From the Archive

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Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.

August 2007 - Beauty from Barrenness: Art Made by Detainees

Handmade Christmas card from Minidoka incarceration camp (denshopd-p13-00023)
"I thought it [Heart Mountain] was a thing of beauty and that maybe it was the only sanity that I was experiencing at the time. There was something permanent about it and something that... all-knowing. Like it had been there a long time, and we were just passing through, and in time it would all blow over."
   -- Yosh Kuromiya

In preparation for being interviewed by Densho several years ago, an elderly Japanese American woman shared her journal, family photos, and a trove of lovely jewelry made from shells. During her incarceration at the Tule Lake camp, located on a drained lake bed, she and other detainees crafted objects of great delicacy from shells they dug from the ground. Despite a shortage of tools, others built elegant cabinets from scrap lumber, carved clever toys for the children, and coaxed flower and vegetable gardens from previously barren soil. The detainees' determination to make their bleak surroundings more bearable exemplifies the Japanese concept of gaman, or the strength to endure painful circumstances with dignity.

Remarkable examples of artwork created in the camps are published in Delphine Hirasuna’s The Art of Gaman and will be displayed in an exhibition by that name at the Oregon Historical Society, Portland, beginning in October 2007. Hirasuna explains how the War Relocation Authority (WRA), the federal agency in charge of the camps, encouraged the Japanese Americans to engage in diverting hobbies: "Apart from being a means to acquire basic furnishings, the making of arts and handicrafts was seen by WRA administrators and internees as a way to alleviate the boredom and purposelessness brought on by prolonged confinement. With an average of ten thousand internees contained to an area of roughly a square mile, quelling unrest was critical."1 The WRA offered music and art classes to the captive population, who had not forgotten the family heirlooms and cultural pursuits lost in the sudden forced departure from their homes.

A number of prominent Japanese American artists found themselves behind barbed wire, including the famed sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who voluntarily entered the Poston, Arizona, camp in an unsuccessful challenge to the mass incarceration. Without training, first-time artists with much time on their hands produced impressive sumi-e brush paintings, oils, watercolors, and prints. Art supplies were ordered from catalogues and occasionally supplied by sympathetic outsiders, and camps routinely mounted art exhibitions to display the diverse talents of the detainees.

The amateur artists chose traditional Japanese subjects from the natural world but also depicted their unnatural new "homes": rows of barracks below guard towers. One particularly touching painting shows an aerial view of a comfortable living room, tree-lined park, and produce-filled field hovering above ugly prison-like barracks. The painting bears the hopeful inscription: "From the desoleness [sic] of project life, an evacuated people look upward and onward towards a bright new world."

Interviewees in the Densho Digital Archive remark on how entertainment and the arts offset the dreariness of life in camp. Artist Roger Shimomura was a young child at Minidoka incarceration camp. In his series An American Diary (1997), based on his grandmother's diaries from the war years, he renders his memories of the heat and mud but also the cultural events that marked the years of captivity, from Christmas celebrations to the Obon summer Buddhist dance.2

In his interview, Kunio Otani recalls the surprising wealth of talent among detainees:

There were many, many talent shows; and people who were even halfway considered as talented would get up and sing. But there were some very, very good acts that these various people could perform; there were dancers, jugglers. It's really amazing how diversified the lives of the Japanese people were, despite their sameness. So, life was quite interesting. As much as you can have life interesting, in a concentrated situation like that.

In a more private artistic pursuit, Yosh Kuromiya did spontaneous pencil sketching to pass the time and, as he says, "as a way of communicating with my environment." His environment was dominated by the peak called Heart Mountain, which loomed over the Wyoming camp that detained him. Facing an uncertain future, Yosh found solace in the timeless presence of the mountain:

I don't know how to put that in, in more poetic terms, but the mountain itself symbolized something. It was a, it's a rather unique landmark, and I did several sketches of the mountain itself from different angles, from around the camp vicinity, of course, and under different conditions: wintertime, summertime. And I don't know... as I say, I think there's some symbolic value there. I hadn't really analyzed it...

Yeah, I thought it was a thing of beauty and that maybe it was the only sanity that I was experiencing at the time. There was something permanent about it and something that... all-knowing. Like it had been there a long time, and we were just passing through, and in time it would all blow over.

1. Delphine Hirasuna, The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946 (Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2005), p. 26. [ link ] The exhibition will be on display at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland from October 18, 2007, to January 4, 2008. [ link ]

2. Shimomura's American Diary paintings, as well as his series Memories of Childhood, are featured in Densho's bilingual web module In the Shadow of My Country. A free downloadable curriculum accompanies the website. [ link ]

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