If anything encapsulates the smashed-up dreams of the Higuchi family, it would be the blue-and-mustard striped duffel bag with “32206” stenciled in white on the front.
In 1942, the bag was used to transport Chie and Iyekichi Higuchi’s possessions from their fruit-and-vegetable farm in San Jose to an internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo., where they were forced to relocate after the U.S. government decided that they — and thousands of other Japanese Americans — were threats to national security. The Higuchis were allowed to bring only what they could carry. Farm equipment, furniture, personal belongings they wanted to take but didn’t have room for — all were left behind.
Decades later, their granddaughter Shirley Ann Higuchi lays the 3
Duffel bags, quilts, wooden nameplates, exquisitely carved pieces of jewelry: They are artifacts of a shameful period of American history, one little discussed amid the stories of the Greatest Generation. Many of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were rounded up and sent to barren camps in the West and the South were too ashamed or traumatized, their relatives say, to discuss their imprisonment with their children and grandchildren.
So this spring, when the Rago Arts and Auction Center in New Jersey announced a sale of about 450 artifacts created in the camps, it reopened old wounds and sparked outrage from former detainees and their families.
After a threatened injunction and the intervention of “Star Trek” actor George Takei, who spent part of his boyhood in the camps, the auction was canceled. The items, which had been collected by folk-art expert Allen Hendershott Eaton, were acquired by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
The dispute continues, although now it involves where the art should go. Higuchi, chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which prepared legal action to halt the auction and solicited $50,000 in donations to buy the artifacts for twice their estimated value — wants to display some of them at Heart Mountain. Greg Kimura, president and chief executive of the Japanese American National Museum, says he’s willing to arrange a long-term loan, but only after the artifacts — photographs, pins, sculptures and watercolors — have been conserved and catalogued. Depending on whether the museum receives grant money, that process could take years. By then, Higuchi says, the people who were incarcerated may well be gone.
The brouhaha highlights an issue that cultural institutions continually grapple with: Where does art created during hardship ultimately belong? Seventy years after the last of the internment camps were shuttered, the question is especially resonant for the detainees’ descendants, who must decide what to do with the relics they’ve inherited.
Japanese Americans, concentrated on the West Coast, had long been the target of prejudice when, in February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt — bowing to fears of espionage and disloyalty among them — authorized their forced removal. Most of the internees were U.S.-born citizens; many could not read or write Japanese and had never visited Japan. They were taken to 10 government-run camps, most of them in desolate, windswept patches of federal land in six Western states. (Two camps, in Arkansas, were in mosquito-infested swamps.) Housing consisted of military-style barracks, with entire families living in a single room and public latrines and mess halls blocks away. The internees were expected to grow much of their own food and initially were not allowed to bring such metal instruments as scissors, hammers and cooking knives into camp.
But fragments of their normal lives persisted behind the barbed wire and guard towers. The War Relocation Authority, which administered the camps, encouraged the internees to establish schools and chapters of such outside organizations as the YWCA and the Boy Scouts. They also allowed them to organize art classes.
According to Delphine Hirasuna’s book about art in the camps, “The Art of Gaman,” the internees used any material they could find: packing crates and cardboard boxes for backing; wrapping paper for origami and floral bouquets; burlap for rugs; string from onion sacks to decorate baskets. Toothbrush handles were shaped into pendants and trinkets. (“Gaman” is a Japanese word for enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.)
After the camps began closing in 1944, the internees, many of whom didn’t know where they would live, discarded much of their artwork because it seemed too insignificant to ship, Hirasuna wrote. The things carried home were tossed into garages and sheds, or stored in attics or basements.
While the camps were operating, Eaton, a former art professor at the University of Oregon and the author of a book on Appalachian crafts, approached the head of the WRA about mounting an exhibition of camp handicrafts. Eaton toured the camps in the summer of 1945, and several artists offered him samples of their work. The exhibition never materialized, but Eaton wrote a book, “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our Relocation Camps.” Eaton, who died in 1962, willed his collection to his daughter, Martha. She sold some items to Thomas Ryan, a contractor who had repaired her house after a fire, and willed him the rest. He passed them on to his son, John, who arranged the sale with Rago.
When news of the auction began circulating, Japanese Americans poured their distress into a Facebook page, “Japanese American History: NOT for Sale,” a Change.org petition to withdraw the items, and letters to Rago. Several pointed to a key passage in Eaton’s book that indicates the artists gave him their work with the understanding that it would be part of an exhibition and not end up in a private collection: “It was my intention . . . to purchase a number of objects for an exhibition which I hoped could be circulated throughout the country, but I found that few of the craftsmen had any thought of selling the things they had made; they were saving them as ‘going away gifts,’ or to send to friends outside of camp, or just to keep in the family. They offered to give me things to the point of embarrassment, but not to sell them.”
