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Review: 'Gokurosama' at the Japanese American National Museum

April 25, 2009 |  4:00 pm

Gokurosama “Gokurōsama: Contemporary Photographs of the Nisei in Hawai’i” at the Japanese American National Museum is an earnest though not especially nuanced or incisive tribute to the second generation of Japanese American immigrants in the islands (the nisei) by a member of the fourth (the yonsei), Brian Y. Sato. The title translates roughly as “I appreciate your efforts,” and that’s clearly the spirit in which Sato approached his subjects, members of a generation that saw more than its share of struggle straddling disparate cultures and establishing a community in that nascent island state through World War II and beyond.

Sato undertook the project, he writes in the catalog, after encountering a collection of photographs depicting the issei, or first generation, at work on sugar and pineapple plantations in the early 20th century. Frustrated by his inability to make out any of their faces — “I wanted to get to know these Issei as individuals,” he writes, “not as faceless laborers” — and by the impossibility of getting closer to any of them now, he set out to do “the next best thing”: document the subsequent generation “before it was too late.”

It becomes clear over the course of the exhibition, however, that Sato had some trouble making his way around their defenses. He alludes in his captions to generational differences, language barriers and a general wariness of being photographed, and he mentions that many of those he approached declined. Most of those who agreed have the air of grandparents posing for a snapshot, affable but not especially revealing.

The captions include tidbits of biographical information: Kazuo Okimoto worked on the sugar cane train; Yukiko Hirashima’s family ran a protea farm; Sadao Honda swims every day at the Wahiawa pool; and so on. The facts are sparse, though, as well as somewhat random and far outnumbered by Sato’s own rather vague impressions. (“They are unmistakably a cute couple.” “I noticed he took very good care of his mikan [tangerine] tree.” “When she smiled, I thought she looked childlike.”)

The photographs are black and white, formally bland and err on the side of the didactic. Sato typically poses his subjects in some relation to either a profession or a hobby: a tofu maker with a block of tofu; a fisherman with a fishing pole; a dentist in his office, peering down at the camera, drill raised, as if into the face of a patient. In most cases, they occupy a comfortable middle ground — close enough to engage as individuals but not so close as to disturb or offend.

In short, both captions and images betray a distinct reluctance to probe very deeply. What insight one gleans into the lives and characters of these individuals comes primarily from the spark in their eyes, which is, in most cases, unusually bright. There are some wonderful faces here, etched with wisdom, humor, struggle and contemplation, and a thousand stories, no doubt, lurking just beneath the surface.

The polite distance Sato maintains with his subjects is understandable, given his reverence, but unfortunate. Good portraiture is intrinsically invasive. It digs beneath the surface to reveal something you might not catch in a face you merely passed on the street or nodded to in a supermarket.

Sato refers to the nisei as a “non-renewable resource” who should be “tapped immediately if we are to benefit from the wisdom of their experience before it is lost to us forever.” What he’s doing in these photographs seems less like tapping than neatly framing and setting on a pedestal.

-- Holly Myers

Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. 1st St., L.A. Noon-8 p.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Fridays-Sundays. Ends May 24. $9; $5, students and seniors; free, children age 5 and younger, plus 5-8 p.m. Thursdays and every third Thursday of the month. (213) 625-0414

Photo: Masaji Kobayashi. Credit: Brian Y. Sato.