The Art Made by Japanese Americans in Internment Camps
Bellevue Arts Museum Exhibits Objects Made from Scraps by People Enduring the Unendurable
images Courtesy of Delphine Hirasuna
Under Executive Order 9066, Rose Sueoka could not get her clothes clean enough. After she scrubbed them in the shared, makeshift latrine of her hastily erected prison, the clothes would be mostly clean. Nobody would notice the difference. But that was not the point. She turned to her husband, Shigeru, knowing he had nothing to his name, like her, and asked him to do the impossible: make her a washboard. They were chicken farmers from Petaluma, California, and he didn't know how to make a washboard. But Shigeru scoured their concentration camp. He found cast-off materials, and somehow he carved Rose a perfect blond wood washboard, still in pristine condition today. Even in the lost world of wrongful imprisonment, maybe especially in that lost world, clean enough is not the same as clean.
Shortly after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, and until 1946, the American government imprisoned 90 percent of the Japanese American population—120,000 people guilty of no crime—in 10 remote Western locations. Two-thirds of the prisoners were American-born. They survived by doing more than surviving, by going beyond what was enough. They made things: furniture, art, tools. Every flared accent on a table, every curvature and inlay in a scrap-made jewelry box was a blaze of spirit—and a noble middle finger to their jailers. Dozens of those righteous middle fingers are on display at Bellevue Arts Museum in a traveling exhibition that took one woman a decade to organize.
The woman is San Francisco–based Delphine Hirasuna, whose parents and siblings were imprisoned in Arkansas. After her mother died, Hirasuna found a tiny wooden bird pin in a dusty box in storage. It was made in camp. What else was made in those terrible years in those terrible places? Hirasuna asked other families to dredge their attics and garages, and she organized a full-scale exhibition of more than 120 objects. The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942–1946 opened in 2010 in the heart of the nation's capital, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery, and has toured to multiple venues, including in Japan. In Bellevue, the exhibition has special meaning. A stone's throw from the museum's door, vast tracts of strawberry farms were leased and owned by Japanese Americans forced off to camps. Only a scant few returned, and found themselves unwelcome by the businessmen who snapped up the land where skyscrapers, the mall, and the museum itself stand today.
The Japanese word gaman means enduring the unendurable with dignity. Doing more than surviving. In 1989, 45 years after they were freed, prisoners' families received letters of apology in the mail along with reparations money in the form of checks signed by George H.W. Bush, following a legislative act signed by Ronald Reagan. But the objects in The Art of Gaman were made with zero hope of the slightest justice. They were made under the gun, under surveillance, wondering whether these cots would be deathbeds.
Most of the artists and artisans had no training. Prisoners were denied any belongings coming in, and the barracks were furnished only with beds. There were no luxuries like tools, tables, chairs, or curtains for privacy. Later, they could order modest items by mail. But their ethic was of tremendous resourcefulness. Nothing was wasted. Onion sacks were unraveled and woven into baskets and cigarette cases. Tiny shells on the ground were collected for brooches for special occasions like weddings and funerals. Toothbrush handles were cut off and repurposed. An ugly stub of iron sewer pipe was incised with a bird and blooming plum branches to fashion a vase. A ring was made from a peach pit.
Sitting alone on a shelf under a spotlight in the galleries, a dystopic dollhouse casts a long shadow on the wall behind. It's a replica of a barrack. Three separate doors for six separate families, each family in a single room with a shared door. Three little steps up to each door. The model was made with scrap wood and toothpicks, and painted the black of the tar paper that covered the actual barracks. People called the artist Toshima-san.
Across a continent and an ocean, Nazi prisoners at the same time made art that commonly pictured interior scenes, often portraying people. There's one set of ink sketches like that in The Art of Gaman, depicting prisoners running in the rain and dust storms, and one of a deaf man shot dead trying to save a dog near the barbed-wire fence. He hadn't been able to hear the call of the jailers telling him to stop. The sketches are by Chiura Obata, who'd been an art professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
But the finished paintings in The Art of Gaman barely include any human presence at all. They look distantly. The barracks are insignificant specks in a vast, blank landscape of mountains and desert. The artists were keeping their lives private, refusing to produce intimate portrayals that might attract the attention of the authorities. Or maybe they saw, or wanted to see, beyond their dismal surroundings, to be situated in a cosmos rather than a country.
One painting made at Tule Lake, California, is a panoramic watercolor landscape running across a 44-inch expanse of age-browned, stained paper. Tule Lake imprisoned 18,789 people at its height and was the last camp to close, almost four months after all the others, nearly seven months after the final surrender of Japan and the end of World War II.
Little is known about this painting, which reads "TULE LAKE PROJECT, NEWELL, CALIFORNIA, JULY 1943" in block letters across the top, in the sky, above stark bluffs. The bluffs dwarf the thick colony of barracks and watchtowers on the ground, so minuscule they look put down with a paintbrush made of a single hair. The artist is unknown. Curator Hirasuna found the painting through other people, who pointed out that it was made on the back sides of two taped-together evacuation notices sent from the Western Defense Command to Japanese Americans at their homes. The artist gave the painting to two friends, named Sanae and Kiyoshi Akashi. Sanae had immigrated to America for its ideals. After the war, he chose to be repatriated to Japan with his family.
The word "gaman" took on a different meaning after the war. It mostly meant not talking about what had happened. A silence shrouded the camps the way it shrouded the battlefields for returning soldiers. Hirasuna heard the silences loudly in her house. Not only were her mother, father, and two older siblings imprisoned, her father was drafted from the camp to fight for the United States. He was in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up entirely of Nisei, or Japanese Americans born in the United States whose parents were immigrants from Japan. At first, the American government had deemed Japanese Americans unfit for military service, but eventually, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed his mind and decided to put their lives at stake. In her book Voices Raised in Protest, the historian Stephanie Bangarth records Roosevelt's speech announcing the formation of the 442nd. He said, "The principle upon which this country is founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of the mind and the heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race and ancestry."