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Asian Arts remembers Philly life for Japanese Americans after internment

3 minute read
Saburo Inouye, who ran a Philadelphia hostel for Japanese-Americans, will reappear at the original site. (Photo by Rea Tajiri.)
Saburo Inouye, who ran a Philadelphia hostel for Japanese-Americans, will reappear at the original site. (Photo by Rea Tajiri.)

When Asian Arts Initiative (AAI) tapped Japanese-American artist and filmmaker Rea Tajiri to create a city-wide project for AAI’s 25th anniversary, she immediately saw the opportunity to create the three-dimensional masterpiece she’d been imagining since she received a Pew Fellowship in 2015.

That masterpiece is WATARIDORI: birds of passage, a multisite installation documenting the arrival of Japanese-Americans to Philadelphia from World War II concentration camps. Tajiri (also an associate professor at Temple) was inspired by AAI’s vision of an anniversary project that would revive the history and presence of Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans in Philadelphia. Her installation will recreate that history onto present-day sites.

Nowadays, a bookstore and a coffee shop

One of those sites is on 33rd Street just south of Chestnut Street. It was once an apartment building housing families who had been released from the concentration camps. “A few Nisei [second-generation] families just out of the camps were able to move there and lived on different floors,” Tajiri says. “I'm hoping to 'layer' or superimpose these historical sites into the imagination of the viewer, hoping they can also reflect on the current-day events around forced displacement, which has even accelerated since we started the project.”

Another installation will appear at Joe’s Coffee on Drexel University’s campus. The coffee shop was once the site of the Philadelphia Hostel, temporary housing for Japanese Americans leaving the camps and being resettled across the country. Armed with photos and letters from descendants of the Inouye family, who ran the hostel, Tajiri will impose an art window over the location.

“Speculative history”

While Tajiri’s work has been mainly documentary and film, WATARIDORI extends that work in its focus on the Japanese-American experience in internment during World War II. She also incorporates what she calls “speculative history,” creating stories around objects that interviewees described to her over the course of her research. “I wanted to create a kind of 'dream'-space shop that would come alive at night . . . [where] some of the objects . . . are brought to life against the backdrop of concentration-camp barracks in Poston,” she says.

One of those objects is a bicycle owned by Miko Horikawa, one of the people Tajiri interviewed in her research for the project. Horikawa’s parents bought the bike for her when they resettled in New Jersey as part of a community of Japanese-Americans. Horikawa was the only child in the neighborhood with a bike, so the other children all learned to ride on it. “She describes it as being banged up, scratched, and dented, but she didn't care because she was proud that it was being used by all,” Tajiri says. “So it’s a symbol I wanted to activate at the sites.” A QR code will be used to allow viewers to access an audio file explaining the history of the bike.

WATARIDORI will take place alongside installations such as Boone Nguyen’s Leave, then there is no way home, which looks at the Vietnamese experience in Philadelphia, and Chinatown Art Brigade’s Here to Stay, which tackles gentrification in Chinatown. The anniversary celebrations also include spoken-word and dance performances and live discussions. Each event celebrates the Asian experience in Philadelphia and AAI’s work bringing that experience to the mainstream.

Asian Arts Initiative’s 25th anniversary celebration will run from May 3 through May 6 across several locations in Philadelphia. WATARIDORI’s opening night will be held at Spiral Q (3808 Lancaster Avenue) on May 3 at 8:30pm. Visit online for more information, including the full lineup of installations and performances.

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