Captive Artist: Watercolors by Kakunen Tsuruoka (1892–1977)

Asia Week New York, March 13–23, 2019

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Scholten Japanese Art is pleased to present Captive Artist: Watercolors by Kakunen Tsuruoka (1892–1977), an exhibition featuring landscape paintings produced while the artist was confined to Poston Camp III, part of the Colorado River Relocation Center in Arizona and one of the ten camps to which Japanese-Americans were forcibly relocated during the Second World War. While the focus of the installation will be on a group of 25 poignant paintings by Kakunen of the bleak and barren landscape surrounding the camp, the gallery will also offer a selection Kakunen's original paintings and four shin hanga-style limited-edition prints depicting subjects unrelated to his time at Poston. The entire collection of works by Kakunen are from the Estate of Haruno Tsuruoka (1924–2017), the artist's daughter-in-law, and is being offered by members of her family.

Tokutaro Tsuruoka was born to tobacconists in Tokyo in 1892 and orphaned at the age of four amidst a typhoid epidemic. Details regarding his childhood are scant, but he was barely a teenager in 1905 when he boarded a steamer to San Francisco on his own, with, according to family lore, merely $10 in his pocket. Upon his arrival, Tokutaro began to work for the antique dealer Takezo "T. Z." Shiota (1875–1944) in exchange for room and board. One wonders if the young Tokutaro parlayed a nascent affinity with art for a job at Shiota's gallery, or perhaps working at the gallery inspired his artistic endeavors. While learning the art and antiques trade, Tokutaro produced paintings, some of which are known to have been sold through T. Z. Shiota, bearing the somewhat unusual art name Kakunen. While Kakunen is described as a "self-taught artist" in the brief biographies of his life provided by his family, his ability to paint on silk and his frequent use of the tarashikomi, a pooled ink technique associated with the Rinpa style of painting, suggest at least some instruction or guidance with traditional Japanese painting methods. The kaku portion of his art name is an alternate reading of the character for tsuru (crane) in his family name. His choice of incorporating the character nen as the second half Kakunen may have been a deliberate reference to the I'nen seal employed by artist of the Rinpa School that specialized in kacho-e (bird and flower paintings), a favorite subject of Kakunen. Indeed, the artist's circular seal that he used primarily on his early kacho-e, reads Bokutei('on the banks of the Sumida River') and resembles typical Rinpa artists' seals. He also excelled at painting nostalgic landscapes of Japan, no doubt influenced by the flow of popular woodblock prints and paintings offered at the gallery.

Kakunen made good use of his opportunities while working at Shiota's Gallery. Although the exact origin of his connection to Shiota is unclear—Kakunen (and his descendants) alternatively referred to Shiota as his cousin or uncle (perhaps denoting respect rather than lineage), while the 1920 census identified the pair as brothers-in-law, hinting that Kakunen's wife, Dai Aoki, could have been related to Shiota. Whether Kakunen and Shiota were bonded by blood, marriage, or convenience, the terms of employment were problematic. In 1918, Kakunen met the famous attorney and civil liberties advocate, C. E. S. Wood (1852–1944), who upon learning that Kakunen earned no wages and had been working solely for 'room & board,' advised him to sue on the basis of indentured servitude and release himself from Shiota's employ. The suit was successful, and the twenty-six-year old Kakunen used the winnings to launch his own career as an art dealer. Wood would be one of his first customers and remain a lifelong friend. It was likely through Wood, a landscape painter himself, that Kakunen met some of his other notable clients including the playwright Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953), a practicing Buddhist who Kakunen would visit on his deathbed, the philosopher and psychologist John Dewey (1859–1952), and the heiress Juliet Ector Orr Munsell (1865–1948), with whom he grew quite close. As Kakunen established himself as an independent dealer and consultant, he travelled to Asia frequently seeking works for his clients. On one trip to China and Mongolia he apparently accompanied Langdon Warner (1881–1955) of Harvard University, the legendary academic-adventurer and an inspiration for the fictional hero Indiana Jones.

Curiously, the lawsuit settlement may not have had the chilling effect on the relationship between Kakunen and Shiota one might have expected. There is a record of business between Kakunen and Shiota and in the 1920 census records, Kakunen's family is residing at the same address as Shiota's. It seems likely that Kakunen's relationship with Shiota evolved to one of more equal footing, such that Kakunen could have sourced goods at the same time or in partnership with Shiota during one of the former's buying trips to East Asia. Indeed, in 1931 Kakunen listed Shiota as his travel companion when re-entering the Port of San Francisco.

