This story originally appeared in our holiday issue on Dec. 9, 2015. To purchase a copy of the issue, stop by our office or call us at (213) 629-2231.
By MIA NAKAJI MONNIER
Rafu Online Editor
Joel Nakamura spends lots of his time with creatures: monsters, bugs, and mythical beasts. Some are cultural icons, like Godzilla and Ultraman. Some are his teachers, like the tengu spirits, long-nosed Shinto beings that students of aikido invite into their practice. But most of them are his own creation, and those are the most wonderful of all. They look like bacteria sometimes, or like Spam cans, or like giraffes with heads so big my neck aches for them.
His first children’s book, Go West (Leaf Storm Press), is like a capsule of the universe that he has created throughout his art career. Creatures run through it (on striped legs, in cowboy boots, across the desert) as do the sharp angles and big eyes of Southwestern folk art. Nakamura, whose family has three generations worth of roots in L.A.’s Little Tokyo, lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, he paints, teaches art workshops and aikido classes, and prepares for his next exhibit, a series of Zen gardens, which debuts Jan. 8 at the Stranger Factory Gallery in Albuquerque. In one image from the series, a rock garden is freshly combed, the furrows of the rake drawing neat circles around the three objects protruding from the ground: Godzilla, King Kong, and another Godzilla.
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The Rafu Shimpo: Have you been making artwork since you were very young?
Joel Nakamura: Yeah, that’s pretty much all I ever did. I used to doodle around, and I would get in trouble at school. I remember once we had a substitute, and we saw some film about a forest fire, and then we had to go color a picture about it. So I had Godzilla sticking up out of the trees — he had burned up the forest and some animals were running away. And the teacher had me go to the principal’s office and they called my mom. They thought I was disturbed or something. And it was really great — my mom got mad at them and said, “That’s part of his heritage!” and “That’s very creative.” My parents were always very encouraging of whatever artwork I did. I was probably the only kid I knew in art school whose parents were proud that they were there and not freaking out because they didn’t go to medical school or something. It was great to always have that support.
Rafu: How would you describe Go West?
Nakamura: The west has always been kind of a metaphor for going your own way and adventure to the unknown, and it has always been a place of individuals who dream dreams and hard workers and open spaces. Go West is a journey for me into the frontier of imagination. That you can take something you see around you every day and turn it into something a little more magical.
Rafu: What inspired Go West?
Nakamura: Well, it had kind of been floating around in my head a long time, and the opportunity happened to present itself. There’s a restaurant I hang out at called Harry’s Roadhouse, and the publisher was in there talking to Harry and saying, “I’m looking for illustrators.” And Harry said, “Well, I know Joel.” So we had a meeting, and it started evolving from there.
Rafu: How was creating a children’s book different from work you’ve done in the past?
Nakamura: Well, number one, it was a series of paintings that had to be consistent, and then it had to tell a story, and then had to meet our printing deadline. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to paint the pictures, maybe three months. It was pretty intense to get that done in such a short time, but it was great to see it ship off to the printer and then come back a finished book. It was like magic. It was like all that artwork I had done was like training. It took all my years of training to produce it and pull it off in that amount of time. Had I tried to do this much earlier in my life, I don’t think I would have been able to do it.
Rafu: You grew up in Whittier, California. When did you move to the Southwest?
Nakamura: I moved here in 1996, so it’s almost been 20 years. Santa Fe is a great creative community, and this restaurant I was telling you about, Harry’s Roadhouse, seems to be a magic portal. If you think about someone you need to meet, whether it be a guy to fix your stove or produce a children’s book, you just seem to meet them there. It’s kind of like the mythic cafe you read about in novels where people hang out and they meet people and network. The owners are friends now, and they have a building next door that they don’t use, so I commandeered that for my aikido dojo.
Rafu: When did you start your dojo?
Nakamura: It’s been a year old now, and we’re called the Kaiju Aikido Club. Kaiju are like Japanese monsters like Godzilla, so I just wanted a playful name to show that we don’t take ourselves that seriously. That’s kind of the problem with a lot of the martial arts instructors I’ve had. So I just said that I was gonna do away with all that stuff and just make it a fun, nurturing place where people can learn. And we’re doing that.
Rafu: How did you get into aikido?
Nakamura: I’ve always wanted to study it but there was minimal opportunity to do so. The only thing around seemed to be like kenpo and karate. Then when I moved to Santa Fe, there was an abundance of aikido. A lot of towns, they’re lucky if they have one aikido dojo and we have four or five of them. I don’t know what it is about Santa Fe and aikido.
Rafu: Are they mostly run by Japanese people?
Nakamura: I think I’m the only Japanese sensei in the state of New Mexico, actually. So you have these Caucasian guys that think they’re Japanese, and they try to talk about Japanese mythology and stuff, and they have it all wrong. There are some things they’ll never understand about the art because they don’t have the cultural connection, or they don’t have the genetic connection to it that I do — it sounds kind of woowoo or something, but I think it’s true.
Rafu: Do you feel like aikido has influenced your art in any way?
Nakamura: Yeah, I’ve done some artwork that’s aikido-based. I have Ultraman throwing around monsters in aikido throws and guys in hakamas and gis (aikido uniforms). But I also think it’s helped connect me to my roots a more than probably anything else has, and through the aikido practice I’ve figured out what things mean, like why they clap two times or one time and things that were kind of in the ceremony before [each practice]. The teachers I had before had no idea what was going on — they just did it because that’s the way they learned, but they never seemed to want to take the time to figure out why you do these things.
