for children imprisoned
Na Omi Judy Shintani
As you enter my Dream Refuge for children imprisoned exhibition, please experience this sacred space with reverence and thoughtfulness in quietude.
Through experiencing this healing installation,
it is my hope that the viewers may feel compassion, empathy,and new understanding of this appalling time in United States history.
While the children safely slumber, hear the realities of their experienced trauma and know that it may still affect them now. The drawings represent Japanese American children that were incarcerated for years in American concentration camps during WWII (my own father being one of them), American Indian boarding school children who were denied their culture
and taken from their communities, and the Central American children who are imprisoned, separated
from their families, and living in squalid, unsafe conditions at the border.
I conducted interviews and collected writings of those incarcerated during their childhood. You can hear their voices expressing portions of their stories,
and you can read the complete writings with photographs in binders throughout the room.
If so moved, please participate in the community altar by writing your thoughts and blessings and placing them there.
I began this process with “The Innocent Dreamer”
the first sleeping child I drew in honor of
the Japanese American children imprisoned at
Tanforan Race Track in San Bruno after the Pearl Harbor attack. I stuffed the girl’s mattress with
hay and was instantly transported to that time, experiencing the smell and itchiness, and the insult of having to make my bed to sleep in a horse stable. The life size child drawing elicited tearful memories of those who were children in American concentration camps. She touched all kinds of people’s hearts and souls. She brought home the horror of imprisoning children as terrorists in our country.
Then the shock of the treatment of Central American children at our borders bombarded me, and I did what
I always do - express my activism through art.
I expanded the project to include more sleeping children to connect the US history of incarcerating children to the atrocities happening to children being imprisoned and separated from their families today.
Art and the unconscious can be so magical. Interestingly, I felt something familiar as
I drew these sleeping children for over a year. Suddenly I recalled the vision that came to me almost 10 years earlier. I was in a beautifully lit
large cave and before me were many sleeping children.
I was told I was the caregiver of these rainbow children. Thank you for being part of my recreated dream and honoring and acknowledging the history and resilience of these children. Let us embrace all children as our own, as ourselves, as our future.
METHODOLOGY AND PROCESS
I wanted to get out of the studio and be physically present where the children at the border were being held. I got that opportunity when I connected with Satsuki Ina, herself a child in the camps. She invited me to come on her pilgrimage to Crystal City and
a protest at the largest detention center in the United States
in Dilly, Texas.
To prepare I conducted a workshop at the Half Moon Bay Library where Mallory Nomura-Saul and I taught families and people
of different heritages how to fold cranes. We added these to
the 30,000 tsuru (cranes) that were hung on the detention
center fence during the protest. They were colorful signals
to the children that people were fighting for them and they were
I got to see some of these children and parents at the Greyhound Bus station when we handed out backpacks with food and some
art supplies. The proximity and historical connection of
the Japanese Incarceration and the imprisonment of the asylum seeking children was so deep and disturbing. This cemented
my desire to make this connection in my art.
The inspiration for the drawings came from different places.
My two nieces posed in sleeping positions and I photographed them. I received photos from some of the people I interviewed.
I researched images of children at the detention centers and
those held in Mexico, as well as Japanese American children of WWII camps and children in Indian boarding schools. I took qualities from the different images to create drawings that
would represent any incarcerated child. What was interesting to
me was that even though the children came from three different ethnic groups they had similar physical appearances –
that their similar “otherness” was a big reason why they were separated and imprisoned away from the majority of Americans.
I wanted to add some sort of protection for each child.
I discovered semamori, an embroidery amulet that Japanese parents sewed onto the back of their children’s clothing for protection.
I found old books with a series of different semamori images.
I selected and sewed a turtle, butterfly, humming bird, and flowers. I chose to sew a pine needle image on a teenage boy
that reminded me of my father when he was at Tule Lake Segregation Camp. This image is a connection to my deceased mother whose maiden name means “pine tree on the hill”.
For the American Indian children I created red felt circles filled with cedar and sage given to me by Lakota Muriel Antoine.
I stitched the yellow circle with a cross in it – symbolic of
the four directions.
Advisor Belinda Arriaga advised me that the Central American children carry crosses with them for protection and comfort,
so I used purple ribbon and red thread to create cross talismans for them. To collect stories of those who had been or are incarcerated as children I sent out emails to my communities asking for memories. I also tapped my Facebook followers and Japanese American Facebook groups. Much of my research was
done through networking and introductions.
Some stories were emailed to me. I provided a questionnaire
which some followed and some did not. Some of the storytellers chose to be interviewed and that took about 2 hours each.
Those writings often took a few rounds of edits. I learned
so much from each person.
After some discussion with advisors, I decided to try
something new – create recorded stories to broadcast within
Linda Ando reviewed the stories and suggested passages to use for the recordings. Kallan Nishimoto at Flytrap Studio in Oakland did three recording sessions. Others were voices for those who could not attend the sessions. Ray Day recorded the children who read
in English and Spanish. He then edited the stories together using
my script. We reviewed a lot of music and decided to go with original shakuhachi (Japanese flute) music by Devon Osamu Tipp, www.greengiraffemusic.info
Binders in the gallery contain the full interviews and are available for deeper understanding of the project.
