NJAHS exhibits concentration camp artifacts

SUSTAINING MEMORY — Wooden inlaid boxes, small brown album, wooden holder, ikebana vase; wood carvings. photo by Kazuki Watanabe/Nichi Bei Weekly

The National Japanese American Historical Society’s (NJAHS) exhibit, “Sa sa e: Camp Objects of Memory,” currently on display at the San Francisco Japantown nonprofit’s Peace Gallery, offers a glimpse of what Japanese Americans experienced in American concentration camps during World War II.

Sa sa e” means to sustain or support, explained Rosalyn Tonai, executive director of NJAHS. The showcase reflects a joint collaboration by NJAHS, the Japanese American community, and various chapters of the Japanese American Citizens League to document, collect and catalogue the arts and crafts, artifacts and objects created in the concentration camps during World War II.

Despite having to make due with limited materials, the prisoners — some 120,000 persons of Japanese descent, most of whom were American citizens — created such objects as drawings, sculptures, furniture, board games and children’s toys.

Cotton embroideries of koi and flowers made by Tsune Yoshida Fujioka are among the artwork displayed. These embroideries have been in the family for generations. “It is meticulous,” said Tonai, who called the pieces “amazing.”

A watercolor painting of Mt. Williamson, in Manzanar, Calif., has a special meaning for the Ikeda family, whose members were incarcerated in the camp. Although the painting was given to Asa Ikeda, the artist of the painting is unknown. Tonai hopes that publicizing information about the painting will help identify the artist’s identity.

The inmates also collected some objects that reflect the geographical areas in which the camps were located. Some of these objects — which include tree roots, seashells from dried lakes and sands — were displayed in the alcove.

According to NJAHS’ Website, descendants of former internees from such Northern California communities as Penryn, Salinas and San Francisco were among those who participated in the exhibit. These individuals shared their stories and experiences, to help the nonprofit create a catalogue and online database of the objects, available at www.njahs.org.

The objects were collected through a series of workshops held in Northern California with JACL chapters in Placer County, Salinas Valley and San Francisco. NJAHS received a California Civil Liberties Public Education Program grant to organize both the workshops and the exhibit, said Greg Marutani, of the San Francisco chapter of the JACL, who arranged the workshops.

There is a reason why the original owners did not throw away the objects in the exhibit, Tonai said. It is important, she said, that the items will find new homes — with those who know their significance — before the original owners pass away.

“Otherwise, no one will know, and [its meaning] would be lost forever.”

Due to popular demand, the exhibit has been extended to Dec. 31. The objects on display will be rotated over time.

NJAHS, located at 1684 Post St. in San Francisco’s Japantown, is open from Monday through Friday, from noon to 5 p.m., and the first Saturday of the month, from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call (415) 921-5007 or visit www.njahs.org.

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