Strangers in a Strange Land
The remarkable art produced by Japanese Americans interned in government camps in the Arkansas Delta during World War II speaks volumes to the resilience of the human spirit.
When The Art of the Living: The Japanese American Creative Experience at Rohwer exhibit opened at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock earlier this fall, it represented a homecoming of sorts. On display is artwork made by Japanese Americans who were detained during World War II at the Rohwer Relocation Center in the Arkansas Delta, some 125 miles southwest of Memphis. To view these objects today — delicately painted bird pins, exquisite wood carvings, playful fashion drawings, paintings of somber camp settings — is to begin to understand a peculiar piece of the Delta’s past that for many years was largely unknown.
The story was kept alive by Mabel Rose Jamison Vogel, an art teacher from Memphis who taught at Rohwer during the 1940s. She collected the paintings and art objects left behind by her students at the end of the war, along with pamphlets, brochures, camp newsletters, and flyers that reflected daily life at camp. Stashed away in trunks and boxes, her treasures from that era traveled with her the rest of her life. She kept them as a touchstone, as a way of educating others so that this important chapter of American history would never be forgotten.
While she donated some pieces of the collection to the Smithsonian Institution and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, she wanted the remainder of the work to stay in Arkansas. So when Vogel died in 1994, she bequeathed the collection to Rosalie Santine Gould, longtime mayor of the nearby town of McGehee, whom she had met during a Rohwer reunion, and someone who shared her passion for the camp’s history. In 2010, Gould donated the material to the Butler Center. The current exhibit, which is open through Thanksgiving, is on display for the first time.
Recently, I invited my dear friend Jane Rousseau, a Japanese American who knows much about the internment-camp period, to come and view the exhibit with me; it is because of Jane that I learned about the camps. When we arrived at the center, we were charmed by the array of work, 125 pieces in all (just a portion of the collection), along with an informative cell tour that features former internees talking about camp life. Here you will find self-portraits and fashion drawings, carvings of flowers and more somber paintings of camp landscapes. In total, it is an intimate portrayal of life interrupted. The Japanese call it gaman: the patient endurance of the unbearable.
Rohwer and Jerome, Arkansas were two of 10 Japanese internment camps hastily erected by the federal government in 1942. The action came in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the wave of anti-Japanese hysteria that followed and kept steadily rising. Considered a threat to national security, all ethnic Japanese, the majority of whom were second-generation Americans, were ordered evacuated from the West Coast, in accordance with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066.
In the spring after Pearl Harbor, government notices began appearing in Japanese neighborhoods, ordering residents to evacuate their homes and report to assembly centers. From there, they were assigned to camps. Most had less than two weeks to get their affairs in order. Richard Yada, whose parents were farmers in Stockton, California, remembers the hardship his family faced. “My dad had a big farm; he was trying to expand but when this happened, he had to sell everything,” says 68-year-old Yada, who was born at Rohwer. Thousands of Japanese destroyed their possessions or sold them for a pittance, packing only what could be carried for the train ride to the camps. “Some people burned their car rather than sell it for the $10 others were offering,” says Yada, who today lives in Little Rock.
Army barracks were erected overnight at Rohwer, housing more than 8,000 Japanese who arrived from the assembly center in Arcadia, California. From 1942 to 1945, nearly 120,000 people were transported to the 10 concentration camps in the West, where they remained for the duration of the war. The average age of detainees was 17.
Once at camp, families were housed in single rooms of the barracks, where they shared a communal bathhouse and were supplied with a wood-burning stove, a single cot for each person, and three blankets. All other household goods, from kitchen tables to toys, had to be created by the internees. The spartan conditions made waste unthinkable.
“In the camps, nothing was thrown away without first being examined for craft-making possibilities,” writes author Delphine Hirasuna, a third-generation Japanese American whose book, The Art of Gaman, is a photo collection of exquisite arts and crafts made by internees. “Packing crates and cardboard boxes were dismantled and turned into backing for artwork. Wrapping paper became origami and floral bouquets. Gunnysacks and burlap were unraveled and rewoven into rugs.”
Soon, discarded lumber at Rohwer was being used to cobble together deck chairs and tables. In this collection, the most poignant pieces are objects created from found materials: a chunky bracelet fashioned from a soup can, exquisitely painted bird pins carved from bits of wood, a chain-link belt crafted from electrical wire, and dried grass woven into zori sandals.
“The work is heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time,” notes Butler Center director David Stricklin. “It reflects the triumph of the human spirit.”
Once camp life became more settled, artwork provided an escape from everyday monotony. While the children attended school, where Vogel was among the teachers, the adults pursued a variety of jobs to maintain the camp community.
For recreation, there were drawing classes and kobu hunting, the collection of cypress knees beloved for their irregular shapes and burnished with oil until they glowed. Paintings were also done on everything from denim fabric to canvas to leftover shirt cardboard, from materials that Vogel herself sometimes bought for the inmates. Posters with wartime slogans were also popular, touting war bonds and the Boy Scouts.
