Creating Home in Minidoka: Furniture Making in a Japanese American Internment Camp

Presented by: Dr. Shauna Corry

The design of beautiful vernacular artifacts is a hallmark of, and a testament to, the gracious spirit of the over 140,000 Americans of Japanese descent who were incarcerated by the United States Government in internment camps during World War II (Hirasuna, 2005). This presentation focuses on the design and construction of handmade furniture and interior spaces in Minidoka, a Japanese American Internment Camp located in southeastern Idaho. It is part of an ongoing material culture research project exploring how internees created “home” in hostile camp environments (Corry, 2008). In Minidoka, handmade furniture crafted by internees from all walks of life exemplified the vernacular ideal, and contrasted with the work of fellow internee and professional furniture designer, George Nakashima and his mentor, master carpenter, Gentaro Hikogawa (Nakashima, 1981). A content analysis of 150 interior photographs, combined with a review of historical interviews, personal histories, and biographies in relationship to the development of interior spaces and furnishings provided the data set for this study. The findings celebrate the creativity and ingenuity of Japanese American internees in designing and constructing furnishings to develop and enhance supportive living environments. Minidoka internees created necessary furnishings, along with art pieces, from scrap lumber and greasewood to make life easier, and perhaps more bearable in the camps (Dusselier, 2008). Further, this study compares and contrasts vernacular designs with furniture and interiors designed and constructed in Minidoka by George Nakashima. Although, Nakashima had designed furniture before being interned, it was in the camp he learned traditional Japanese joinery methods and the proper use of tools from master carpenter, Gentaro Hikogawa (Lackey, 2014). The partnership of Nakashima and Hikogawa enhanced the quality of furnishings made, and the development of interior living spaces in Minidoka, culminating with the design of a model apartment to highlight the use of scrap lumber. As in all the camps, Minidoka internees were only allowed to bring what they could carry from their homes. Upon arrival they found unfinished barrack apartments furnished only with cots and coal stoves. Archived photographs of Minidoka show these barracks transformed into livable apartments. Apartments that, although were behind barbed wire and under guard, contributed to the creation of “home” through the design and construction of handmade furniture by the internees themselves.

References:

  • Brooks, S. (2014). Hallowed trees: The furniture of George Nakashima. Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens. September 15. http://morikami.org/hallowed-trees-the-furniture-of-george- nakashima/
  • Corry, S. (2008). An exploration of material culture: creating home in a Japanese American internment camp. IDEC International Conference. Montreal, Canada. March 5-8.
  • Dusselier, J. (2008). Artifacts of loss: crafting survival in Japanese-American concentration camps. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
  • Hirasuna, D. (2005). The art of gaman: Arts and crafts from the Japanese American internment camps 1942-1946. Berkley: Ten Speed Press.
  • Lackey, K. (2014). Art behind barbed wire: Features arts and crafts from Japanese-American internment camps. OPB. August 16. http://www.opb.org/artsandlife/article/art-behind-barbed-wire/
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