By John Sammon
A new mural open free to the public day and night because it graces an outdoor wall at the Nichi Bei Bussan in San Jose’s Japantown, will give viewers the chance to appreciate its rich coloring and also to use their imaginations.
“This is a special gift to the community because the artwork can be interpreted in so many different ways,” said Arlene Damron, owner of Nichi Bei Bussan, a department store and gift shop.
The store features a variety of Japanese and Japanese American cultural items including new and vintage kimonos, martial arts equipment, Japanese fabrics, gift wares, and also hosts monthly special events, for example, workshops on how to make “temari balls,” decorative balls of thread.
The creation of a large painted mural on an outside wall at the store Damron said seemed to come about out of nowhere.
“We did not solicit the creation of the mural,” she said. “On July 21, Juan Carlos Araujo came to the store and visited. I had met him before during the Obon Season (celebration honors the spirits of one’s ancestors). He said they were looking for a suitable wall to do a mural.”
Araujo, a San Jose art promoter, is also a founder of Empire Seven Studios, an art gallery in Japantown that attracts talented artists and fosters artistic achievement.
Damron was asked if the outside wall at her store could be used for the mural. She asked for information on the artist and for samples of his work.
The artist proposed for the work, Yis Nosego Goodwin, a 29-year-old African American artist from Philadelphia, had already achieved international acclaim for his works, and is referred to in artistic circles by the title NoseGo.
“They brought me a print-out about him,” Damron said. “I just loved his work. It was so colorful and out of the box.”
The go-ahead was given and Goodwin flew into San Jose on July 26. The project took about a week to complete.
The mural was made possible by a grant from the Knight Foundation. A national nonprofit based in Miami, Florida, Knight Foundation funds community art projects and advances the cause of knowledge including quality media, journalism and communication innovations among its functions.
Damron said the fact Goodwin was not of Japanese American heritage fits in with the concept of Japantown.
“People might ask, why not a Japanese American artist?” she said. “But this is a multi-cultural community. We have a Chinese Restaurant, Wing’s, that’s been here longer than we have. We have the Taqueria Corona Mexican Restaurant and the Korean SJ Omogari Restaurant. We have the Hawaiian Ukulele Source store and more as well as many Japanese American businesses.”
Nichi Bey Bussan has been an iconic community anchor for over 100 years and a family-run business in all that time.
“My grandfather (Sho Jiro) started the business in San Francisco in 1902,” Damron said. “He had saved the money for the store by working for several years as a houseboy.”
In the beginning the store often provided clothes and supplies to immigrants who wanted to adopt Western ways.
“They would come into the store wearing a kimono and leave wearing Western clothing,” Damron said.
Damron’s father (Dave Tatsuno) in the early days commuted across the San Francisco Bay on a ferry boat to Cal Berkeley where he attended college. He watched the San Francisco Bay Bridge under construction. He later met Damron’s mother (Alice) while working on a Christian Church conference project.
“Mom was a registrar at the event that Dad helped put together,” Damron said. “Afterward he sent thank you notes to all the young ladies who helped put the event on, and my mother was the one who wrote back.”
Tatsuno helped run the San Francisco store, but the store had to close after the start of World War II when the government imprisoned 115,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps through the Southwest who were suspected of being potential enemy aliens. Damron’s family members were sent to Topaz Relocation Center in Utah.
An enthusiastic amateur film photographer, Dave Tatsuno took the only known unauthorized color footage of life inside Topaz Camp, a film that was judged along with 24 other submitted films (out of 1,000) be “Historically Important” by the Library of Congress Film Registry. The film was later donated to the Japanese American National Museum.
Segments of the film footage became part of a television documentary that can be viewed today on Youtube under the title, “Dave Tatsuno, Movies and Memories.”
After the war was over, Tatsuno helped people returning from the camps to find jobs and housing. The store was gone but he still had his house. He reopened a new store in a converted garage at the house in 1946, and two years later opened a second store in Japantown in San Jose where it remains today.
Damron, who had been a full-time stay-at-home mom, returned to help out in the store in 1980 and today runs the family business. She said that beyond adding color to the community, the mural will generate interest in the arts.
“It could encourage anyone to pick up a pencil or paint brush or just doodle,” she said.
Asked what the mural portrays, Damron said it is open to different interpretations depending on who looks at it. Some people think it’s the head of a giant serpent, or a dragon, and among its many other symbols are a recreated butterfly, coy fish, water, jagged mountains. The colors are deep vibrant red, blue and gold.
“The mural is basically whatever you think it is or want it to be,” Damron said. “Everyone has a different opinion. The word I use to describe it is phantasmagorical.”
Damron said the wondrous thing about the mural is that it seems to change character with the changing colors of the sunlight.
“Flood lights give it a different look at night,” she said. “We have floodlights in our parking lot. The colors in the mural change with the light, for example, at sunset the gold colors in the mural really light up.”
Damron said public outdoor art has an important place in the community.
“It’s something that’s always there 24 hours a day.”
Asked what she would like people to know about the artist, Damron said his lack of pretense and the purity of spirit in his work.
“He (Goodwin) was so humble,” she said. “He was so down-to-earth. It was a breath of fresh air.”
San Jose’s Japantown is one of only three such communities left in the country alongside San Francisco and Los Angeles after the imprisonment and disruption of World War II. The community is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.