The Underground Railroad will always serve as America’s greatest example of ordinary citizens sticking their necks out to help those suffering under the crushing weight of the nation’s racist institutions. Another example can currently be found in a most unusual place, the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Philadelphia during its new exhibition, “Shofuso and Modernism: Mid-Century Collaboration between Japan and Philadelphia.”
Organized by The Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia (JASGP) with support from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, the exhibition celebrates the friendships and transcultural exchanges between Junzo Yoshimura (1908–1997, Japan), George Nakashima (1905-1990, US), Noémi Pernessin Raymond (1889-1980, France) and Antonin Raymond (1888–1976, Austria-Hungary), through their collaborative architectural projects.
Their brilliant artwork takes on added dimensions when their remarkable back stories are discovered.
The married Raymonds first visited Japan in 1919 to work for Frank Lloyd Wright on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. They subsequently set up their own architectural offices in Tokyo in 1922, where they would live and practice for the next 18 years.
Yoshimura started working for the Raymond’s architectural office in 1928 when he was still a student and continued to work with the Raymonds until 1941.
Nakashima started working at the Raymond’s firm in 1934 until his return to Seattle in 1941. Shortly after returning to the U.S., the Nakashima family was sent to the Minidoka internment camp in Hunt, Idaho.
Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, 120,000 people of Japanese descent living on America’s West Coast were sent to internment camps. They were American citizens, like Nakashima, his wife, also of Japanese descent, and their baby daughter.
In 1943, the Raymonds interceded and successfully vouched for the Nakashimas, thus allowing the family to take refuge at the Raymonds’ Farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania where they would eventually settle and set up Nakashima’s house, studio and workshop.
George Nakashima and his wife, Marion Okajima, were both American citizens, both born in the United States. Both were college graduates with degrees from prestigious universities, George with an undergraduate degree from the University of Washington and a master’s degree in architecture from MIT, Marion a degree from UCLA – exceedingly rare for a woman in 1940s America. George Nakashima had traveled the world as an American citizen.
That didn’t matter.
Both had Japanese ancestry so they were rounded up by the U.S. government and their freedom was taken away. No crime was committed. No trial was held.
The Raymond’s, neither of whom were born in the United States, but both possessing the golden ticket to opportunity in American–being white–possessed the influence to free the American-born and interned Nakashima’s.
For concise examples of America’s history of institutional racism, this story is as clear-cut as you will find.
Nakashima was able to make the most of his terrible situation.
While interned, he met Gentaro Hikogawa, a Shokunin (master craftsperson) trained in traditional Japanese carpentry. Under his tutelage, Nakashima learned to master traditional Japanese hand tools and joinery techniques. The knowledge would go on to inform and distinguish his furniture for the remainder of his life.
The ugliness of Nakashima’s treatment stands in stunning contrast to the beauty, tranquility and peacefulness visitors to Shofuso will find this fall.
Designed by Yoshimura, Shofuso was constructed for the Museum of Modern Art in New York as the third installment of “The House in the Museum Garden” outdoor exhibition in 1954. The well-traveled house was built in Japan using traditional materials and techniques, shipped and then reassembled in New York for the showcase, all before being moved to its current location in West Fairmount Park, Philadelphia in 1958.
Shofuso provides an authentic re-creation of what is regarded as a definitive, and highly influential, movement in Japanese architecture.
“Classic Japanese architectural forms have long been regarded by many Western architects as being of greater relevance to contemporary problems than much of the Western tradition itself,” MoMA Curator of Architecture Arthur Drexler is quoted as having said at the time.
Strangely enough, as poor as America’s treatment of its own citizens of Japanese descent was during the war, not long after, the country became enamored with Japan.
“While Japan was still recovering from the war, Japanese culture was becoming very popular in the US,” Yuka Yokoyama, Curator, Associate Director of Exhibition and Programs at Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia, told Forbes.com. “The year Shofuso was exhibited at MoMA in 1954, Japan had an enormous cultural impact on New York City through exhibitions of artists such as Ruth Asawa, Saburo Hasegawa, Isamu Noguchi, Kenzo Okada and ceramicist Rosanjin.”
“Shofuso and Modernism: Mid-Century Collaboration between Japan and Philadelphia,” explores the creative relationships which shaped and influenced Yoshimura’s life through archival images, objects, and artifacts from the artist alongside Nakashima and the Raymonds.
“Shofuso represented the pinnacle of Japanese craft and helped an American audience begin to understand Japanese culture as a whole,” Yokoyama said.
Nakashima would become a superstar. One in a million artists become household names, Nakashima became one as a furniture maker. Unusual in the extreme.
As with all great artists, he was able to take the unique combination of influences and experiences from his life and create in a way the world had never known before.
“George Nakashima’s work stands out because all of these life experiences are reflected in his work and are based on a deep respect for craft traditions and the process of making,” Yokoyama said.
How was he directly influenced by what he saw and learned of Japan? Perhaps Antonin Raymond provides the best answer.
“There is a strong Japanese influence in my work, but it is one of spirit and not of form,” he is quoted as having stated. “Should we be too afraid of precedent or influence we could do nothing at all; it does not matter from where we take anything, but what we do with it.”
“Shofuso and Modernism: Mid-Century Collaboration between Japan and Philadelphia” will be on view through November 29.