During their tour of “The Art of Gaman,” Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko look at brooches made by internees. Among those looking on are Professor Masato Satsuma of Tokyo University of the Arts Museum and Delphine Hirasuna. (Photo courtesy of NHK)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Delphine Hirasuna never dreamed that her modest project to preserve a little-known aspect of the Japanese American wartime experience would lead to a national tour of Japan and an audience with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

In 2005, Hirasuna, editor of @issue: The Online Journal of Business and Design, put together a book, “The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946,” with designer Kit Hinrichs and photographer Terry Heffernan. For the book and a traveling exhibit that she curated, she collected a variety of hand-made items — paintings, sculptures, clothing, furniture, toys, teapots, and brooches, to name a few.

The items were initially made from whatever materials were available, such as scrap wood. Later, materials could be ordered from outside camp. Many of the artists had no formal training and did not pursue their crafts after the war. In many cases, the artists had passed away and their families kept the objects stashed away in attics and closets.

Hirasuna, a San Francisco resident whom long-time Rafu readers may remember for her column, “Kaleidoscope,” chose the word gaman — to endure hardship with dignity — because the objects represented to her “a triumph of the human spirit over adversity.” The book and exhibit were also an effective vehicle to educate the public about the camps.

The Smithsonian Institution asked her to take the exhibit to Washington, D.C., where it was on display from March 2010 to January 2011. That in turn led to the Japan tour.

“An anchorwoman at NHK (Hiroko Kuniya) heard about the Smithsonian show,” Hirasuna explained. “Of all places, she was reading her neighbor’s cat blog. Her neighbor had just come back from Washington and was raving about the Smithsonian show … (Kuniya) borrowed the book and decided that NHK should do a program about the show … They sent a film crew out.”

The episode of NHK’s “Close-up Gendai,” which included interviews with Hirasuna and former internees, aired in the fall of 2010 and was seen by about 18.5 million people. So many viewers wanted to see the exhibit that NHK contacted Hirasuna and offered to sponsor a tour of Japan.

A meeting with NHK had to be cancelled following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region, and Hirasuna figured that the project was dead. But a week or two later, “I got a call saying several people think it’s more important than ever to bring the show to Japan because it really shows the resilience of people — a very uplifting story.”

By that time, she had already committed to shows in Illinois, Georgia and New Mexico and was dealing with 12 additional requests, so the first leg of the Japan tour — at Tokyo University of the Arts’ University Art Museum — did not happen until just recently, Nov. 3 to Dec. 9.

Next year, the show will travel to Fukushima (Feb. 9-March 11), Sendai (May 5-18), Okinawa (June 1-30), and Hiroshima (July 20-Sept. 1).

Recalled to Japan

Hirasuna was in Tokyo for most of November. The show was very well received, attracting some 56,000 people — an amazing number, she noted, since “it would have been considered a huge success if they had 35,000.”

Poster for the Tokyo exhibition. The Japanese title is “Songen no Geijutsu.”

Within a week of returning home, she went to Arkansas with her aunt and cousin to be interviewed for a PBS documentary about the Rohwer camp. Shortly after arriving at the hotel, she got a phone call: “Can you come back to Japan? The emperor and empress would like to see you.”

Because the show was closing within a week, she flew to Tokyo as soon as she could.

“NHK said they didn’t approach the emperor and empress. The imperial household approached them and said they were interested in seeing the exhibition, so it really was their idea,” Hirasuna said. “So to me that was a double honor. It wasn’t some behind-the-scenes PR, it was strictly their interest in seeing the show.”

According to Japanese media reports, while looking at chairs, tansu and other pieces of furniture made by internees, the emperor asked, “Did they make their own tools?” Upon seeing sennin-bari — a thousand-stitch belt intended to protect a warrior from harm — the empress reflected, “I made those, too.” The Japanese custom was continued in the camps, where women made the belts for Nisei soldiers heading for the battlefields of Europe.

Before meeting the imperial couple, Hirasuna was nervous. “I practiced bowing. I was really worried because maybe I wouldn’t bow well enough. Several of my friends were demonstrating how to do it, and I wasn’t getting it right. I was concerned about insulting them inadvertently.”

Hirasuna was in a receiving line along with Professor Masato Satsuma of Tokyo University of the Arts, who was in charge of the exhibition, U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos, and other university and NHK officials. “When the empress got to me, she stuck out her hand … saying she was pleased to meet me. That was a relief that I didn’t have to try to bow.”

