By Arlene Kiyomi Dennistoun
Northwest Asian Weekly
The concentration camps at Minidoka and Tule Lake, where Japanese American families would live for the next four years, were hot and dusty. Communal bathrooms were filthy and had no partitions.
Rattlesnakes, black widow spiders, scorpions, and ticks tormented families, and the land was barren, except for the sagebrush. Barbed wire fences and armed soldiers patrolled the camps. Upon their arrival, folks stumbled off trains, confused and scared, and were pushed along by the soldiers with bayonets.
“What did we do that was so bad that they had to push us along with bayonets? That scared me more than the bullets,” recalled Shiyoji Kawabata, in a video. These stories and more are a part of “Handmade in Camp: What We Couldn’t Carry,” an exhibit currently on display at the White River Valley Museum in Auburn.
Forcibly removed from their homes, Japanese Americans took few belongings. The mass removal and incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese Americans, based on Executive Order 9066, transported families to hastily prepared barracks and structures originally designed for horses and other animals. Out of this grim, depressing, and racist four-year period in American history, some of the most amazing art was created, representing the heartbeat of American resilience.
“Handmade in Camp” is a moving and crucial reminder of the unconstitutional incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The exhibit showcases American ingenuity, determination, and pride borne out of necessity, boredom, and a desperate need to thrive, despite the bitter injustice of having their freedom stripped away because they looked like the enemy. Items, never seen before, are displayed in “Handmade.”
Patricia Cosgrove, the museum’s director, designed the exhibit to show visitors the shocking mass removal of thousands of Japanese Americans to concentration camps in desolate areas throughout the country.
Subtle pieces — practical items like furniture, tables, suitcases, made from scraps of wood, and exquisitely intricate jewelry and a doll made from toilet paper awaken a sense of American ingenuity and pride.
The museum is tucked away on a side street in Auburn and wasn’t easy to find. Cosgrove has worked at the museum for the past 25 years. She sees about 300 visitors monthly and isn’t shy about wanting 1,000 visitors every month. “We’d love it!” Cosgrove exclaimed. “Handmade in Camp” contains items loaned by relatives of incarcerated folks and the Wing Luke Museum. Nearly a third of Auburn’s population were citizens of Japanese ancestry at the time of the mass removal and incarceration, which explains why “Handmade” found a home in a small, out of the way museum in Auburn. Cosgrove believes the exhibit demonstrates family values, artistry, and imagination. She feels compelled to create presentations on the hard subjects, even if it doesn’t make money.
Cosgrove points out the sign at the entrance that explains the use of Densho’s terms. Densho is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve and pass on the stories and information of incarcerated Japanese Americans. Densho’s reasoning for its terminology has to do in part with congressional findings that the incarceration of innocent Americans of Japanese ancestry was race-based, unnecessary, and unconstitutional.
Cardboard signs bear the handwritten pleas of Japanese Americans stating, “evacuation sale” and “furniture – all must be sold.” Treasured personal belongings left behind because families were allowed to bring only what they could carry are poignant reminders of a sad history. Tags assigned and attached to family members, reducing their humanity, are stunning displays of incarceration.
“Handmade in Camp” provides visitors with audio and visual stories of survivors describing their experiences through Stqry (pronounced Story) and written material. There’s Hiro Nishimura’s story.
Nishimura graduated from Garfield High School in Seattle and was recruited by the Military Intelligence Service during his incarceration at Minidoka. Nishimura described the strangeness of serving his country, visiting his parents behind a guarded fence, and being physically on the opposite side of soldiers who were also serving their country by guarding the incarcerated families. “Sauce” Shimojima tells the story of the outhouses with five holes and no partitions that served as community bathrooms. Shimojima relates the outhouses were so embarrassing to use that folks often waited until after midnight to use them.
“Handmade” inspires with its display of art both subtle and glorious. There are the delicate intricacies of a Buddhist altar, called obutsudan, made out of scrap wood, and exquisitely detailed. Charles Natsuhara loaned the piece to the museum and is a former museum board president. His uncle, Jack Natsuhara, made the obutsudan while incarcerated at Tule Lake. The obutsudan is the only item on display that identifies Tule Lake. Natsuhara found the obutsudan and other items made at Tule Lake in his grandmother’s home. At the time, he thought it was just a typical obutsudan, and didn’t believe it was a big deal until he saw the engraving.
Natsuhara shyly answers questions about his family history. He’s a volunteer docent at the museum, after 37 years of working as a soil scientist for the federal government. Both of his sisters were born in the camps — one in Tule Lake, and the other in Minidoka. What Natsuhara finds most meaningful about the exhibit is the ingenuity and perseverance of the families in the camps, despite what they were going through. He has an appreciation for the talent, skill, and craftsmanship of the inmates today that he lacked when he was younger. It’s amazing to Natsuhara that the unjustly imprisoned families found what they needed to make items of necessity and beauty.
The White River Valley Museum is located at 918 H Street, Auburn, and is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. “Handmade in Camp: What We Couldn’t Carry” is a display of “items of necessity and objects of beauty made in U.S. World War II Concentration Camps.” The exhibit is open through Nov. 6.
Arlene can be reached at email@example.com.