This is post #4 of 4 in the series, Ethnic Effects.
This summer, Getty Marrow undergraduate interns from JANM, La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, and the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles collaborated to create a collections-based project tasked with answering the question:
How have immigrants and subsequent generations shaped what it means to be American?
The initial goal of the project was to highlight the agency of immigrants in shaping American identity. However, the interns’ submissions suggested that the answer to this specific question would not fully encapsulate the American experience of immigrants and their descendants. As a result, each intern approached this question from a different perspective and highlighted an artifact that touched upon different facets of the American experience and identity. In this post, Shelby Ottengheime and Jose Quirarte explore the complexity of “American identity” through ways that Japanese Americans preserved traditional Japanese values and institutions during World War II.
More specifically, Shelby and Jose selected items that demonstrate the ways in which Japanese Americans persevered while they were incarcerated during World War II by channeling the spirit of gaman—“persevering with dignity and fortitude.” Shelby highlighted a variety of craft items from JANM’s Eaton Collection and argued that the items reveal that gaman is integral to the Japanese American experience and that it manifested itself through various facets of their American experience. Jose highlighted a butsudan (Buddhist altar) made in the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming between 1942-1945, and argued that it symbolized that Japanese immigrants and their children preserved their cultural values despite American oppression.
Assortment of Pendants and Rings
Contributed by: Shelby Ottengheime, Japanese American National Museum
When reflecting on Japanese American history, a single word encapsulates generations of experiences, and that word is “gaman.” Though a seemingly simple expression, to the Japanese American community, it is a defining aspect. Gaman is translated as “to persevere with dignity and fortitude.” This cultural value is not only what enabled the Japanese American community to persevere through their injustices, but it has come to define what it means to be an American for them as well. In fact, it is so integral to Japanese American life that it even manifests itself in their actions, mottos, and art.
The Japanese American way of life has been historically characterized by hardship and adversity. As immigrants and laborers in the early 20th century, the Japanese came to the US in pursuit of the infamous American dream. However, discriminatory laws and social prejudice made it difficult for Issei’s (first generations Japanese Americans) to establish a home. Regardless of such hardships, like the fact that Issei were not legally allowed to own land, they persevered and built what they could with what they had.
The struggles that affected Japanese immigrants and subsequent generations are uniquely different from those experienced by any other immigrant community in US history and have ultimately shaped the Japanese American experience. This is referring to Executive Order 9066, which forcibly incarcerated all individuals living on the West Coast who were as little as 1/16th Japanese. Despite having done nothing wrong—there was “not a single documented act of espionage, sabotage, or treasonable activity by any American of Japanese descent”—over 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans were forced into concentration camps (Stone 1096). Fueled exclusively by prejudiced fear, E.O. 9066 was reasoned to protect Americans, however, those who were interned were US Citizens, and were effectively denied their rights simply because they were of Japanese ancestry.
With only a week’s notice, these Japanese Americans were forced from their homes and sent to desolate, barren concentration camps. Scared to be even more vilified and viewed as Japanese sympathizers, Japanese Americans complied with the US government and went to camp. Though they did not protest, that does not mean they went willingly, instead, they chose to gaman and persevere through the injustices that faced them. Each incarceree was allowed to bring a minimal amount of belongings, but they had no idea where they would be going or for how long they would be gone. As a result, Japanese Americans abandoned most of their possessions or left them in the care of neighbors. When they arrived at the concentration camps they were confronted with barbed wire, armed guards, a barren climate, poorly built living facilities, and an astounding lack of privacy. Even the food resembled nothing of home, offering no comfort to the incarcerees. However, one of the ways in which Japanese Americans were able to cope with their degrading and humiliating situation, was to create art. This artwork embodied their strength and their ability to persevere in an existence where they no longer had autonomy.
These visual representations of gaman reflect the indomitable resilience of Japanese Americans, and a large variety of the artwork was collected by Allen H. Eaton during World War II. Some of the pieces within the collection were mentioned in his book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire, which highlighted the art production by Japanese Americans while also pointing out that their constitutional rights were violated through their forced removal from the West Coast. However, years after Eaton died, in April of 2015, a family friend of Eaton’s tried to sell the collection at auction. This caused serious outrage across the Japanese American community, and through activism efforts, the insensitive sale of the “Eaton Collection” was stopped and alternatively transferred to the Japanese American National Museum.
The pieces within the Eaton Collection were not created by professional artists. The artwork produced by untrained incarcerees reflected the life and sentiments of the average Japanese American. It also showcased their artistic ingenuity and how “gaman” expressed itself within their art. Though art supplies were limited, Japanese Americans made do. They utilized their surroundings, finding colorful stones to set into rings and jewelry; onion strings to weave into patterns on cigarette cases; and excess wood from the hastily built barracks, which were shaped into complex carvings, depicting beautiful sakura trees with handsome cranes. These works not only helped the Japanese endure through their incarceration experience, but the artwork themselves directly mirror the Japanese American way of life and can be seen as a metaphor for the Japanese themselves. Both the Japanese and the wood plank were dismissed and seen as having no worth. However, with gaman, an object that has been discarded can transform and be seen as something beautiful and of value to society. This very aspect has come to define the Japanese American experience.
