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Take five: Gyo Obata and Michael Adams, sons of two renowned artists, discuss Japanese internment

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 30, 2009 - Gyo Obata and Michael Adams share many memories -- life as the sons of an artist and a photographer, Chiura Obata and Ansel Adams; time in their younger days spent exploring the secrets of Yosemite; their fathers' friendship and the impact that Japanese internment during World War II had on both men, as well as the country.

Obata came to St. Louis the night before his family was put in a Japanese internment camp in California. World War II had just begun, and Washington University was one of the few schools that accepted Japanese-American students, he says.

Adams, Obata's junior by 10 years, came to St. Louis years later to study medicine at Washington University.

This Friday, both men will come to Washington University again to speak about the impact of Japanese internment and racial profiling during World War II, a practice which interred about 120,000 Japanese-Americans, according to the National Park Service. The talk is part of a multi-discipline series ongoing now through December called "Ethnic Profiling: A Challenge to Democracy."

Adams, who practiced medicine in California until 2000 and was in the Air Force and the California Air National Guard, is 76 now and teaches at the University of California San Francisco Medical School program in Fresno.

Obata, who studied in the School of Architecture at Wash U, went on to make St. Louis his home and eventually help form the firm Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, or HOK, which has offices around the country and the world. He's 86.

The St. Louis Beacon asked each man the same five questions. Their answers show different sides to an event that both men worry people are forgetting, and both have concerns that it could actually happen again.

What are your early memories of your father's friendship with Obata /Adams?

ADAMS: My early memories of my family knowing the Obatas was during the summer when they would come camping in Yosemite. I remember my parents and the Obatas having dinner in Yosemite and occasionally meeting in the San Francisco Bay Area in their home or at art shows.

OBATA: Our family used to go camping in Yosemite and our whole family would camp out for about six weeks, and during that period my father would teach at Ansel Adams' studio. He would teach painting while Ansel was teaching photography. I was just a young teenager so I didn't get into many of their discussions but my father and Ansel used to drink and have supper in the evening, while during the day I just climbed all over Yosemite.

What impact did the internment have on your father's work and on your own life?

ADAMS: You should read Ansel's book, "Born Free and Equal," on his experience with the Japanese-Americans in Manzanar. Ansel was concerned about the event and wanted to document this one camp. Many of my parents' friends were placed in camps and I know this was disconcerting and a great disappointment. I was with my father on two or his four trips to Manzanar. I can remember the prison-like atmosphere and the remarkable acceptance and ability to continue on with life under less than ideal conditions that these Japanese-Americans found in Manzanar.

OBATA: There's an exhibit that you can see at the Kemper now of some of my father's drawings and paintings while he was interred in Topaz (Internment Camp). You know that whole experience was a terrible thing to many, many people, but my father was an artist, painter, and then my mother was a floral designer, and so beings artists, they just sort of, they took it in stride, even though there were some difficulties in the camp. I don't think that it really affected my father's painting. After he came out of camp, then he came to St. Louis while I was going to school at Washington U., my whole family did for a little while and they lived in Webster Groves, and then he went back, soon as the war was over, he went back to California and started teaching again.

What place do you think internment has in our collective memory, and what place does it deserve?

ADAMS: The internments of WW II are now felt to be universally wrong. However, there was a great deal of fear on the West Coast after Pearl Harbor, some of that fear I can remember as a 7-year-old. Given the events of Dec. 7 and the success of the Japanese in the Pacific, I can see the reactions of that time. I note that the University of California system and the California State University system have both recently offered to give honorary degrees to students unable to complete their academic programs during that period of our history. I believe that this forced dislocation has been recognized as wrong. The National Park Service has done an admirable job in recreating Manzanar as a National Historical Site. At least, some of our citizens can see the actual site and can relive the conditions through their displays and facilities.

OBATA: It has been a tremendous collective memory for the Japanese and Japanese Americans, but I think that many young people now don't really know about the internment, how 110,000 people were moved out of California, Washington and Oregon. The irony is that the Japanese-American population in Hawaii was 50 percent. It seems to me that they were a lot closer to Japan, and yet they were not moved out of Hawaii. And some of it was economic prejudice because the Japanese were becoming very good farmers on the West Coast and so some people saw this as an opportunity to get rid of them. Actually it didn't make any sense because if you were a Japanese-American living in Nevada or Utah, then they didn't touch you.

What piece of your father's work is your favorite and why? What piece do you like best of your father's friend?

ADAMS: The photograph I connect with is his (Adams') Moonrise, Hernandez, NM, 1941. Maybe because I was with him when it was taken. It is certainly his most well-know photograph. I am not familiar with any specific Obata work although we have several in the family. I like his work in the High Sierra over many trips in the 1920s and '30s that has been published by the Yosemite Association. I also like his work from the camps where he continued to paint and draw and teach art classes. You will see much of that work with the talk by Kimi Kodani on Oct. 4 at the Kemper Art Museum.

OBATA: (My father) painted these incredible water colors when he took a trip to Yosemite in 1928 and then they were made in woodblock prints and they're quite beautiful. Also, I have one of his best paintings in my own house, "Sunset in Sacramento Valley," and that's really one of my favorite paintings. I love all Adams' photographs of Yosemite.

What are the biggest lessons, to you, that came out of Japanese internment and how do they apply to our world today?

ADAMS: I believe that the ethnic profiling of today is very similar in many ways to what happened to the Japanese-Americans of 1942-43. We should learn from our past never again to have this type of situation occur. There are many ways that reflect ethnic profiling. Bringing these examples to the attention of the public will be of great service The symposium at Washington University will be documenting this problem throughout the school year in many different ways and in many different disciplines.

OBATA: I did a museum in L.A. called the Japanese-American National Museum, and that was built to really foster the idea that this, what happened to the Japanese-Americans, should never be repeated again ... This whole thing was just an absolute mess, and it was all based on racial prejudice.