco Art Association. In 1935, the Los Angeles Japanese newspaper, Kashu Mainichi reviewed Okamoto's work that appeared in the San Francisco Art Association exhibit that inaugurated the San Francisco Museum of Art, War Memorial Building, stating, "A still life by Yajiro Okamoto, local barber-artist, won high commendation from the jury of selection for his sincerity and uncolored artists efforts." [3] He also exhibited at the Second Annual California Figure Painters show held at the Foundation of Western Art in Los Angeles in 1935.

His landscapes, floral still lifes and figurative art earned him space in the San Francisco Art Association show at the San Francisco Museum of Art for three years in a row, from 1935 to 1937. In a 1935 Oakland Tribune review of the San Francisco Art Association's 55th exhibition that included 414 works of art, Okamoto's "Bridge" was listed among the best, along with works by Maynard Dixon and Gottardo Piazzoni. The reviewer singled out this painting with these comments: "'Bridge,' in full detail, with houses in back; a railroad bridge with tracks and knots in the ties, or nearly so, yet it is a good work of art." [4]

Also in 1935, Okamoto's painting "Up the Hill" was described in an art review in the Oakland Tribune as "a view of a winding concrete road up a hill, with houses and a concrete retaining wall; a bit of Americans, touched with the Japanese" and was included in an exhibition that included French impressionist paintings, California artists, and students of California School of Fine Arts at the San Francisco Museum of Art. [5]

During World War II, Okamoto and his wife were incarcerated first at the Tanforan Assembly Center (where he was active with the Tanforan Art School and the Center's Legionnaire Group) and then moved to the Topaz camp in Utah, where he painted with the Topaz Art School and was part of the Topaz Barbers' Association. [6] In 1945, he and his wife returned to San Francisco, where Okamoto resumed his business as a barber. He remained in San Francisco until his death on August 27, 1963, and was survived by his wife, Kuni, who died in San Francisco in 1988.

One of his paintings was included in a traveling exhibition curated by the Topaz Museum entitled "Topaz: Artists in Internment, Their Visual Work and Words," that included work by Chiura Obata , Setsu Nagata Kanehara, Charles Erabu Mikami , Miné Okubo , Thomas Ryosaku Matsuoka, Kenji Utsumi and Kaneo Kido, with poetry by sansei writer Lawson Fusao Inada . [7] The exhibit was mounted at numerous venues, including the Rio Gallery in Salt Lake City, the San Francisco Public Library, and the San Leandro History Museum and Art Gallery.

Authored by Patricia Wakida

For More Information

Brown, Michael D. Views from Asian California, 1920-1965 . Michael D. Brown, 1992.

Chang, Gordon H., Mark Dean Johnson, and Paul J. Karlstrom, editors. Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2008.


  1. "Northern Veterans Organize Own Group," Rafu Shimpo , Jan. 7, 1936; "Flag Ceremony Held," Topaz Times , Oct. 28, 1942; "May Reactivate San Francisco Legion Post," Pacific Citizen , Mar. 1, 1947.
  2. Yajiro Okamoto biography, Spencer Helfen Fine Arts website, accessed May 16, 2022 at https://helfenfinearts.com/yajiro-okamoto/ .
  3. "17 Paintings by Nippon Artist in Exhibition," Kashu Mainichi , Jan. 27, 1935.
  4. "French, Californian and Other Art Shown; S.F. School Exhibits," Oakland Tribune , July 21, 1935.
  5. "Radical Works Few in Number At S.F. Association Annual," Oakland Tribune , Jan. 27, 1935, S-7.
  6. "Barber Shop," Topaz Times , Oct. 10, 1942.
  7. "Art from Topaz internment camp at Rio Gallery," The Salt Lake Tribune , Jan. 3, 2012, accessed May 17, 2022 at https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=yajiro+okamoto+utah&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8 .

Last updated July 27, 2022, 2:35 p.m..