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Japanese American National Museum Magazine

Hideo Date: An Introduction

He hung up the phone, but not before he had politely, yet firmly, asked me not to call again. It was almost 10 years ago. I was a young curator who had finally found Hideo Date living in New York, in Queens.

I had heard bits and pieces about Date and his art from a variety of sources, art historians and community folk alike. An idiosyncratic personality who had lived and worked in the heady days of pre-World War II Los Angeles, his was a name that had circulated on people’s lips as an underknown and underrecognized find: he had been associated with the American modernist Stanton Macdonald-Wright (currently the focus of a major retrospective traveling the United States); he had worked on a Federal Art Project mural on Terminal Island in the 1930s; his work had been in significant exhibitions; and he and his good friend and fellow artist Benji Okubo were frequently characterized as dashing and charismatic figures whose paintings were intriguing and whose good looks and irreverent style created a stir.

Date was also a Japanese American Issei, or immigrant. This raised even more questions. Who was this Japanese American artist, and what could he and his art tell us about the vital and engaging cultural life of Japanese Americans before World War II? So it was with shock and a bit of fear that I held onto the phone receiver. Had he just hung up on me?

Fast-forward seven years. Hideo Date, at age 91, has decided that he is ready to talk to me about his art. One hot summer day he walks spryly through the entrance of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles with Wilbur Sato, the son of his friend Justus. With faded snapshots to document his paintings, he sits at the origami-making table in the museum’s Legacy Center and, animated in a way that belies his advanced age, begins to tell me his story.

The next year, he allowed me to see the art firsthand at his apartment in Queens. My initial questions multiplied as I tried to make sense of his paintings and the circumstances of their creation, for Hideo Date’s biography is at once a conventional story of a Japanese American immigrant and a complex narrative of art at the intersection of the United States and Japan; his experiences and his art prompt us to consider the rich and labyrinthine cultural life of prewar Los Angeles, where Asia, New York, Europe, and “Hollywood” converged, overlapped, and melded in a way that is only scantily understood. For Japanese Americans, this way of being would be irrevocably halted by wartime incarceration.

For Japanese American artists such as Date, Henry Sugimoto, Mine Okubo, Chiura Obata, and others, the incarceration affected their capacity to make and show art; their trajectories as artists were cut short, sidetracked, or derailed. We need to recognize the impact of incarceration and its aftermath, but even more, we need to admire the determination, and perhaps envy the passion, with which these artists have carried on. We are fortunate to be able, during the lifetime of artist Hideo Date, now 94 years old, to look through a window to the past that he has created, and to ponder his intriguing life and influences while we contemplate the still-vibrant beauty and complexity of his art.

Cathleen by Hideo Date. Gift of Hideo Date, Japanese American National Museum. (99.111.150)


* This article was written in the 2001 Winter Issue of the Japanese American National Museum Member Magazine. Hideo Date died in Queens, New York at the age of 98 in 2005.

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Click here to read Hideo Date’s biography on the Discover Nikkei Web site.

Click here to browse through Hideo Date’s work on the Japanese American National Museum’s Collections Online.

Click here to purchase Hideo Date prints.

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© 2001 Japanese American National Museum

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These articles were originally published in the print member's magazine of the Japanese American National Museum.