Biographical / Historical
Kamekichi Tokita (1897-1948) was a Japanese American painter and businessman who emigrated from Japan in 1919 and settled in Seattle, Washington. Tokita was a member of the Seattle area progressive artists' collective known as the "Group of Twelve" and widely exhibited his artwork throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Kamekichi Tokita was born in Shizouka City, Japan and immigrated to the United States at the age of twenty-two. He settled in the Japantown neighborhood of Seattle, Washington where he opened the Noto Sign Company with business partner Kenjiro Nomura. Nomura was also an artist and encouraged Tokita's interest in oil painting. They both used the sign shop as their studio after-hours. In 1936, the Noto Sign Company closed and Tokita took over management of the Cadillac Hotel, although he continued to paint commercial signs. Tokita married Haruko Suzuki in 1932 and together they had eight children.
As a child in Japan, Tokita studied calligraphy in China. Although he attended a few art school classes in in the U.S. and went on weekend painting trips with Nomura and other Seattle artists, Tokita is considered to be a largely self-trained artist. Support and recognition came from Dorothy V. Morrison of the Henry Gallery at the University of Washington who wrote to Tokita to inquire whether a "group of Japanese artists in the city" would be interested in exhibiting their work. Although the exhibition of Japanese artists did not happen, Tokita later loaned paintings to the gallery for inclusion in an exhibition sponsored by the American Federation of Arts. Throughout the late 1920s and 1930s Tokita exhibited widely in the Seattle area. In 1935, the Seattle Daily Times touted the work of Tokita and other painters in the "Group of Twelve" that also included Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, Walter F. Isaacs, and Ambrose and Viola Patterson, among others. In 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Kamekichi Tokita and his family (five children at the time), along with the 110,000 – 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-American citizens living on the West Coast, were ordered under President Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 to relocate to one of several confinement camps. For the first six months of their confinement, the family lived at a temporary Civilian Assembly Center in Puyallup, Washington. They were transferred to the Minidoka Relocation Camp in Hunt, Idaho where they remained until their release in 1945. The confinement camps were organized much like communes and independent cities (fenced and guarded) where the residents were self-reliant for most of their basic necessities, including schooling. While interned in Minidoka, Tokita worked as a sign painter and continued to privately paint, using whatever materials he could find, including beaver board. His work was featured in art shows at the camp. Many of his camp scenes are now lost or were given away.
At the end of World War II, Tokita and his family (now seven children) moved back to the Seattle-area. Unable to find housing, the Tokitas lived at a Japanese language school until Tokita was able to re-establish his business. During this period he painted very little. In 1946 Tokita and his wife purchased the New Lucky Hotel in the Chinatown area of Seattle. Shortly thereafter, Tokita fell ill and died in 1948. Many of his works are believed to have been destroyed or lost. Some of his work remains, however, and is among the permanent collections of the Seattle Art Museum, the Tacoma Art Museum, the Portland Art Museum.
Note: Much of this biographical note was taken from "A Biographical Resume" written by Shokichi and Elsie Y. Tokita.