Internment camp artifacts go to Japanese American museum

Barbara Takei holds her mother’s cigarette holder made from string and her mother’s military ID.
Barbara Takei holds her mother’s cigarette holder made from string and her mother’s military ID. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

On the heels of a campaign launched in Sacramento to save 450 Japanese internment-camp artifacts from a New Jersey auction block, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles has announced it has acquired the rare collection.

The museum got a big assist from its board chairman emeritus, actor and activist George Takei. Best known for his role on TV’s “Star Trek,” Takei had contacted David Rago, founder of New Jersey’s Rago Arts and Auction Center, after thousands of Japanese Americans took to social media to protest the auction. An influential Facebook page – Japanese American History NOT for Sale – was started in Sacramento.

Takei helped find a home for the artifacts after the Rago organization said in mid-April that it would no longer auction them off.

“Taking the auction off the calendar was a great victory for the Japanese American community and its friends,” said Sacramento resident Yoshinori “Toso” Himel, an organizer of the “NOT for Sale” campaign. “A second victory was the announcement that now the items will be in a community institution.”

When Himel and his wife, Japanese American historian Barbara Takei (no relation to George Takei), saw an unlabeled photo of Himel’s mother earlier this year in one of the 23 lots up for auction, the couple joined forces with other Sacramento Japanese Americans, including the Florin Japanese American Citizens League, to oppose the public sale.

George Takei, who gained fame as “Star Trek’s” Mr. Sulu, also swung into action. He told the Los Angeles Times he wrote a check to help obtain the artifacts, which had come into the possession of the John Ryan family of Connecticut. Rago had said the Ryans were not in the financial position to donate the collection, worth an estimated $27,000.

“All of us can take to heart that our voices were heard and that these items will be preserved and the people who created them during a very dark period in our history will be honored,” said Takei, who as a boy was among the more than 120,000 Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during World War II. “The collection will now reside at the preeminent American museum that tells the story of the Japanese American experience.”

The acquisition of the artifacts was announced Saturday night at JANM’s gala fundraiser in Century City, where Takei received the museum’s Distinguished Medal of Honor For Lifetime Achievement. The artifacts include carvings, sculptures, paintings, photographs and other personal items camp residents gave as gifts to author Allen H. Eaton, who told their story in his 1952 book “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps.”

Nearly all the artifacts came from the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming, where more than 14,000 Japanese Americans were locked up between 1942 and 1945. Eaton died in 1962 and the items passed to his heirs and later to the Ryans, described as family friends.

“JANM’s acquisition ensures these artifacts will be properly preserved and honors the interests of Japanese Americans across the country who expressed concern for the future of these items,” museum officials said in a statement.

“The mission of the Japanese American National Museum is to share this story,” added JANM President and CEO Greg Kimura. “We honor the sacrifice of our forebears who suffered to prove their loyalty to the U.S. by ensuring that such constitutional violations never happen again. The objects tell an important story for all Americans about the creativity and resilience of the human spirit, even in the face of extreme racial prejudice.”

Last month Rago’s managing partner Miriam Tucker said: “There is an essential discussion to be had about the sale of historical items that are a legacy of man’s inhumanity to man.”

Himel, also the founding president of the Asian/Pacific Bar Association of California, said the artifacts need to be interpreted and placed in their proper context. He said his mother’s photo, which shows her smiling while her eyes are downcast, 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 said he’d like to see his mother’s photo eventually go to the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle, where she and her family lived before being split up during the war.

Thanks to the Japanese American History NOT For Sale Facebook page, “a number of descendants have stepped forward with more information about some of the items,” said Himel, who would like to know more about how the artifacts will be identified and displayed. The JANM already has a sizable collection of artifacts and art objects from the camps, museum officials said.

Barbara Takei said that the proposed auction led thousands of Japanese Americans to “express their collective sense of violation. ... These (artifacts) represent our civil rights heritage and should never be treated as commercial or decorative items, to be sold to the highest bidder.”

The Japanese American activists who came together “are relieved that a Japanese American community institution will be determining what will happen to these artifacts,” she said.

Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.

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