Mary Watanabe seated behind a table filled with craft objects
Mary Watanabe at a Japanese folk fair, 1989. Courtesy of Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia

Recognizing Japanese American Activism in the Watanabe Collection

Rob Buscher

What does the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans have to do with a collection of Japanese ukiyo-e prints? Quite a bit, if you were to ask the late Mary Ishimoto Watanabe, who together with her husband Warren donated a collection of nearly fifty woodcut prints from the 1850s to 1970s.

Mary Ishimoto Watanabe was a Nisei (second-generation)—an American-born person of Japanese descent—and one of over 125,000 people who were mass incarcerated by the US government during World War II following the Japanese Empire’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. As a recent college graduate, Watanabe spent her time behind barbed wire teaching children at one of the makeshift schools that incarcerees built for themselves.

Thanks to the advocacy of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker civil rights organization, Watanabe was granted early release from the Heart Mountain prison camp in Wyoming to attend Radcliffe College and later Harvard University, where she became the first Asian American woman graduate in the biology program. After meeting Warren at a session of the New England chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League , a civil rights group, they soon married and in 1950 moved to Philadelphia, where they became deeply involved in the local Japanese American and broader Asian American communities.

Watanabe worked as a biochemist at the US Army’s Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot for four years before enrolling in the Japanese language program at University of Pennsylvania, where she would become reacquainted with Japanese history, art, and culture. In 1961 she joined the department as a lecturer in Japanese language and culture. She taught there for five years before changing careers again to lead the Pacific/Asian Coalition, a civil rights group dedicated to building solidarity among diverse communities and advocating on behalf of Asian Americans and Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders.

Like many of her generation, Watanabe had to navigate the social and political complexities of someone born and raised with an American perspective, and yet, due to her Japanese ancestry, whose loyalty was constantly questioned by those who could not see past her race. Adept at navigating multiple worlds, Watanabe resisted the intense pressure to deny her heritage—rather, she embraced the arts and culture of her Japanese immigrant parents.

Mary Wantanabe stands across the street from Shofuso House & Gardens
Mary Watanabe at Shofuso House & Gardens, 1984. Courtesy of Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia.

Much of the last decade of her life was spent organizing the Friends of the Japanese House and Garden (FJHG), a nonprofit organization founded in 1982 and dedicated to restoring and preserving Shofuso, the seventeenth-century-style traditional Japanese structure housed in West Fairmount Park. While never granted the title, Watanabe essentially served as executive director of the friends group for nearly a decade, leading the fundraising efforts and helping to craft a vision of the Japanese cultural programs that are still presented there to this day.

Color photo of Mary Wantanabe looking at garden blueprints.
Mary Watanabe reviews blueprints for the Japanese gardens at Shofuso House, 1983. Courtesy of Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia.

During the same period in the 1980s that Watanabe was organizing at Shofuso, anti-Japanese hate was rising amid the United States–Japan trade war and prevalent Japan-bashing appeared in mainstream US news media. This also overlapped with the Redress Movement, in which survivors and descendants of the Japanese American incarceration fought for a formal apology from the US government for their wartime ordeal. Although never explicitly stated, it would seem that Watanabe saw the work she was doing in sharing Japanese culture with the broader public as helping to build fellowship among Japanese Americans and the general Philadelphia public.

A quote from Watanabe’s May 18, 1989, report to the board of FJHG offers some insight into her perspective. “The House and Garden is a recognition of the multi-cultural society which is uniquely American—a symbol of people, regardless of origin, that have come together as one nation. For Americans of Japanese heritage, [Shofuso] provides a place to celebrate the arts, crafts, and holidays of their ancestors. It is a place to share a culture with other Americans. Its uniqueness as an art form contributes to the richness of American culture.”

Felice Fischer, now Curator Emerita of Japanese and East Asian Art, who served on the board of FJHG alongside Mary Watanabe, shared the following remembrance: “Another manifestation of Japanese culture that Watanabe wanted to share was the unique heritage of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, which she collected and generously donated to the museum.”

Explore a selection of these works, curated by Monique D’Almeida, the museum’s Margaret R. Mainwaring Curatorial Fellow in Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.

Throughout her life, Watanabe seems to have oriented her work to building bridges across communities through intellectual discourse and cultural exchange. Although she has been gone now for more than twenty-five years, the Watanabe gift to the PMA stands as a lasting testament to her life of service and activism.

Rob Buscher, Associate Director of Organizational Culture at Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia, is a film and media specialist, educator, arts administrator, and published author who has worked in non-profit arts organizations for over a decade. As a person of biracial Japanese American heritage who is deeply involved in his community, Rob also serves as President of the civil rights group Japanese American Citizens League Philadelphia Chapter. Robʼs expertise is Japanese and AAPI Diasporic Cinema although he has worked as a professional film programmer, critic, and lecturer across a variety of fields. Some of his career highlights include growing Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival into an internationally recognized leader in the film festival circuit, developing the Japanese Cinema and Asian American Studies curriculum at Arcadia University, and co-founding Zipangu Fest – the United Kingdomʼs first Japanese Film Festival. Rob currently lectures at University of Pennsylvania, and is a contributing writer at Pacific Citizen.

Special thanks to Monique D’Almeida, Margaret R. Mainwaring Curatorial Fellow in Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage

This post was supported by a Re:imagining Recovery grant to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.