Although Hirasuna had a translator, she found that “the empress speaks excellent English, very fluent. She speaks sort of with a British accent.”

Hirasuna’s impressions of the imperial couple: “They were genuinely nice people … You see people who go through the formalities (but) you can tell that these people were very sensitive and nice and genuinely interested in the subject … I like them as people, although I was really impressed that I was standing before the empress and emperor.”

The protocol for the visit was fascinating to Hirasuna. “They have this thing mapped out to the second … After a 20-minute tour of the gallery, the six of us (from the receiving line) and the emperor and empress were led into a private room. No one else was allowed in. They asked any questions they wanted … I can’t remember what they asked me. It was a very quiet discussion. After exactly 20 minutes, one of the aides came in, bowed, and they were led out.”

She does remember telling the emperor and empress how thrilled her grandmother was to travel to San Francisco and meet Emperor Hirohito (Akihito’s father) in 1975. “It was a big deal for Issei women at that time … an unbelievable moment in their lives.”

During the meeting, Hirasuna said, she couldn’t help thinking, “I wish Obaachan and Ojiichan and my parents were here to see this … I think they would have been just agog.”

Emotional Reaction

Hirasuna was pleased that the Japanese media gave the exhibition so much coverage. In particular, she was glad that “they have been giving more attention to what happened to Japanese Americans … presenting not so much the hardships they went through but the way they comported themselves … In some ways, hopefully, (the exhibit) bestows a certain dignity on Japanese Americans that maybe wasn’t there before.”

The Japanese title is “Songen no Geijutsu,” which means “The Art of Dignity.” While gaman has a positive connotation for many Japanese Americans, she said, “I think that in Japan after the war it was more like caving in to authority, not standing up for your rights.”

When Hirasuna came up with the title for the book, “It never occurred to me that the book would go beyond the U.S. … It really captured what was the main word that the Issei and Nisei said after the war, so it seemed appropriate for all kinds of reasons.”

Whatever the title, the Tokyo exhibit got a strong response. “A lot of people were crying,” Hirasuna said. “… The museum said they’ve never had an exhibit where people … have tears in their eyes. They were really moved. It was very emotional for them.”

When giving her slide presentation, Hirasuna has found that both Japanese and American audiences are “stunned” because they knew so little about the internment. Audiences in both countries have been impressed by the beauty and variety of the works, and the skill and imagination of the artisans.

But for Japanese visitors, there is something more, Hirasuna observed. “I think the other thing that really touches them is that so many of the artworks created by people in camp have Japanese themes — Japanese dolls, inkwells … so the kind of things they made look like they could have been made in Japan.”

One visitor told Hirasuna that the exhibit “touched them because when they saw the objects, they identified with the people. These were people like them, of Japanese heritage, so it wasn’t a foreign thing.”

Photos of internees reminded older visitors of themselves and younger visitors of their parents or grandparents; some of the carvings depicted characters from Japanese folklore; and even a baseball banner is written in Japanese, Hirasuna added.

On the last day of show, after news of the imperial visit had been broadcast, “the lines were so long you couldn’t get into the museum.”

Hirasuna is a bit under the weather after two whirlwind trips to Japan in less than two months, and has no plans to accompany the exhibit on the rest of the tour. But she never knows what to expect since “The Art of Gaman” has, in her words, “taken on a life of its own.”

From left: Professor Masato Satsuma, Tokyo University of the Arts Museum, who was in charge of handling the exhibition; Izuru Seki, director, Department of Japanese Painting, University Art Museum-Tokyo University of the Arts; Ryohei Miyata, president, Tokyo University of the Arts; U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos; Delphine Hirasuna; Masayuki Matsumoto, president, NHK Corp.; Hiroko Kuniya, NHK anchor. (Photo courtesy of NHK)

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  1. Hello.

    I was very impressed by “Close-up Gendai” introducing “The art of Gaman” though I was not able to see the exhibition. It explained a lot about Japanese American people, their way of thinking, activities and culture.

    I work for Municipal office of International Exchange and sister city exchange program is a big part of my work. One of our sister cities in California has a lot of Japanese American people and they support all the exchange between two countries since 1959. Those Japanese American people, specially San-sei(3rd generation) are always very patient and phusiastic which we feel their deep unchangeable love towards their home country.
    Now, they must be very honored that empelor and empless spent their time to see the art of japanese American people.

    I personally appreciate all the people who organized this exhibition for their time and contribution.
    Thank you very much.