Holocaust Museum shines light on prisoner art
The Holocaust Museum's new exhibition, "The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts From the Japanese American Internment Camps," showcases arts and crafts made by Japanese Americans while they were imprisoned in U.S. camps. | Tamara Bell~Sun Times Media
Updated: November 10, 2011 5:51PM
Families were torn apart, businesses and homes were lost, lives were interrupted overnight.
But what also emerged from Japanese-American internment camps on U.S. soil during World War II — a shameful slice of U.S. history fueled by fear and hysteria — is astonishing craftsmanship and art even if most prisoners never saw their creations quite that way.
Many of the pieces temporarily on display at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center were discovered in basements and storage spaces and garages, buried treasures created by Japanese Americans who found their lives turned upside down.
“The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps” opened Sunday and runs through Jan. 15 on the museum’s ground floor. Based on Delphine Hirasuna’s book of a similar title, the show includes more than 100 artifacts lent by former internees and their families, some of them only recently discovered.
It’s almost impossible to imagine that these pieces came from the hands of prisoners inside camps using scrap metal, wood and other raw materials. The intricacy and high quality of the work — paintings, drawings, carvings, jewelry, pottery and more — are certain to blow visitors away.
Gaman is a Japanese term of Zen Buddhist origin meaning “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” But Hirasuna, also guest curator of the exhibition, said that the prisoners’ craftsmanship began for practical reasons.
“What I was trying to show when I put this together was that things began out of necessity,” she said. “When they got into the camps, the only thing in their barracks were metal cots and potbelly stoves.”
That’s why some of the objects on display at the museum include basic furniture such as chairs and tables made of scrap lumber and knives and scissors made of scrap metal.
“One of the first things they had to do is just make a chair to sit on,” Hirasuna said. “They found metal and made scissors. One woman was sad because she couldn’t get her clothes cleaned so her husband made her a washboard.”
But most of the display items are more aesthetic, the result of spending days and nights that turned into years at one camp or another. Remarkably, most but not all the works were created by amateurs — not professional artists — although one would never know it.
“When I picked up these objects from people, they kept saying it was just busy work, ‘our way to gaman,’” Hirasuna said. “That’s where the title came from. They whittled, they did things, they took classes from people if those people had a talent.”
A carved collection of animals displayed under glass was created by a Japanese-American farmer while imprisoned. The pieces were buried in the farmer’s garage and discovered by his son only after he died.
“What’s sad is that most of the things you see here just got thrown into storage both because (prisoners) didn’t see themselves as professional artists and because they were a very painful reminder of having been in camp for three or four years,” Hirasuna said. “Making these objects became a way to keep their sanity.”
If many of these pieces have been buried in obscurity for years, Hirasuna has rescued them and let them breathe again. The show reflects both a piece of under-reported U.S. history as well as a plethora of individual stories of Japanese-Americans who persevered a government policy of harsh and unsubtle discrimination.
The exhibition features a replica of a poster seen in Japanese-American neighborhoods after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The citizens living on the West Coast were given a week to report to camps with only what they could carry.
This policy impacted 120,000 Japanese Americans, about 90 percent of those living in the United States at the time and mostly U.S.-born citizens. The internment camps operated from 1942 to 1946.
“They emptied the orphanages, they went through the foster care rosters, they removed people from hospitals,” Hirasuna said. The youngest prisoner was 3 months old.
Because the new policy was so quickly adopted, there was little time to build camps. Prisoners first spent months at assembly centers that were quickly converted from public places like racetracks, bus stations and fairgrounds.
Eventually, the new prisoners were transferred to camps built in remote areas in mostly western states.
The museum’s staging of “The Art of Gaman,” which previously has been shown in art museums, includes additional artifacts lent by local families. Museum Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Arielle Weininger knew this was a rich area for such finds since so many prisoners relocated to Chicago once they were released from camps.
A collection of envelopes with exquisite drawings of scenes from a camp in Idaho were lent for the exhibition by Karen Kanemoto.
Kanemoto’s grandfather, Mikisaburo Izui, created the envelopes when he was imprisoned, and sent them to his son (her father) who was living in the Chicago area.
“I think of the drawings more as my grandfather wanting to take snapshots of where he was as opposed to trying to create a piece of art,” Kanemoto said.
The story of Kanemoto’s grandfather reflects the upheaval that many Japanese Americans faced in the wake of Pearl Harbor. A 60-year-old pharmacist living with his family in Seattle, he was rounded up by the FBI and initially separated from his family.
Kanemoto’s grandfather never talked much about his experiences during these years, which was typical of many imprisoned Japanese Americans after they were released.
“But it has to have changed you,” Kanemoto said. “From the way he conducted himself every day, you got the feeling he overcame it. But there had to be something there.”
Equally compelling is the story of Linda Kawano’s father, Minoru Kawano, who made a beautiful chess set while he was imprisoned at an assembly center. He carved the board and pieces from scrap metal and wood with perfectly sanded and rounded pieces and a hinge, allowing the board to close.
His eyesight deteriorating, he eventually gave the chess set to a friend who was in camp with him.
“We never saw this chess set in our family for much of our youth,” Linda Kawano said. “Then one day the friend brought it to us and said it should stay in our family. It was amazing to see it.”
The eclectic works displayed in “The Art of Gaman,” beautiful to look at in their own right, unravel these kinds of personal and emotionally evocative stories.
The Rev. Tameichi Okimoto’s wood plaque carved at an assembly center in California is inscribed with a Hebrew saying, “Holy to God”; An unidentified artist uses tar paper to render barracks and the mountains at a camp in Wyoming; an Ansel Adams photograph reflects how Japanese-Americans beautified their camp and even made it lovely despite the circumstances.
Jimmy Tsutomu Mirkitani, whose story is told in the heralded documentary, “The Cats of Mirkitani,” has a stunning piece of work on display. He created it while imprisoned in a camp.
An especially moving piece in the exhibition is a knitted Senninbari sash featuring a fierce tiger created for someone who was to go off and fight in the war. An amazing part of the Japanese-American internment story is how many prisoners wound up fighting for the country that imprisoned them.
Hirasuna mostly collected the exhibition pieces one by one and in the process found story after story behind them.
When first asked to bring the exhibition to the Skokie museum, she had only one concern. She didn’t want this chapter in U.S. history to ever be compared to the Holocaust, she said.
“There was a night and day difference,” Hirasuna said. “What happened in Germany and what happened under the Nazis was evil. It was horrendous. The Japanese-American camps were if anything stupid. They were garden variety racism.”
This was never a concern though for museum leaders.
“This place has always been about larger issues of discrimination,” Weininger said. “As soon as we considered it, we knew it was a perfect fit with our mission. It belongs here.”