Born in Sendai, Japan, in 1885, Obata learned to paint at an early age. He migrated to San Francisco in 1903, having convinced his father “the greater the view, the greater the art; the wider the travel, the broader the knowledge” (Hill, 3). Here, Obata worked as a “schoolboy” performing domestic work to support himself while studying English. He also worked as an illustrator for Japanese-language publications. During the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Obata made numerous sketches and paintings depicting the devastation.
Obata met and later married Haruko Kohashi, an educated woman from Fukuoka, Japan. She had migrated to San Francisco in 1910 at the age of 17, and lived in a boardinghouse owned by her aunt. Kohashi studied English and sewing, and planned to return to Japan to teach dressmaking. Instead, in 1912, she married Obata. They had four children, and reared them in San Francisco.
Haruko assisted her husband with his brushes and paint, and, an artist in her own right, she was one of the first teachers of Japanese flower arrangement (ikebana) in San Francisco. “Papa [Obata] used to complain about the other things I did,” Haruko recalled, “but he never complained about the time I took to teach ikebana because it was teaching Japanese art to Americans, and he thought that was a good thing” (Hill, 4).
With anti-Japanese feeling running high, whites attacked Obata on the streets of San Francisco, and spat on him. Once, he rose to defend himself against eight men who attacked him. Instead, the police arrested him for the street brawl. At the same time among the city's elite, “Japonism” or Japanese design and decorative art became fashionable. Obata won several commissions to paint murals for large department stores during the 1920s, and in 1924, he designed the sets for the San Francisco Opera's production of Madame Butterfly.
Obata lived and worked in San Francisco Japantown, and there he enjoyed the company of Japanese American artists such as Matsusaburo Hibi. He took trips to Yosemite and the Sierra Mountains, and they provided him with, in Obata's words, “the greatest harvest for my whole life and future in painting” (Hill, 5). Obata joined other artists in forming the East West Art Society, and in 1922 the society held its first painting exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art.
Obata was a professor of art at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1932 to 1954. Faculty invited him to teach a summer class in 1932, and students responded so enthusiastically that the art department hired him as a lecturer and two years later promoted him to assistant professor. “I always teach my students beauty,” Obata stated. “No one should pass through four years of college
without … [a] knowledge of beauty and the eyes with which to see it” (Hill, 7). Like his students, Obata saw his art as a work in progress. “I am not a finished artist,” he declared emphatically. “I am studying until I die” (Hill, 8).
World War II and the mass detention of Japanese Americans interrupted his university teaching career. After a hurried displacement from their home, Obata and his family arrived in Tanforan assembly center. His wife, Haruko, recalled their introduction to Tanforan, which was a horse racetrack. “When we arrived at Tanforan it was raining; it was so sad and depressing. They gave us a horse stable the size of our dining room with a divided door where the horse put his head out—that was our sleeping quarters. There were two beds made of wood, bunk beds, and another bed on the opposite wall…. There was nothing else, nothing. That one time I cried so much. That was the only time I cried; it was awful” (Hill, 27, 29).
While in Tanforan and Topaz concentration camps, Obata continued his art. Three days after his arrival at the assembly center, Obata offered to start an art school for the Tanforan adult education program. He believed artistic creativity would lift the spirit of the people. Using his university connections, Obata obtained art materials for the classes. His former students, including Masao Yabuki and Miné Okubo, served as art teachers, and together they urged artistic documentation of the camp to leave a record for future generations. Okubo would later publish her book of drawings of the camp experience, Citizen 13660 (1946).
During the 1943 registration crisis during which the War Relocation Authority required all Japanese Americans to declare their “loyalty,” some Japanese Americans in Topaz called Obata an inu or “pro-American” sympathizer, and one of them attacked him with an iron pipe in the bathhouse on April 4, 1943. After 19 days in the Topaz hospital, the camp administrators released Obata and his family to insure their safety. “Why I was attacked, I myself do not know,” Obata wrote to a friend. Conditions in the camp, he speculated, “can cause even a person in a splendid state of mind to weaken to rumors, which are constantly present…. In any case, this abnormal state of life can contribute to such dreadful acts. I feel sorry for the attacker, who has not yet been identified, for his attempt to kill or hurt me will not better his life” (Hill, 93).
While Obata was recuperating in the Topaz hospital, a military guard shot and killed an elderly resident, Hatsuki Wakasa, while he was walking with his dog near the camp's barbed-wire fence on April 11, 1943. Obata recorded that killing in a drawing, one of the last images he would paint of Topaz. The drawing shows Wakasa bent over from the bullet, his fingers extended, falling headfirst to the ground.
Obata and his family moved to Salt Lake City, then Chicago, and resettled in St. Louis where they lived until 1945 when they returned to California. Obata resumed his position at the University of California, Berkeley. Obata taught for nine more years, and retired in 1954.
For 15 years, Obata led tours to Japan in the spring and autumn to introduce Americans to Japanese arts, gardens, and architecture. “The purpose of the trip,” Obata explained, “is to achieve better understanding. I'm doing this in the hope
that the two countries can talk fully, and if there is something like war, they can find some way to find agreement, and won't do that kind of unnecessary thing if they can communicate on a better level” (Hill, 110). In 1965, Obata received the Emperor's Medal for his contributions toward promoting understanding between Japan and the United States. Eleven years later, Haruko received the Emperor's Medal for her lifelong work teaching flower arrangement (ikebana). They were the first husband and wife in the United States to be so honored.
Obata died in 1975 at the age of 90.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Hill, Kimi Kodani. Chiura Obata's Topaz Moon: Art of the Internment. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 2000.