Objects speak to us. They speak for their owners, for their everyday lives, their dreams, hopes and despair.

Even before this controversy with the auction of Japanese American artifacts came up, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the treasures hidden in attics and garages.

With the passing of each day, we lose another Nisei who recalls first-hand the dusty winds of Poston and Manzanar, the bitter snowy nights in Heart Mountain, the swampy heat of Jerome. In time they will all be gone, but the objects will remain.

So when the New Jersey-based Rago Art auction house posted the Japanese American artifacts from the Allen H. Eaton collection, it touched a collective nerve in the community. How can you attach a price to pain of this scale? How can you make a profit on the suffering of an entire people?

A paper fan from the Fresno Fish Market found by Mae (Matsubara) Kumagai during spring cleaning. Her daughter Sharon Kumagai has donated it to the Fresno Historical Society. (Courtesy Sharon Kumagai)
Above and below: A paper fan from the Fresno Fish Market found by Mae (Matsubara) Kumagai during spring cleaning. Her daughter Sharon Kumagai has donated it to the Fresno Historical Society. (Courtesy Sharon Kumagai)

It reopens a wound for Japanese Americans who were so mistreated by their own government over 70 years ago. The Rago auction hit so close to home because those scars have yet to fully heal.

A price on pain? The reality is that there is a price on everything these days: just check eBay and you’ll find all sorts of items up for sale. Shows like “Storage Wars” or PBS’ long-running “Antiques Roadshow” offer the enticing dream that something hidden away in your house will be appraised for huge bucks.

If Rago and the consigner had the best intentions, they didn’t do themselves any favors when it was revealed last Tuesday that they rejected the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation’s above-the-asking-price offer ($50,000 according to The New York Times) to purchase the entire collection. It would have quietly ended this kerfuffle before it even happened, the consigner would have received their money and HMWF would add important pieces to their collection.

Apparently, cultural preservation can take a backseat to cold, hard cash.

But now Rago and the consigner have given in to pressure and have agreed to stop the online sale. That it took the collective outrage of an entire community to stop the auction, mere days before it was to start, is kind of an outrage in itself.

No auction house would have considered offering a batch of items created by Jewish concentration camp victims, and as Mia Monnier’s thoughtful piece on the auction explained, Native American items are banned from auction by federal law. So it would seem we still have a lot of work to do educate the outside community on the Japanese American story.

This auction has truly galvanized the JA community. I think Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation and the creators of the Facebook page “Japanese American History: Not for Sale” should be applauded for taking the lead on this issue. I hope the artifacts eventually find a home in the right place, that will ensure the Japanese American community that the wishes of Mr. Eaton and the incarcerees who placed their trust in him have been realized.

fresno fish2The challenge goes beyond one online auction. There are attics, closets and garages filled with objects that tell stories. Some of these items may help a museum tell a part of Japanese American history. Other objects may tell an important part of your own history, the story of your family. A baseball, an old yearbook, a box of faded photos: these objects all have meaning.

My friend Sharon Kumagai recently posted on Facebook a lovely photo of Japanese paper fans found by her mom Mae (Matsubara) Kumagai as she was doing some spring cleaning at her home in L.A. The fans are from the Fresno Fish Market and Komoto’s Department Store, which was located on Kern Street in the Chinatown section of Fresno.

The delicate fans evoke hot afternoons in the Central Valley, when Japanese Americans would flock to stores like Komoto’s for clothing and sundries. Sharon remembered going to Komoto’s to pick up Japanese magazines for her grandparents, whom she visited during the summer.

Sharon was able to contact the Fresno Historical Society, which gratefully accepted a fan; a Facebook friend also got her in touch with Brian Komoto, a grandchild of the Komotos, who lives in Delano and owns a pharmacy. Thanks to Sharon and her mom, a piece of the Komoto family history has been restored.

And Mae and Sharon aren’t done! As Sharon writes: “Since my mom is spring cleaning, she found another gem. A souvenir book for the 8th Annual Bussei Carnival sponsored by the YBA in Fresno, dated July 3-4, 1953. I contacted a relative to find out if the Buddhist Church in Fresno is collecting historical items. This is kinda fun to be a finder of places to send ‘old treasures’ to be preserved.”

Not every object found in an attic or closet will be museum-worthy. A museum has to look at issues such as provenance, rarity and importance, but that doesn’t mean every object doesn’t have value.

My auntie Yo Kosaka was a bright young woman who helped to make camouflage nets at the Santa Anita Assembly Center, but the object of hers that I treasure isn’t from the war. After moving back from Rohwer to Chicago to Gardena, she and my uncle Pancho retired to Lodi in the Central Valley. In Lodi, Yo truly blossomed, becoming active in the senior community center, taking line dancing classes and painting these small porcelain figurines. We once talked about the figurines on a visit to her home.

When she passed away in January 2005, my dad and I went to the funeral. It was a cold, mournful time, made more so by the sudden passing of the late Rep. Bob Matsui. I went to Sacramento with photographer Mario Reyes to cover Matsui’s funeral at the State Capitol, and then back to Lodi to be with family.

When it was time to return home from Lodi, I took a small porcelain figure of a teddy bear that Yo had painted. Every time I look at it I see her kind smile, her quiet manner and her love of the casinos.

I hope Rafu readers will look into their closets and report on the treasures they have. Sharing stories helps keep the memory of our loved ones alive. Objects tell stories; we just have to take the time to listen.


Gwen Muranaka, English editor-in-chief of The Rafu Shimpo, can be contacted at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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  1. I wonder how many realize that Friday, the day set for the auction of the camp artifacts is also the Holocast
    Remembrance Day.