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Sacramento artist, WWII-interned Japanese American fights anti-Asian hate with billboards

By ASHLEY WONG | The Sacramento Bee | Published: April 8, 2021

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — When Bob Matsumoto was promised a full ride to ArtCenter College of Design by KCRA station manager Bob Kelly, Matsumoto was asked to promise only two things: to eventually pay Kelly back in full and to use his abilities to help others someday.

That's exactly what Matsumoto's spent his life doing with his art. Now, the Sacramento-raised artist is using his latest billboard installment — a portrait of the Statue of Liberty, emblazoned with the phrase "Anti-Asian Hate is Not What I Stand For" — to combat anti-Asian hate.

"It's a time where we're stereotyped (as people who) don't make waves, and yet the waves are hitting us across the country," Matsumoto said. "This hate is really rising."

Powerful and striking in its explicit simplicity, Matsumoto's billboard went live this week near Golden 1 Center, as well as 13 other locations across California. In Burbank, where Matsumoto lives with his wife, Linda, he'll make a trip out to The Reef to see one of his digital billboards come to life.

Matsumoto, 83, has dedicated much of his life and artwork to making sure people don't forget the effects of Japanese American incarceration, creating a poster honoring the incarcerated people for the Japanese American National Museum and pitching an art project to the California Museum that eventually became the long-running "Kokoro" exhibit on Sacramento's Japantown.

For Matsumoto, calling out and fighting anti-Asian racism has been a lifelong personal cause. When he was little more than 4 years old, he and his family were incarcerated in the Manzanar incarceration camp along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans across the country during World War II.

Matsumoto calls it a shameful chapter of American history, one that he never wants to see the country return to. But the recent rise in anti-Asian violence and discrimination alarms him, especially the violent attacks in Oakland and San Francisco which have seen an elderly Thai man killed and a Chinese grandmother's face severely bruised. In Sacramento, a mutilated cat was left in the parking lot of a Chinese-owned butcher shop.

"I thought about my parents and what 120,000 Japanese Americans went through, all the signs and threats ... two months later, they ended up in camps," Matsumoto said. "I said, 'I gotta do something.'"

Growing up in Sacramento

Matsumoto, a third-generation Japanese American, was born Nov. 17, 1937, in Oakland. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Sacramento to help at his grandfather's store in West Sacramento, where Raley's corporate offices now sit. There he and his siblings lived above the store until World War II.

Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, Matsumoto's father and 30 other Japanese American business owners placed a full-page ad in the Sacramento Union that read "YES We Are Americans." Soon after, the police came for them — first to confiscate their radios for fear of sabotage and then to force them into incarceration at the Manzanar camp.

Though his memories of the camps are hazy, Matsumoto said he remembers playing with other children while machine guns were pointed at them. He and his parents often talked about the emotional hardship of being separated from their family and forced out of homes and lives many were never able to return to.

"I was a kid. I didn't know any better," Matsumoto recalled. "But people lost their savings and personal belongings, and a lot of people never went back to what they were doing."

"We were separated," Matsumoto said, remembering how his parents didn't see their parents for years, not knowing where they were or how to reach them. "And can you imagine? ... My grandparents would not see three or four of their kids for the reminder of the war. How tragic was that?"

Upon their release in 1945, Matsumoto's family did not return to Sacramento immediately. Fearful of racist repercussions on the West Coast, his parents found jobs in Chicago, where they lived for five years before returning to Sacramento when Matsumoto was 13.

In Sacramento, Matsumoto briefly attended California Junior High School, where a teacher recognized his talent in art for the first time before he transferred to Lincoln Junior High and later Sacramento High School. After a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy, Matsumoto returned to Sacramento for a one-year art apprenticeship at KCRA.

It was this job that changed Matsumoto's life forever, when Kelly, the venerated longtime station manager, promised to finance his entire education at the ArtCenter in Pasadena as long as Matsumoto paid him back and used his talent to give back to the community. Upon graduation, Matsumoto moved to New York to become the first Japanese American to work for the advertising firm Doyle Dane Bernbach.

And Matsumoto stayed true to Kelly's request to use his platform for good, creating a short documentary in the 1980s called "Voices Long Silent" about the painful experiences of incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II. His short was screened during federal hearings for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians that eventually led to financial reparations for the formerly incarcerated survivors.

He also created a poster called "Remembrance" to honor survivors for the Japanese American National Museum, with the striking image of barbed wire in red, white and blue against a black background and the names of all the incarceration camps.

Finding hope in young rising voices

For his billboard, Matsumoto chose to depict the Statue of Liberty, blown up until her eyes bore into the viewers, with the slogan "Anti-Asian Hate is Not What I Stand For" to drive home the point that all Asian Americans are Americans.

"The Statue of Liberty represents the concept in two ways," Matsumoto said. "One: The photo instantly represents her as the face of America. Two: The headline represents her as the voice of America."

He's angered and saddened, if not surprised, by the jump in reports of hate crimes and violence against Asians.

"There's a deep connection (between Japanese American incarceration and the rise in anti-Asian hate)," Matsumoto said. "It's been documented how bad it was for Japanese Americans. We just can't let it happen again. To know that you're American and yet nothing was helped ... It's gotta stop now."

But what's different about this moment compared to when he and his family were incarcerated is the volume and number of young people speaking out, he said, younger generations of Asian Americans making their fury heard.

Recently, Matsumoto attended a rally in Los Angeles and was struck by how powerfully young Asian Americans leading the protest expressed themselves. Seeing a new generation of Asian American activists come into their power, defying stereotypes of Asians as meek and submissive, and subverting the old mentality of silent compliance he was raised with, he said, blazes him with hope.

"We are right now in an era of protest," Matsumoto said. "I know it's a moment of time that I think is going to change the stereotype that a lot of people think of us Asians as.

"I could see that the older people there (at the rally) ... they were letting all these younger people represent us. And I thought that was very good to see. And that's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to do things to represent us."

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