Not only was gaman apparent in their artwork, but that resilience continued to shape all aspects of Japanese American life and define what it meant for them to be an American. During World War II, many of the young men in camp enlisted in the US Army, choosing to fight overseas while their family members were still incarcerated. Their hope was to prove their “Americanness” and loyalty by fighting for their country: the United States of America. These Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) were assigned to the 442nd Infantry Regiment, an almost entirely Japanese American battalion. Their motto “Go for Broke” was an extension of the Japanese gaman-mentality. The unit’s fortitude and success reflected this value of perseverance, and against all odds, the 442nd became the most decorated combat unit in the history of the US military.
The cultural value of perseverance and honorable endurance has defined the Japanese American life since their initial immigration to the US. Facing hardship, prejudice, and blatant governmental acts of racism, Japanese Americans have continually used gaman to persevere. Gaman has become so instilled in the Japanese American identity that it expresses itself in multiple aspects of their culture; in their art, their mottos, and it even continues to mold their lives and values today. Ultimately, gaman has come to define the Japanese American experience and shaped what it means for them to be an American.
Contributed by: Jose Quirarte, Japanese American National Museum
The butsudan is a Buddhist altar often found in temples and homes. Shinzaburo & Gentaro Nishiura handrafted this particular butsudan during World War II at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming. It is composed of the gokuden (“Palace Hall”), shumiden (“Sumeru Throne”), and the naijin, or inner area. The gokuden is the large wooden cabinet that houses the gohonzon, or “principle object of reverence,” and includes the two wooden doors that fold center outward and back. The shumiden is the large wooden pedestal that the gokuden sits on, and the naijin includes three altars: the center altar which houses the gohonzon, and the altars on the left and right which house scrolls depicting significant Buddhist figures.
Shinzaburo & Gentaro Nishiura were two carpenters from San Jose, California who were imprisoned at the Heart Mountain concentration camp. Before the war, the Nishiura brothers were responsible for constructing many buildings for the Japanese American community in San Jose, and the greater Santa Clara area. The Nishiura brothers continued their contributions to the Japanese American community in camp by working in the Heart Mountain cabinet shop. In 1943, with the blessing of Reverend Chikaro Aso, the Nishiura brothers installed their handcrafted butsudan in the Block-8 Buddhist Church of Heart Mountain. Through the efforts of Reverend Aso, the butsudan found its way to the Gilroy Buddhist Church in Gilroy, CA, and was eventually donated to JANM by the Gilroy Buddhist Community Hall in 2001.
The creation and use of this butsudan in one of America’s concentration camps is a prime example symbol of the perseverance of the Japanese American spirit during their years of incarceration. On one hand, The practice of Buddhism provided a sense of normalcy for some Japanese Americans through the chaos surrounding their removal and incarceration. On the other, the creation of this butsudan in camp signified the importance of Japanese values and the way Japanese Americans preserved them. Due to Japanese Americans only being allowed to bring to camp what they could carry, many of them only brought the necessities. In order to continue to practice their faith, the Nishiura brothers showed their ingenuity by creating their own religious items out of the materials they had at their disposal. As a result, the artistry from within the barbed wire fences of camp are a symbol in and of themselves of Japanese American resilience during World War II.
These examples demonstrate that the craft items made in camp are themselves symbolic of the American experience, and the resilience and resistance of immigrants against systematic discrimination and oppression. As Shelby mentioned, most of the crafts made in camp were not made by professional artists. The craft items that Shelby highlighted in the Eaton Collection, were mostly made of material that the prisoners could find and turn either into a useful tool or art. Not only are the crafts representative of the Japanese value of gaman, but the creation of crafts, tools, and religious items in an environment of immense discrimination and oppression reveals a symbolic theme of the American immigrant experience: that immigrants often have to survive the harsh conditions of America by using whatever is at their disposal.
The fact that this butsudan was made in one of America’s concentration camps demonstrated that Japanese Americans held onto traditional institutions and values, and were intent on preserving them. The elegant looking materials that were used to craft the butsudan made it clear that the butsudan was a significant religious relic. Furthermore, in contrast to the crafts in the Eaton Collection, the butsudan was crafted by highly trained professionals who had a history of preserving Japanese institutions and contributing to the Japanese community in Santa Clara County. The butsudan itself speaks to the larger American immigrant experience as immigrant populations attempted to integrate their own culture into their lives in America. Rather than assimilating or converting to Christianity, practicing Buddhists, within the walls of a concentration camp that “otherized” them and implied they were dangerous, maintained their religious values and actively crafted a traditional altar.
The fact that Japanese Americans were able to preserve their traditions and institutions despite being imprisoned in America’s concentration camps reveals the complexity of the “American identity.” Shelby’s application of how the Japanese value of gaman was reflected in Japanese American craftsmanship made in camp, and Jose’s example of the butsudan demonstrate that Japanese values and cultural touchstones were essential to the identity of Japanese American prisoners. As a result, Japanese American identity was a blend of both their traditional culture and the values of American society. Japanese Americans did not totally assimilate or abandon their culture in America’s “melting pot.” Instead, they preserved their values and institutions in a new amalgamated and complex “American identity.”
If you would like to learn more about craftsmanship in camp and gaman, you should read Delphine Hirasuna’s book, The Art of Gaman: Arts & Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps. If you would like to know more about the Eaton Collection, you can view photos of the collection here, and check out JANM’s traveling display titled Contested Histories: Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection.