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Beauty in the darkest days at a Japanese internment camp

Shiyogi Kawabata, 88, worked on a wooden chain (below) while interned at Minidoka, a Japanese internment camp in Idaho.
KUOW Photo/Marcie Sillman
Shiyogi Kawabata, 88, worked on a wooden chain (below) while interned at Minidoka, a Japanese internment camp in Idaho.

At 88, Shiyoji Kawabata remembers the harsh conditions he and his family endured in the Minidoka Relocation Center during World War II.

Ticks. Coyotes. Scorpions. Black widow spiders.

It was blazing hot in summer, freezing in winter.

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“I felt sorry for the people from California,” Kawabata says. “They were sent to the high country over here, with only light clothing.”

Thousands of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were sent to internment camps after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. They were ordered there by President Franklin Roosevelt.

The Kawabatas were forced to leave their farm in Fife, Washington, where they grew berries. In Minidoka, in Idaho, Shiyoji’s father worked as a carpenter. He earned a mere $16 a month to support his wife and six children.

Although 12-year-old Shiyoji went to the camp school, he preferred to work with his hands. His father gave him a piece of wood and a carving knife. The boy set to work creating a delicate chain of interlocking wooden circles.

“We had a lot of time to do things,” he says, chuckling.

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Kawabata’s chain is among the items on display at Auburn’s White River Valley Museum, part of the exhibition, “Handmade in Camp: What We Couldn’t Carry.” The show chronicles the internment of local Japanese-Americans, like the Kawabatas, and presents some of the crafts and artworks they created during their years in the camps.

The items range from decorative artwork, like Kawabata’s wooden chain, to more practical things like patchwork quilts or pieces of furniture. These aren’t necessarily museum-quality artifacts, although some small paintings are on loan from the Tacoma Art Museum collection.

Most of the items were preserved by the owners and their descendants  for personal, rather aesthetic or historical, value.

After World War II ended and Minidoka closed, the Kawabatas returned to Fife, where Shiyoji finished high school. Eventually, he moved to Seattle to study auto mechanics, a trade he practiced for 40 years.

Kawabata’s wooden chain serves as a tangible reminder of Minidoka, but he doesn’t dwell on those years in the camp; shikata ga nai, he says. It can’t be helped.

He marvels at how much things have changed since then.

“I was scared when I was walking down the road; I might get beat up,” Kawabata says. “Now I go to the ball games, and they’re all rooting for Ichiro!”

Shiyoji Kawabata never thought of himself as an artist, but from time to time, he still tackles a woodworking job for the White River Buddhist temple. He finds pleasure in work well done.

“I don’t want somebody to say, ‘Hey, that was good and praise me!’” he exclaims. “You just do it, and the self satisfaction makes you feel good, in here.” He taps his chest.

“Handmade in Camp: What We Couldn’t Carry” is at the White River Valley Museum in Auburn, through Nov. 6, 2016.