Website project seeks to uncover the stories within ‘50 Objects’

The Gila River home plate is presently on display at the Cooperstown National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. photo by Milo Stewart

A comic book, a Bible, a homeplate, a chair. These may seem like curious, even random, objects to explore the culture and history of America’s concentration camps. Yet each is a portal into someone’s life containing multiple narratives about a tangible thing that is part of our communal memory.

Many of our family objects from the wartime incarceration have been stashed in attic corners, forgotten for decades. Or maybe they are sitting in plain sight in living rooms, familiar items whose backstories are fuzzy because no one has given the object the honor of a sit-down interview or undertaken a focused study of its properties.

Like family albums filled with photos of people whose names are not recorded, however, our generation will soon have boxes of things whose stories will never be known if we don’t extract them now.

When people who know the stories are gone, we will have lost an invaluable opportunity to rebuild the object’s historical context and meanings.

In an attempt to trace some of these stories, our core research and production team has curated a collection of 50 artifacts for a digital history project titled “50 Objects/Stories of the American Japanese Incarceration.” The Website project is funded by a grant from the Japanese American Confinement Sites program of the National Park Service. It will be launched on Day of Remembrance, Feb. 19, 2018.

Electric fan was acquired by William Taketora Saito at Rohwer. Maker unknown. photo by David Izu

We define “object” broadly. It includes 3D items such as a child’s tank made by a father from scrap wood, as well as documents, photographs and architectural landscapes, such as a root cellar.

Each object will have a dedicated Webpage that explores its material qualities and personal associations, using text and photos and sometimes a slideshow or short video.

For example, a home plate found on the desert floor of the Gila River, Ariz. site leads to an examination of what appears to be the only baseball field among all the camps that was built outside the barbed wire fence. A chair made of scrap lumber at Heart Mountain, Wyo. escaped being sold in the Rago auction of Eaton artifacts, leading to the discovery of the identity of the immigrant maker and his descendants in California, Washington and Japan.

This project was inspired in part by the Eaton auction, which was poised to sell approximately 450 camp artifacts, including crafts, nameplates, works on paper and photographs, in April 2015.

During the grassroots protest against the auction, research was quickly undertaken to learn the provenance of the items to be sold. If the maker or descendant of a nameplate, for example, could be identified, a legal claim to rightful ownership might be made, providing grounds for halting its sale. The rich history embedded in the Eaton artifacts turned on a light: These objects tell stories.

A similar rescue tale recently occurred in the case of the Kitaji Bibles, a pair of leather bound holy books which contain thousands of exquisite ink drawings and Japanese inscriptions made by the Wakayama immigrant Masuo Kitaji, in part while he was imprisoned at Poston, Ariz.

The Bibles were going to be privately sold by a New York gallery, but the sale was stopped by 30 Kitaji family members in the spring of 2017. Informed of the sale via a Rago protest veteran who had been invited to bid on them, the family quickly mobilized to request that the New York auction gallery stop the sale. With the help of civil rights attorneys, they proceeded to acquire the Bibles, now in the Hoover Institution collection at Stanford University.

Jean Sogioka La Spina is the daughter of Gene Sogioka, a Nisei former Disney artist who painted the watercolor in the photo, titled “Dust Storm,” at the Poston concentration camp. He made nearly 150 paintings of Poston while incarcerated there. photo by David Izu

Other objects include a National Archives declassified file that reveals confidential government memos regarding a San Jose family who had “voluntarily” left California — before the freeze order and faced great hardship — before entering Topaz (Central Utah); a dog carving made from a log at Granada (Amache) in Colorado, and a superhero comic book collected at Gila River.

The first “object” that will launch the project represents yet another “lost and found” story. It’s a collection of 134 watercolors made by Gene Sogioka, the former Disney artist whose paintings of Poston were discovered 40 years after he made them, in the attic of an academic building on the campus of Cornell University.

The artist’s daughter, Jean Sogioka La Spina, has spent the last five years researching her family history using her father’s paintings as a touchstone and to form a visual narrative that tells the Sogioka incarceration story and, in so doing, our own complex, communal history.

 

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50 Objects/Stories of the American Japanese Incarceration
Website: www.50objects.org.
Launch date: Feb. 19, 2018
Project team: Nancy Ukai, director; David Izu, art director; Chizu Omori, Emiko Omori, Kimiko Marr. Special advisor: Satsuki Ina
Academic advisors: Franklin Odo, director; Brian Niiya, David Lowenthal, Hana Maruyama
Facebook: 50objectsNikkei

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