In the Library: Paintings by Shiuko Sakai

Shiuko Sakai was a beloved elder in the Japanese American community, a world traveler, a decorated civilian administrator for the US army, and a painter. Once Shiuko moved back to the West Coast in retirement, she volunteered as a librarian and archivist at the Japanese American Museum of Oregon. Her passing earlier this year was a huge loss to the community, and we are so grateful that she generously donated a collection of over 700 documents, artifacts, and photographs to the museum in 2008 so that we can continue to remember her life through her archives. These watercolors—made when she was a young adult in Minidoka—are on view for a limited time in our library.

Watercolor painting of Minidoka Concentration Camp. Part of a barrack can be seen on the left side, with a red chimney coming out of the top. In the background on the right you can see a guard tower and barbed wire fence. The sunset is bright orange fading into yellow and pink. The ground is dark and muddy.
View from Block 26 Towards Blocks 30s and 40s. Watercolor on paper. Gift of Shiuko Sakai.

Shiuko didn’t consider herself a great painter (we beg to differ); it was just something that she enjoyed doing. Seeing the paintings and hearing her words gives a vivid picture of both the oppressive conditions and the beauty of nature that she experienced in camp:

“I liked to paint, so I just looked out the window, maybe look out and see the canal, then go out there and paint a little canal scene. Or…I’d see the barbed wire fence, I’d see a guard tower in the distance…part of the barrack next to me. So, I have a corner of that. Then it was, I think, close to sundown, and the sky was bright orange, it was pretty. So, I painted that. And other times I’d look out where the canal was, and I’d see beautiful skies. I didn’t paint that, but I just liked to look around and see different things that I could paint.”

The paintings on view depict the scenes that she describes above, plus a few more related to her time at Minidoka and the Puyallup Assembly Center.

watercolor painting of the sky at the Minidoka concentration camp. There are black silhouettes on the edges: the very end of a barrack, what could be telephone poles, other buildings, and perhaps a guard tower. The sky is the main feature of the painting and takes over most of the frame.  Bright yellow of the sunset or sunrise pokes through the grey and white clouds.
Minidoka Winter, 1942. Watercolor on paper. Gift of Shiuko Sakai.
Pot belly stove, 1943. Graphite on paper. Gift of Shiuko Sakai

Near the end of WWII, Shiuko was one of a handful of young women who received leave clearance to work outside of Minidoka, and she moved to New York City to be a secretary for the National Lutheran Church. After the war, she worked for the US Army in Tokyo. During that time, she travelled extensively across Japan, taking photos along the way and capturing the destruction left by the war as well as communities working to rebuild.

A Japanese American woman is standing in front of a row of toro stone lanterns with some pine tree foliage behind. She is wearing a scarf tied under her chin and a wool jacket. She is smiling and looking at someone or something off-camera to her right.
Two elder Japanese American women stand in front of the old Japanese American Museum of Oregon. They are standing close together with their shoulders and arms touching.

Images from left: Shiuko on a tour of Kasuga Shrine in Nara, Japan, March 1947. Gift of Shiuko Sakai. Lily Kajiwara and Shiuko Sakai at the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, where they both volunteered, 2014.

She eventually moved back to the States to work at the Pentagon for the Army Intelligence Service, where she received many awards from the Department of the Army for Meritorious Civilian Service. She continued to work there until her retirement from Federal Service.

(Quote from oral interview, Densho Digital Archive, Manzanar National Historic Site Collection.)