Campaign Under Way to Name Highway After Chiura Obata

Looking west to Tioga Pass from Highway 395 in Lee Vining.

SACRAMENTO — An effort is under way to name a highway in California after artist Chiura Obata (1885-1975).

Introduced by Assemblymember Frank Bigelow (R-O’Neals) on July 2, Assembly Concurrent Resolution 112 proposes a “Chiura Obata Great Nature Memorial Highway” on Highway 120, located on the Eastern California state entrance of Yosemite National Park. The highway would be a five-mile portion of Tioga Road.

Any portion of Highway 120 within Yosemite National Park cannot be named by the state because it is federal land.

Bigelow’s 5th Assembly District includes Mono County and Yosemite.

Obata was an Issei artist who taught at UC Berkeley before and after World War II. He is well-known for his paintings of nature, particularly the splendor of Yosemite, as well as his incarceration in Topaz, Utah with other Japanese Americans during the war.

Robert Hanna, a descendant of conservationist John Muir, instigated the proposal to honor Obata’s art.

Chiura Obata in the 1920s

Born in Okayama, Obata emigrated to the U.S. in 1903 and embarked on a seven-decade career that saw the enactment of anti-immigration laws and the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans. He nevertheless emerged as a leading figure in the Northern California art scene and as an influential educator, teaching at UC Berkeley for nearly 20 years and acting as founding director of art schools in two of the internment camps.

Tim Burgard, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco curator of American art, said in his 2000 essay “Great Nature: The Transcendent Landscapes of Chiura Obata”: “The foundation of Obata’s art practice rested upon his personal beliefs regarding Dai Shizen, which he translated as Great Nature. …Obata’s memorable images encouraged viewers to observe, respect, and preserve the natural environment.”

In his oral history, “Chiura Obata: An American Modern” by ShiPu Wang, the artist said, “Listen very quietly to what Great Nature tries to tell you, and open yourself to the Great Nature of America, the country in which you live, with full gratitude and firm belief and try to make an effort to apply all the education that you get from Great Nature towards the future of your own society.”

“One of the nice coincidences with this highway location is it is a two-hour drive to Manzanar from Lee Vining, so hopefully folks will see the connection to the history of the Eastern Sierra,” said Kimi Kodani Hill, Obata’s granddaughter and editor of “Topaz Moon: Chiura Obata’s Art of the Internment.”

She also noted that “Chiura Obata: An American Modern” is on view at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento until Sept. 29.

This exhibition offers an unprecedented survey of Obata’s rich and varied body of work and includes over 100 paintings, drawings, prints, and personal items — many of which have never been on public display. They range from the artist’s early formal studies as a student in Japan to the California landscapes for which he is most recognized.

The resolution must pass through two committees in the Assembly — the Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife and the Committee on Transportation — before it is brought to the full Assembly for passage. Then it must go through the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water, and the Senate Committee on Transportation before it is brought to the full Senate.

Chiura Obata’s “Evening Glow of Yosemite Fall,” 1930. Woodblock print.

The resolution has the support of Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco), chair of the Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus; National Japanese American Historical Society; Topaz Museum Board; National Parks Conservation Association; Asian & Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation; Manzanar Committee; and Tule Lake Committee.

ACR 112 is now in a vetting process during which the public can write letters for or against the proposal. If the resolution is approved by the Legislature, about $3,500 will be raised for the signage; no government money will be used.

Hanna is encouraging a letter-writing campaign addressed to Hannah Ackley, legislative director for Assemblymember Bigelow. Email letters to or mail to Ackley c/o The Honorable Frank Bigelow, State Capitol Room 4158, Sacramento, CA 95814.

Examples of Caltrans highway names associated with Japanese Americans: