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'Art Behind Barbed Wire' Features Arts & Crafts From Japanese-American Internment Camps

See a collection of arts and crafts created by Japanese-Americans from the Pacific Northwest while they were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II.

“Those kind of pieces of furniture, I suspect, were fabricated strictly out of necessity,” says Portland resident Richard Koyama. He is speaking about a chest his father, George Shiro Koyama, made while their family was incarcerated in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II.

“There is nothing fancy about my father’s chest,” Richard continues. “To my knowledge, he was not an avid woodworker, but he did know tools because he was a mechanic. So he certainly put together the materials necessary to make that chest a useful piece of furniture for the barracks that we had.”

Richard Koyama next to a chest his father made

Richard Koyama next to a chest his father made

Kayo Lackey/OPB

The Koyama family’s chest is among the items featured in Art Behind Barbed Wire at the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center. This traveling exhibition from the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington’s Northwest Nikkei Museum showcases arts and crafts created by Japanese-Americans from the Pacific Northwest while they were incarcerated during World War II.

Japanese-American families lent items that were made in internment camps for display in the exhibition, including watercolor paintings, tables, a dresser, dolls, corsages made with seashells, bird pins and more.

“They were made out of largely found materials … from rocks to shells shifted out of ancient lake beds … to brittle woods, sagebrush, a variety of types of woods that were actually local to the region [of the camp],” says Todd Mayberry, director of collections and exhibits at Oregon Nikkei Endowment.

After Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the internment of people of Japanese ancestry who lived on the West Coast. Families arrived at the internment camps with only what they could carry. The internees would often gather found materials on site and construct functional pieces such as dressers and tables to make their environments livable.

“As for Minidoka [camp]… when people arrived, families and individuals, they watched as the fences and buildings were built around them,” says Mayberry. “There were piles of wood. I’ve been told by lenders, and these stories have been passed down through families as well, that men would go out late at night or early in the morning and grab this lumber and bring it back to the barracks.”

Mayberry says that in the internment camps, many people like farmers and business owners who were used to working every day found themselves with free time, which spurred them to try arts and crafts. Although it varied from site to site, professional artists taught classes in doll making, painting, and even performing arts such as traditional Japanese dance at the internment camps. 

Richard Koyama’s grandfather, Eikichi Hara, was a farmer in Yakima, Washington, before he was sent to Tule Lake internment camp in California. While he was incarcerated, he built a decorative inlaid table and a tray.

“Maybe he was not a carpenter, but he was a skilled man with his hands … I would say that was a very well-made piece of wood from the hands of a farmer ’cause I would have to imagine that farmer’s hand probably would have been big and strong and that took a lot of intricate work to do,” says Koyama.  

The Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center has limited space to show all the items they have gathered for this exhibit, so they will be rotating them during the exhibition’s run. Right now, 65 items are on display.

Mayberry says people who found out about the exhibit are now lending their own items to Behind Barbed Wire. “People are coming up to us and going … ‘Oh, you know what … in our attic or in our basement or garage or right there in our living room, are items that were made by our grandparents or parents. We’ve always wondered about them or we’ve found out about their story …’ And they want to share their items as part of the exhibition.”

The pre-war Japanese community in Portland has lost all of the Issei (first generation) due to age. And now, many of the Nisei (second generation), who were very young while they were in the internment camps, are growing older. Ultimately there will be fewer and fewer opportunities to hear about their firsthand experiences.

Paul Kogita from Seattle, who was 10 years old when he was incarcerated, lent a decorative table made by his father, Yasusuke Kogita.

Sagebrush and Greasewood Table by Yasusuke Kogita, c. 1942-1945, Minidoka, Idaho, Courtesy of Paul and Taka Kogita.
Kogita was in his mid-50s when he made this table from greased wood that he found near the Minidoka War Relocation Center.

Sagebrush and Greasewood Table by Yasusuke Kogita, c. 1942-1945, Minidoka, Idaho, Courtesy of Paul and Taka Kogita. Kogita was in his mid-50s when he made this table from greased wood that he found near the Minidoka War Relocation Center.

Kayo Lackey/OPB

“He was a hard worker. I don’t think he ever took a vacation ’cause he was always doing things,” recalls Paul. Until recently, Paul had not spoken much about his experience in the camp.

“I just did not want to talk because it was such a bad time [in] your young life and we tried to make the best of it, but there was nothing glorious about it so we never talked about it,” explains Paul.

He just started sharing his history more openly after he returned to Minidoka to visit with his 36-year-old granddaughter. “She seems to be more interested in a lot of what happened there, so I am more open to her than anybody else,” says Paul.

Mayberry hopes Art Behind Barbed Wire will generate conversations and discussions about this period in history.

“This is an opportunity not only to share with our audiences, people that are not aware of the story, but it’s an opportunity to bring the grandkids in and great-grandkids in [to the exhibition] and say, ‘Well, you know, this is our story. This is what we experienced,’ and so they too will carry that story with them and share generationally,” adds Mayberry.

Like Paul Kogita, recently Richard Koyama has found himself more open to exploring his family’s experience in the camps.

“I would say in the last 10 years, my own interest in what happened has developed to a stronger extent,” says Richard. “I knew the experience was there, but I wasn’t fully aware of the ramification … sociologically and politically and exactly why and how all of this could have happened. I do have a lot of personal feelings about that, but I was more interested in the impact on our own family. From what I know, I just simply want to make it known, at least among our own family. And the history of these pieces of furniture certainly provides a focus for talking about such things.”

Behind Barbed Wire Japanese-American internment camps

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