The Japanese American National Museum recently launched a new web resource, Exploring America’s Concentration Camps. Like our core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community, which provides a key educational experience for 15,000 students and teachers every year, EACC showcases photographs, letters, artwork, oral histories, and moving images from our permanent collection. We selected and digitized artifacts from all 10 War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps and organized them thematically for this new website. Our goal is to share our collection widely with students and teachers around the nation to help them learn more about the Japanese American World War II experience.
The above photo of a group of women making mochi in the Gila River camp in Arizona has a handwritten caption: “New Years a comin’.” At around the same time in Utah’s Topaz camp, artist Hisako Hibi painted two stacked pieces of mochi topped with a small citrus, a symbol of hope for a healthy and prosperous new year. On the back of her painting, Hibi wrote, “Hisako Hibi. Jan 1943 at Topaz. Japanese without mochi (pounded sweet rice) is no New Year! It was very sad oshogatsu. So, I painted okazari mochi in the internment camp.” These artifacts, like many others in JANM’s permanent collection, speak to how important it was for those in camp to find ways to maintain their traditions, despite being incarcerated in harsh environments far from home.
Other artifacts speak to the idea of security. For example, this badge and identification card are from the collection of Norio Mitsuoka, the inmate who would become the fire chief at Idaho’s Minidoka camp. The WRA created and ran camp entities like fire departments to ensure standard protections for the Japanese American prisoners. Such artifacts not only give viewers a deeper understanding of camp life, but they also surface broader questions about security, both physical and psychological.
A handmade chest of drawers, meanwhile, illustrates the dignity with which the Japanese Americans endured the camps. The collection of Frank S. Emi, who is perhaps best known for his leadership in the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, offers us a glimpse at another skill he possessed: furniture making. In an oral history interview for JANM, he shared what the furniture meant to him:
I built this chest of drawers from scrap lumber in the fall of 1942 while incarcerated at the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, concentration camp. The barracks were bare except for a potbelly stove and a single light bulb dangling from the roof. I had also built a vanity with a 36-inch mirror (purchased from a mail order catalog), which was my pride and joy.
In April of this year, the JANM Store was the proud recipient of a 2017 Museum Store Association (MSA) Recognition Award for Product Development. Maria Kwong, JANM’s Director of Retail Enterprises and a current MSA board member, wrote a long essay on how she came to develop the award-winning products, an edited portion of which we published in May. We now present another excerpt from the same essay, which offers more in-depth insights into how products come to be selected and developed for the JANM Store.
Being the director of a museum store with our particular mission statement—to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience—has always made product development challenging. Contrary to what many vendors and buyers imagine, Japanese products do not make up most of our inventory. We are a museum that explores Japanese American culture, history, and community.
During the early days of the JANM Store, the rule was to not buy any products that were perceived as “too Japanese.” This rule served two purposes. First, it put the emphasis on the hybrid culture of Japanese Americans. Second, it removed the appearance of competing with local neighborhood merchants, many of whom do specialize in products imported from Japan. Explaining all of this to vendors was often met with perplexed head scratching.
What we wanted was to offer memorable items that would firmly imprint what we were about on the visitor’s memory—items that would remind people of the history they had seen through our exhibitions. Finding such objects became the mission of the store. What kind of products could we offer that would bring back the stories depicted in Common Ground: The Heart of Community, our core exhibition covering 130 years of Japanese American history, from the early days of the Issei pioneers to the present day?
Our first custom products were inspired by a 55-gallon metal drum full of rocks that was found at the site of the Heart Mountain concentration camp. Each one had been carefully painted with a single Japanese kanji character. These rocks were initially dubbed “the Heart Mountain mystery rocks,” but it was later determined that they formed Buddhist sutras when placed around the cemetery at Heart Mountain.
Around that time, “affirmation stones” were becoming popular. We found a vendor who offered to make custom stones for us—not painted, but carved, making for a more permanent object. We selected a few of the kanji from the Heart Mountain stones and had them reproduced by a local calligrapher. It was a daunting project, producing six designs in quantities and prices that would work for both the store and the vendor. And when we announced that we were going to sell rocks in the store, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Apparently no one remembered when Pet Rocks were popular!
