News | 6 June 2024

Fellow’s Report: Jonathan van Harmelen


Jonathan van Harmelen is our 2023-2024 THI Year-Long Dissertation Fellow and he is currently completing his dissertation on the role of Congress in the incarceration of Japanese Amerians during World War II. He recently was invited to the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht, The Netherlands, to talk about Japanese American artist Shinkichi Tajiri, and he shares about his experience in a THI Fellow’s Report. van Harmelen’s work as a public historian has been exemplary, and his previous position as a 2022 THI Public Fellow with Densho, a Seattle nonprofit that documents and preserves Japanese American history, helped inspire the organization to create new paid internships for humanities graduate students. In this report, van Harmelen reflects on his most recent public humanities presentation and the importance of sharing the stories of Japanese Americans with international audiences.

On May 12th, 2024, I had the great pleasure of giving a presentation at the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht about the global career of Japanese American artist Shinkichi Tajiri. In addition to producing research that contributes to the discipline of history, I found that my most rewarding writing experiences came when I connected with a wider audience outside of the academy. Since 2019 I have been a writer for the Japanese American National Museum’s blog Discover Nikkei, which has put me in touch with fellow scholars and community members alike. So when I received an invitation to present at the Bonnefanten, I was excited to be given the chance to share my work with an international audience.

I found that my most rewarding writing experiences came when I connected with a wider audience outside of the academy.

Why in the Netherlands? Because Shinkichi Tajiri was one of the most successful American artists to live in the Netherlands. Shinkichi Tajiri’s work, and his story, is relatively unknown in the United States today. Yet his revolutionary artwork deserves attention, and his story illustrates the negative impact of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. and the resilience of Japanese Americans. Like Black Americans Josephine Baker and Richard Wright who left the U.S. for France, Shinkichi left the United States for France and subsequently the Netherlands to escape racism he endured in the United States throughout his life.

Born in Watts, Los Angeles on December 7, 1923, Shinkichi Tajiri began his artistic career as an apprentice to sculptor Donal Hord in San Diego. On December 7th, 1941 – Tajiri’s 18th birthday – his life changed forever. The bombing of Pearl Harbor unleashed a wave of bitter anti-Japanese hatred on the West Coast that culminated in President Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066 on February 19th, 1942. Like other Japanese Americans from San Diego, the government sent Tajiri to Poston concentration camp in the Arizona desert. Tajiri remained at Poston from August 28, 1942 until May 24, 1943, when he decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. At Poston, Tajiri continued to sculpt and worked with fellow artist Isamu Noguchi, and exhibited his artwork on several occasions. 

Film poster of Shinkichi Tajiri and Baird Bryant’s film The Vipers, as seen in Shinkichi Tajiri’s Autobiographical Notations. Courtesy of Giotta Tajiri.

From 1943 until 1946, Tajiri served in the Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team. After he left the Army in 1946, he studied for a year at the Arts Institute of Chicago. In 1948, Tajiri made the decision to leave the U.S. permanently – what he later called his “self-imposed exile.” In Paris, he fell in with the thriving postwar art scene and studied with the likes of Ossip Zadkine and Fernand Léger. He produced a film about smoking marijuana in 1955 with counterculture filmmaker Baird Bryant, The Vipers, that was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Around the same time, Shinkichi fell in love with Dutch artist Ferdi Jansen and moved to the Netherlands in 1956. 

After a few years living in Amsterdam, the couple bought a castle in the rural town of Baarlo in 1962. There the couple raised two children, Giotta and Ryu, and established an atelier for their work. Over the next four decades, Shinkichi produced an impressive number of sculptures, paintings, photographs (ranging from 19th century  daguerreotypes to stereo-photography), and mixed media art. His art never shied away from addressing serious topics, often commenting on racism, U.S. imperialism, and America’s obsession with militarism. His artworks are in collections around the world, including the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Several of his sculptures remain on display in major cities such as Amsterdam, the Hague, and Los Angeles. 

Shinkichi Tajiri completed this sculpture, Nagasaki, in 1957. Part of his Drippings Series, it depicts a victim of the atomic bombing of the Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. This picture, taken of the exhibit, shows several pieces by Isamu Noguchi in the background.

My interest in Shinkichi Tajiri’s story dates back to 2019. Shortly before entering UCSC as a PhD student in history, I decided to write an article for the Japanese American National Museum’s blog Discover Nikkei highlighting Dutch newspaper coverage of the Japanese American experience. As part of the research for the article, my friend and scholarly collaborator Greg Robinson (who was friends with Shinkichi before his passing) put me in touch with Shinkichi’s daughter Giotta. In addition to discussing her father’s career, our talk transformed into a two-hour conversation that I later published as an interview for Discover Nikkei. It was Giotta who, five years later, suggested I give the talk at the Bonnefanten to close their exhibit on Shinkichi, The Restless Wanderer

Curated by Shinkichi’s grandchildren Tanéa and Shakuru Tajiri (Giotta’s children) The Restless Wanderer featured art from several chapters in Shinkichi’s life, from camp, his self-imposed exile, to finally finding a new home and achieving global success. For Tanéa and Shakuru, as I found out, the exhibit was deeply personal for not only speaking about their grandfather’s art, but of their personal relationship with him.

For my presentation, I gave a talk about Tajiri’s incarceration experience. From his family’s immigration from Japan to the U.S. through his difficulty adjusting to life after the war, I used Shinkichi’s story to show how many Japanese Americans struggled to readjust to life after camp. 

Following my presentation, I joined a panel discussion with Tanéa and Shakuru that was moderated by the Bonnefanten’s chief curator Paula van den Bosch. Both Tanéa and Shakuru were happy to discuss how their grandfather Shinkichi inspired their own artistic careers, along with walking the audience through the process of how they chose to present his artwork in relation to his life story. I was impressed with not only how the two curators skillfully presented Shinkichi’s artistic career, but how they had the courage to share the intimate memories of their grandfather with the public. 

When I left the Netherlands, I felt more committed to continuing my public history work.

Giving this talk in the Netherlands at this time was also important. One woman from Belgium who heard about the talk on local television shared her appreciation for Shinkichi’s story in the face of current political events in Europe. Recently, the far-right Party For Freedom swept Dutch parliamentary elections in what some have called the greatest political upset in Dutch politics since World War II. Their party’s leader, Geert Wilders, has long preached Islamophobia and called for immigration bans to the Netherlands. As a story that illustrates the dangers of xenophobia and racial hysteria, the lessons of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II are just as relevant to the Netherlands as it is to the U.S. When I left the Netherlands, I felt more committed to continuing my public history work to teach the public about Shinkichi Tajiri’s story, whose art exposed the damaging effects of American racism.

Banner Image: Installation view of Shinkichi Tajiri: The Restless Wanderer at the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht, The Netherlands. Photo by Peter Cox