January 26, 2023

This is a pretty cool story from my campus. There is video at honoluluadvertiser.com

Katsushige Nakahashi’s Zero Projects – like Robin Kandel and James Fee – pertains in part to his father’s experiences during the Second World War. Nakahashi’s work is the keystone of Reconstructing Memories. Nakahashi constructs his Zeros from approximately 25,000 individual photographs by carefully photographing a 1:32 scale toy model, and when the photographs are developed he (or I should say we) create a full-scale replica of the Japanese Zero (see how he does this in English, or Japanese).

It is through the participation of volunteers that we create, by assembling the photographs, the full-scale plane. It is in this way that history is made more tangible; the resonance of history is worked through our hands. And it is also in this process that stories are shared. Specific geography coded with history, specific people (generally of little historical note, at least in the larger historical context), and dates are all very important for Nakahashi and this particularly true of the Zero Project presented as part of Reconstructing Memories; on December 13th, 2006, Nakahashi will ceremoniously burn the Zero (the significance of this date will become clear shortly).

By the opening of the exhibition it is expected that only half of the piece will be complete. In the time leading up to the and into the exhibition volunteers and people who are just passing through will be invited to piece together sections of the plane. In the end, what’s most important is that history becomes tactile, tangible; history is brought to life in the hands’ of the participants. For Nakahashi the process of creating his full-scale Zeros is far more important than the finished product.

When Nakahashi presented his first Zero Project in Osaka, his father, who previously never expressed any interest in his artwork, commented on his Zero, saying, “the color is not right here,” and admonishing, “the proportion is not right here.” Finally Nakahashi’s curiosity was raised, “Dad, why do you know so much about this?” Nakahashi’s father got angry and at long last divulged that he used to work in a Zero maintenance crew during the war at the Omura Naval base in Nagasaki. This was the first time Nakahashi’s father shared information about what he was doing during the war. Its not just a matter of what he was doing, but where he was stationed; there is a stigma against atomic bomb survivors and so Nakahashi’s father kept this a secret only until very recently.

With the replication of the Zero we quickly recognize Nakahashi’s work bears the marks of nostalgia, but this is an imperfect, distorted, and a malleable nostalgia. His nostalgia is not steeped in the rhetoric of nationalism as some might assume, but rather inspired by the apparent lack of critical historicism in Japan, because there is undeniably, even amongst those who are progressive a feeling of underlying exhilaration at the sight of the famous WWII fighter plane. Typical of Nakahashi’s work is an inquiry, when encountering his Zero we are compelled to reconcile our own emotions, which for many of us are conflicted. On the one hand, we might be adamantly opposed to war and violence, and on the other hand, as excited as a little boy who sees no harm in playing soldier. In fact, one of Nakahashi’s fondest childhood memories is of putting together model planes; no doubt many of us (especially men) have had similar childhood experiences. “My ‘memory’ of war,” Nakahashi cites, “was making a plastic model of a zero fighter, and playing with it. I had been absorbed in making plastic models since I was a third grader.”1 And despite the fact that the Super Flat2 exhibition to a certain degree champions ‘otaku culture,’3 Nakahashi has criticized otaku culture for its lack of critical self-awareness. Nakahashi says that his Zero represents the image of his “father’s generation, who blindly fought a war without questioning the meaning of it. It also,” Nakahashi continues, “brings the nostalgia of my childhood to light, and moreover, my anger towards the younger [otaku] generation” who fail to appreciate the lessons of history.4

A young boy or girl when playing with toy airplanes, cars, etc., typically imagines that their miniature scale model might magically transform into the ‘real thing.’ In a sense Nakahashi’s Zero is every typical young boy’s wildest dream come true. But in this transformation from a 1:32 scale-model into a floppy and malleable full-scale Zero, questions arise about the effects of such child’s play. Contemplating the ideological significance of toys, Roland Barthes says that, “toys always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life: the Army, Broadcasting, the Post Office, Medicine (miniature instrument-cases, operating theatres for dolls), School, Hair-Styling (driers for permanent-waving), the Air Force (Parachutists), Transport (trains, Citroëns, Vedettes, Vespas, petrol-stations), Science (Martian toys).”5 Toys play an important part of the socialization of children and prepare them for their roles as adults. If toys are a microcosm of the adult world, then Nakahashi’s Zero Project places that microcosm under a microscope illustrating the manner in which culture conditions children re-inscribing the values of culture onto the child. The transmutation of the adult-world into children’s toys is not a neutral process, but as Barthes argues insinuates the respective culture’s morals and mores. Nakahashi’s subsequent ‘re-enlargement’ of the toy model compels us to question what we are teaching our children, and what values we are propagating?

If we think of the process by which Nakahashi works, this analogy – that the artist places the landscape of the child under a microscope – materializes in a literal manner, because in fact he uses a micro-lens to photograph the surface of the toy model. For every square centimeter Nakahashi shoots approximately 27 photographs. Through his microscopic interrogation of the child’s universe – which is always constructed by adults – he reveals that toys are never ideologically neutral, toys in some fashion – albeit in some abstract form – are the purveyors of cultural history. The toys that we produce and market to children says a good deal about our values, and as Barthes says, “toys are usually based on imitation, they are meant to produce children who are users, not creators.”6 Toys are the embodiment of cultural history and the act of child’s play in some sense is an imitation or reconstruction of that cultural history: the mass industrial manufacture of toys (e.g., war planes, guns, tanks) also re-inscribes and reproduces our culture interpolated through child’s play.

