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  • Chiura Obata (1885–1975)

Chiura Obata (1885 – 1975). Noted Japanese artist and UC Berkeley professor

Japanese artist Chiura Obata was teaching art at the University of California, Berkeley, and running a gallery and an art supply store in spring 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the incarceration of all individuals of Japanese heritage living on the West Coast of the United States.

The U.S. was at war with Japan, and the U.S. government deemed all Japanese people, including those who were American citizens, a threat to national security. Obata, his wife, Haruko Kohashi, who was also a well-known artist, and his two children were among the 110,000 people of Japanese heritage forced out of their homes on California’s West Coast and sent to internment camps.

Not long beforehand, Obata attended a gathering of Japanese Americans, during which he heard a politician talk about government plans to remove Japanese from the West Coast. Writing later, he said:

“I was really surprised…. you can evacuate people at a time of natural disaster like a flood, high tide, or fire, but you shouldn’t have an artificial evacuation. We don’t believe in that. And especially to do something like that against the Japanese is against the will of the founding of America. I told them that I completely disagreed, and we had a big argument.”

Before leaving. Obata and his family sold the merchandise in their art supply store and gallery and stored their personal belongings with friends. UC Berkeley agreed to store Obata’s most treasured paintings.

The Obatas spent five months at a temporary internment camp in San Bruno, California. Then the family, along with most people of Japanese descent from the San Francisco Bay Area, was sent to Topaz Relocation Center in the desert south of Salt Lake City, Utah. The weather in Topaz was extremely harsh, with blistering heat in summer and frigid cold in winter. High winds and sandstorms were a year-round menace. Still, Obata made the best of a bad situation, establishing an art school at the camp in late 1942. Recalling why he started the school, Obata wrote:

“We are in the middle of a world war. What is our hope? What is our goal? The highest aim and hope of art is a high, strong peace. In front of this high aim the evil side of humans — including racial discrimination, egotism, selfishness, and hatred — are simply exposed.”

Beginning in 1943 many internees were allowed to leave the camps, although they couldn’t return to the West Coast while the government exclusion order remained in place.

The Obatas had left Topaz by the summer of 1943 and spent the remainder of the war living and working near St. Louis.

Writing later about the war years, Obata said:

“Everyone suffered a loss. It goes without saying, this kind of artificial relocation can have no benefit to people or society or politics … In short, the biggest difficulty was not being able to work fully toward our hopes and expectations.”

Obata always intended to return to his beloved California, and in a letter to a UC Berkeley administrator, he wrote:

“It is my desire, also Mrs. Obata’s, ever since we evacuated from Berkeley on April 30, 1942, we have kept in our minds returning to Berkeley, so that many times before I asked you to extend my indefinite leave of absence. I spent most of my important age in California … so I naturally owe endless things to nature, to Mother Earth in the state of California, and to all our friends who treated me with a kind heart during such long years.”

With the lifting of the exclusion order in January 1945 and the end of the war that summer, the Obatas left Missouri for Berkeley. Obata was much more fortunate than most returning internees, many of whom faced discrimination and violence. His job as a professor at U.C. Berkeley was waiting for him. Still, the Obatas had very little money, and finding a new home was difficult.

In 1954 the Obatas became naturalized U.S. citizens. Long-standing immigration laws had prevented them from taking this step earlier. Obata retired from the university that same year, but he continued to work, taking Americans to visit art treasures in Japan and teaching painting in his home in Berkeley.

Obata died in 1975 at age 90. His work his been shown at museums and galleries throughout the world.