Making Beauty Amid the Ugliness

This is a fascinating story about the art — as well as clothing, musical instruments, furniture and other things — that internees made while they were incarcerated in Japanese internment camps during World War II. Collectively, this kind of art-making behavior was often referred to using the term “gaman,” a Zen Buddhist term meaning “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.”

Being stripped of all their resources made the newly incarcerated extra resourceful. At first, they used every little scrap they could get their hands on to make necessities like chairs, drawers, door signs, Buddhist altars, walking sticks, and shower shoes, as well as doilies and decorations to make their barrack rooms less bleak. But eventually, many of the Issei, who were given fewer responsibilities than their American-born children who could speak fluent English, turned to art as a way to pass the time. Hirasuna first documented these artifacts as artworks made to lessen the emotional pain of being locked up and having their civil rights stripped in her book, The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946.

As many as 120,000 people — about 90 percent of the ethnically Japanese people in the US at the time — were forced to give up their homes and belongings and take up residence in these camps, surrounded by soldiers and barbed wire. They had to grow and cook their own food, make their own clothes, and so on. And to keep themselves busy, they made things: sandals from blocks of wood, bird brooches from planks taken from the crates that brought in food and other supplies, even working model trains they fashioned out of watch parts and old cans.


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