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Miye Sugino—Art as Advocacy: “To me, art is a reclamation of identity”

As one of JANM’s 30 Changemakers Under 30, Miye Sugino had amassed an impressive body of work and accomplishment most adults never achieve, all before receiving her high school diploma. Miye’s art and writing has gained national and international recognition including being one of twenty U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts through the National Young Arts Foundation. In addition, she has been an art mentor at San Quentin Prison through Empowerment Avenue and an intern at Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent.

Miye, born in Chicago to a Japanese American father and a Korean American mother, grew up in Tokyo and Los Angeles. This fifth generation American spent half her life in Japan which impacts her perspective on Nikkei identity, her artwork, and her advocacy. 

Interviewed via email, here’s Miye, in her own words: 

Do you identify as Nikkei and if so, what does Nikkei mean to you?

I spent most of my childhood in Tokyo, where “Nikkei” wasn’t a term I grew up hearing, even though it’s technically a Japanese term. I don’t know that I would have identified as Nikkei while living in Japan—since I knew very few Japanese Americans, I often vacillated between feeling either Japanese or American, depending on my surroundings. But the term feels specific to my experience as a Japanese American, or someone who has moved away from Japan. Maybe Nikkei is an identity that I will come to occupy.

How do you, or have you, participated in the Nikkei Community?

One of the most memorable comments on my art was from my aunt. This feels like you are talking to me, she said. I think that when you don’t know who you create art for, it’s easy to start explaining your existence. But I want my art to make eye-contact with people like my family: the Nikkei community makes my art authentic. I’ve sometimes wondered if I should try to universalize my art. I realize now that when you speak to the people who make your work authentic, as Toni Morrison says, “what also happens is that you speak to everybody [...] the end result is it’s communication with the world at large.”

What it was like to grow up in both Japan and America, especially in regards to how you connect with your familial backgrounds?

When I moved from Tokyo to Los Angeles, I expected to root myself in my memory of home—only to realize how easily I could forget. My experience inspired my art portfolio, in which I ask: if identity is the culmination of memory, who do we become when we forget? This sense of distance has been a defining point of my relationship with both countries.

But recently, I’ve learned to reframe my position in-between countries with a sense of intentionality rather than that of loss—a narrative always in the state of becoming. I was particularly influenced by Yiyun Li’s essay “To Speak is to Blunder,” in which she describes her relationship with English, her second language, as one where “every word has to be pondered before it becomes a word.”

Yet, Li writes that this distance allows her to have “the conversation that I have always wanted [with myself], in the exact way I want it to be.” Similarly, the sense of distance I feel with both Japan and America has served as an impetus to try to intentionally author a space for my own.

What does your work with Loyola Law Schools Project for the Innocent (LPI) and Empowerment Avenue mean to you personally and what have been some of your favorite moments?

What I love about these organizations is that they are inherently collaborative; you gain proximity to social issues through direct relationships with the impacted communities. Through LPI, I helped screen and build cases alongside other interns, law students, and professors to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. LPI introduced me to exonerees like Obie Anthony, living proof that corrupted narratives could be reversed to restore dignity.

Through Empowerment Avenue, I mentored and collaborated with incarcerated artists and writers in San Quentin Prison. One of my favorite moments was creating an art piece to accompany a story by Rahsaan Thomas (an incarcerated journalist at San Quentin), later performed in the Brooklyn Public Library. Seeing our works exhibited together was a very special moment for me.

What drew you to become an editor for the literary magazines, Farside Review and Lumiere Review, and an intern with the Counterclock Journal?

I became an editor primarily because I love art and language, and I want to spend time doing what I love. This has always been the drive: I don’t view art and language as a secondary vessel through which I accomplish another goal of uplifting marginalized communities, though that’s important to me too.

However, I do think that both practices inform each other. Working with organizations like Empowerment Avenue and LPI reaffirms to me the necessary power of art and language to carry the weight of our presence. For example, as my collaborator at San Quentin Prison explained, saying “incarcerated person” instead of “inmate” recognizes the humanity of a person beyond their crime. I am also drawn to exploring how art, as a visual medium, can reach people where language falters. It’s an unexpected blessing that my interest in art and writing lends itself to collaboration with other creatives, and I feel grateful for having found ways to bridge my interests.

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Join Miye on January 12 for a virtual workshop exploring memory, loss, and reclamation. To find out more about this free ArtBreak event, click here.


© 2022 Esther Newman

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About this series

This monthly series features interviews with young Nikkei who are 30 years old and younger from around the world who are helping to shape and build the future of Nikkei communities or doing innovative and creative work sharing and exploring Nikkei history, culture, and identity.  

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About the Author

Esther Newman grew up in California. After college and a career in marketing and media production for Ohio’s Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, she returned to school to study twentieth century American history. While in graduate school, she became interested in her family’s history which led to research on topics affecting the Japanese Diaspora including internment, migration and assimilation. She is retired but her interest in writing about and supporting organizations related to these subjects continues.

Updated November 2021

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