Immediately after the Imperial Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, American authorities began to round up Japanese immigrants on the West Coast and in Hawaii, who’d been living peacefully in this country since the turn of the century.
Specifically, the federal government targeted thousands of men identified as community leaders and placed them in Department of Justice prisons around the country. These men in their 50s and 60s, part of the “Issei” or “first” generation, were the heads of households, whom their families and friends turned to for wisdom and support in times of crisis. Not one of them had committed an act of sabotage, subversion, or treason.
Journalist and author Delphine Hirasuna, who is the editor and co-founder of @Issue Journal of Business and Design, says things only got worse. Within six months, the remaining Issei — who were Japanese immigrants and not allowed to apply for American citizenship — and the “Nisei,” their American-born children — living on the West Coast and in southern Arizona were ordered to abandon their homes and report to nearby “assembly centers.”
After a few months, as many as 120,000 people, accounting for 90 percent of ethnically Japanese people in the continental United States, would be sent to isolated “relocation centers” or “internment camps” away from the coast, where most of them would live for nearly three years or longer. While wartime factory workers and servicemen headed to the Pacific theater flooded the Bay Area, they took over the spaces recently occupied by the once-substantial Japanese-immigrant communities in San Francisco and Oakland.
Being stripped of all their resources made the newly incarcerated extra resourceful. At first, they used every little scrap they could get their hands on to make necessities like chairs, drawers, door signs, Buddhist altars, walking sticks, and shower shoes, as well as doilies and decorations to make their barrack rooms less bleak. But eventually, many of the Issei, who were given fewer responsibilities than the Nisei, turned to art as a way to pass the time. Hirasuna first documented these artifacts in her 2005 book, “The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946.”
In the book, she writes, “All these lovely objects were made by prisoners in concentration camps, surrounded by barbed-wire fences, guarded by soldiers in watchtowers, with guns pointing down at them.”
“Gaman” is a Japanese word from Zen Buddhism meaning “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” “It basically means ‘Grin and bear it,’” Hirasuna tells me. “‘Gaman’ was the one word that came up during almost every interview I did for the book.”
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the Secretary of War to designate parts of the country as military zones, “from which any or all persons may be excluded.” The civilian-run War Relocation Authority (WRA) was established on March 18 of that year to manage the relocation of the Japanese American population.
That spring, government notices posted on lampposts, telephone poles and public buildings ordered anyone of Japanese descent to report to Wartime Civilian Control Administration “assembly centers,” which were places like racetracks or fairgrounds, selected because they already had running water, sewage, and electricity hookups, as the basic services of the remote concentration camps were still being built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
By August 1942, the Japanese Americans held at the assembly centers were moved to the 10 desolate relocation centers that would be their more permanent prisons: Manzanar and Tule Lake in California; Amache, formally known as Granada, in Colorado; Heart Mountain in Wyoming; Poston and Gila River in Arizona; Minidoka in Idaho; Topaz in Utah; and Jerome and Rohwer in Arkansas. At their peaks, each camp held anywhere between 7,000 and 19,000 people.
U.S. officials fully expected to face unrest at the camps, so they were open to suggestions on how to head off any stirrings of discontent. Artist Chiura Obata, who’d been an art instructor at UC Berkeley for a decade, convinced authorities that art-making would have a calming effect on the internees. Besides Obata, only a small percentage of the incarcerated were professionally trained or acclaimed artists and artisans.
“Most of these artworks were done by people without any professional training,” Hirasuna says. “When the powers that be take everything away from you, the only thing left is your own creative expression, what you have in your mind. And so art became in many ways essential to mental survival in the camps.”
What’s impressive when you look through “The Art of Gaman” is not just how beautiful these objects are, but also the ingenious use of found materials, putting today’s upcyclers to shame. Because the camps were built so hastily, the Army Corps of Engineers and WRA contractors left piles of scrap wood lying within reach.
Butter knives from the kitchen, with the help of the furnaces, were turned into scissors, pliers, carving knives and chisels. Any kitchen waste — tin cans, fruit crates, onion sacks, wrapping papers, mayonnaise jars, etc. — would be salvaged to be turned into something lovely.
At most camps, the incarcerated started crafting out of necessity. “After bringing what you could carry, you got to camp and you suddenly discovered you needed clothes hangers or a chair to sit on,” Hirasuna says. “Once they’d met their creature comforts, they got more creative about what they were making.” Eventually, art-making would prove so popular that the camps would host monthly art shows, which were big to-dos for the internees.
The art produced at each camp often depended on the natural resources of the location. At Tule Lake, flower pins and figurines were made from shells; at Gila River and Poston, sculptures were carved from ironwood and cactus; and at Minidoka, people painted on stones and carved greasewood.
Some trends were popular in all the camps, like making bird pins. “It was easy to do — easy in the sense that you only needed, like, two inches of wood and a pen knife,” Hirasuna said. “The internees were using the fruit crates that came in regularly, because the edges were the right thickness.”
On Jan. 2, 1945, President Roosevelt signed Public Proclamation No. 21, allowing for Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans to return to the West Coast. Then, the War Relocation Authority put together a plan to close all 10 of the concentration camps within a year. However, most of the incarcerated people had lost their homes and jobs and drained all their savings, making it difficult to leave, so many Japanese Americans stayed in their camps until they were forced out.
“It was hard to go into camp,” Hirasuna says, “but it was equally hard to leave the camp simply because you didn’t know where you’re going to go.”
As incarcerated families packed their things to return to the West Coast, their arts and crafts rarely made the cut. And even the things that were brought back to the West Coast didn’t necessarily survive today, because the internees didn’t think of their craft projects as historically important artworks. “You know how it goes,” Hirasuna says. “As you clean up, you think, ‘Maybe I should just toss it out; the kids don’t want it.’”