An Interview With Dana Tanamachi
Long ago, two families lived across the road from one another on the northern shore of Japan’s Kyushu Island in Fukuoka Prefecture’s eponymously named capital city. They shared the same surname—Tanamachi—yet were only distantly related.
Many years later and half a world away, a family of Japanese Americans descended from one of the two Fukuoka Tanamachi clans was taken away from a comfortable life farming in Long Beach, California, and evacuated by train to Poston Relocation Center in southwestern Arizona, one of the largest World War II American concentration camps operated by the War Relocation Authority.
During the war, more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese heritage were detained in spartan camps spread across Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Texas, and Wyoming.
The Tanamachi’s son, Tom, was only 19 when the war broke out. While he was interned, he attended a camp social where he met his wife, Mitsuye Nimura, and soon they were married there in the camp.
Two and a half years after the internment began, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt rescinded his order, and tens of thousands of Japanese Americans were freed. But freed to where? The Tanamachis couldn’t return to California—their farm had been turned into a government ammunition dump.
Providentially, they became connected to distant relatives who were landowning farmers in South Texas—Japanese Americans who shared the same last name and also shared whatever they had. They offered Tom’s family a spare farmhouse on their property, and a place to start over. It was not until many years later that both families would discover they were descended from the two Tanamachi families who were still living across the street from each other in Fukuoka.
“I’m fourth generation Japanese-American,” says New York designer/illustrator Dana Tanamachi.
“And I’ve always been very close with my paternal grandmother, Mitsuye. She’s still living, in Dallas, and she’s always been an influential and central figure in my life. She and her siblings, and my grandfather and his siblings and parents were all interned together there in the Arizona desert.”
Tanamachi is sitting in the living room at Laity Lodge’s Waterfall Apartment on an overcast Tuesday afternoon in May. She is reflecting on the themes beginning to emerge as she works on a body of new original pieces for her gallery exhibit, I Liked What I Saw, the culmination of her month-long artist residency here at the Lodge. Her furry canine companion, Merle, is ever present, napping near the fireplace in a shaft of sunlight.
“Desert to Garden” detail depicting the transition from the Arizona camp to the Texas family farm
Her reflection is worth recounting at length:
“That internment is a huge part of my identity, and I’m really lucky that my grandmother would talk openly about it. But she talks from a place of forgiveness, not of bitterness. When they got out of camp, she and my grandfather moved to the Rio Grande Valley—those relatives gave them a new start, and we’re still very close with that side, and now I call them Aunt and Uncle, and we’ve all come full circle and are one family again.
“My grandmother became the first believer in our family. They were out on the farm, and she heard God speak to her one day in the field. She was speechless. She knew from that moment that she had to forgive the system that had imprisoned her family. So … forgiveness, not bitterness. Not that you forget about these things—we keep telling these stories so that we will not forget, so these kind of things will never happen again.
“I think that not many people in my generation whose grandparents have gone through camp have been able to openly discuss it with them, let alone through the lens of forgiveness. So I feel I have a unique insight that I’m very grateful for, and so I have wanted to tell my family’s story through some of the art here.”
The exhibit takes its name from the words of her grandfather, whose description of his family’s arrival to the Rio Grande Valley was captured by a Thomas K. Walls in The Japanese Texans: “We traveled through miles and miles of desert, and all of a sudden we came into a lush garden. I liked what I saw.”
Dana says, “I really wanted to play with that imagery of desert transitioning into a lush garden. Texas was that lush garden to him. I wanted some of the art to be a kind of love letter to Texas. I wanted to see it through the eyes of my grandfather, who found it to be so beautiful, and such a relief, and such a new beginning.”
Dana adds that her mother’s side of the family is of Mexican-American heritage. Her maternal grandparents were both born in South Texas agricultural towns—her grandfather in McAllen and her grandmother in Edna. “My mother’s family were migrant workers, and she grew up picking cotton. There were many kids, and every summer they would drive to California or to other states and pick cotton and other crops.
“So yeah, you have two very different American stories, here. The two cultures are very different, and I’m not sure that either one fully understood the other at first. There were a lot of misconceptions … but it’s still a Texan story. It’s only now really as an adult that I’ve come to appreciate the kind of mixed background that I come from and appreciate the cultural differences between the two and fully embrace them.”