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80 years after World War II, MAC reflects on nearby Japanese Internment

UPDATED: Fri., May 14, 2021

Takuichi Fujii was among 120,000 Americans of Japanese heritage forced into internment camps during World War II.

The United States Government tore Fujii, his wife and children from their stable Seattle home and put them in a camp in southern Idaho where they were imprisoned until 1945, according to a preview of the exhibit of his art at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

Today, his pieces spanning decades are splayed across the walls of one gallery in the MAC for private showings in line with COVID-19 precautions.

Fujii was 50 and an established oil painter in Seattle when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.

One wall shows a selection of his oil paintings from before the war. The next wall begins in May 1942, when his family was stuck at a holding camp in Puyallup.

The next wall is in southern Idaho, where Fujii and his family were interned for about three years. His watercolors, almost like documentary photography, show rows of tiny huts. In one of the more symbolic images, a dry, white skeletal carcass and a coiled snake sit perched on a bluff, looking down over the endless shedlike living quarters.

One of the themes of the exhibit, Wahl said, is that words matter. The softened phrases government officials used to describe internment camps did not match the reality Fujii depicted, she said.

In the Puyallup holding area, Wahl said the army took “this crowded assembly center with armed guards, and they called it Camp Harmony.”

Freya Liggett, curator of history, pointed to internal memos from the time that used “harsher,” more accurate phrasing, before the public received polished, propagandized descriptions of the camps.

“It just cleans up what it actually was, which was imprisonment,” Liggett said.

Fujii’s art and writings challenge the propaganda, Wahl said.

“We don’t know what his intention was but he was compelled to start a diary right at the time he was leaving,” said Val Wahl, museum collections curator.

One of the first pages in his 400 page diary is a sketch of his family in their coats, leaning against and attempting to sleep on their luggage in their empty home before they were bussed to Puyallup, she said.

The journal sits encased in glass at the museum, with a screen beside it where visitors can virtually flip through each page.

A book by independent Seattle curator Barbara Johns goes along with the traveling exhibit, Wahl said.

Down the hall in another gallery, an exhibit called “Bomber Boys: Portraits from the Front,” displays candid photography following the same bomb squadron written about in novel “Catch-22,” according to the museum’s description of it.

A third exhibit, “American Inheritance: Unpacking World War II,” reflects on how evidence of the war exists in every family today, 80 years after it began.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the correct spelling of Freya Liggett’s name.

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