Growing up Japanese American in Los Angeles is like a scavenger hunt to find your kin, histories and stories. You have to first wade through the history of the Second World War incarceration and plunder to discover that even less documentation exists about our community beyond these traumas. Artist Alan Nakagawa is a conduit for these joyful stories. For decades he has been rethinking how archives and oral histories are used. He unearths and unpacks forgotten histories through meticulous research and his expansive, multidisciplinary artistic practice. As an oral historian and sound artist, he is interested in what the past and future sound like — he’s curious and patient, generous and meticulous, a true practitioner of paying it forward.
It’s no wonder institutions like the Smithsonian, Japanese American National Museum and CSU Japanese American Digitization Project are partnering with Alan — he is a connective tissue, one who locates, anchors. He mends together disparate experiences to strengthen the tapestry of the whole. “I’m constantly thinking about time as a multi-existence reality,” he told me.
Alan is also a mentor, friend. My work as an artist, academic and organizer has been influenced by his generosity of mind. Working outside of the mainstream commercial gallery economy, Alan has created an alternative career model for artists that doesn’t include selling objects. He has taught us how to be a partner in civic and community improvement, and how artists can work with institutions to disrupt and alter the way they serve the communities they exist in.
We met while riding bikes, exchanging family stories about being an artist and growing up JA (Japanese American) in Mid-City. Since then, a few times a year he invites me over to his studio to hang out. Our conversations are always two hours longer than expected and include some kind of unique meal with a layered story at every bite. During our most recent hang, he served me a homemade lemon tart and cup of tea in a ceramic mug made by terra-cotta clay artist Wayne Perry. Always giving. Always Alan.
Devon Tsuno: I remember my father telling me when he first moved into this neighborhood — Koreatown, Mid-City — there were a lot of Japanese American folks. But now, I think most people in Los Angeles don’t really think of this area as Japanese or Japanese American.
Alan Nakagawa: You’re talking about the ’60s and ’70s. I was born in ’64. That moment was sort of the apex of Japanese people moving into this general area — from here to Crenshaw, what is now Martin Luther King [Jr. Boulevard]. Maybe even into Leimert Park, but not quite Leimert Park. Where all the shops are. Leimert Park certainly from Rodeo — [now] Obama — to Martin Luther King and Crenshaw, that area used to be all Japanese. And there’s still a lot of Japanese people who live there. Elizabeth Ito, the amazing animator. A lot of those houses — around Crenshaw, Martin Luther King, Obama — still have the Japanese bonsai-looking plants in front, even though the people who occupy the houses are no longer Japanese American. They, for one reason or another, have embraced the Japanese landscape. Those are remnants — clues — of my childhood.
We never said “Mid-City.” We would always say “Midtown.” Nobody calls it Midtown anymore. That’s not even on the map. There used to be a lot of Japanese families. In fact, the famous actor Mako, one of the founders of East West Players. He did many roles in his multidecade career. He did the voice of the rat, father, teacher in the original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” — the movie, not the animation. He used to live right across the street, down the block. When I was growing up, that was a big deal to have an actual Hollywood actor in the same neighborhood.