On Healing The Ache of the Familiar
There is a poignant ache when we see sleeping children. An urge to protect their vulnerability. In some cultures it’s a sin to wake sleeping children, because sleep is a sacred time to replenish and rejuvenate. It’s as if a loved one were lightly touching the underside of your arm, or a hollow in your neck, or the curve of your cheekbone: that much tenderness.
There is a particular ache that Judy Shintani’s work makes us feel. An American flag of barrack wood, reclaimed from Tule Lake concentration camp, where here father was imprisoned, in “Pledge Allegiance.” “Deconstructed kimonos” in haunting patterns and shapes. A sleeping child pictured on a mattress that Shintani herself stuffed with straw in “Innocent Dreamer”—an installation that marks a shift in her work from Japanese American incarceration to other targeted communities.
Now, in “Dream Refuge: For Children Imprisoned,” Shintani offers us an even broader vision: life-size drawings of sleeping children arranged in a circle. Shintani has sewn protective items into her portraits of the children: semamori (amulets) on the Japanese American children, stitched using red to indicate bloodlines; medicinal herb packets created in consultation with a Native American elder as a blessing; protective objects for the Central American refugee children.
Shintani’s work, she says, is “to create spaces for inquiry.” Here she asks, what are the connections we can make across time, culture, space? Native American “boarding schools” with thousands of children over decades intended to “kill the Indian, save the man”; Japanese American wartime incarceration, where close to 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated; and the estimated 20,000 children detained at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2019. Portraying the soft curves of sleeping children, Shintani’s work cuts deeply to the soft underbelly of painful histories.
This is our American story. “You can’t really sleep,” a therapist told Shintani, “unless you feel at peace and sheltered.” These children have lived, as Shintani says, the inverse of the American dream. Many of them have been separated from their communities, families, parents. Their trauma is intergenerational. Only in dreams, the exhibit suggests, can these children meet and find refuge.
There is a particular ache that many Japanese Americans feel when we see images of our mass incarceration, or “camp,” during World War II. Are these the mountains or the desert around the camp where my family was held? Will I see the faces of my family members here, enclosed by tar paper barrack walls, barbed wire, guard towers with the guns pointed inside? Is that my obaachan standing in line for the latrine? It’s a bittersweet struggle with recognition and connection across barriers of time and space. If the faces and settings are not our relatives, the chilling fact remains that they might be, or might as well be.
The word “familiar” comes from “family.”
There is a particular ache in 2019 when we see the faces of migrant children at the U.S./Mexico border, detained indefinitely in appalling conditions. The parallels have prompted many Japanese Americans, either formerly incarcerated or descendants, to tell their stories. This emergence gave Shintani strength to come “out of the studio” and into spaces with her Japanese American artist group, Sansei Granddaughters’ Journey.
It also energized Shintani to reach across barriers of culture, time, and space. “When we unite,” she says, “we can protest these atrocities together for the ‘other.’ As activist Mike Ishii says, ‘we have a moral obligation to speak up.’”
Japanese American psychotherapist Satsuki Ina, herself a child wartime inmate, visited a “detention facility” in Karnes, Texas in 2016 and saw for herself. “After several visits,” Ina writes, “there was no doubt in my mind that the trauma being inflicted on families in the dehumanizing prison environment is causing lasting affects on the emotional well-being of both mothers and children.” As a leader of the Tsuru for Solidarity group, Ina invited Shintani to visit Texas in March 2019, with other Japanese Americans on pilgrimage to Crystal City where Japanese Americans were imprisoned and where migrant families were being separated at Dilley, just 40 miles away. The activists had asked for 10,000 origami cranes; they received close to 25,000, folded and sent by Japanese Americans and their allies all over the country. The group brought Japanese taiko drummers, and hoped that their words, wishes, and drumbeats would reach the children imprisoned in the facility.
Shintani was one of the first activists to organize crane-folding workshops for the cause outside the Japanese American community. People at Shintani’s home library in Half Moon Bay folded cranes. The library mailed the cranes to Texas, as well as books in Spanish which the activists read to children recently released from detention. She was there to help hang the cranes on the fence at Dilley, and to bear witness—as she is doing here.
There are poignant, particular aches that echo across time and space. The challenge of our historical moment is to feel the ache of the familiar and all its layers.
As an artist, Shintani pays intricate, tender attention to these children, rendering each one carefully through her line drawings. “I am drawing children as they wish to be seen,” she writes during her process. She reports feeling higher anxiety levels after watching news about children at the border. To make art is to bear witness; the least we can do in receiving it is to bear witness ourselves.
We need to feel in order to see these children. We need to feel their vulnerability and allow it to touch our own. And in order to honor these children across time and space, we need to take action—through offering our own words at the altar in the center of “Dream Refuge,” through contributing to causes, organizations, and more.
“Dream Refuge” holds space for us to begin. It is a space to feel that these children belong to all of us. Familiar, family. This is what art can do: to help us heal the ache of the familiar with resonance and resilience.