Courtney Sato

Reflection from Courtney Sato (ELP ’13)

Stepping off the subway in Long Island City, Queens, I wandered through rows of warehouses to arrive at the Noguchi Museum. Founded by the Japanese American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), the site houses his internationally acclaimed sculptures, as well as an open-air Japanese rock garden. After roaming the galleries, I spent the afternoon sifting through the archives. Correspondence, photographs and newspaper clippings detailed Isamu Noguchi’s experiences as a hapa Japanese American artist operating from Long Island City, steps away from the docks where he sourced raw blocks of granite, basalt and marble.

What brought me to Queens was not Isamu Noguchi, but rather his father, the poet Yone Noguchi (1875-1947). Despite living in the United States for over a decade and publishing prolifically for American audiences, Yone Noguchi has largely fallen off the literary map. His complex legacy is partially due to the ambiguities of his positioning as both a Japanese and Japanese American writer. My research as a PhD student in Yale’s American Studies program concerns writers like Noguchi: intellectuals who once experienced international literary success, only to lapse into obscurity. Yone Noguchi’s split legacy, along with an often-vexed relationship with his nisei son Isamu, speak to what it meant to be a writer during the first half of the twentieth century. Yone traveled between the United States, England and Japan on transcontinental lecture circuits, forging alliances across a vast transnational network. His story uncovers what it meant to straddle geographic boundaries like the watery pathways between Japan and the United States.

In considering these questions, I aim to uncover the intimately human texture of these early transnational networks—the very type of people-to-people connections that the U.S.-Japan Council currently aims to facilitate. Through the U.S.-Japan Council’s Emerging Leaders Program, I have been fortunate to join a cohort of likeminded, highly motivated individuals, as well as to be guided by established community leaders. Thanks to a connection forged through the U.S.-Japan Council, I was fortunate to participate in an inaugural planning session for the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor’s digital exhibition in February, as well as to partake in the medal’s homecoming celebration at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Last week, I was fortunate to meet a vibrant group of Japanese high school students participating in the TOMODACHI Japan Society Junior Fellows program over “American” sushi. (They laughed at the avocado and cream cheese fillings.) While academic research may occasionally feel isolating or peripheral, involvement with the Japanese American community through initiatives like the U.S.-Japan Council remind me of the importance of uncovering previously forgotten stories, while also forging new connections and narratives.

-Courtney Sato