The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946



5.0 out of 5 stars Art in Adversity

Human beings have an amazing capacity for art. In even the most dire circumstances, when it seems like they wouldn’t have the energy to do much more than lay down and die, they create. That is the story of “The Art of Gaman.”

I am old enough that I never learned about the Japanese internment camps in school. The first I ever heard about them was when I saw the film Come See the Paradise, and I was shocked. Not only that the US had also had concentration camps, a word I associated only with the nazis, but about the fact that it had been so hidden from my history books. Thankfully, that is not the case now, and people are much more aware of the suffering the Japanese people and their children, many native-born Americans, suffered during the racial paranoia of WWII.

But “The Art of Gaman” is not about the suffering. It is about the living, about the beautiful things that people did and made in order to make their situation more bearable. Forced to leave their homes with nothing more than they could carry, forbidden objects of metal, the people found themselves in cold, comfortless surroundings, far from the things they knew and loved. It started simply at first: a chair to sit in. a toy for a child. a picture to remind them of what they had lost. From there, it became a way to survive. Long hours with nothing to do were filled by making beautiful things. Those who had skills and knowledge set up classrooms to teach what they could. The making of art was even encouraged by the prison guards who saw the calming effect it had on their captives.

Few of these items survive. They were considered of little value, and when it came time to return home most of them were abandoned in favor of more practical items. But thankfully, some creations were cherished and kept, making up the collections of items found in this book. They are not all beautiful, and the craftsmen and women were not all highly skilled, but each object tells a story of the person who made it.

Many of the objects here are practical, like a Bonito Shaving Box created by Ushijima Toki on page 92. It is a simple thing, but necessary to make the dried fish-flake shavings essential to the Japanese soup dashi that would have tasted so much like home. Some, like the Senninbari Vest given to George Matsushiita on page 91, are even more evocative. Stitched by a mother to give to her son to go off to fight for a country that had imprisoned his mother. A Minnie Mouse figure fashioned from shells by Miura Iwa on page 114 shows that their was still hope in their hearts for the American dream, embodied by a familiar animated character. A Shamisen cobbled together from spare wood on yarn on page 87 shows that a love of music kept some
hearts alive.

I am glad that Delpine Hirasuna hunted down these precious objects and put together this book. I was not alive during the time when these were made, but being married to a Japanese woman I realize this in a different time, this could have been my wife and children stripped of their rights and unlawfully imprisoned. It would be nice to think that those paranoid times were long gone, but events of the last decade have shown that this simply isn’t true.

One last thing: This book is called “The Art of Gaman” to reflect a Japanese term meaning to persevere in hardship. But I see this more as “The Art of Gambaru,” meaning to give it your all and to do your best, even in the most difficult of circumstances.


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