That was 18 years ago. Today, our stones are still selling, and we have expanded our line to include Heart Mountain Mystery Rocks, Spirit Stones, and Kaeru Stones. Our stones feature characters that were used at Heart Mountain as well as popular Japanese American sayings and whimsical images of JANM’s mascot, the frog (kaeru), which symbolizes the concept of “return” in Japanese culture.
Other products we have developed over the years include a koinobori (carp kite) painting kit; a plush frog toy that doubles as a secret container; a plush daruma beanbag; a kaeru zipper pouch by M.P. Barcelona; and a series of custom tea blends that are named after the different generations of Japanese Americans. Developed in collaboration with neighboring business Chado Tea Room, the tea blends include Issei, a roasted hojicha blended with coconut in honor of the first Japanese immigrants who settled in Hawaii, and Nisei, a genmaicha with citrusy bergamot tones to honor the second generation that largely settled on the West Coast.
Today the JANM Store is virtually exploding with uniquely Japanese American products, many of which are collaborations with local vendors, as well as a great collection of Japanese American history and culture books and products related to our current exhibitions. Intriguing new items are added all the time—like this tasty Japanese salsa from Colorado—so be sure to stop by often for an authentic adventure in Japanese Americana.
JANM recently welcomed Joy Teruko Ormseth to its volunteer ranks. Born in 2000 in Los Angeles and currently a student at Arcadia High School, Joy is, at 16 years old, one of our youngest volunteers.
This past April, JANM volunteers and staff organized a bus tour to join the annual pilgrimage to the site of the American concentration camp at Manzanar, where thousands of people of Japanese ancestry were confined during World War II. Joy, who had only briefly visited Manzanar as a child, decided to join the group. She graciously agreed to an interview, in which we learn about Joy’s family background as well as her impressions of Manzanar.
JANM: Why did you go on the Manzanar pilgrimage this year?
Joy Teruko Ormseth: I wanted to understand better about the whole situation because it was really hard for me to conceptualize what the people who were interned were going through. I obviously have never experienced that, and so it was hard for me to imagine having to go through that.
JANM: What’s your family’s background?
JTO: My grandma was interned in Poston as a child, and my great-grandpa on my grandfather’s side was interned at Heart Mountain. But my grandfather was kibei [a Japanese person born in the United States but educated in Japan], so he was still in Japan during the war. I’m half Japanese, so this is all on my mother’s side of the family. My dad is Norwegian.
JANM: When you were growing up, did your grandparents share any memories of their time in camp?
JTO: Not my grandfather, since he was in Japan during the war, but my grandmother would always tell me about the dust storms at Poston, how they would wake up and there would just be sand everywhere. She also told me that her mother—my great-grandmother—was from an upper-class family in Tokyo, so the other mothers would kind of look down on her because she spoke a different dialect of Japanese. Also, other families were put off by our family because grandma’s elder brother Tom volunteered to serve in the 442nd [Regimental Combat Team].
JANM: Did the other mothers look down on your great-grandmother because most of them were working class?
JANM: Why were they put off by the brother for joining the 442nd? I thought that was considered the height of honor and patriotism.
JTO: Grandma said the other families didn’t understand why he would volunteer, because they were put in camp [by the same government].
JANM: Your grandmother sounds like she has an amazing memory.
JTO: Yeah, she remembers a lot. She has a really good memory. She even remembers stuff from before the war!
JANM: Was she your main connection to this history?
JTO: Yes, she was. Out of all her siblings, she’s the one who talks about it the most, and she’s the youngest. She also knows a lot because she became a teacher and she likes to research everything.
JANM: Tell me more about your grandmother’s memories of Poston.
JTO: I know that my Auntie Mary, her sister, had a baby in camp who died because there wasn’t proper medical care. She had also lost a baby right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. (My grandma had several siblings, and the oldest ones were a lot older than she was.)
JANM: Oh my God, that’s horrible. Were there any babies born who did survive?
JTO: Yeah, there was one daughter who’s still alive.
JANM: What did your grandma think of the food in camp?
JTO: Great-grandma worked in the mess hall. She always demanded that the family eat at least one meal together per day, to keep the family together. I think grandma said they ate a lot of Spam! She also told me that creamed chipped beef on toast was often served, which the inmates referred to as “SOS” (sh** on a shingle).
JANM: In total, who all from your family was in Poston?