In the 1930s, both Shiota and Kakunen became active participants in the shin hanga ('new print') movement in Japan. In 1935, Shiota, a long-time dealer of woodblock prints, commissioned the popular landscape artist Kawase Hasui (1883–1957) to design a print to be produced by the prominent shin hanga publisher, Watanabe Shozaburo (1885–1962) depicting the Washington Monument to commemorate the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C. Never mind that Hasui had never been to the United States. The following year, in 1936, Kakunen initiated his own collaboration with Watanabe to produce the first of four designs printed in the subsequent five years: Night Mist Over San Francisco City Hall, a nearly all blue and atmospheric composition of the domed landmark beside the War Memorial Opera House which opened four years prior.

Kakunen followed up in 1937 with what would become his most well-known print of another local landmark, Golden Gate Bridge in Fog. Extant test prints record changes to the composition, slight adjustments from a blue to a soft purple palette, and directions to Watanabe's artisans requesting special attention to the treatment of the haze cloaking the bridge.

Kakunen proceeded apace with his next print in 1938, another nocturne, Carmel Highland at Twilight, which depicts the meditation hut belonging to his beloved patron, Mrs. Munsell. Were it not for the title (in Japanese) identifying the location in California, the composition could easily be mistaken for a classic shin hanga depiction of a Japanese landscape. The last print Kakunen produced before the war, was a larger format print returning to his favorite subject of birds and flowers: Parrot on a Camellia Branch (1940). The striking image of a red macaw against a deep chocolate-to-black background would have been challenging to produce considering the larger paper format, and that deep saturation of dark color requires significant effort on the part of the printers. Remarkably, Kakunen retained the copyright on all four prints, which may represent the only time that Watanabe relinquished such control to an artist, presumably because the full production was paid for by Kakunen himself in an act of self-assertion by a man who apparently had learned much from his experience in the American judicial system.

Alas, American justice would fail him, along with the over 122,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry who were compelled by the US government to abandon their lives and homes on the West Coast and 'voluntarily' submit to incarceration due to the outbreak of war with Japan. The evacuation of the West Coast by the US Army began in March of 1942 when General John L. DeWitt, the head of the Western Defense Command, issued the first of what would be 108 Civilian Exclusion Orders organizing the removal of "all persons of Japanese ancestry, including aliens and non-aliens" from designated military areas.

Shiota shut down his gallery (storing the art with multiple friends) shortly after DeWitt's first directive. In a farewell letter posted in the window of his gallery dated March 26, 1942, Shiota thanked his loyal customers and friends and writes: "At this hour of evacuation when the innocents suffer with the bad, we bid you, dear friends of ours, with the words of beloved Shakespeare 'PARTING IS SUCH SWEET SORROW"...Till We Meet Again, T. Z. Shiota."

The very next day DeWitt issued a new proclamation ending the period of voluntary evacuation, forbidding further departures to freedom and initiating systematic forced expulsions into incarceration.

Most evacuees were initially held in 15 temporary chaotic detention camps called 'Assembly Centers,' located on requisitioned fair grounds and horse racing tracks where the overcrowded living quarters were often unsanitary and odorous converted stables. The populations were then moved on to ten hastily-constructed permanent camps in remote locations called 'Relocation Centers,' administered by the civilian War Relocation Authority (WRA) but completed and expanded by the internees themselves. Although the term 'relocation center' would become a gross understatement of the reality of mass incarceration, WRA administrators under the leadership of Dillon Myer initially held a genuine expectation that they would be to facilitating resettlement to communities further away from the paranoia of the West Coast. Prevailing anti-Japanese sentiment, however, became so strong that their efforts were thwarted by the War Department and many of the detainees were held for most of the duration of the war. Unrest within the camps, mostly led by young men who were born in America and thus felt betrayed by their own country, resulted in an effort to separate the 'disloyal' population into a more tightly guarded 'segregation center' at the Tule Lake Relocation Center in California. Early in the process the term 'concentration camp' was sometimes used, and a few smaller locations under the control of the Justice Department and in Hawaii were called 'internment camps.' Although the term concentration camp is accurate, in a post-Holocaust world the meaning has evolved to evoke a horrific connotation of mass murder which is not applicable to this episode of American history. The definition of internment in international law is the detention of individuals considered dangerous during a time of war, usually, but not always, enemy nationals. The problem with this term is that nearly two thirds of the evacuees in the camps were American citizens. However, 'internment camp' was used to apply to all of the camps eventually, and remains the most familiar description today, although many Japanese-Americans simply refer to the experience as life in 'the camps.'

