“Oh yeah, I think we have some of those somewhere,” my mum said when I asked her about what I’d seen at the San Jose Japanese American museum.
I was 20 years old and an undergrad at UC Berkeley at the time. My Asian American studies class had just visited the museum and, although it wasn’t the focus of the trip, a glass case filled with hand-carved wooden pins stuck with me. Many were in the shape of birds, and all of them were delicately beautiful; they looked like something that would be sold for $400 at Anthropologie. But these pins had history and a story that’s deeply personal to me; souls and stories hiding in their lacquered beauty.
My professor explained to us that the pins were all made from materials found inside the multiple American camps that held 120,000 people of Japanese descent from 1942 through 1945. This included my Grandma Emi, who was there starting in 1942, when she was just 10 years old. Photography within the camps wasn’t allowed except for the rare makeshift camera, and the government-sanctioned pictures that do exist are black-and-white, which can make them seem bleak and dusty since many of the camps were in deserts.
That’s what caught my eye that day. I had never seen something colourful for decoration from such a shameful time in history. The pins made my heart swell. I became truly obsessed with them when I learned what they were for.
According to historical accounts, Japanese families who were interned couldn’t shop at local stores and were only allowed to order new clothes or fabric to sew their own clothes from a handful of mail-order catalogues. As a result, my professor said women would find themselves all wearing very similar coats. Nowadays, wearing the same outfit everyday may seem cool in a minimalist way. But for people who are incarcerated or detained, having to wear the same outfit as your peers has always been a standard. Uniforms signify discipline in some way or another, which is why some schools enforce this as a policy as well.
The pins struck me as a small and dignified act of rebellion. They are a symbol of defiance to the idea that all Japanese Americans shared a single identity or that their forced captivity would obliterate their creative spirit. After Executive Order 9066, which told all Japanese Americans to report to temporary detention centres (some of which were horse stalls), families were told to only bring what they could carry in their hands. It’s easy to see how quickly being assigned a sterile barrack number by a faceless government official could make someone feel like they’re not an individual. And that’s perhaps one of the cruelest things about involuntary detention: You take from a person their sense of self. To me, the pins were an incredibly scrappy defence against that evil.
After a while, the magic of my visit began to fade the way memories do until I started bringing up the pins, coats, and the overall history of Japanese internment and consistently got blank stares. As the granddaughter of people who were subjected to grave and humiliating violations of their rights, I’m intimately aware of America’s racist past. I sometimes worry not everyone is. I worry that the world is forgetting what happened.
It’s common for the children and grandchildren of internees to say that their families don’t talk about camp, and that’s mainly been my experience. My 89-year-old grandma has always been open with me when I ask about it, but she wouldn’t bring it up on her own. I called her while I was writing this, and her take is as funny and practical as she is. “I think the men were bored,” she said. I also followed up with my mom about where our family’s pins are, and she answered more proudly than I remembered her being before. She said she has them, wears them, and secretly hopes people will ask her about them.
Special thanks to Donald R. & Beverly J. Gerth Archives & Special Collections at California State University Dominguez Hills for allowing Refinery29 to photograph the pins in their collection.