On May 27, 1943, Kiku Nakamichi was crowned Queen of Denson at a coronation ball, which was part of a weekend carnival at the Jerome concentration camp.
Kiku was presented with a wooden, heart-shaped plaque painted red, green, and gold. It had been crafted by staff at the wood shop where she worked as a secretary. Four months later, when Kiku and her husband departed Jerome, wood shop staff and friends added signatures and farewell messages to the back of the plaque.
Captured in a photograph from the night of the coronation, Kiku is flanked by her two attendants Mary Ikeguchi and Bessie Nakashima, where she is seeing holding the plaque. According to the camp newspaper, Denson Tribune, “William O. Melton, assistant Project director, who crowned the queen had the first dance with Queen Kiku following the coronation.”
Although events throughout all of the camps were common, including coronations and carnivals, each one offered a unique opportunity for incarcerated Japanese Americans to participate in activities seemingly at dramatic odds with their forced surroundings.
The plaque was passed on to Kiku’s daughter, Cindi Ishigaki, who donated it to JANM’s permanent collection this past January.
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
To put a personal touch from JANM on the Smithsonian traveling exhibition, we chose to complement the banners with some items from the Museum’s extensive collections. Since we have over 60,000 unique artifacts, documents, and photos in our permanent collection, it was a tough choice!
As a summer intern, I was given the (amazing!) opportunity to select these artifacts. There were several qualifiers—the artifacts would have to be both relevant to its banner’s content and interesting, whether visually or content-wise. My first step was to read through the exhibition text to get a better sense of the exhibition as a whole, then to list them out along with a brief summary and relevant information (keywords, dates, people, etc.—anything that might help narrow down artifacts). I sent the document to our Collections Associate, who searched the collections database and returned a pretty extensive list of potential artifacts. From there, it was a matter of selecting one or two for each banner and then pulling them to take a look. We also collaborated with the Riverside Metropolitan Museum to loan a few items from their historic Chinatown collections.
I don’t want to give away too much (you’ll have to come to the show to see all of the artifacts), but you’ll be able to see a really striking article written in the 1940s by the chairman of the California Joint Immigration Committee. The article, after being submitted to a national magazine, was passed around by the Japanese American Citizens League’s Equality Committee as a reminder of the challenges faced.
What I find interesting about the article is the blatantly offensive language—featuring lines such as “Because of their unassimilability and the impossibility of competing with them due to their low standards of living, Japanese immigrants have never really been welcome in the United States.” Of course I was previously aware of such anti-Japanese sentiment (how could I not, after touring Common Ground: The Heart of Community), but seeing it literally spelled out for me made an abstract concept truly hit home.
See this artifact and more in I Want the Wide American Earth from September 14 ‐ October 27, 2013! Check the exhibition page for more details.
This image from the Mine Okubo Collection in our archives shows a family gathered around a cast iron stove to celebrate their first Christmas in camp. It is one of the drawings by artist Mine Okubo used for her book Citizen 13660 which shares life inside the Tanforan Assembly Center and Topaz concentration camp during World War II.
It reminds us that in tough times, it’s still important to come together and celebrate with family & friends. Kodomo no tame ni. For the sake of our children, we must continue on.
Wishing you & your loved ones a Happy & Healthy Holidays!