During our recent visit, I met Young Osborn, who was just 25 when he worked as a superintendent at Rohwer. Now, at age 95, he is among the last employees of the camp still living.
Osborn scrutinizes each display, and in recognizing some of the names, is reminded of a particular kindness. He tells of one December, when some of the men heard him mention his difficulty in finding a doll bed his daughter desired for Christmas. One day, “Jim Murikaha showed up [several weeks later] with a beautiful, handmade doll bed. He’d heard me talk about it and had the men in the warehouse make it for my 6-year-old daughter.” That generosity of spirit was something he never forgot, and Osborn and his wife remained friends with several Japanese long after the war was over.
When I first learned about the Vogel collection back in 2002 — while doing research for a story on the Japanese-American experience in Arkansas for this magazine (“Ending the Silence,” February 2003) — I discovered that Professor Johanna Miller Lewis, chair of the history department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, had received a $3 million grant to launch “The Life Interrupted Project,” a website and education endeavor aimed at teaching people about the Japanese-American experience in World War II Arkansas.
In the process of writing that story, I decided to pay a visit to Rosalie Gould, the former mayor of McGehee, Arkansas, to whom Vogel had entrusted her collection. She invited me to lunch at the local country club so I could see the material firsthand. Afterwards, Gould drove us back to her ranch-style home, where she kept the collection stored in a back bedroom. Packed in the same boxes and trunks that Vogel had kept for almost 50 years was an amazing treasure trove of objects: paintings, carvings, pins, statues, canvases, flyers, autobiographies — in all, one of the largest personal collections of Japanese-American artifacts in the country.
Mayor Gould became known in the Japanese-American community for her willingness to share the collection with out-of-town guests, believing the collection belonged not to her, but to the people of Arkansas and Rohwer. Her hospitality was an extension of what Vogel herself had done while alive.
At Gould’s request, many wrote letters chronicling their memories of life at camp. She also worked alongside detainees to ensure that Rohwer’s cemetery would be properly maintained. It was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark in 1992; Professor Lewis is now working on a project to preserve the two monuments made by camp internees that honor the dead and the Japanese-American soldiers who died fighting for the country that interned their families during WWII.
Gould and Vogel shared a similar vision, to ensure that the collection remains in Arkansas and be accessible to ordinary citizens as well as scholars. “So that people like me can see it,” says Gould. “To see exactly what happened, so that this never happens again.”
Only in recent years have these Japanese-American stories come to light. For many, the dark years of the war were a time best forgotten. Once families regained their freedom and began rebuilding their lives, they firmly shut the door on the past and kept silent about their experience. Many never carved or painted again.
“As a child, I knew there were certain things you didn’t ask about, and so, I never asked,” says The Art of Gaman author Delphine Hirasuna.
“My parents never talked about that period. Like many, what was mentioned about camp was said in passing. They never sat down and said, ‘This was what camp was about.’” It wasn’t until after her mother’s death in 2002, when she unearthed an exquisitely painted bird pin that lay hidden amid dusty boxes in her parents’ garage, that she became more inquisitive. As a designer, Hirasuna was initially drawn to its artful beauty. Little by little, however, she began to learn the history of the camps, and an unspoken chapter from her parents’ life story began to emerge.
“I was shocked. Over 60 years had gone by, but everything I was learning was like the first time. It was disturbing to find out how it all happened,” she says. Yet understanding the camp years gave her new insight into the cliquishness that had long kept the Japanese-American community separate.
“My parent’s generation didn’t feel welcome, they didn’t feel safe. My generation found that baffling; we just thought they should get involved in mainstream things. As a kid, I was annoyed, because I wanted to be an American,” she said. But in collecting the artwork that eventually grew into her exhibit, The Art of Gaman, which opened last year at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and continues to travel, she realized, “The show presents a real healing process, in both seeing these objects and being aware of these people as individuals. You can’t turn them into statistics; this puts a human face on the people who were put into camp.” Hirasuna says the exhibit reminds viewers of the quiet strength and endurance the Japanese Americans showed in time of duress.
Since Gould so often showed the art to visitors, I asked her if people ever wanted to take back pieces that belonged to their family home. “No,” she said. In fact, some felt compelled to share objects they had. And so, instead of shrinking, the collection has expanded. One set of twins, Kazuko Hamamoto Tanaka and Yetsuko Hamamoto Saguchi, drove from California to the show’s opening and donated several items, including an impressively carved pine board emblazoned with an American eagle. “The collection has grown and is still growing,” notes Butler Center director Stricklin. “It is the critical mass of their family stories and they want to add to the heft of that. It’s a really interesting phenomenon.”
Most important, the artwork will be available to anyone who is interested. While the majority of the work will be stored once the show closes in late November, Stricklin says, “If you’re in Little Rock, you can see the material and have access to the art. And we will always have something on display,” a fact Jamie Vogel would find satisfying, indeed. M