The Art of Gaman

Creativity in the Japanese Internment Camps


For decades after World War II ended, when older Japanese Americans met for the first time, they would inevitably ask each other, “Which camp were you in?” It was something they knew they all had in common, an acknowledgment of a shared sorrow. The camps that they referred to were the Japanese American internment camps in desolate regions of the United States during World War II. They were created after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, giving the US Army authority to remove anyone it deemed necessary from prescribed areas in the name of national defense.

A few weeks after E.O. 9066 was signed, all 120,000 ethnic Japanese living on the West Coast were ordered into internment camps that were surrounded by barbed wire fences and guarded by sentries in watchtowers with rifles pointing down at them. The roundup did not allow for any exceptions. Anyone of Japanese descent — men, women, children, the elderly, the infirm, orphans as young as three months old — was forcibly sent into camp. Those incarcerated represented 90 percent of the ethnic Japanese in the United States; two-thirds were American citizens born on American soil (immigrant Japanese were not allowed to become citizens).

The ethnic Japanese on the West Coast were given about a week to settle their affairs and told that they could take only what they could carry. As a result, homes and businesses were lost. Possessions had to be sold for pennies on the dollar or thrown away. Belongings placed into storage were often stolen or vandalized. Release from camp after three and a half years inevitably meant starting life over from scratch.

When I was a child growing up after the war, my parents never sat us kids down and told us how they came to be locked in a camp. They only mentioned it in passing — “we had one before camp;” “we knew them from camp;” “we had to buy a new one after camp.” For my parents’ generation, time was divided between “before camp” and “after camp,” yet they never discussed the camps openly. Since no one outside of the Japanese American community seemed to know that these camps had existed, and since they were never talked about among classmates or mentioned in textbooks, it felt like the camps were an imaginary place, a collective nightmare that haunted only Japanese Americans.

So it was ironic that shortly after my mother died in 2000, I happened across a dusty jewelry box stuck in a nook in my parents’ garage that set me on a quest to learn what the camps were about. Inside the box, I discovered an odd assortment of things, including a tiny wooden bird pin with a safety-pin clasp, and trinkets that Dad brought back from Italy, where he had served with the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II. Given the contents of the little box, it seemed clear that these were things that Mom and Dad must have stashed away when they returned to California.

I liked the bird pin, so I hung onto it. One day I happened to be wearing the pin when Kit Hinrichs, the designer with whom I have collaborated on several books, asked where I got it. I told him it was made in the camps, and he asked what other things internees made. That got me wondering if my parents’ friends had things buried in their attics and storage sheds, too. I asked around, and family friends began stopping by the house with things tossed into the trunks of their cars, some still in wrapping from 1945.

Mostly made from scrap and found materials, the objects ranged from a vase woven from twisted crepe paper to a serving tray made from pebbles cemented together to an amazing cow carved out of a slab of pine to watercolor drawings painted on the backs of public notices to an exquisitely carved slate teapot.

The variety, imagination, skill, and craftsmanship of the works I found astonished me, especially considering that virtually none of their makers were formally trained artists. Before and after the camps, they were farmers, gardeners, shopkeepers, doctors, clerks, preachers, and fishermen.

Many objects were obviously made out of necessity, since the horse stalls that the internees were first assigned to live in had only a metal cot and mattress ticking to be filled with straw. A few months later, the internees were sent inland to live in barrack encampments, mostly in remote desert areas. The tar paper-covered barracks were not furnished any better. Fortunately, the haste with which their living quarters were built left piles of scrap lumber scattered on the ground. The internees quickly salvaged every piece to build themselves chairs, tables, and even clothes hangers. But first they had to devise their own tools, since no metal objects could be brought into camp. Sharpened butter knives, tin cans, discarded metal from the automotive pool area, and abandoned animal traps found on the grounds were repurposed into tools. Internees even made their own sandpaper by gluing crushed glass onto pieces of cardboard.

Even though internees were allowed to shop via mail order from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, the little money they had was generally set aside for clothes and other essentials. As a result, internees scrounged for scraps of every kind. Waxy string from onion sacks was unraveled and woven into containers. The pallets on which supplies were delivered were hustled away, reappearing as furniture and wall partitions. Gallon-sized mayonnaise jars from the mess hall became miniature display cases for fragile pieces of art. Tin cans were converted into toy trains. Peach pits were scraped smooth against cement and gouged in the center to make rings. Produce crates were chopped into blocks and carved into bird pins. Even meat bones, gnawed clean during dinner, were crosscut into circles and linked together through the softer marrow portion to create jewelry. Nothing was viewed as waste.

The desert terrain of most of the camps offered up a wealth of indigenous materials. Camps at Tule Lake in northern California and at Topaz in Utah were both over ancient seabeds that yielded millions of tiny shells that could be bleached, sorted, and formed into brooches and ornamental displays. The camp in Minidoka, Idaho, was littered with pebbles that internees cemented together to make containers, polished into jewelry, and used as a surface for miniature paintings. The camps at Gila and Poston — both on Native American reservations in Arizona — grew ironwood, cacti, and mesquite that could be carved into objects both practical and beautiful. The forested swamps of southeastern Arkansas, the location of the Jerome and Rohwer camps, offered an abundance of hardwood and pine.

Arts and crafts, along with baseball, became an obsession in all of the internment camps. It was a way to pass the time, a way to gaman — to endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity. Immigrants who were accustomed to working from dawn to dusk now had idle hours to fret over what they had lost and what would become of them and their families. People hungered for ways to feel productive and restore their sense of self-worth. All of the camps organized classes in arts and crafts, both formal and informal, taught by internees who had been professional artists before being sent into camp, as well as by internees who happened to exhibit a specific skill. Farmers, who had previously only worked the land with shovels and hoes, tentatively took up wood carving, painting, and calligraphy. Some even joined haiku poetry-writing groups. Although many former internees described these pastimes as “busy work,” they admit that making art became a way to bring joy and beauty to their bleak surroundings, reclaim their dignity, and persevere. Even the humblest works of art reveal their courage to create and to cling adamantly to their humanity.

Nearly seventy years have passed since the camps were closed. The desolate land has reverted back to desert, with only faint traces of the barrack foundations still visible. What remains are the arts and crafts produced by the internees, an eloquent testament to the human spirit.

The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942 – 1946 will be on view at the Museum of International Folk Art from July 8, 2012 to October 7, 2012.

Delphine Hirasuna is a corporate editorial consultant and editor of @ Issue: Journal of Business and Design, online at She is the co-author of several nonfiction books and was a feature columnist for two Japanese American newspapers for more than twenty-five years. In 2005 her book, The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942 – 1946, was published by Ten Speed Press / Random House. It was turned into an art exhibition in 2006, and has been shown in seven museums across the US, including a year long run at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery. After its run in Santa Fe this summer it will move to Tokyo and then tour Japan.