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The difference gaman can make

by Michael Dunn

THE ART OF GAMAN: Arts and Crafts From the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946, by Delphine Hirasuna. Berkeley/Toronto: Ten Speed Press, 125 pp., 2005, $35 (cloth).

In Japanese, the word “gaman” means the display of calm forbearance and poise in the face of adverse circumstances beyond one’s control. For all of us having had to deal with bureaucrats or large organizations, it is an unpleasantly familiar experience that often leads us to wonder why just a little applied common sense couldn’t solve the need to gaman in the first place.

This new book describes how American residents of Japanese ancestry had to gaman through their incarceration following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Under suspicion of being security risks with questionable allegiance, some 90 percent of Japanese Americans — including all those on the West Coast — were moved to inland relocation centers at short notice, carrying little more than basic bedding and clothes. From there they were sent to special camps where most of them remained until the end of the war. Two-thirds of them were American-born and half of them were children under the age of 17.

As their bank accounts were frozen, and whatever wages could be earned while in the camps were barely enough to buy life’s essentials, many were unable to keep up essential mortgage, tax and insurance payments and saw their assets forfeited. For such unfortunates, that meant a new struggle to rebuild their lives, and to gaman in the face of widespread lingering prejudice after they were released.

The author points out that the incarcerated generation tended to talk about the experience only among themselves, and it was largely the Sansei (third generation) who fought for redress. Success was won when Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, the president apologized on behalf of the nation, and all Japanese Americans with claims to rights-violations were awarded a symbolic $20,000.

The camps’ internees did their bit for the war effort by small manufacturing, and fought boredom with sports, social clubs and gardening. Creative urges were channeled into making things out of whatever materials they could find to enhance their basic living quarters.

The book illustrates items of handmade furniture, geta, ornaments and models, but what is regrettably absent — apart from one or two examples — are works by a number of well-known artists who were in the camps.

A few pencil and watercolor sketches by Suiko Mikami illustrate barracks-like buildings, electricity lines and stove chimneys, while Masao Kondo’s crayon drawings depicts diversions such as an amateur theater performance and an art class.

Unfortunately we don’t see any of the more accomplished and interesting works by professional artists such as Chiura Obata, Matsusaburo Hibi and Tokio Ueyama, who were well known for teaching art classes in the camps. Nor are we shown any of the wonderful cartoons by Matsuoka Jack that with wry humor helped diffuse tensions and improve relations with the guards. Works by these artists were shown at the 1995 Tokyo Teien Art Museum exhibition of Japanese and Japanese American Painters in the United States. I was expecting to see more in this book.

Although the government’s perception of Japanese Americans as a security risk became the pretext for their imprisonment, “No act of sabotage, subversion, or fifth column (enemy sympathizer) activity was committed by a Japanese American (a point conceded by the government even in early 1942), before or during World War II,” according to the author.

Well, that might be true for those on U.S. soil, but not always so for some American Japanese elsewhere. The Japanese actively recruited American Japanese, and a letter to The Japan Times some years ago told of a meeting with one who had graduated from the University of California before the war, spoke perfect English, and had joined the Japanese forces to work as an interrogator of captured allied prisoners. While this does not excuse the unfortunate incarcerations in America, it does tend to argue for the validity of security concerns during that time of emergency.

In the text (though not on the cover) the unfortunate words “concentration camps” are employed that, while etymologically correct, convey an image more usually associated with the Nazi camps and their dreadful purpose. As two foreign visitors who recently saw the book at my house found the use of such words highly offensive, it is quite likely that others will too.

Losing freedom is certainly lamentable, but let’s look at this in the context of World War II. The inmates had water, electricity, security, food and, eventually, the freedom to move around in the vicinity of the camps. Reading material was widely available, the children had toys, and gardens were cultivated everywhere.

It is evident that their lot was far more enviable than that of enlisted personnel on all sides, most civilians in the European and Asian war theater, poorer civilians of the U.S. — and anybody anywhere unfortunate enough to have been captured or enslaved by the Japanese. (Yet we read all the time of these aging survivors still lobbying for a heartfelt apology and compensation from their former captors). From the photographs in the book, life in the camps certainly looks rather peachy compared to the canings, cold showers and miserable food offered at any school in England during the bleak postwar years.

The incarcerated Japanese Americans were well aware of the predicament of having Japanese faces at an unfortunate time in history, and most chose to make the best of it while reaffirming their loyalty. By 1943, a Nisei combat team had been formed, and altogether some 33,000 Japanese Americans served in the U.S. forces. Thousands died for their new country, and many were decorated for their bravery. Their noble achievements hardly square with anything like a “concentration camp” background, and one feels that such words, whether intentional or not, somehow demean their cause.

That aside, the book is beautifully designed by Kit Hinrichs, with photography by San Francisco-based cameraman Terry Heffernan, and well presents a little-known corner of 20th-century American art.

We see gaman epitomized in Henry Sugimoto’s portrait of his mother in the Jerome Camp, surrounded by patriotic symbols: the Stars and Stripes with a “V” for victory, a photograph of a soldier, a pillow of a military division. She looks out of the picture frame with quiet dignity and pride, perhaps thinking of her son serving overseas at the time with the Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Her expression says it all.