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LYNN NEARY, host:

Shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, pushing America into World War II, the U.S. government took action that would become controversial.

Unidentified Man: More than 100,000 men, women and children - all of Japanese ancestry - removed from their homes in the Pacific Coast base to wartime communities in unsettled parts of California, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming...

NEARY: Many of those ethnic Japanese remained in the relocation camps for the rest of World War II.

In Washington, the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery is exhibiting art and other objects created in those camps. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg says the show is both grim and a handsome historic reminder.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Norman Mineta was U.S. secretary of commerce and of transportation, served in Congress, grew up in San Jose, California. Seventy-nine now, his childhood memories are vivid.

Mr. NORMAN MINETA (Former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation): This is what our mountain sort of looked like.

STAMBERG: Norman Mineta was 11 years old when, like 90 percent of the ethnic Japanese in the U.S., his family was ordered from their home. The Minetas ended up in Wyoming.

Rep. MINETA: Everyone got to know how to draw our mountain as a kid.

STAMBERG: They were put up in hastily built, bare barracks.

Rep. MINETA: We had no furniture. All you get is four blank walls and one light bulb in the middle of the room and a black potbellied stove over in the corner.

STAMBERG: And some cots.

Rep. MINETA: And cots. That was it.

STAMBERG: And so in all 10 of the internment camps, scattered in desolate inland areas, these people of Japanese ancestry began making what they needed with whatever materials they could find. Scrap lumber became chairs, tables, dressers. Found metal became knives - they couldn't bring sharp objects into the camps. And for fun, scrap wood was carved into small, painted birds.

Delphine Hirasuna found a bird pin of her mother's.

Ms. DELPHINE HIRASUNA: It was lacquered. It had basically sort of shades of brown and yellow in it.

STAMBERG: That pin inspired the Renwick exhibit. Delphine was cleaning up after her mother's death.

Ms. HIRASUNA: I was in the garage and I ran across an old wooden box, and I happened to look in it. And I found some trinkets.

STAMBERG: The bird pin among them, all from her family's internment years. She began asking around for other camp-made objects. Then, in California, she went house to house.

Ms. HIRASUNA: When I asked them if they had anything, they would go into their sheds - 'cause this was farm country - and they would haul out this dusty box. And the items in the box would still be wrapped in newspaper from 1945. So it was pretty obvious to me that they never looked at it when they brought it back from camp.

STAMBERG: A painted wooden carving of the Heart Mountain barracks, a model ship of wood, wire and string - you can see these and other objects at NPR.org.

At the Renwick exhibit, by way of a Colorado relocation camp - a silk vest a mother made when her son went off to war. Eventually, some of the internees were drafted or even volunteered for a special combat unit of U.S.-born Japanese-Americans. The cream-colored vest is decorated with 1,000 red French-tied knots. Ms. ROBYN KENNEDY (Renwick Gallery): One person made each knot.

STAMBERG: Robyn Kennedy of the Renwick.

Ms. KENNEDY: So this was passed around in the camp, and this was in order to provide strength and good luck for the person it was given to. And it typically was also decorated with a tiger.

STAMBERG: Let's go look at the tiger.

Ms. KENNEDY: Okay.

STAMBERG: He's on the back of the vest, painted in orange and black ink.

Ms. KENNEDY: He's ferocious. I love the way he's stylized.

STAMBERG: He has very sharp teeth.

Ms. KENNEDY: And his hunched shoulders showing the strength. You could almost think of it - nobody's going to go through that tiger to get this person's back.

STAMBERG: So ethnic Japanese could fight and die for America, but in those post-Pearl Harbor days, they were also seen as a potential threat. They looked like the enemy. Families were told they were sent to camps for their own protection. Even at 11, that made Norman Mineta wonder.

Rep. MINETA: Well, if we're in here for our protection and you have these guard towers every two, three hundred feet all around the camp with barbed wire, holding us in, and you look up and you wonder: If we're in here for our protection, why are those machine guns pointing in at us?

STAMBERG: And yet at this art show, striking visual evidence of how they coped. The name of the exhibition is "The Art of Gaman." Delphine Hirasuna translates.

Ms. HIRASUNA: Gaman means to bear the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.

STAMBERG: And art. Fashioning by hand arts and crafts that enhanced their difficult days. This is a moving, thought-provoking show, as is the picture and history book which Delphine produced. She started working on it not long after September 11th, by the way. In her book and in this show: two stunning teapots carved from slate by an internee in Topaz, Utah.

Ms. HIRASUNA: He was a gardener in Oakland. You know, and imagining the talent in these people and how unaware that people were that they had this in them, and it makes me wonder what we, all of us, have in ourselves. Could we create things of beauty like that?

STAMBERG: There were in the camps a few professional artists some had been illustrators for Disney - but most ethnic Japanese had not created art or crafts before their internment and never did again. They went back to being doctors, dentists, farmers, shop owners.

To Delphine Hirasuna, their acts of creativity are also acts of courage.

Ms. HIRASUNA: The quiet courage of people who are put in the worst circumstances, and they find it in themselves to sort of rise above it and make things that are truly beautiful.

STAMBERG: "The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese-American Internment Camps" is at the Renwick Gallery in Washington through January.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

NEARY: And you can see pictures from the exhibition at NPR.org.

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