Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Artifacts contain our cultural history, that’s why they’re so precious
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Artifacts contain our cultural history, that’s why they’re so precious

Hand-carved wood panels made in Amache in Colorado during WWII. These were among the items  that would have been auctioned. Hand-carved wood panels made in Amache in Colorado during WWII. These were among the items that would have been auctioned. Here’s a link to the announcement on JANM’s website.
UPDATE MAY 3, 2015:T he Japanese American National Museum announced last night at a gala fundraising honoring George Takei (who’s a JANM board member as well as a community activist) that with Takei’s help, the museum will take in the collection of Japanese American concentration camp artifacts that were originally slated to go to public auction. This is great news, and a brilliant public relations move by JANM and its CEO, Greg Kimura. When can we expect to see the “Eaton Collection Exhibit?” Here’s the Facebook Page, “Japanese American History: NOT for Sale,” with announcements and reactions from the community.

I’ve watched the news in horror as ISIS forces have systematically destroyed ancient mosques, temples, artwork and artifacts in their zealous pursuit of religious absolutism. It’s patently offensive to me that there could be such callous disregard for an entire civilization’s recorded and preserved history.

Compared to such crimes against humanity, some people might think that the auction of a personal collection of artifacts from the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II must be a minor controversy.

But the auction, which was to be held April 17, was canceled two days before, following an ad-hoc social media campaign and mainstream media coverage that was sparked by outraged Japanese Americans, was not a minor controversy.

It blew up into a big deal. A Facebook page named “Japanese American History: NOT for Sale” gained almost 7,000 followers after it was created on April 9. A online petition created just a few days before the auction got almost 8,000 people signed on.

If you hadn’t heard about this controversy, you’re probably not Asian American. Between digital social media and word-of-mouth, it seemed every JA, and many Asian Americans were talking about the auction. Here are the basics:
At the end of World War II, a white American folk-arts expert named Allen Hendershott Eaton traveled to some of the Japanese American concentration camps where 120,000 people of Japanese heritage (more than half were American-born US citizens) were imprisoned, and photographed prisoners and received arts and crafts from them. A critic of the camps, Eaton published a book in 1952, “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps,” which featured a foreward by Eleanor Roosevelt, whose husband President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had signed the Executive Order 9066 which cleared the way for the concentration camps in the first place.

From Eaton’s family the collection of art, artifacts and photographs were given to another family, the Ryans, after the death of Eaton’s widow. The artifacts were stored by the Ryans for over two decades, but apparently a family member needed money, and a New Jersey auction house, Rago, announced the proposed sale.

That’s when it all hit the fan.

Critics called the auction unethical and immoral, and almost everyone wanted the collection donated to a museum. Some critics wondered about the provenance – the trail of ownership that led to the Ryans’ possession. The founders of the Facebook protest page, Yoshinori Himel and his wife Barbara Takei, saw that a photo of his mother was up for sale, and wondered how that found its way into the Eaton collection since it was taken after she left a concentration camp and was working in Chicago. The New York Times reported on some legal wrangling that went on between the Eaton family and the Ryans after the collection was willed to the Ryans (the judge ruled that the Ryans owned the artifacts).

The Ryan family and Rago Auction House turned down an offer for the entire collection from the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (many of the artifacts came from the Heart Mountain concentration camp), even though it was double the estimated take from the sale. The family said they wanted to let other museums or foundations have a shot at the collection too.

Decisions like that add to the sense that greed was driving this sale. Even though after it was canceled, both the family and auction house made statements about wanting the artifacts to go to an appropriate organization that would make them available to the public for educational purposes.

I don’t necessarily think the family was greedy. I think they thought they owned some old things of value, and they needed the money. It’s the same reason we might put a family heirloom up for sale on eBay, or that old carved fork and spoon set from the Philippines at a garage sale. And let’s face it, history is bought and sold every day at auctions and via private transactions – American Indian artifacts, Asian artifacts, the flotsam and jetsam of wartime, rise and falls of civilizations, the inexorable march of progress.