JTO: My grandmother. Then there was Uncle Jack, Auntie Mary, and Uncle Tom, who joined the 442nd. My Uncle Harvey was the oldest of the siblings and he was already in the military—he was drafted before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and served in military intelligence. Another auntie, Alice, worked as a secretary in Minnesota during the war.
JANM: Did they find other families that they could get along with?
JTO: They never talked that much about other families. My grandmother did say that since she was so little, she never really considered the severity of the situation—she was just happy that she had other kids to play with. Before the war, they lived in Central California, and I guess there weren’t as many children around there. So when she went to camp she was like, there are all these kids here to play with!
JANM: How did you get connected to JANM?
JTO: My mother used to volunteer at the Little Tokyo Historical Society, so I grew up knowing a lot about Little Tokyo and JANM because my mom loves history, like my grandma. I just figured that I would like to volunteer here.
JANM: What volunteer duties are you taking up at JANM?
JTO: I’m still a trainee, so I’m still figuring out what I want to do. But last week, I volunteered at the HNRC (Hirasaki National Resource Center) and it was so cool! We have access to ancestry.com, and I didn’t know how many documents there were on that website. One of the other volunteers was showing me how to research everything. I find all the dates so interesting—it’s all just right there, right in front of you, but it happened so long ago.
JANM: What were your impressions of Manzanar?
JTO: It was really hard for me to visualize all the barracks, because obviously they’re not there anymore, but [the trip] did help me to understand a little better the thought process of the Issei, what they were thinking. It made me realize that they came to this country believing in the American dream—if you work hard, you can succeed—and when we were there, it was so isolated, so barren, it was like, is this the American dream that they came for? That made me really upset and frustrated, and helped me understand just a little bit what they were going through.
JANM: Was there anything from the ceremony that stuck out for you?
JTO: Well first of all that song “Sukiyaki”—I really liked it because it was a musical connection to the past that kind of made it more real. Also, Alan Nishio’s talk was very inspiring.
JANM: Are you interested in going on any more pilgrimages?
JTO: I’ve heard that Poston is really difficult to get to, but I might want to go there one day.
JANM’s School Programs Developer Lynn Yamasaki and her family recently had the opportunity to view artworks by her great uncle, Jack Yamasaki, that are part of the museum’s permanent collection.
Jack Yamasaki, my father’s uncle, is someone I only have the faintest memories of seeing on occasion and visiting during holidays. I always knew he was an artist though, because I’ve been surrounded by his artwork my entire life—drawings and paintings by “Uncle Jack” have always hung on the walls of my parents’ and grandmother’s homes. Looking back, his artwork was probably my earliest exposure to art as a child.
A few decades later, I find myself fortunate enough to have studied art and to have worked in museums. I’ve had the opportunity to see some incredible artwork in the various institutions in which I’ve worked, including the Japanese American National Museum, where I currently spend my days. Recently, I had the great privilege of bringing several members of my family to the museum, where staff in the Collections Management and Access (CMA) Unit were kind enough to bring out five works by Uncle Jack for us to look at.
Most of these were pieces that my family and I had never seen before. In some cases, they were gifted to the museum by donors who are not family members. And it was a little odd for me to see Jack Yamasaki’s name among the other great artists in JANM’s collection. Though always appreciated by my family, it wasn’t until recently that I gained respect for the broader significance of his artwork and the events documented in them.
This 1942 painting was really interesting for us to see. It is a depiction of life in the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming, where Jack spent the war years. Reminiscent of JANM’s recent Colors of Confinement display, this work depicts camp life in bright, vivid colors; a rare and striking thing when you’re used to looking at black-and-white photographs. We noticed that it is still in its original frame, made by Jack.
I was also attracted to this pencil and ink drawing. In a busy scene, again from Heart Mountain in 1942, men are laying bricks in winter. On the left, one figure tosses a brick to another, with the brick depicted in mid-air. The cloudy sky and the way the figures are bundled up and hunched over as they walk really conveys a sense of the cold climate.
This one is a definite favorite for more personal reasons. The figure in pink in the foreground is my grandmother, someone I spend a great deal of time with. At 99 years old, she is one of the most impressive people I know. She says this was painted when the family was farming in Utah after the war. The other figures in the painting are family friends from pre-war days in the Imperial Valley. Her account doesn’t quite match the official description on file at the museum. However, my grandma is pretty sharp and has a great memory, so I prefer her version of the story.
