County photographer’s art captures history, unsung heroes

March 8, 2018
Motoya Nakamura's archival pigment print "Kenny Namba, 2009," is currently on display in the Governor's Office as part his "Images of the 442nd: Nisei Japanese American WWII Veterans and Their Continuing Legacy" exhibition.

Their faces were lined. Bodies aged six decades beyond the World War II battles that made them legend: Naples, Rome, Arno, Vosages, the Rhineland, the Maritime Alps, the Po Valley.

Photographer Motoya Nakamura aimed his large-format camera at the men who had served in the first all-Japanese American military unit. He photographed them in their Portland-area home and recorded their voices.

He captured the terrible self-consciousness they felt in the hours after Pearl Harbor; the Executive Order 9066 three months later that forced them from their homes; the train ride to the internment camps at Minidoka and Tule Lake.

The men spoke -- sometimes for the first time - of volunteering to prove their loyalty and of the service that crushed the Nazis, liberated concentration camps and made the 442nd Regimental Combat Team the most decorated unit in U.S. history for its size and length of service. In less than two years, they earned 21 Medals of Honor, 4,000 Bronze Stars, 9,486 Purple Hearts.

“I was shocked when I met them,’’ said Nakamura, now the staff photographer for the Multnomah County Communications Office, of photographing the veterans between 2007 for The Oregonian and 2009 as a personal project. “I’d never heard this history on the East Coast. I thought, ‘how could we not know?’”

This winter, the Oregon Arts Commission selected Nakamura’s “Images of the 442nd: Nisei Japanese American WWII Veterans and Their Continuing Legacy’’ for the Art in the Governor’s Office.

Since 1975, the Arts Commission has selected artists to exhibit in the reception area of the Governor’s Office in the State Capitol. Art professionals nominate people statewide and only professional, living Oregon artists are considered. The painters Sally Haley, Michele Russo, Henk Pander and sculptor Manuel Izquierdo are among those honored. An exhibit in the Governor's office, said spokeswoman Carrie Kikel, is considered a "once in a lifetime" honor.

“They know how to endure’’

Inside the elegant second-floor Office of the Governor hang 10 framed portraits of men who served in the 442nd. What remains striking is how little the images have to do with the war, and how intimately they focus on the individual’s own household and families.

“The 442nd is just one part of their lives,’’ Nakamura said. “I wanted to show how important family is for them. More than anything, I wanted their kids to know they came from such strong, brave fathers. They know how to endure things. That is their legacy.’’

Nakamura’s work, the Arts Commission said, “is informed by his background in both photojournalism and art photography, and often explores his identity as a first-generation Japanese immigrant.’’

Born and raised in Nagoya, Japan, Nakamura was already fluent in English and had a bachelor’s degree in Spanish when he applied to study writing in the United States. His dream was to write like J.D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway, Pete Hamill.

“Their writing was so visual. I had never experienced literature that would bring you into the scene and then make you become the subject,’’ he said. “I wanted to learn how to do that.’’

When his family blanched at the idea of him becoming a starving writer, he compromised by pursuing journalism, a respected profession in Japan, and was accepted at the University of Missouri-Columbia.  Nakamura arrived in the United States at 26 having almost no idea where Missouri actually was -- nor that it was among the premier photojournalism schools.

But from his first classroom assignment with a borrowed camera, Nakamura was hooked. As a child, he’d always thought visually, keeping a charcoal sketchbook instead of a diary. His father and sister were accomplished calligraphers.

In photojournalism, Nakamura gravitated toward photographing the powerless -- his first newspaper story was on people who are homeless -- and admirable everyday people who were overlooked -- like his father. The elder Nakamura was an orphan who had to leave school at 12 to work, and never spoke of his own poverty, of serving in the Imperial Japanese Army during the war, or of the devastating loss of his business.

“My father was an unsung hero,’’ Nakamura said. “and those unsung heroes became my passion.’’

Nakamura quickly became an award-winning photographer, first at The Virginian Pilot in Norfolk, and later at The Oregonian in Portland, where he was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

“Motoya’s forte is telling stories and he won’t really let go of a story until he thinks its done’’ said Patty Reksten, the former director of photography at The Oregonian who hired him in 2000.  “And the stories he excelled at were people who were challenged in several different ways.’’

His wife, the photographer Beth Nakamura, said his deeply humanistic style of placing subjects at the center of his work, is part of a tradition of photography that is now almost old-fashioned.

“In photography today, everyone is so focused on themselves and their branding and their Instagram account. Motoya is not about any of that. He’s classically Japanese, like an old Samurai, he really is. He watches old Samurai movies, he teaches martial arts, he’s steeped in the old school.’’

Multnomah County photographer Motoya Nakamura stands among prints in his "Images of the 442nd: Nisei Japanese American WWII Veterans and Their Continuing Legacy" exhibition currently on display in the Governor's Office

Belonging, identity, diaspora

The exhibit is a tribute, not just to valor, but to justice and redemption.

Traditionally, Japanese culture tends to be very group-oriented, while American individualism is almost the opposite. Nakamura identified closely with the veterans who highly valued being Americans, but were doomed to be always outside the mainstream culture. The project reveals the very real psychic pain that immigrants struggle with, but don't articulate, said his wife, Beth Nakamura.

In his Artist Statement, Nakamura once wrote: “As a resident of the United States and an immigrant from Japan, I have lived half my life in each country. I often feel as though I am a foreigner in this new land while simultaneously feeling like a stranger in the old. I constantly grapple with the notion of belonging, identity and diaspora.’’

Meeting the American-born sons of Japanese immigrants who did so much  to prove their loyalty made him determined to tell their story especially for his own American sons, Akira,17, and Mikio, 14.

The 442nd veterans came home to being refused service at restaurants, their property permanently confiscated, and some were never able to return to their homes. More than 50 years passed before most Oregonians heard their history.

“Even after serving their country, they faced so much injustice,’’ Nakamura said. “I thought, something is wrong here that I had to put that on the table.’’

The portraits draw attention to the individual and collective achievements of the men. The show is on loan from the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center to the Governor’s Office until April 4. Thousands of people are expected to view the faces and stories of those who served.“Whenever people suffer, the best possible outcome of your suffering is to transform it into something bigger than yourself and turn it into something redemptive,’’ Beth Nakamura said,  “And through this work, Motoya has done that.''

View “Images of the 442nd: Nisei Japanese American WWII Veterans and Their Continuing Legacy” now through Wednesday, April 4. 

Governor's Office: State Capitol, 900 Court St. NE, Rm. 250, Salem, Oregon

The Governor's Office is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday - Friday.