Book Reviews

The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946
Delphine Hirasuna

Ten Speed Press

Gaman is the Japanese expression for "enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity." This beautifully conceived and impeccably designed book is a daughter’s tribute to the gaman of the 120,000 Japanese Americans imprisoned in camps by Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt ten weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Delphine Hirasuna was raised after the war in the farmlands of California’s San Joaquin Valley by Nisei parents (second-generation, born in the United States) who had been interned in the camps. She remembers the older generation of Issei (first-generation immigrants), who had to readapt to civilian life with the added hardship of reduced circumstances, repeating "we have to gaman" almost like a mantra. Her parents spoke little about the camps during her childhood. But while going through her mother’s things after her death, Hirasuna found a tiny carved wooden bird pin with a safety pin clasp. The significance of this discovery led her to search for more arts and crafts created in the camps.

With a brief and eloquent history of the internment, accompanied by photographs of the camps and period documents, Hirasuna creates a vivid context for the imaginatively displayed and photographed arts and crafts themselves. 

The arts and crafts of the internees demonstrate a powerful Japanese aesthetic, and many show extremely accomplished skill and artistry, as well as ingenuity forced by circumstance. One Japanese-style vanity, made of persimmon wood and utilizing traditional dovetailing instead of nails, was created by a suitor for the woman he would later marry. Paintings depicting the buildings and stark surroundings of the camps were in some cases made on the backs of evacuation notices. Paper was scarce. People tend to be small or nonexistent in the paintings—as one painter said, "I felt that this was simply no place for people to be living."

The internees used found materials from the various landscapes of their camps, scrap materials from camp life, and inexpensive art supplies as they could get them. From the Tule Lake camp, we see a tule reed basket sewn together with string from an unraveled onion sack, eerily reminiscent of Native American basketry. From Gila River, Arizona, we are presented with walking sticks made from indigenous woods including manzanita, mesquite, and greasewood. From Manzanar, California, we find a haunting photograph of a small park with a pond and rock gardens built by internees for the orphaned children who were incarcerated there. From the Fort Missoula Detention Center in Montana, where there was little except for rocks in the way of natural materials that could be used for crafts, we see a pencil holder made of small rocks and cement, and a painted pebble.

Hirasuna explains that it is no accident that the greatest body of artwork produced in the camps was created by the Issei. The older prisoners suffered the greatest loss of possessions and status and had the hardest time adapting to camp life, finding their power prematurely eclipsed by their English-speaking children and grandchildren. With too much time on their hands and so little they could do to alter their situation, arts and crafts gave these cruelly sidelined Americans citizens a route of escape and a place to create meaning and beauty in their lives.  

The Art of Gaman stands on its own, and it would also be a terrific accompaniment for book groups that select one of the fine memoirs or fictional accounts of the Japanese American internship experience. To see the arts and crafts created in the camps while reading the memoir Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, or the novel When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka, would add a tactile dimension rendering those haunting accounts all the more powerful and immediate.

Reviewed by Laura Lent