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ON PHOTOGRAPHY

Recollections Of A Japanese Matriarch

March 09, 1986|DINAH BERLAND

"Ojiisama came to my father to request permission to marry me. My father asked him to promise 'to provide for my daughter and not do anything that will make her cry.' During our wedding ceremony, Ojiisama was so nervous that he dropped the cup with which we exchanged ritual sips of sake. This is an important part of the wedding ceremony, and I felt the accident would mean bad luck."

This recollection of Aiko Yamagata, an 82-year-old Japanese matriarch, is recorded and translated by her granddaughter Mihoko Yamagata, in her exhibition of photographs and text at BC Space in Laguna Beach, through March 22. The tale proved portentous when Mihoko's grandfather, Seigo Yamagata, became an admiral in the Japanese Navy during World War II. While en route to a meeting with Emperor Hirohito (in March, 1945), where he was to be appointed undersecretary of the Navy, his seaplane was attacked by an American naval aircraft and forced to land on a river near the China coast. Rather than risk capture, Adm. Yamagata committed ritual suicide.

Aiko Yamagata became a matriarch in a culture that holds family values and hierarchy central to the integrity of society. After the war, her financial acumen allowed her family to prosper. When her daughter was married, three granddaughters were born, including Mihoko.

Fifteen years ago, Mihoko emigrated to the United States, received undergraduate and graduate degrees in art from Cal State Fullerton, and began to use her work to express her feelings and observations about her Japanese and American experiences.

In 1982, Mihoko won a National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artist Fellowship. At about the same time, she began photographing her grandmother and recording her oral history during yearly visits to her family in Japan. The completed limited-edition portfolio, entitled "Kaiso" ("Reminiscence: A Memoir") and designed and printed by Mark Jilg, consists of 20 dye transfer prints and letterpress texts with an introduction by John Upton.

"I photographed her every day while I was there," Mihoko recalled. "I was following the changes depending on her physical condition." In several of the images, the elderly woman is in a hospital bed receiving treatment while recovering from a prolonged illness. She wears a hospital gown and holds a blue plastic tube to her mouth. Or she sits, small and vulnerable-looking, behind a table holding a single orange, like the subject of a Zen painting.

Each photograph is accompanied by a page of text detailing Aiko Yamagata's childhood, family reminiscences and recollections of the war years. The photograph accompanying the marriage story shows her resting in bed next to her granddaughter Chiemi, who stares into space as though listening to distant music.

Mihoko's previous series, "Diary," dealt with her own life as "a Japanese woman living in a Western culture and being married to an American, with all the conflicts and differences. . . . I used models and props like the kimono and other symbols." In the future, she may exhibit images from "Kaiso" along with tape recordings of her grandmother speaking in Japanese.

Although Mihoko's purpose is more personal and aesthetic than political, she thinks her grandmother has made her own humanistic statement through her recollections. "I was born after the Second World War, so I never experienced war myself," explained Mihoko, "but I think it's important to know. It's really moving and really sad to listen to all the experiences that all those people had who were affected by the war. . . . As I was growing up, I always heard my grandmother talk about it, but then I wasn't really listening."

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