A new online exhibition provides a pathbreaking look at LGBTQ lives and culture in the Japanese American community in the United States. Curated by Stan Yogi and Amy Sueyoshi, a frequent GLBT Historical Society collaborator, Seen And Unseen: Queering Japanese American History Before 1945 is a project of J-Sei, a Japanese American community organization in Emeryville.
The show draws on a variety of sources, including some of our archival collections, to unearth a hidden past when same-sex relationships and female impersonation were accepted parts of nikkei (Japanese American) immigrant culture. The exhibition also explores how, over time, the nikkei community’s atittudes came to mirror white American fears of same-sex intimacy and gender nonconformity. We interviewed Stan and Amy to learn more about how they curated Seen and Unseen.
Q: The theme of “kinship” among issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) is an important one. What does it mean in the greater context of nikkei?
Stan: Generational identity has been a defining factor of the nikkei community in the U.S. As we move farther away in time from the issei generation, we run the risk of forgetting that early immigrants were overwhelmingly male. There’s evidence that some had emotionally (not necessarily physically) intimate relationships. Many of us who identify as queer Japanese Americans have been unaware of ancestors who were involved in intimate same-sex relationships or defied gender roles. We hope that our exhibition reveals and informs the larger nikkei community, and queer-identified Japanese Americans specifically, about the rainbow branches of our collective family tree.
Amy: Issei arrived in the U.S. during a time of intense anti-Japanese sentiment. Before the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, which allowed more Japanese women to enter the country as wives, the community was overwhelmingly male. One cannot adequately underscore how much these men relied on each other for companionship and comfort as they made their way in a new land, in a new language, under the brutality of immense animus from whites. Immigrant poet Yone Noguchi wrote that when he tramped to Los Angeles, he was welcomed along the way at any Japanese person’s home for a meal or a night of lodging.
Q: The show uses a lot of literary and newspaper sources; can you tell us about how you located and interpreted these?
Stan: Literary scholar Andrew Leong, a contributing curator to the exhibition, shared his research about issei leaders who urged compatriots, many of whom led vagabond lives, to settle in America, marry and raise families. He has revealed the queer subtext in creative literature written by issei authors, several of whom depicted men who rejected the call to enter heterosexual marriages and maintained emotional intimacy with other men.
Amy: In the absence of oral histories, written texts are often the only sources we have, and they are often sparse since many queers could not afford to leave such materials. Literary sources and newspapers are among the few available materials. When I first started my dissertation in 1996, I had to read each newspaper day-by-day, page-by-page to find a queer nugget. Now many of the newspapers are digitized—even the Japanese American press—so it was easier to put together this exhibition, particularly in the context of the ongoing shelter-in-place.
Q: How does the exhibition change our understanding of LGBTQ history in the United States through 1945?
Stan: Our exhibition helps audiences understand that early Japanese immigrants came from a culture in which male same-sex relationships and female impersonation were accepted. Their children, the nisei, came of age when white Americans’ harshly negative judgements of homosexuality and gender nonconformity were crystallizing. Nisei adopted those attitudes and beliefs. Although issei weren’t necessarily celebrating what today we consider queer sexuality and gender expression, they were more accepting than subsequent generations. The incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II accelerated the community’s desire to prove itself “American,” which included conformity to rigid gender roles and condemnation of same-sex intimacy.
Amy: A number of scholars, such as Siobhan Somerville, have shown that racism breeds homophobia and transphobia, even within marginalized groups themselves. Many Japanese Americans are terrified of coming out to their families, and postwar Japanese immigrants or shin issei think being queer is an American phenomenon. Most are unaware that our grandparents or great-grandparents were likely more queer-friendly than our parents. Learning about this might reshape how queer Japanese Americans think of themselves.
NOTE: Seen and Unseen is available through the end of June.
Amy Sueoyoshi is dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University.
Stan Yogi is a writer who has coauthored numerous books and essays, which have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Daily Journal and academic journals and anthologies.