Jerry Takigawa – Balancing Cultures

Review by Wayne Swanson •

Gaman: enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience, dignity, and silence.

Shikata ga nai: it cannot be helped.

For the Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps during World War II, these terms defined their incarceration. For photographic artist Jerry Takigawa, whose parents and grandparents were among them, “the shadow legacy from these responses is imprinted on my life and my work.”

When Takigawa was growing up, his parents rarely talked about their experiences in the camps, and never in depth. But finding forgotten family photographs unlocked memories and scars of that dark episode in American history. The result is Balancing Cultures.

“Balancing Cultures gave me permission to confront the racism perpetrated on my family that resulted in their confinement in the American concentration camps sanctioned by President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, issued on February 19, 1942,” writes Takigawa in the book’s Preface. It is followed by a collection of 42 collages that chart his parents’ and grandparents’ journey from confinement to eventual release.

This understated collection is at once a record of the indignities endured by 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II and an expression of the balancing act facing all minorities striving to find a place in a new land. The collages also convey the contrasts between Japanese and American mindsets.

Takigawa explains that in Japanese culture the group predominates. Traditional Japanese art tends to emphasize this by treating the background and foreground the same, flattening the perspective. In American culture, the individual rules. As a result, the distinctions between subject and its background are primary. By combining the Eastern and Western aesthetics in his collages, he demonstrates the dilemma faced by immigrants — “always straddling two cultures.”

“Intuitively, I’m piecing together a historical puzzle of photographs, memories, and artifacts — a collage approach that has been an integral part of my visual vocabulary for many years,” Takigawa writes. These collages consist of de-focused black-and-white photographs on which he has placed artifacts testifying to the experiences and implications of incarceration. 

The photographs show family and friends who were sent to the camps, some smiling, some stoic. These are the type of seemingly benign images you might find in any family album. The blurred treatment gives them the dream-like feel of memories. 

The artifacts provide the jarring counterpoint. Takigawa uses documents such as government orders, identity cards and tags, newspaper clippings, and personal letters for historical context. He also includes traditional Japanese motifs such as pebbles, ginkgo leaves and pine needles, as well as words and phrases on scraps of paper, scrabble tiles, or even woven into the photograph, to describe the experiences and decry the injustice behind them. The messages in all this imagery range from the distasteful (“Jap Hunting Licenses Issued Here”) to the hopeful (“Diversity in the one true thing we all have in common”) to the cautionary (“All stereotypes oppress”).

The book presents the images chronologically, telling a narrative story of his family’s journey. Many images span both pages of a spread, and the Smyth-sewn design allows the spreads to lay flat to fully appreciate them.

The power in the compositions comes from the tension between the beauty of Takigawa’s imagery and the messages they hold about the unfinished business of structural racism in America. In 1988 the United States issued a formal apology and paid reparations to survivors of the Japanese internment. Yet events like the recent attacks on Asian Americans after Donald Trump dubbed COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus” show there is still much work to be done.

As Takigawa notes, “with only a small nod of political or social permission, xenophobia and the need to blame lies just under the surface of our civil veneer.”

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Contributing Editor Wayne Swanson is a San Diego-based fine art photographer and writer.

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Balancing Cultures, Jerry Takigawa

Photographer: Jerry Takigawa, born Chicago, Illinois, resides Carmel Valley, California

Self-Published: Jerry Takigawa, Dayo Press (Carmel Valley, CA, USA, copyright 2021)

Foreword: John Hamamura, Preface: Jerry Takigawa

Text: English

Stiffcover book with dust cover, Smyth sewn with signatures binding, four-color lithography, 7 x 9 inches, 42 images, 96 pages, printed in Canada

Photobook designer: Takigawa Design with Jay Galster

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Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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