Beauty from bleakness

Special to The Times

A 5-foot-tall obutsudan, or Buddhist altar, faces you upon entering the exhibition “Crafting History: Arts and Crafts from America’s Concentration Camps,” now at the Japanese American National Museum.

Meticulously carved out of honey-colored wood, it’s a small-scale rendition of the facade of a Buddhist temple, with its elaborate bracketed roof, lotus emblems and decorated columns. Inside, three sections contain miniature scrolls -- a calligraphy in the center and portraits of monks on either side.

The craftsmanship is splendid enough, but the fact that it was made while brothers Shinzaburo and Gentaro Nishiura were incarcerated in Heart Mountain, Wyo., during World War II is more surprising still.

Under the direction of the War Relocation Authority, they were among the 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent removed from the West Coast to 10 internment camps in isolated areas of the United States -- to prevent possible “collaboration” with America’s declared enemy, Japan. While the other 400 objects in the show are more modest in scale and purpose, they also reflect an important part of this unfortunate history.


Living communally and crowded into basic barracks, the Japanese Americans had to make do with limited food and supplies. Still, they proved resourceful in “making things to create a home environment,” says museum curator Kristine Kim. In addition to producing items for everyday use they also found ways to express artistic inclinations.

The objects were selected from the museum’s own collection, begun in 1988, and donations from the camp era are still pouring in as people realize the importance of preserving these artifacts. The obutsudan was received just two years ago.

“As far as we can tell, it’s been in use almost continuously since World War II,” says Kim. The Nishiuras were professional woodworkers, having worked on the Japanese Pavilion for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco. After the war, they gave the altar to the San Jose Buddhist Church, which later transferred it to the Gilroy Buddhist Community Hall, which in turn donated it to the museum.

Not all the objects come with such a detailed history. “Unfortunately, part of the story is lost,” says Kim. “This is about preserving the story we can.”


And that story is told by the exhibition through objects, photographs and text. This includes a number of drawings and paintings; art classes were offered at all the camps by those who had had academic or professional training before the war. Artist Chiura Obata, for example, had taught at UC Berkeley, and during internment he set up art schools at Tanforan and Topaz. In the exhibition, his ink painting shows two adults and a child standing rather forlornly in the bleak terrain of their camp. Like other adults, he depicted the world he saw around him.

There are also dozens of carvings, canes, wall plaques, and pieces of furniture made out of found and scrap wood. In the same gallery is a strikingly chic olive-green woman’s suit made by Hatsumi Shohara; the two-piece is entirely crocheted, down to the three “bows” decorating the front.

In a world in which there were no flowers, the internees made their own. To continue such traditions as bonsai and flower arrangement, they fashioned plants out of paper and shells. Visitor Alyson Iwamoto, an art teacher, was especially touched by the flowers. “They couldn’t find a single flower around them, so they crafted them,” she says. “It’s so admirable. They didn’t allow their spirits to be broken, whatever the circumstances.”



Crafting History

What: “Crafting History: Arts and Crafts from America’s Concentration Camps,”

Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. 1st St., Los Angeles.

When: Tuesdays-Sundays 10 a.m.- 5 p.m.; Thursdays till 8 p.m. Ends May 4.


Price and info: $6 adults, $5 seniors (62 and older), $3 students and children (6-17), 5 and under free. (213) 625-0414.