Seeing those artifacts and old photos up for sale to the highest bidder was a fresh blow. Retired government lawyer Yoshinori H.T. Himel, who discovered that a photo of his mother was among the items, wrote to Rago that “the government used this young woman’s smiling likeness to mask the tragedy suffered by her and an entire racial group of innocent people. Each item donated to the collector and offered by the consignor was a product of that injustice. To profit from these items is a second injustice.”
Rago officials declined to comment for this article. But after they canceled the auction, they issued a statement saying they hadn’t anticipated the uproar.
“There is an essential discussion to be had about the sale of historical items that are a legacy of man’s inhumanity to man,” the officials wrote. “It extends beyond what is legal. It is something auction houses, galleries, and dealers are faced with regularly. We hope this controversy will be the beginning of a discourse on this issue.”
Kimura, of the Japanese American National Museum, was relieved when Takei, a founding member, stepped in to help stop the auction and ensure that the artifacts went to the museum. (A nondisclosure agreement forbids discussion of the terms, Kimura says.) He was worried that it would lose the collection to a university, a general-interest museum or a library. Kimura’s father was born in the Minidoka, Idaho, internment camp, and he watched his relatives testify before a government commission in the 1980s about their lives behind barbed wire. “Everybody on my Japanese side was incarcerated. Everybody,” he says. “It’s the great before and after of my family’s history, and so the story is not an abstraction to me. It was a deeply personal experience.”
Kimura says the museum’s emphasis on Japanese history, its location among the largest concentration of Japanese Americans in the United States and its partnership with the Smithsonian Institution make it the logical place to house the artifacts. “No other institution will care for and love these artifacts and have the ability to take care of them in perpetuity,” he says.
Kimura’s view riles Higuchi, whose parents met at Heart Mountain and never talked about camp life. When her mother was on her deathbed, Higuchi discovered that she had been sending contributions to Heart Mountain and had hoped that a memorial could be built there. Higuchi has been on the board of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation for 10 years and was its chair when the camp’s interpretive center opened in 2011.
Higuchi’s passion for preserving the camp’s history made her eager to acquire 14 oils and watercolors in the Eaton collection painted by Estelle Ishigo, a white woman who volunteered to join her husband at Heart Mountain. Ishigo painted arresting scenes of camp life, including one well-known picture of internees struggling through the snowdrifts of an unfamiliar harsh winter. A book that Ishigo wrote about the camp inspired a film, “Days of Waiting: The Life & Art of Estelle Ishigo,” which won an Academy Award for best short-subject documentary in 1991. Her ashes were scattered on Heart Mountain.
“We see Estelle Ishigo as family, and we’d like her artwork to be with her,” Higuchi says. “If you ask Estelle where she’d want her artwork displayed, it would be at Heart Mountain.” She notes that the center, about 65 miles east of Yellowstone National Park, attracts visitors from around the world and that staff members could work with other regional museums if necessary to preserve the Eaton artifacts.
Most significantly, Higuchi says, the people who remember Ishigo — who watched her paint, who discovered her living in extreme poverty in her old age and who cared for her until she died — should be allowed to see her work immediately. Heart Mountain, she says, is more than an interpretive center — it’s a place for detainees to heal.
“I just can’t imagine anyone having that emotional connection at a museum in L.A.,” Higuchi says. “It’s a wonderful museum; it’s needed. But it’s a different kind of connection. For the Japanese American community, there is something about being able to see something at the site where you were imprisoned and where the person who created the art was imprisoned that makes that work more complete and meaningful.”
But Kimura says that the Eaton collection derives its power from remaining intact and that it should be housed where many people can see it. He says he has been as open as possible about the timeline for conserving the artifacts and organizing a traveling exhibition. “People may not entirely understand what it takes to put on an exhibit and conserve items that have been in a basement for 70 years,” he says. “Some of them are in really rough shape.”
It would seem that two people whose parents were incarcerated in the camps and who prevented the sale of artifacts created there could find a way to cooperate on what to do with them. Higuchi and Kimura have devoted their lives to ensuring that the story of how the United States treated its own citizens in World War II is never forgotten. But a solution has proven elusive, which at least one expert in American memorial culture says is not surprising, given the compelling arguments on both sides.
“It speaks to the power of artifacts, the power of memory, the power of commemoration,” says Edward Linenthal, a professor at Indiana University and the editor of the Journal of American History. “Where is their resonance most powerful? Who gets to decide? These are great questions for people to talk about.”