SANTA FE, N.M. — “Gaman” means to bear the unbearable.
For author Delphine Hirasuna, the phrase “We have to gaman” became a kind of mantra.
“The Art of Gaman” opens at the Museum of International Folk Art on Sunday with nearly 100 objects created by occupants of the Japanese internment camps during World War II.
Soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. government forced 120,000 ethnic Japanese on the West Coast — more than two-thirds of them American-born citizens — to abandon their homes and move to the camps until the end of the war.
From 1942 to 1946, the Santa Fe camp held 4,500 of these men behind barbed wire at a site two miles from the Plaza in what is now the Casa Solana neighborhood. The Department of Justice and the FBI labeled the men “the worst of the worst.” Educated and successful community leaders, they were powerful men whom officials deemed the most likely to assist the enemy if they chose to. Some had refused to sign a loyalty oath.
But these trapped men were anything but idle. Many turned the bleakness and scraps of camp life into objects of art. At first, they were trying to beautify their surroundings.
After her mother died in 2000, Delphine Hirasuna peered into a window of that creative survival when she discovered a dusty box tucked in the back of her parents’ California storage area and discovered a wooden bird pin.
Like most internment camp survivors, in her family the time period was shrouded in shame. Her parents never talked about their experience.
“They never sat us down and talked about what it was like and how they got there,” Hirasuna said in a telephone interview from San Francisco. “It was the elephant in the room that everybody tiptoed around. My parents didn’t want us to be angry or ashamed, so they simply didn’t discuss it.
“I opened (the box) up and found this little bird trinket,” she continued. “I figured it was something made in camp because the clasp was a safety pin.”
Hirasuna’s parents Eddie and Kiyo Hirasuna were placed in a camp in Jerome, Ark., until her father was drafted into the Army.
Eddie Hirasuna served in the 442nd All-Nisei Regimental Combat Team, 100th Battalion, Company A, in late 1943. After he was drafted, Hirasuna’s mother, brother and sister were sent to the camp at Rohwer, Ark., to join her grandparents.
Hirasuna began wondering what else had been tossed into storage sheds, attics and garages by survivors looking to erase the past. An uncle said he knew of other families who had similar relics of the time — he was gathering objects for a church display. Hirasuna discovered it was a common practice as word-of-mouth spread that she was writing the book that became “The Art of Gaman.”
“One weekend he showed up with a truckload of stuff,” she said. “Nobody valued it.
“A fair number of people handed things over to me wrapped in newspaper from 1945,” she continued. “They threw it in the garage and never looked at it again.”
In camp life, nothing was wasted. Internees unraveled waxy string from onion sacks and wove it into baskets; they transformed old toothbrush handles into pendants; gallon-sized mayonnaise jars into miniature display cases; tin cans became toy trains; they carved produce crates into jewelry. Since metal objects were forbidden, they created things from sharpened butter knives and discarded metal. In another example of their remarkable resourcefulness, they made sandpaper by gluing crushed glass onto cardboard.
In Santa Fe, an artist named S. Kawamoto painted a camp scene on a wooden slab and a wedge of old fence post. “It was given to the grandfather of the person who loaned it to me,” Hirasuna said.
A caption printed neatly at the bottom of the scene reads “Santa Fe New Mexico 1942.” But to the right are Japanese characters that can also be read as “Here is where we suffered.”
The detainees were allowed to place mail orders. They often bought watercolors because they were cheap.
A signed handkerchief features a mountain scene behind the Santa Fe barracks ringed by Japanese signatures. It was likely a remembrance gift to an inmate who was being released to join his family at another camp, Hirasuna said.
Limited to what they could carry, most Buddhist evacuees were forced to leave their family shrines behind. To continue their religious practices, some constructed their own “butsudan,” placing their family’s ancestral tablets into the sacred spaces. In Santa Fe, Mineo Matoba carved his “butsudan” from six separate pieces that could be assembled without nails. He sent the piece to his wife, who was being held at Arizona’s Gila River camp.
People collected scraps of wood, Hirasuna said. “When the trucks came in with supplies, they off-loaded the pallets and (the inmates) would take the pallets.”
As the war dragged on, even the government began to realize the people they had essentially imprisoned without formal charges were harmless. They began to send supplies and equipment from the Works Progress Administration, including arts and crafts materials. They also opened canteens where knitters and crocheters could buy yarn.
Fueled by the Redress Movement, largely spearheaded by third generation Japanese-Americans, the government sent letters of apology to the survivors in the 1980s. In 1988, each received $20,000, a fraction of what was lost as they were forced to leave established careers, homes and land. And most of the camp survivors were already dead.
Hirasuna’s book “The Art of Gaman” was published by Ten Speed Press in 2005.
“It sort of opened up the conversation within the families,” she said. “It changed the perception of the people who were in the camps. You look at these beautiful things and you realize they may have been poor, but they were not without talent in the worst circumstances. They managed to keep their spirits up, their integrity up.”