In this video interview conducted at the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington’s Northwest Nikkei Museum, Kris Mikami talks about her father-in-law, the artist Charles Erabu “Suiko” Mikami, and the watercolor made during incarceration.
I’m Kris Mikami. I brought a water color on silk painting of a tiger, I believe it’s a Korean tiger. My father in law Charles, Erabu was his pen name, Mikami painted it in topaz concentration camp. He was born in japan just at the turn of the century in Hiroshima-ken, and ah Seijo was the name of the town.
They are of samurai extract. My husband didn’t believe that, he used recall thinking that samurais don’t cry. And ahh he said, “Oh sure”. Then He went back and to visit the homestead and found racks for the swords in the bathrooms and around the house and you had to be a samurai to own a sword so he knew then that Mr. Mikami was indeed of samurai family.
He was living in his home with his grandparents and his father had been sent by the Japanese government to Washington State to select dairy cattle so he was in carnation and that area. His grandparents were trying to make him become an engineer, a train engineer, but he wanted to be an artist. So he contacted his father and got permission to come to America to study art. So basically he was escaping his grandparents, and so that’s what his intent was when he came over originally. And he was in his early, late teens, early twenties because he was a high school graduate, which was not common in those days.
I believe he came through San Francisco to Seattle. He lived in Seattle until the war and when the war came along he was one of the first ones arrested because he was basically a, sort of a leader in the community. He acted as a bishakani and did eulogies at funerals and that kind of thing. And so he was arrested by the FBI almost instantly and Mrs. Mikami didn’t know where he was. And they finally got message that he got arrested and was shipped to California, I think Pinedale originally and then to Tule Lake. Mrs. Mikami ended up bringing her two sons on the train to Pinedale and then Tule Lake. So they weren’t part of the whole mass immigration from Bainbridge Island and to the other Japanese here in Seattle, they were separate. They were living in white center and Mrs. Mikami had a grocery store where the old castle was where the old Des Moines road was and so they were out of the main group of Japanese.
He was actually a broker. He would drive through the Kent valley and pick up produce and take it to Pike Market. That’s what they did they drove around and acted as distributor and broker for the farmers in the Kent valley and the other valleys around. So he was basically driving back and forth to pike place market. But yea I know he was very involved in the community in general.
He had art training in Seijo but I think a lot of it was self-training so that’s one of the reasons he wanted to come here was to get some formal training. But Mr. Mikami was the eldest son. He had two other brothers, both of whom married daughters, into families who didn’t have any sons. So they ended up changing their name to the wife’s name and so when Mr. Mikami decided he wasn’t going to come back they were a little upset because the eldest son was not there to inherit. So when Kay’s father sent his eldest son, Harry back to japan before the war the family was very thrilled because Harry was an eldest son. And so he was treated like an eldest son in japan. And my husband was the eldest son of the second. So he was the eldest son of the American family. So when Harry came here, back to America, the Japanese family was not thrilled and so they ended up having a daughter, last on left, who had already married somebody else and had a different name and kids. So that man changed his name to Mikami and they moved back to the Seijo farm so they could carry on the tradition.
So Mr. Mikami was sort of considered a radical because of the fact that he had left. He was the oldest son and wasn’t doing his familial duties by staying at the farm.
Interviewer: Have you ever looked at any of his FBI records?
No, I’ve never seen anything. No, but we did see a letter
Interviewer: You can with the Freedom of Information Act.
No I’ve never looked. Actually it never occurred to me to. We did find a letter that he had sent Mrs. Mikami while he was there telling her he was ok and that he was just fine but that but thats all I know. I know when he was in Tule lake he had been beaten up a couple times because he did not want to be a radical and go off back to Japan and so on. he was a block captain so he had some responsibility in Tule Lake but didn’t want to go back to japan.
He did teach some art. I think that most of the art teaching that I know he did was in Topaz but I believe he did do some in Tule Lake. He was teaching water color. Even after he was retired he was teaching watercolor. He would go to the old folks homes, some of them were much younger than him, and teach them and do demonstrations for them.
They would come up to visit fairly regularly. He was very happy where he was and he was very comfortable with his life at that point. And then he ended up, first of all they started raising tomatoes, because, so they did the plants and they would sell them and then he ended up buying land and becoming a strawberry farmer in Morgan Hill California.
He had water color on fabrics so that the women who were building dolls would have clothing for the dolls. It was silk, well this is silk that this painting is on, so they must of had access to it somehow. I know at Topaz by the time of the end of the war people were much more lenient about going in and out and so on. Because he said Tule Lake, my husband said there were guards with guns and barbed wire all around the place and Topaz was much more relaxed and less hostile
But a lot of his paintings that are around were stuff that was done before the war. There is a bank in California that has a whole bunch because he was doing an exhibition of his work in the bank and when the war came along they just didn’t return it. And it’s in their museum now as their official little, but it was never given to them, it’s something they just kept.
He did a lot of work. He was a farmer after this. They came back to Seattle and went to visit their old house and their neighbor and their neighbor had lost a son in the war and basically slammed, she invited them in, but he slammed the door on him and sent them out. So Mr. Mikami decided at that time that they would probably go back to California where she was from. And so they stayed with her father and family who were farmers also. My husband was five when they left for the war, so they had been married for several years before. She was the cousin of his first wife so sort of an arranged kind of thing.
My husband who about probably six or seven at the time saw him do the painting. Oh he said he was just fascinated, and the fact that his father was doing it from memory, so he was, he remembered what this tiger looked like and was painting it. He remembers very fondly of his father’s artwork.
Ok well my husband, it was given to him by his father. And I think partly because he had seen it being painted and had always admired it. And so at one point he gave it to us. Well it has always been in the main room, and right now it is in the foyer, when you walk in the first thing you see is that painting. And then we have, um you know, some straw little hanger that the Buddhist churches have over art work, and so on. So we have that. My husband picked that up in Japan and we have that hanging over the painting
My husband was born here in Seattle at Providence Hospital. After the war he grew up in Morgan Hill California. He went on scholarship to Berkeley and started out wanting to be, not wanting to be, his parents suggested it, to be a pharmacist. He was living in a house called Rich House where all the students were, a lot were from the architecture building which was a few blocks away. He went over to the San Francisco medical center and they showed him how they made pills and what a pharmacist did and he decided it was the last thing he wanted to do, and that day he went out and changed his major to architecture. And so he became an architect. So he came up here. I met him in architecture cause I started out in architecture at Berkeley. And came up here for me to go to graduate school and he started working at Marymore, Green and Johansen, and then Jones and Jones, and ultimately he became a zoo architect. And then he had his own firm and he did zoo work in Singapore and did the whole master plan for Mexico City, his firm was called Sherman, Yammi and Como. Then he retired and Jones and Jones kept calling him up and asking him back because he knew what he was doing, he had been doing it for so many years. And so finally they hired him back full time and he was able to do it with just the design part and not get involved with project management and all the other stuff. So he was having a good time. He was called the analog architect because he wasn’t using cad cam stuff.
And he was very proud of his father. They got along quite well. I think the funny thing is his father was a little irritated that he moved up here because he was the eldest son. And um my father kept laughing because he was the oldest son and he left. And so big deal that he moved up here. So it was always a joke between us that they were both eldest sons and they left the homestead.
My husband was a very gentle man and a lovely man and I think that the people who knew him felt that way about him. One of the reasons why we thought about Seattle because he had been born here and he was curious to come back and to see what the community was like. So that’s really one of the reasons, Seattle was picked because that’s where he was from.
Well part of it is that I want to share it with people because I think it’s gorgeous. I’m very proud and pleased that Mr. Mikami was related to me and I could see his work. He did painting all the time so I was watching it all time. I had been married to Mr. Mikami for 47 years so it wasn’t like I wasn’t familiar with all of the stuff that was happening. And I wanted to share that I think it’s important and I want my kids to come to this exhibit and see what they have. I have three children, a girl and two boys and I think it is important for them to recognize the history of their family also.
I think a whole range of things. I don’t think it is speaking just to the camps. I mean cause I know when we went to visit the family homestead there was artwork of his there too and my husband was very proud and pleased to see what was there. I don’t think the kids really knew, for instance his poetry that he did. He has extensive poetry. And so I just want them to be aware of it and to share that. I think it’s important for the community to know that this kind of art work was being done and how talented and impressed we should all be with the people who are part of this community.
You know there’s a corner of a park in San Jose that has one of his poems in rock, it was dedicated to him. So he has been very, very involved in the community and recognized by it.
Well It would have been nice to find some of the poetry he wrote in camps. Well there were books and books and books that I know were printed up. And he belonged to a group in the San Jose, in the southern bay area, that met but he kept winning all the prizes all the time so he withdrew from competing in these little prizes they had. But I know they were beautiful stuff. There are some that I think that the family all had that he gave them as gifts and so on. Actually he visited the Katero House and did some demos there. Russ Akiyami was my husband’s cousin from his mother’s side. And I know that Mr. Mikami when he came to visit would go to the Katero House and do demonstrations and may have written poetry over there too.
I took my grandson to see Oklahoma the other day and we were talking about older things in movies and things and I said “Well you know your Oji San painted this,” and he came to see it. And we’ve probably mentioned it but he is 16 now and so probably much more aware of stuff so we were talking about it so we were able to stop by and look at the painting and talk about it.