My family had seen a reproduction of this painting, but it wasn’t until the CMA Unit staff brought it out that we saw the original. We were all struck by how the colors were much brighter than we thought they were. It was the first time my grandma had seen it since Uncle Jack painted it so many years ago.
At first, seeing it again brought up an old annoyance. According to her, she had told Jack she wanted to buy the painting and he said she could. But after one of his exhibitions, she found out that he had sold it to someone else! I remarked that this painting’s journey brought it to JANM, where it is now professionally cared for in a controlled environment. It is probably better off than it would be at her house, and she agreed!
The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia is currently featuring the drawing All In One Room by Estelle Ishigo in their permanent exhibition The Story of We, the People. The drawing will be on display through November of 2014.
Estelle Peck Ishigo (1899-1990) is most well known as an artist who chronicled the experience at the Heart Mountain concentration camp.
Estelle Peck was born in Oakland in 1899 to parents of English, Dutch, French ancestry. Her family moved to Los Angeles and Estelle attended the Otis Art Institute, where she met Arthur Ishigo (1902-1957), a San Francisco-born Nisei who was working as a chauffeur for California Lieutenant Governor Robert Kenny. As anti-miscegenation laws at the time prohibited interracial couples from getting married, Peck and Ishigo took a trip across the border to Tijuana to be wed in 1928. Hoping for a career as an actor, Arthur worked as a janitor at Paramount Studios while Estelle worked as an art teacher. Shunned by her family, the couple lived among the Japanese American community.
With the outbreak of World War II and the removal of all West Coast Japanese Americans to inland concentration camps, the couple faced a dilemma. As a Nisei, Arthur was required to be removed while his wife was not. Though he wanted her to stay behind, she accompanied her husband, first to the Pomona Assembly Center in California, and then to Heart Mountain, Wyoming.
Throughout the war years, Estelle drew, sketched, and painted what she saw, providing a valuable document of life in the American concentration camps. “Strange as it may sound, in this desolate, lonely place I felt accepted for the first time in my life,” she later wrote of her time at Heart Mountain. She and her husband remained at Heart Mountain in order to record the last days of the camp until it was officially closed. The Ishigos were given $25 and put on a train to the West Coast. “I felt as if I were part of a defeated Indian tribe,” she remembered later.
In 1990, filmmaker Steven Okazaki made a documentary of Estelle Ishigo’s life titled Days of Waiting. Estelle passed away before seeing the film, which went on to win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
Estelle Ishigo’s story and drawings comprise an important aspect of the permanent collection at the National Museum. The Estelle Ishigo Collection can be seen on the Museum’s website at: janm.org/collections/estelle-ishigo-collection
In the eyes of ABC 7 Eyewitness News Anchor David Ono, lessons from the Heart Mountain concentration camps still resonate today. In the four-part special, Witness: The Legacy of Heart Mountain, Ono explores the camp’s history and legacy.
Witness tells the story of the camp through photos from the Hirahara collection. While incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Patti Hirahara’s father and grandfather—both avid photographers—secretly built a darkroom under their barrack. They would go on to shoot and print over 2,000 photos cataloguing life inside the camp. Interspersed are interviews with those connected to the camps, from those incarcerated such as Judge Lance Ito and his mother, to Shirley Higuchi, Chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation Board of Directors.
The Japanese American National Museum plays a role in this documentary as well. Several interviews were filmed in the Museum’s Common Ground: The Heart of Community exhibition, supplemented by archival footage from the Museum’s permanent collection.
David Ono’s Witness is a moving look into the Japanese American experience during some of America’s darkest hours, told by the people who witnessed it firsthand and complemented by striking photos from inside the camps.
I was going through JANM’s on-line collections and came across this image of baseball in camp. Look closely and you can see the iconic Heart Mountain looming in the background, behind the barracks. And in the foreground, did you notice the hats worn by the spectators? With this photo, I can just about hear, smell, and feel summer…
You can browse through the Mori Shimada Collection to see other pictures of life in Heart Mountain. And, in case you haven’t heard, if you want a chance to “feel” summer, there will be a multi-generational pilgrimage to Heart Mountain this August 10-11. Check Heart Mountain’s Web site for details!