Celebrating Asian-Pacific Heritage Month

Jun Fujita Cabin, with screen veranda on the right
Photograph by John Hurley
Jun Fujita (1888-1963) was one of the earliest Japanese-Americans to achieve prominence in the Midwest. A noted photographer and poet in the first half of the 20th century, Fujita used his rustic cabin on a remote island near Ranier, Minnesota (now within Voyageurs National Park), as a retreat and a source of inspiration for his artistic work. Fujita left his native Hiroshima as a teenager and immigrated to Canada, where he may have first begun his career as a news photographer. Sometime before 1915, he moved to Chicago where he worked with the Evening Post until at least 1929, before he turned to commercial and artistic photography. A consummate artist who moved easily between visual and verbal media, Fujita was inspired by the natural world, and his poetry, paintings and photography are dominated by images of flowers, forests and landscapes. Some of his color photos of flowers are in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago; and during the 1920s, many of his poems--in haiku and tanka, a minimalist Japanese form--were published in the prestigious literary serial, Poetry. His poetry was unusual in that it applied the rules of Japanese poetic genres to poetry written in English well before the vogue of English haiku.

Land for Fujita's cabin was purchased by Florence Carr in 1928. Fujita and Carr, a Euro-American secretary and social worker, had a long-term relationship and were living together in Chicago at that time. Carr purchased the property because of Minnesota state laws that restricted the land ownership of Asian aliens. They eventually married in 1940, in part to protect their mutual property in several different states. Carr did not accompany Fujita on his many retreats to the cabin which he used until 1941, shortly before America entered World War II. Fujita was able to avoid wartime internment by residing in Chicago, and chose instead to retreat to a cabin in Indiana just an hour from the city.

Fujita built his Rainy Lake cabin in the border lakes region of Minnesota, near the Canadian border, shortly after the land was purchased. Marked by their simplicity, his rustic wooden one-room cabin and its setting are evocative of both the architecture and landscapes of Japan. The natural materials, minimal decoration, side entrance, moderate pitched roof, veranda, and lack of foundation are all typical features of modest residential Japanese construction. The cabin is integrated into the surrounding forested landscape: the floor to ceiling windows to give extensive views of the natural rock around the house, and of the lake, which provided an atmosphere conducive to reflection.

Fujita's success as a photographer working for a mainstream newspaper and for major commercial corporations was extremely unusual among Japanese-Americans in his time, and especially among the Japanese-born population. That he achieved this success in the Midwest is even more noteworthy. Census figures from the 1940s show that fewer than 5 percent of the Japanese-American population in the U.S. lived outside of Hawaii and the West Coast states. Strict immigration laws of the time made it difficult even for someone as successful as Fujita to naturalize. It was only through a private congressional bill in 1954 that Fujita finally became a U.S. citizen.

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