Yoshinori “Toso” Himel said he felt sad at first when he saw his late mother’s photo online, listed for sale in an upcoming auction. The picture was taken during a difficult time, when many Japanese were locked up in internment camps during World War II.
His sadness soon hardened into outrage.
“Someone was seeking to make a profit off my mom’s suffering,” said Himel, a retired civil rights lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice who lives in Sacramento’s Pocket neighborhood. “The war destroyed her family.”
Himel and his wife, Barbara Takei, have emerged as leaders of a local group of Japanese Americans who are fighting to keep a New Jersey auction house from selling a collection of crafts, photos and other artifacts from Japanese Americans who spent the war years locked up behind barbed wire.
They have launched a national campaign to stop the April 17 auction by Rago Arts and Auction Center. Their new Facebook group, Japanese American History: NOT for Sale Community, had more than 1,730 likes as of Monday morning.
“It’s like auctioning things taken from victims of the Holocaust or slave auctions or Native American burial grounds,” said Takei, an amateur historian whose family was sent to Tule Lake, one of 10 forced relocation camps scattered across the United States.
Of the more than 120,000 Japanese relocated – 8,000 of them from the Sacramento area – 77,000 were U.S. citizens.
The auction house’s on-line catalogue depicts 15 lots of 450 Japanese internment camp items for sale, including dozens of family name plates, carvings, and a group of 63 photos, including the one of Himel’s mother, Sakiko Shiga.
Takei and Himel are among a growing number of Japanese Americans and historians who reject the term “internment” as a U.S. government’s whitewash of what they say was actually incarceration in concentration camps.
The couple are members of the Florin JACL, an outspoken branch of the national Japanese American Citizens League, which has joined the effort to stop the auction. In a sharp letter to the auction house management, Florin JACL Co-President Andy Noguchi wrote, “I am disgusted by this planned auction’s exploitation of the suffering of 120,000 innocent people in America’s WWII concentration camps.”
Noguchi, Himel and Takei have asked that the artifacts instead be donated to museums, libraries and community centers. “They should widely tell this important story of false imprisonment so that this violation of civil and human rights will never be repeated,” Noguchi said.
The collection belonged to the late Allen H. Eaton, a former Oregon state legislator and anti-war activist who became known as a champion of folk art. At the end of World War II, Eaton visited five incarceration camps to study the handicrafts made there. In 1952, Eaton published a book, “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps,” which included a forward by Eleanor Roosevelt.
The book featured 81 sets of photos of Japanese American artisans and their works. Most of the items came from Wyoming’s Heart Mountain Relocation Center, where thousands of Japanese Americans from California were imprisoned. Eaton died in 1962, and Rago hasn’t disclosed who put his collection up for sale.
Miriam Tucker, co-manager of the auction house, said on Rago’s Facebook page that her client and his family inherited the estate from Eaton’s daughter and is “not in a position to donate it,” as advocates such as Himel and Takei suggest.
Tucker said the auction is not intended to result in the items taken from public view by rich private collectors. “We and the consignor hope that all of this collection will either find its way back to families or into the public domain where it can be available for scholarly research, display and education,” she said.
Tucker said the firestorm of criticism could make it harder for the objects to find an appropriate home. “Sadly, the diatribes on the Facebook campaign page have interfered with Rago’s mediation of a potential private sale to a worthy foundation,” she said, adding that the seller is “greatly offended by the insults he has received in his effort to do the right thing.”
The Heart Mountain Interpretative Center has also weighed in, asking Rago to delay the auction or remove the Japanese American artifacts from the sale so Japanese cultural organizations can have the first chance to buy them, said Brian Liesinger, the center’s executive director.
“There are many priceless pieces in the lots that originated at Heart Mountain; it’s a big concern for us,” Liesinger said.
Himel and others said they don’t see any legal way to stop the auction, however.
“When you really get down to it, Mr. Eaton was given these objects and the family or whoever inherited it has the right to do what they want with it,” said Delphine Hirasuna, a Lodi native and one of the nation’s leading experts on camp art.
For years, Hirasuna said, the Japanese Americans who had been imprisoned were reluctant to talk about it, and objects from the camps were kept mostly in storage. Now, the children and grandchildren of those people are finally learning about what happened to their family members. Against this backdrop, the planned auction “hit a raw nerve,” Hirasuna said.
Hirasuna said many of the objects included in the auction, such as carved bird pins and pins made out of seashells, are relatively common. “There are literally thousands in existence,” she said.
Perhaps the most important items in the auction, Hirasuna said, are two oil paintings, one depicting Japanese Americans swimming in irrigation canals around Heart Mountain and the other showing them leaving the camp to return to California at war’s end. The artist, Estelle Peck Ishigo, was a white woman who accompanied her Japanese husband to the camp.
It’s not clear how Eaton got the Ishigo paintings. Camp residents gave him cigarette boxes made out of string from onion sacks, word carvings, paintings, camp house name plates and other treasures, he wrote in his book. Eaton dedicated the book to his grandfather, who in the 1880s stopped a posse in Grande Ronde Valley Oregon from lynching the town’s Chinese. He wrote in his introduction that he hoped the book would help right “a great wrong” done to Japanese Americans.
Himel said he’s not sure how Eaton got his mother’s photo, which was actually taken in Chicago, where she worked in a photo finish laboratory while her father, a successful businessman from Seattle, was incarcerated in Montana and North Dakota.
In the photo, her mouth is smiling, but her eyes are downcast, Himel said. The picture was used as propaganda by the War Relocation Authority “to mask the tragedy suffered by her and an entire racial group of innocent people,” Himel wrote the auction house.
The response from the auction house has not satisfied Himel and Takei, whose mother was incarcerated in Tule Lake even as her dad served in an all-Japanese infantry battalion that liberated Dachau Concentration Camp.
Takei suggested the collection be donated to the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center.
“There should be no sale,” Himel added. “The few objects that remain are priceless, and selling them is trafficking in our people’s history.”
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Pete Basofin contributed to this report.