Bars and Stripes
A Japanese-American sculptor makes a flag from the remnants of her father’s internment camp and hangs it in San Francisco, CA
Five years ago this July, Kazumi Shintani and his daughter, Judy, joined a biannual pilgrimage to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in Northern California. Built at the bottom of a dried-up lake near the California-Oregon border, it was the largest and most conflict-ridden of the internment camps where Japanese-Americans were held during World War II. Kazumi had taken the trip in hopes of seeing the barracks he’d called home during his high school days, but when they arrived, Judy recalls, “There was almost nothing there. Some cement foundations—that’s about it.” After the war, the Shintanis learned, the Army sold the barracks for a dollar each to returning local veterans, who would relocate the spartan shelters to neighboring plots of land and live in them.
As luck would have it, though, Judy learned that a nearby farmer had one of the old barracks, by then a dilapidated shack, in his pasture. He welcomed any former internees to take some wood. “My dad just went up and started ripping boards off the building,” says Judy. “He didn’t have any tools, just gloves. He didn’t say anything.”
Judy, a San Francisco–based artist who often works with salvaged materials, had a vague idea for the wood. “I didn’t sand it. I didn’t varnish it,” she says. “I wanted it to retain that history.” Eventually, she decided to carve 50 stars into one piece, arrange some of the other boards into stripes, hang them from an iron bar, and frame the work with barbed wire. The resulting 4’x2.5’ flag, titled Pledge Allegiance, is hanging through September at the Presidio, a former U.S. Army base turned museum overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, in San Francisco. The work is part of Exclusion, an exhibition examining the Presidio’s central role in the internment of some 120,000 Japanese-Americans during the war, which included issuing a “loyalty questionnaire” to determine which Japanese-Americans posed an imminent danger to the country.
“When I decided to call the flag Pledge Allegiance, I was thinking about the pledge I’d say each morning at school,” says Judy. “But I was also thinking about the loyalty questions.” Specifically, says Judy, questions that asked whether respondents would serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, and whether they would pledge allegiance to the U.S. and forswear any to Japan.
Kazumi, then 13, lived with his family on a houseboat in Puget Sound, where his father was an oyster farmer. Each morning he and his siblings rowed to school in a dinghy, often accompanied by a pet seal. That idyllic existence came to an end the day after Pearl Harbor; his father was taken to the Fort Missoula Internment Camp, in Montana, where the FBI questioned him about his knowledge of the U.S. Navy’s Keyport Torpedo Station, on Puget Sound. Ultimately, Kazumi and his father were reunited at Tule Lake, where some 18,000 other Japanese-Americans would be relocated over the course of the war—many for answering in the negative to the loyalty questions, either out of defiance or confusion.
“My father never said much about his time at the camp,” Judy says. “He says they farmed beets. And he told me about the day they were taken away. Their little black dog chased the Army truck down the road.”
Kazumi left Tule Lake in 1945, a few credits shy of graduating high school. Five years later, he was drafted into the Korean War, though he was never deployed. In the mid-’50s, on the G.I. Bill, he trained to be a cameraman in New York City, where he met Judy’s mother but struggled to find work. The young couple moved to Iowa, where Judy was born, and then to California. “They felt not confident in their life,” says Judy. “They felt that they couldn’t go after a job, that they couldn’t speak their mind.”
Judy says her father, in his quiet way, has told her he appreciates her flag. Others, however, have raised questions. One history buff asked why she put 50 stars on her flag instead of 48, given that Alaska and Hawaii weren’t granted statehood until 1959. Thinking back to that question, Judy takes a breath. “For me,” she says, “the flag is transitional. It’s about that time, 75 years ago, and it’s made of things from that time. But it’s also about right now.”