Rafu: I’m curious, what do the claps mean?
Nakamura: Well, the two claps, that’s kind of a Shinto bow-in, so one clap is to the nature gods to call them to help with your training, and then the second clap is to your ancestors and founders and other practitioners of aikido before you and throughout the world. And when you lift the weapon towards the torii, like if you’re going to do wood swords, that’s to invite a tengu spirit to inhabit your weapon while you’re training, and then you raise the weapon to the torii again to release the spirit back through the torii. So what you see in American dojo is that the torii is cluttered, full of pictures and stuff, so no tengu spirits are gonna fly through there, you know?
Rafu: Tengu spirits are connected to aikido?
Nakamura: Yeah, the founder of aikido, he allegedly had a tengu spirit that helped teach him things about martial arts, and that’s what he would do to invite the tengu to come train with him. That was passed on to the rest of aikido practitioners, but they never understood that tengu weren’t gonna fly through a cluttered torii to inhabit their weapon.
The torii is a kind of gateway to another dimension or another universe of spirits. So the tengu are kind of like a transporter experiment in “Star Trek” where animals and humans got fused together through the transporter beam and reassembled in weird ways.
Rafu: Really? That’s why tengu look the way they do?
Nakamura: That’s my thought, but you know, I don’t know if that’s what really goes on. That’s my way of explaining it to people, in “Star Trek” terms.
Rafu: You were talking about your Japanese roots and how they help you to feel more connected to certain aikido concepts. But in your artwork, you use a lot of techniques or take inspiration from artwork from different cultures, like Native American and Mexican art. So how does that fit in with what you were saying about having to have that personal connection? What draws you to those kinds of folk art and makes you want to incorporate them into your work?
Nakamura: Well, I’ve always loved folk art ever since I was little and it resonated with me. To me, folk art is timeless, whatever country or indigenous people are making it. We’re lucky that we have this wonderful museum called the Museum of International Folk Art here in Santa Fe, so I visit that museum all the time and I get inspiration there. There’s just something about folk art because it’s people who are creating art because they have to. They may not sell it, they just need to do it, so it’s very genuine to me. I think it really embodies certain cultures, so when I’m asked to do cultural assignments that will feel Peruvian, or Native American, or African, the way to really capture the essence of that is through their folk art, so that’s my go-to inspiration whenever I have to do cultural mimicry, for lack of a better term. And so that’s kind of my specialty in illustration, is cultural mimicry in a lot of ways.
Rafu: Well, that term “cultural mimicry” makes me think of another term: “cultural appropriation.” Is that something you have to think about while you’re creating this artwork — how to draw a line so that it doesn’t become appropriation?
Nakamura: Well, that’s a good question, and so what I do is I try to be inspired by the colors and the way they draw things and how they see certain items, and not copy anything directly.
Rafu: Just like you researched aikido customs and came up with the theory about the “Star Trek” kind of mashing together of these different creatures, is it important to you to learn about the stories behind these other kinds of artwork that you are incorporating into your style?
Nakamura: Oh yeah, definitely. I’m a very curious individual, so I like to always be curious about the cultures that I study and read about their stories. I think that’s where — other people, maybe they don’t dig as deep as I do, and so they end up either copying and it’s total cultural appropriation, or they don’t really understand where the concept really lies, so things are a little off. If something is off, people seem to know. I like to be educated about what I’m doing. I feel you get in touch with the spirit of what those people were doing, and if I can get in touch with the same spirit, I might be able to do it myself. So that’s what I’ve been intending to do over the years. Sometimes my work will bend to be very Hispanic, the retablo and folk art from Mexico, and sometimes it bends to be more things that are Japanese. So it wanders around but it stays within the framework of modern folk art in general. That’s how I would classify myself, is kind of a modern folk artist although I’m not self-taught the way most of them are.
Rafu: Do you speak Japanese?
Nakamura: Not much. I know aikido terminology and things associated with that and food and that’s pretty much it. But my parents were in the camps, and so they didn’t really want us to grow up being too Japanese because they didn’t want what happened to them to happen to us. So we didn’t speak Japanese at home that much. They didn’t want us to be the nail that was sticking up, you know?
Rafu: It’s unfortunate that people have been made to feel self-conscious about teaching their language to their children.
Nakamura: Yeah, it’s unfortunate. It just seems that we don’t historically learn — the prejudice that we experienced, you know my mom and dad, and yours, after World War II, we’re seeing that with people from the Middle East now. It’s just really scary to see that kind of stuff happening again.
And that’s where aikido is important today because with what’s going on in the world, I think everyone needs to have a little self-defense and everyone should let that kind of training make them a little more aware of what’s going on around them so that they might be able to check themselves. The police are shooting everyone because they don’t have training anymore in hand-to-hand combat or hand-to-hand submissions, so they just go to gadgets and guns. The Japanese police, they use aikido as their go-to submission. Most of them don’t carry guns. And therefore they have maybe two or three shooting deaths a year and we seem to have that every day here. That’s kind of the second phase of what I’d like to do with my dojo is to eventually go and work with police departments and give them a little training. Even if I have to do it for free, I think I’m going to do that.
I’m all for aikido. If it’s the best martial art there is, I’m not one to make an opinion about that, it’s just the right one for me. I like its philosophy of peace and that the mission statement of aikido is to create less violence in the world through a martial art, not more.