Next Gen Nikkeis You Should Know: Scott Oshima

Yonsei Memory Project’s Brynn Saito and Nikiko Masumoto got to spend a little time with Scott Oshima, an artist, arts organizer, and community activist, who currently works for the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Through photography, performance, and alternative exhibition practices, Scott’s work explores family history and identity as a yonsei, queer Japanese-Chinese American and fourth-generation Angeleno. Scott’s writing and reviews have been published in X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly, Capital & Main, Entropy, and Orlando. Scott holds a BFA from the California Institute of the Arts.

Scott Oshima

Scott Oshima

Name: Scott Oshima

Generation: 4th generation Japanese Chinese American; 4th generation in Los Angeles

What is your super-power? Soccer Mom

Official title: Lead Community Organizer at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center; Project Manager for Sustainable Little Tokyo; Board Member, Little Tokyo Community Council

Self-given title: Artist and Community Organizer (or, Soccer Mom)

From resistance to creativity to community organizing, our conversation with Scott Oshima traversed a range of topics, buoyed by Scott’s insights on the role of the arts in envisioning and enacting cultural sustainability in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. As project manager for Sustainable Little Tokyo (SLT)—a community-driven initiative working to ensure a healthy, equitable, and culturally rich Little Tokyo for generations to come—Scott is involved in a variety of artist-led initiatives that carry forward Little Tokyo’s cultural history in visionary ways. “The word sustainability was intentionally chosen over preservation,” notes Scott. “It’s not enough to just remember our history… We have to ask: how do we learn from that history, and continue to carry it with us as something that shapes both our present and our future?”

We want to use art as a way to peak people’s interest and attention, and bring them in to conversations they may not have had otherwise.

From Scott’s involvement with the Overcrossings Project—a series of happenings on LA freeways exploring questions of power, space, gentrification, and environment—to their photographs of former sites of Japanese American incarceration, themes of family history and identity have threaded through Scott’s arts practice. Now, these themes are being brought to the forefront by Scott’s work with SLT. “We want to use art as a way to peak people’s interest and attention, and bring them in to conversations they may not have had otherwise” in Little Tokyo. “We want people to take a moment to think about this community as more than a tourist attraction… to think about the layers of history, and the importance of this neighborhood, and ways we want to grow.”

Besides Little Tokyo, Scott named other important sites of memory for their family and community. White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights remains significant, as that was the only hospital, after World War II, that would welcome Scott’s family. Their family farm, in Carlsbad, holds importance for Scott—many generations of their family harvested produce and flowers there. And, the Japanese American incarceration site, Manzanar, remains a poignant place of pilgrimage: “Manzanar is an incredibly powerful place of our resilience and ability to still be creative despite being incarcerated,” notes Scott. “It also holds memory in a way that a museum can never [hold memory] because you see time, you sense the hands of the people who were there” in spaces like the excavated gardens.

Working in alternative, non-gallery spaces and working in and with communities is a consistent practice for Scott. “Where is the place where my work can be more in dialogue with urgent community issues in a way that refuses to work in the art market?” This question propelled Scott into 2016’s Overcrossings Project, and fuels their work with SLT. When asked about the balance of roles—artist, organizer, manager, and so on—Scott noted that “even if you’re doing the [art] work as an individual, you’re still relying on community. You can’t make work without having conversations about it with other people.”

Conversations anchor Scott’s organizing, especially as SLT navigates a dynamic, changing, and multicultural downtown demographic with the needs and desires of the nikkei community there. “One of [SLT’s] main principles—besides staying true to the community vision of what we want—is access. Will our residents come out for this? Or, are we just going to draw a primarily white artist crowd?” As new businesses arrive in Little Tokyo, Scott notes that the community “has to be willing to have conversations that are hard work” to ensure that development interests don’t supercede community voices.

Art is an act of resistance that’s always creative.

“SLT is always thinking in the future,” notes Scott. As an organization, it aims to move beyond only reacting to the social forces of gentrification; in addition, SLT actively creates new interventions, practices, and spaces that look toward the horizon. FandangObon—a performing arts project co-presented by SLT that celebrates Japanese, Mexican, and African American dance traditions—represents one such creative intervention. “In Little Tokyo,” notes Scott, “we have this history of intersecting communities. We are bringing light to this by bringing together various forms of dance and music and environmentally sustainable practices that are rooted in our cultural traditions that we’ve lost touch with.... empowerment comes from reclaiming and celebrating those roots and relationships." And, coming together and dancing is an incredibly powerful public expression of cultural connection. "Dancing together in a circle can be an act of resistance that’s also a creative act, that’s not just reactionary. This is, for us and our community, an act that brings us together. Art is an act of resistance that’s always creative.”

Brynn Saito