Okinawa: Art sheds light on spirit of Japanese-American POWs

At the internment camps, internees were called by a number, not their name. Kaneichi Yamaichi, a California farmer, made a nameplate for himself and hung it on one of the barrack doors at the camp to proclaim that he was a human being with a name and dignity. A traveling exhibit of the art and crafts created by the imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II is now showing at the Urasoe Art Museum on Okinawa through June 30.


By CHIYOMI SUMIDA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 24, 2013

Kaneichi Yamaichi’s wooden nameplate still shines after more than 70 years.

The California farmer was among 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were placed in internment camps in the United States following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Prisoners were stripped of their names and given numbers for identification by camp supervisors.

In a show of defiance and dignity, Yamaichi painted his name in bold Japanese characters on a carved rectangle of wood and nailed it to the door of his barracks.

The piece is part of a traveling exhibit of the art and crafts created by the imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II now showing at the Urasoe Art Museum on Okinawa through June 30. The collection of about 100 pieces will move to Hiroshima near Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni from July 20 to Sept. 1.

Little had been known about the life and experience of prisoners in the internment camps in the U.S., said Delphine Hirasuna, exhibit organizer and author of a book on the subject.

Hirasuna learned about camp artwork only after her parents died. In their belongings, she discovered a wooden jewelry box filled with a brooch and pins they had made during confinement, she wrote in a message for the exhibit.

Hirasuna began collecting similar pieces for the exhibit and saw in the art and crafts what the Japanese call the spirit of gaman, which means to bear hardship with dignity and never give up hope for a better future. That became the name and inspiration for the “Art of Gaman” exhibit, which first opened at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2010.

During the war, prisoners were taken from their homes and hastily relocated to desolate camps that lacked even basic necessities. They gathered scraps together to make furniture as well as objects of beauty and comfort.

Discarded pieces of wood and metal were turned into elaborate tables, chairs, chests and washboards. Beans, sunflower seeds and shells were fashioned into ornate decorations and jewelry.

The U.S. government singled out and rounded up all Americans of Japanese descent. Despite the prejudice of the time, prisoners in the camps took great care to hold on to their culture and heritage.

A prisoner named Shintaro Onishi crafted a Buddhist altar from firewood logs and scrap metal so his family could pray in the mornings and evenings. A shopkeeper named Tomitaro Sano made a wooden sword to pass on to his two sons to commemorate samurai warrior ancestors.

The exhibit’s stories of the Japanese-American prisoners first attracted attention in Japan in 2011 following the horror and devastation of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. After public requests, the exhibit opened in Tokyo the following year.

It has been attracting crowds in Okinawa, which shares a history of war and suffering dating back to World War II.

Lori Reuter, the wife of a U.S. Marine, visited the exhibit with her 14-year-old daughter and was struck by envelopes decorated with watercolor paintings. “They made me think about the stories behind that,” she said.



DIRECTIONS: Take Highway 330 south. After passing the Iso tunnel, look for a parking sign on the left for the Urasoe Fine Art Museum. The uniquely shaped roof of the museum is easy to spot.

TIMES: Open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and until 7 p.m. on Friday. Closed on Monday.


FOOD: A coffee shop inside the museum has some food for purchase.


INFORMATION: www.nhk.or.jp/okinawa/songen/index.html

Ann Chizuko Yokota embroidered names of fellow Japanese Americans while she was in an internment camp. About 120,000 people with Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast and Hawaii were relocated to internment camps at desolated locations during World War II after Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor.

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