from East Wind Vol. 1 No. 1 (1982)
Janet Miyoko Tsubamoto
I'm a Sansel, third generation, Oakland, California. Although I've never had any "formal" training of an art school, l feel l have something better. I have the influence and inspiration for my art from my parents and a rich cultural heritage and history to take pride in.
Before the turn of the century, my grandfather first went to Vancouver, Canada from Japan. With forty dollars saved from salmon fishing, he decided to move to San Francisco in the early 1900's. He survived the Great Earthquake of 1906, but promptly moved to Oakland.
My father was born in Oakland. He is Kibei (born in America, raised in Japan) and is an extremely talented artist with the gift of being able to create beauty in everything he does. Even of such a dismal place as the camps he did beautiful watercolors and sketches of the train ride to Topaz. But once he was out of camp he had to work many jobs to rebuild the lives of his family again.
As far as I can remember, he was always too busy working day and night, sometimes two jobs to be able to sit down and paint. But even in his dry cleaning business his creativity came through - it was called "the Artistic Cleaners," and he hung his paintings up around the cleaners. Today, you can see his artistic talent in many beautifully landscaped gardens around the Bay Area. Through his work you can see his understanding of Japanese culture and the intense strength and pride he has in himself. Another evidence of his eye for beauty is my Mom.
My mother is Nisei (second generation), born and raised in Oakland Chinatown. She has a unique talent of her own. She has the ability to see the beauty of life, always making you see the best in things and making what you have seem like the best. And even though I will always remember her constantly working, at the cleaners and raising five children, her strength comes through the fact that she has maintained her outlook by such kindness, gentleness and grace despite devastating experiences like the camps.
My parents fought extreme racism and oppression, and worked hard from sun up to sun down to make better lives for my brothers, sister and me. And, they have a pride in who they are so strong that it has influenced and inspired me to take pride in who I am. If ever it is said that children are most like their parents, I wish it to be true for me. I hope you can see this in my art.
In Japan, there is a spirit of inner strength called kimöchi. For everyone who has a dream in life, kimöchi is the spirit that gives you the strength and determination to struggle for it. Symbolic of that strength and spirit is the Sho-Chiku-Bai, also known as the Winter Friends. Sho-Chiku-Bai appear throughout Asian art, literature and folklore and are held in the highest regard as the symbols of resistance to hardship. Sho (pine), Chiku(bamboo) and Bai(plum) grow wild in Asia and their beauty is appreciated by everyone. But for the poor, whose survival is hard and futures are only of hope, the Sho-Chiku-Bai is symbolic of an outlook on life.
Winter in Asia is the worst time of year, with heavy snows burying everything and bitter cold sets in. It is at this time of year, however, that the pine and bamboo stay green and beautiful which signifies their survival despite insufferable conditions, and the plum which blossoms while winter snows are still on the ground indicates that winter is almost over and spring is on its way. This reminds one to look forward to a better future.
Sho, (matsu in Japanese) whose needle shaped leaves are believed to drive away evil demons, flourishes in the poorest of soil, clinging to rocky cliffs bringing beauty where no other living thing can survive. At new year it is customary to place a pair of Kadomatsu (gate pines) before every gate or door. The trees are paired, one rough and prickly (male), the other softer and more graceful (female), male on the left, female on the right. With these are placed bamboo cuttings and plum branches.
Chiku, (take in Japanese) is the staff of life to the people of Asia. Its uses in Asian cultures are endless, from being a religious symbol in the remotest area to building skyscrapers in Hong Kong. Besides being so gracefully beautiful, it is tough, strong and flexible, bowing under the heavy snows of winter and bending but never breaking in harsh winds.
Bai, (ume in Japanese) is considered the "Elder Brother one hundred flowers" and the plum blossoms fall before they wither rather than cling rotting to the tree.
For the Japanese Americans interned in concentration cart during World War II, the Sho-Chiku-Bai spirit strengthened their will and determination at a time when all looked very bleak. Made to leave all earthly possessions behind, herded into race tracks and made to stay in filthy stalls, then taken by train with shades drawn to unknown destinations, many felt their lives were doomed. For the Japanese, whose cultural heritage always held nature in the highest regard were stripped of even that and dumped in the middle of the deserts and nowheres where little existed. Not knowing whether they would spend the rest of their lives there or not, they began to gather what little bits of nature they could and began to fashion them into the images of the nature held so dear. Bamboo and pine trees were carved out of leftover wood used to build the barracks, plum blossoms were made out of tiny shells. They made bonkei and did ikebana with desert weeds and sage brush. Their strength and determination, the Sho-Chiku-Bai spirit made the Japanese American culture survive despite the oppressive conditions.
"TSURU SEN-NEN, KAME MAN-NEN"
"As the Crane one thousand years, the Kame ten thousand years."
... is an old Japanese saying describing the symbols of youth and old age (long life) the Tsuru (crane) and the Kame (tortoise).
The Kame is one of the four supernatural animals (tiger, dragon, ho, tortoise) of Chinese mythology. Symbolic of long life, the Kame is said to live 10,000 years. The minokame, or long tailed kame (also called "raincoat" tortoise because his tail resembles the old Japanese peasant raincoat made of straw) is said to grow his long tail in his old age of 10,000 years.
The Tsuru is one of the most commonly used symbols of long life in Asian legends and art. In Japan, the Tsuru is a sacred bird which is said to live 1,000 years. If it lives 2,000 years it then turns black. There is also the Manchurian Crane which is characterized by its black tail feathers and red cap. At weddings it is customary for family and friends to fold 1,000 gold origami (paper) cranes and hang them together for good luck, fortune and long life to the bride and groom.