Arts and Entertainment

'Art of Gaman' reveals the artwork of prisoners in WWII Japanese internment camps

“Noh Masks,” a scrap wood carving of Noh masks produced in a Japanese-American internment camp by Kameichi Yamaichi.    - Terry Heffernan, provided courtesy of Delphine Hirasuna
“Noh Masks,” a scrap wood carving of Noh masks produced in a Japanese-American internment camp by Kameichi Yamaichi.
— image credit: Terry Heffernan, provided courtesy of Delphine Hirasuna

Slightly longer than two months after the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 to authorize the internment of more than 120,000 people of Japanese heritage on the United States’ West Coast. The people marked for internment — more than two-thirds of whom were American citizens — were rapidly relocated to stopgap assembly centers built on horse tracks and fairgrounds before moving on to the various camps stretching from the Pacific to the Mississippi River that would become their homes for the next four years.

The organized captivity of these prisoners of wartime xenophobia would, over time, become the country’s shame and a black mark on the era of the Greatest Generation. But their circumstances would also become a petri dish for a unique, contained and mostly unknown movement in American art, according to Delphine Hirasuna.

Hirasuna, the editor of design journal @issue, published “The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946” in 2005. The book was the product of half a decade of research inspired by the discovery of a single wooden bird pin, carved in camp, in a box left behind by her late mother. Much of the work featured had similarly been kept out of the cultural zeitgeist, instead set aside in closets and attics as hidden reminders of painful past events — the Japanese word “gaman” translates to “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.”

After publication, many more families contacted the author with their own family heirlooms. Hirasuna developed the book into an exhibit, which began touring in 2010 and opened at the Bellevue Arts Museum July 3.

Art served multiple purposes in the camps beyond aesthetic pleasure. The bulk of the first handicrafts were furniture — stools, chairs, tables and the like to supplement the given cot-and-stove living accommodations. A number of carvings contained maps of the camps. Some paintings produced in the camps, like the work of Chiura Obata, served as a form of journalism, documenting everyday life in the temporary assembly centers.

Obata was an anomaly among artists in the camps: a successful working illustrator in the outside world. Many of the most talented and prolific artists in the camp would set their craft aside once they were released, searching instead for work in order to once again make a life in America.

“By and large, when people got out of camp they never made art again,” Hirasuna said.

“The Art of Gaman” will run through Oct. 12.


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