Becoming American? The Art and Identity Crisis of Yasuo Kuniyoshi

Becoming American? The Art and Identity Crisis of Yasuo Kuniyoshi

ShiPu Wang

Print publication date: 2016

ISBN: 9780824834180

Publisher: University of Hawai'i Press


On December 8, 1941, artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889–1953) awoke to find himself branded an “enemy alien” by the U.S. government in the aftermath of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. The historical crisis forced Kuniyoshi to rethink his pictorial strategies and to confront questions of loyalty, assimilation, national and racial identity that he had carefully avoided in his prewar art. As an immigrant who had proclaimed himself to be as “American as the next fellow,” the realization of his now fractured and precarious status catalyzed the development of an emphatic and conscious identity construct that would underlie Kuniyoshi's art and public image for the remainder of his life. This book offers an analysis of Kuniyoshi's pivotal works. It examines Kuniyoshi's imagery and writings as vital means for him to engage, albeit often reluctantly and ambivalently, in discussions about American democracy and ideals at a time when racial and national origins were grounds for mass incarceration and discrimination. The book also investigates the activities of Americans of Japanese descent outside the internment camps and the intense pressures with which they had to deal in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. It foregrounds broader historical debates of what constituted American art and illuminates the complicating factors of race, diasporas, and ideology in the construction of an American cultural identity. The book historicizes and elucidates the ways in which “minority” artists have been, and continue to be, both championed and marginalized for their cultural and ethnic “difference” within the twentieth-century American art canon.