Some evacuees never passed through an Assembly Center and went straight to a Relocation Center. This may have been the case with Kakunen and his family, who were sent to the Colorado River Relocation Center in Poston, Arizona. Commonly called the Poston Internment Camp, it was located on the Colorado River Indian Reservation and therefore was the only camp in the system which fell under the administration of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, whose Director John Collier was well-known for his 'Indian New Deal' of self-governance and respect for native cultures. Poston had three separate camps (called Units) approximately three miles from each other, which the internees aptly renamed Roasten, Toastin, and Dustin. A single fence enclosed the entire complex, but the location was so remote it was deemed unnecessary to build the ubiquitous guard towers that loomed over the other camps. Shiota and his family entered on August 8, 1942 and were assigned to block 326 in Unit III (a.k.a Dustin), and the Tsuruoka family were nearby on block 308.

During his time at Poston III, Kakunen's artistic production differed dramatically from the decorative bird and flower paintings and Japanesque landscapes that he produced for sale at Shiota's gallery. The camp watercolors capture the raw solitude and otherworldly vistas of his desert surroundings.

In March of 1943, the camp daily Poston Chronicle reported on the opening of the Mohave Room in Poston III, an installation which featured 16 paintings lining the room depicting "Rows of lighted barracks in the twilight, Roku Two as seen in the mist of an early morning, and striking mesquite trees." Kakunen was referred to as the designer of the 'famous Mohave Room' and painter of its principal murals in the book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire (1952), the first comprehensive study on camp art, written by the folk-art historian Allen H. Eaton which also illustrates an inlaid wood tray designed by Kakunen which was recently acquired by the Japanese American National Museum as part of the Eaton Collection. It is unknown whether any photographs of the Mohave room are extant.

Kakunen made few images of the buildings in the camp itself, preferring to go out into the foothills to paint what natural beauty he could find in the barren landscape. The vistas are almost unchanging but for the ever-changing light and darkness of the sky. Nearly all feature at least one gnarled mesquite tree (one wonders if he literally painted the same specimen, over and over again). Viewed together, the twisting mesquite, struggling in the unforgiving elements, suggests a profound loneliness and despair.

Five of Kakunen's watercolors were presented as gifts to the camp administrator Wade Head and are currently in the collection of the Arizona Historical Society in Tempe. In May of 1943, one of those five, Poston after Sundown, received a special prize for "Best Scene at Relocation or Assembly Centers" at an art exhibition sponsored by the Friends Meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, the paintings Kakunen chose to keep do not represent the camp at all and instead depict the desolate surroundings in which Poston was located. In fact, save for one image of a horse miniaturized amidst a canyon, Kakunen does not represent a single living thing.

The Tsuruoka family were released early in 1944. Like many Japanese-Americans, they chose not to return to the West Coast but moved east to New York City where Kakunen established a firm manufacturing artificial flowers (a skill well-honed at Poston where his wife Dai taught a class on the art form) while continuing his work as a private dealer and consultant. Kakunen did not publish any more of his own woodblock prints with Watanabe, and the small pile of prints and paintings still held by the family suggests he had lost interest in promoting his own work. Sadly, the four beautiful prints that he produced suggest that he could have been, should have been, the American shin hanga artist of his time. It is unknown if the other extant watercolors in the family's collection were painted before or after the war as he usually did not date his work with the exception of some of the paintings from his time at Poston.

Scholten Japanese Art is located at 145 West 58th Street, Suite 6D, between 6th and 7th Avenues. For the duration of the exhibition, March 13 – 23, the gallery will have general open hours (no appointments needed), 11 – 5 pm.

We are pleased to be participating in the schedule of events organized by Asia Week New York.


Scholten Japanese Art is open Monday - Friday, and some Saturdays, 11am - 5pm, by appointment.

Contact Katherine Martin at
(212) 585-0474 or email
to schedule a visit.

site last updated
March 22, 2019

Scholten Japanese Art
145 West 58th Street, suite 6D
New York, New York 10019
ph: (212) 585-0474
fx: (212) 585-0475