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A card, a pin, and a painting: Crafts from Japanese American internment camps

As part of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Project Assistant of the National Museum of American History Christy Wallover shares three meaningful objects from the museum’s World War II Japanese American Internment Era Collection. Many more of these objects will soon be available in an online group thanks to Christy’s work.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, close to 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced out of their homes and into internment camps established by the U.S. government, which was fearful of spies undermining the nation’s defense. Creating arts and crafts quickly became a coping mechanism as well as a way to forge connections between fellow internees, who often didn’t know where they were going or for how long. Art classes were often offered at the internment camps and young and old were encouraged to make things. Many of the artworks crafted in the camps captured feelings and experiences that are at once unique but familiar.

These objects aren’t just beautiful to look at. They also reveal the stories of perseverance, resiliency, and patriotism of Japanese Americans during a controversial era of American history.

This watercolor by Akio Ujihara depicts snowy Manzanar War Relocation Center in California

Akio Ujihara, who donated the watercolor to the museum, was among the Japanese Americans forced into the War Relocation Authority centers. These camp-like facilities were isolated in rural parts of the country. They were poorly constructed, had very little privacy, and were not climate controlled. Ujihara was able to capture these aspects through his watercolors.

“Manzanar No Yuki,” which translates to “Manzanar Snow,” was one of the dozen watercolors Ujihara donated to the museum. The painting depicts the bleak, snow-covered camp against mountains in the background. To the right, a small figure sits at the threshold of his barracks. In a letter to the Smithsonian, Ujihara explained that, “I am not an artist but tried to keep my camp experience in watercolor—which has no artistic value but I tried to picture as it happened…”

Although living behind barbed wire was oppressive and dismal, many internees did not let it discourage them from continuing with living life, creating a community, and supporting one another. The lovebirds pin and the Christmas card are representative of these attempts at normalcy.

This pin was donated by Mrs. Mabel Rose Vogel, who was an art teacher at Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas.

The carved pin depicts two lovebirds perched on a heart. On the back of this pin is the inscription “HGK” and “45.” We can imagine that the pin is a token of affection. The letters are initials of a loved one and the numbers relate to the year the pin was given as a gift.

The country of Italy is drawn on the back of this card. Ken Nihei was stationed in Italy when he made and sent this card.

The other object, a Christmas card, was handmade by Ken Nihei. Nihei was a soldier in the 442nd Combat Team, which was a segregated unit comprised of Nisei (second-generation) Japanese Americans. Many of these men were internees from the War Relocation Centers. At first, men of Japanese ancestry were ineligible for military action. However, when the war effort demanded more soldiers, Japanese Americans were reclassified as eligible for the draft. While stationed in Italy, Nihei sent this card to a special person in Topaz Relocation Center.

These three objects are examples of the World War II internment camp era collection at the museum. This collection holds powerful stories about the experiences of Japanese Americans. Looking at these objects provides us a window into a complicated past. If you would like to learn more about this period in American history, see A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution or read this blog post about courtship in an internment camp.


* This article was originally published on the National Museum of American History blog on May 30, 2014.


© 2014 Christy Wallover / National Museum of American History

art Christmas card crafts manzanar National Museum of American History Smithsonian World War II