Nakahashi does not create generic Zeros; with one exception at Smith College he created what he called the Phantom Zero Project (See a video of the Smith College burning). For the Reconstructing Memories exhibition Nakahashi intends to create a specific plane, piloted by Shigenori Nishikaichi, who partook in the assault on Pearl Harbor.7 (As it turns out, Nishikaichi trained at the Omura Naval base, where Nakahashi’s father was stationed). Following the completion of his sortie in route to the Japanese aircraft carriers, American planes attacked Nishikaichi’s Zero; his fuel tank was punctured, making it impossible for him to return to the Japanese aircraft carrier. As instructed he landed on the island of Niihau. Some of the pilots were instructed that if they faced mechanical difficulties to land on what the Japanese believed to be an uninhabited island, Niihau. In such an event a Japanese submarine would pick them up. (Other pilots, were they faced with mechanical difficulties, were instructed to crash into a target to inflict the greatest possible damage. It is unclear why there was a discrepancy in the orders issued.) Nishikaichi, as instructed landed on Niihau, but no submarine ever came.

After making an emergency landing on Niihau – privately owned by the Robinsons, family ranchers – Hawila “Howard” Kaleohana, an employee of the Robisons, was the first person to find Nishikaichi. Strapped into his Zero, and dazed from his rough landing, Kaleohana confiscated Nishikaichi’s pistol and secret papers. Unaware of what had happened at Pearl Harbor, Kaleohana took Nishikaichi home. In order to facilitate communication, two Japanese Americans living on the island, Yoshio Harada and Ishimatsu Shintani, were called for.8 The inhabitants of Niihau not knowing what else to do, decided to leave the young pilot in Harada’s custody who dutifully took Nishikaichi home, but over the course of their conversations, Nishikaichi would eventually convince Harada to assist him to conspire against the Niihau islanders to retrieve Nishikaichi’s papers.

Eventually the news of what happened in Pearl Harbor made its way to Niihau via radio reports. On December 13, Harada and Nishikaichi went on a rampage, taking Ben Kanahele and his wife hostage. They demanded to be taken to Kaleohana so that they could retrieve the secret documents. When Nishikaichi threatened to kill Kanahele’s wife, he lunged for the Japanese pilot. Kanahele was shot three times in the chest, hip and groin, but somehow Kanahele managed to pick Nishikaichi up and hurl him against a wall, and knocking him unconscious. Kanahele’s wife then pummeled the pilot’s head with a rock, and just for good measure, just to make sure that he was dead, Ben Kanahele, then slit Nishikaichi’s throat. Seeing this Harada committed suicide on the spot, turning his shotgun on himself. This event was used as justification for interning Japanese, which under Executive Order 9066, order the interment of 110,000 Japanese Americans. In the aftermath of the Niihau incident one military intelligence officer noted at the time:

The fact that the two [sic] Niihau [ethnic] Japanese who had previously shown no anti-American tendencies went to the aid of the pilot when Japan domination of the island seemed possible, indicates [the] likelihood that Japanese residents previously believed loyal to the United States may aid Japan if further Japanese attacks appear successful.9

Nakahashi hopes that by presenting Nishikaichi’s plane that we might be able to reflect on this history, that is not just the Niihau incident but also the net result of Japanese American interment, and to think about what that history means for us now. In a newly published far right-wing volume, Michelle Malkin sheds some light on exactly why we need to review this history:

[In the war on terrorism] those who have sought to cut off vital debate over …[the suspension of civil liberties] invoke the interment card and shriek that “the terrorist have won” if we curtail civil liberties. Wartime presidents can’t afford to indulge such nonsense. Their first duty is the nation’s preservation, not self-flagellation. As commander in chief, Roosevelt resolutely understood what Bush knows now: A nation can’t stand for anything unless it is still standing. For defending this unalterable truth, America need never apologize.10

Clearly in the post-9/11 world we need to come to terms with history, to appreciate the ways in which it is constructed, and used to justify contemporary injustices. Indeed, immediately following 9/11 we referred to it as another “day of infamy,” and comparisons were made between planes being flown into buildings to kamikazes – but one thing that sticks out for me is that question that has never been fully addressed: “Why do they hate us so much?” Just that the question was posed illustrates at least one thing very clearly: how little we know about ourselves.
The ceremonious burning of Nakahashi’s Zero will take place December 13, 2006, marking the day of the Niihau incident. Nakahashi is not an iconoclast, nor an anarchist seeking to destroy national/cultural historical continuity (i.e., the burning of his sculpture is not complete disavowal of Japanese history, nor a Dadaist ‘rejection’ of art). As Nakahashi has said on numerous occasions he believes that his role as an artist is not to pass judgment, but to ask questions. Some of the power of Nakahashi’s work lies not so much in the questions that he himself asks, but rather in the questions that we are compelled to ask when seeing or interacting with his work. It is in our own inquiry that the full force of his work is realized.

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