JOHN YDSTIE, host:
Art of great beauty can be created under even the most difficult circumstances. That's one of the messages of an exhibit in San Francisco at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, over 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent were moved to internment camps. In order to cope, many employed an ancient concept known as gaman, or patience and endurance, and many turned to art, carving delicate figures, ornamental pins and canes from scrap wood. Steven Short of member station KALW reports.
STEVEN SHORT: It's early 1942, and American territory has recently been bombed for the first time since the War of 1812. No one is sure what will follow. One precaution is the signing of Executive Order 9066, which creates designated areas from which any and all persons may be excluded.
Japanese-Americans along the West Coast are under surveillance as Milton S. Eisenhower, first director the War Relocation Authority, explains in a film produced by the U.S. Office of War Information.
(Soundbite of film)
Mr. MILTON S. EISENHOWER (War Relocation Authority): We knew that some among them were potentially dangerous. Most were loyal, but no one knew what would happen among this concentrated population if Japanese forces should try to invade our shores.
SHORT: Relocation centers and internment camps were hastily created, so hastily that the new residents were employed in building their own barracks.
Ms. MARLENE SHIGEKAWA (Author): A long time ago, Junior and Sammy lived far away in California. Now they lived in a camp in Poston, Arizona with thousands of other Japanese-American families.
SHORT: Author Marlene Shigekawa recalls this time in her children's book, "Bluejay in the Desert," which she reads at San Francisco's Museum of Craft and Folk Art.
Ms. SHIGEKAWA: Junior jumped up out of bed and looked outside for Grandpa. He found him in his usual place, carving a piece of wood. He hoped it would be a stallion or a great bear or even a sea turtle swimming in the ocean. Grandpa smiled and shook his head. It's going to be a blue jay.
SHORT: Delphine Hirasuna is the curator of the Art of Gaman exhibit and the author of the 2005 book upon which this exhibit is based. While leading a docent training tour in the museum, she stops at a display case and points to a painted wooden blue jay pin like the one the children are hearing about.
Ms. DELPHINE HIRASUNA (Curator, Art of Gaman Exhibit, San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Art): After my mom died, I found this box and it had the bird pin, it had a shell pin, and you know, I sort of put two and two together and I thought there doesn't seem to be anything in here beyond 1945. Maybe this was made in camp.
SHORT: Both of her parents were in camps, taking with them, in the words of a poem of that time...
Ms. HIRASUNA: Only what we could carry was the rule, so we carried strength, dignity and soul.
SHORT: With nothing but time, making crafts filled their days.
Mr. JIMMY YAMAHICHI(ph) (Former Japanese-American Detainee): And the reason they first started was they had nothing else to do.
SHORT: Jimmy Yamahichi wasn't quite 20 when he entered a camp. He had planned to go to college but spent the next four years under guard instead.
Mr. YAMAHICHI: I think it's very important that they had a way to express themselves. You know, they could see all the different things that had been done here, whatever may be, that the expressions, the intricacy, is how they felt, you know, and their expression comes out.
SHORT: While Yamahichi was a trainer carpenter, most had no such skills, but Delphine Hirasuna says that didn't stop them.
Ms. HIRASUNA: Somebody discovered that it only took a little two-inch piece of wood to trace a creature like a bird and (unintelligible). And also, somebody said that the bird was a great symbol because it sort of signified freedom and getting beyond these wires.
SHORT: Yet once the war ended, many of these creations were left behind, labeled busywork, not art. Besides, being in camp was to be forgotten. As Hirasuna remembers...
Mr. HIRASUNA: Any discussion proved very uncomfortable, so as a result, if they mentioned the camps at all, they only talked to us about, oh, we had that before camp, we had that after camp, we - you know, that was lost when we went into camp.
SHORT: Dave and Phil Keyasu(ph) were born after the war, but they had three generations of family in camps: grandparents, parents and older siblings. Camp was seldom mentioned, but they did hear about gaman.
Mr. KEYASU (Son of Japanese-American Detainee): Yeah, they used it for all sorts of things. In today's vernacular, it would be, you know, if you started to whine, they would say gaman. You know, if you hurt yourself, gaman. Hold it. You know, don't show your pain.
SHORT: Delphine Hirasuna says she is pleased that her book, "The Art of Gaman," and the accompanying exhibit, have put these historic works on view. But she adds that the experience has been emotionally difficult.
Ms. HIRASUNA: Had I known - well, no, I would've done it anyway, but had I known how painful it was going to be to research, I think I might have thought twice. Somebody told me a story. There was sort of like this suicide watch in one of the camps, and when somebody got depressed, then the ladies of the camp would get together and find some object of beauty and put it in their barrack with them.
SHORT: She is pleased that these objects of beauty remain. Phil Keyasu hopes something else stays with exhibit visitors.
Mr. PHIL KEYASU (Son of Japanese-American Detainee): What I would hope is our kids would learn from this and the principles still would apply, that tolerance of different peoples and different beliefs is very important and so timely right now. This tells us what they did back then. We hopefully can learn and apply that to our times.
SHORT: Viewers of these artifacts can picture the hands that created them and the person behind them, and they can appreciate the spirit of gaman, making the unbearable bearable through art. Dusty boxes of crafts are emerging again as their owners and makers reach the ends of their lives.
Visitors to this show with their own hidden treasures from this time are encouraged to share information about them, to add to the museum's registry. This will be given to the Japanese-American Citizens League in San Francisco in an attempt to see that they, and the environment in which they were made, are not forgotten. For NPR News, I'm Steven Short in San Francisco.