But this history is different.

The Ryan family and Rago miscalculated the actual value of these items. These aren’t just markers of history. They’re what remain of a deeply traumatizing experience that is specific to one group of people. And many of those people are still alive, and still remember what these artifacts meant to them and their parents, to their families. They still feel the pain of incarceration, even generations later.

They’re the containers for entire families’ history, identity and decades of unspoken emotions. They tell stories about the America of seven decades past. And the auction would have been an unfortunate story about America of today.

This auction was averted because of the groundswell of community protest and action, and because of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation’s threat of a lawsuit, and because George Takei, a beloved spokesperson for the JA experience, stepped in and offered to be a mediator between the Ryan family and various appropriate institutions to take ownership of the collection.

Though the media coverage may pass for now, the auction is still on my mind, because I just visited the Japanese American National Museum in LA, and enjoyed the pop-culture richness of its super successful Hello Kitty exhibit. The collection of cuteness has drawn a huge number of people who wouldn’t normally step in a JA museum because Hello Kitty is so lovable across all cultures. And JANM did a brilliant thing with the show. Old and young, no matter what ethnicity, you walk through the collection of Hello Kitty stuff, the upstairs to the gallery where an amazing exhibit of artwork is on display, of Hello Kitty interpretations by contemporary artists. And when you’ve seen all the cool art, you’re led right into… JANM’s signature permanent exhibit about the Japanese American concentration camps. You have to walk through this part of the museum before you can leave.

What a powerful way to educate people who may not know anything about our community’s WWII experience!

One of the most affecting parts of the JANM internment exhibit is a glass-covered grid of every concentration camp, that you can stand on, and look down at soil collected from each camp, with everyday artifacts from those camps scattered in the grid as if they were left behind when the families moved out. Many JA families who have incarceration in their past probably have relics passed down through the generations. My wife has a knife that was hammered from a piece of metal in camp, with a handmade wooden handle attached. It was given to her by her grandmother.

The auction is also still in my head because I’m one of the volunteer JAs writing a small caption for an artifact from Amache, the concentration camp in southeast Colorado, that will be included in an exhibit next month. A group of archeology students from Denver University have been digging there for year now and have cataloged a fascinating collection of items – not necessarily arts and crafts made by prisoners, but bits and pieces of their daily lives, like Log Cabin pancake syrup tins, soda pop bottles, pieces of crockery, plates, lots of ephemera that reveal there was once a city of 9,000 people who lived in a desolate windswept corner of the state.

I’m working with a student who’s writing a factual description of a tiny artifact we’ve been assigned: a toy of a man on a horse with parts broken off. The DU team has already done a lot of research and figured out from the shape and the metal alloy that the piece is made of, that it was a toy inside a box of Cracker Jack from 1939-1941.

It was found in front of the entrance to the Yokoyama family’s single-room barrack. The family had a mom and dad, two daughters and a son. Kenji Yokoyama was 34 years old when his family was imprisoned at Amache. Yoshio, the son, was probably the one who played with this toy. It’s easy to imagine this young boy who ate a box of Cracker Jack and eagerly opened the packet with the man on a horse. He played with it in the dirt in front of the family’s room at the prison camp, and tried to make his life as normal as possible. Somewhere along the line, it got lost, or dropped, or maybe it chipped from playing, and was just discarded.

This tiny fragment of a mass-produced toy is a key to an entire life. So of course the handmade arts and crafts of camp life matters. Of course people would protest if you tried to auction off the collection of such artifacts to the highest bidder.

What were they thinking?

By the way, these kinds of artifacts have been celebrated by the book and traveling exhibition “The Art of Gaman,” which was first organized by the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Art with the help of the original book’s author Delphine Hirasuna, who was inspired by a beautifully carved bird pin she found in her mother’s belongings which had been made in a concentration camp. The book led to the first exhibition, which led to other exhibits and to a long run at the Smithsonian Institute. It’s currently on display at the Holocaust Museum in Houston, through Sept. 20, 2015.