WASHINGTON — As The Art of Gaman wraps up a 10-month showing at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, creator Delphine Hirasuna feels the exhibit has prompted Japanese-Americans to start talking about their wartime experience.
The exhibit houses over 100 pieces of art, furniture and other objects made by Japanese-Americans from a range of materials to beautify their surroundings in World War II internment camps.
“The objects showcase the strength, dignity and resilience of the detainees, how resilient and resourceful they were, and how they didn’t give up, even under those circumstances,” Hirasuna said.
In 1942, after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December the previous year, about 110,000 people of Japanese descent in the United States were relocated to 10 internment camps.
In 1988, legislation was passed in which the U.S. government apologized for the internment. The legislation said that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
Japanese-Americans received about $1.6 billion in reparations.
“The art is pretty amazing,” Hirasuna said. “But more than that, I think that if this opens up a dialogue, if this helps people think and talk about what happened, then I think that the exhibit is providing a service that’s larger than that.”
Many of those interned had not been vocal about their experience in the camps prior to The Art of Gaman exhibit.
“I think that they were embarrassed that this happened,” Hirasuna said. “They didn’t want to pass on any kind of bitterness to their children. Their feeling was the less they said about it, the better.”
Chris Komai, a member of the Japanese American National Museum, said Japanese immigrants did not fight against or protest entry to these camps because they brought certain cultural values with them. ” ‘Gaman’ (endurance or perseverance) is a cultural value,” he said. “It’s about handling a difficult situation with a quiet determination.”
As Hirasuna collected artifacts from those who spent time in the internment camps or their relatives, she was intrigued at how first-generation Japanese immigrants “hid away” these objects and never talked about their experiences. Because of their silence, many other Americans did not even know about the camps in the first place.
“As I read the guest comment book, it’s been interesting to see how people all over the country and from other parts of the world are really moved by this, and how many of them never knew that the camps ever existed,” Hirasuna said.
“One woman told me that she had visited the exhibit four times because it made her feel good. The show and the Smithsonian have helped raise the consciousness of the people in the U.S.,” she said.
Hirasuna said that since the exhibit opened last March, she has talked to hundreds of other Japanese-Americans, who all said that their parents and families never talked about the camps.
Komai said this is largely cultural. “During all of this, the Japanese community did the two things that they knew how to do best, which was to endure their situation, and pull together. I think that’s really the great strength and the cultural heritage that the Art of Gaman touches on.”
Since last March, about a half dozen of the lenders have died. Hirasuna remains impressed with the overwhelming attendance of elderly first-generation Japanese-Americans.
“If you were 17 when you went into a camp, you’re in your late 80s now. A number of people have flown to D.C. to view the show, using canes and on walkers,” she said.
Over the past 10 months, Hirasuna has received countless notes and comments about her exhibit. “One man sent me a very nice e-mail telling me that out of all the sad and humiliating things that happened during the war, seeing these objects makes him and others feel good and proud about being Japanese-American,” she said.
Hirasuna said there has been talk about bringing the exhibition to Japan.
“When I think about why this show has had a meaning beyond just interesting objects, it served as a platform to open a dialogue among Japanese-Americans, and the larger community. So I think if you were to ask me what I’m proudest of, that’s it.”