Sunday, October 28, 2012


My work at the archive can be split into two categories: organizing materials, and accessioning materials. I have spoken mostly about the physical organizing of the archive the most because that is my favorite part of the work.  However, accessioning also plays a crucial role in maintaining the integrity of the archive.

To accession our materials we use the program Past Perfect. This is a completely new tool for the archive, so we must accession every object and file for the first time into the program. The program is fairly simple to use, but the extent of information it requires can be overwhelming. The most obvious bits of information that are required include, the donors' names, the object type, the date of origin, and the location of the object in the archive.  Before I began working with the program I knew that these details would be important to the accession file, however, I did not realize how many more details are also needed. For example, my name is an important part of the filing as it tells the next accession operator who was the last person to work with the object. Also the date of the actual accessioning activity is an important indicator. If something unfortunate should happen and the object becomes lost, one can refer to the accession information to find when the object was last seen. Every bit of information that I enter that is based partially on opinion requires my name and the date. For example, when I enter in the overall condition of the object I must include my name and the date. If another person should do a reassessment, they must override my name and date as well. These are just a few of the details I would never have considered if it had not been for the Past Perfect program.
There is also a section of the accessioning that often gives us the most challenge. Along with the details of the physical object we must also include keywords that apply to the object. This is to create a searchable archive that a researcher might use to find certain objects of interest. To apply the keywords we much choose from a list of programmed words. Often the words we need are not listed. When this happens we much insert new terms into the program, and ensure that we do not repeat our insertions to ensure that the search program works properly. In addition, there are 4 types of searchable categories that must be completed in this manner. Although this step is difficult, it gives our archive an additional facet that can contribute greatly to the research capabilities of the archive.

I find that the most enjoyable part of accessioning is going through old accession files and editing them so that they fit with the new files better. I like to double check the old files to ensure that everything is properly spelled and that all the keywords are suitable. I feel that it gives be a broader sense of the state of the archive as a whole. In this way I can fashion the archive so that it is a better structured whole.

Although I always prefer working with the actual objects, once I start doing many accessions I also find it to be an enjoyable part of the archive process.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Courage and Resilience

Although I have already written a post about the art from the camps, I through the artifacts deserved another post, as they prove to be some of the most interesting and novel items I have seen at the archive.

Hana cards are a quintessential part of the Japanese American household. My family has a few decks that have been passed down through the generations. Although Hana cards are one of the few things that links Japanese American households to historic Japan, Hana cards only became popular relatively recently (late 1800s) through their production by Nintendo Koppai, the same Nintendo company that dominates the world of video games today. I never knew of this connection before I thought to research their origin while working a the archive. It's always strange to see unexpected connection in the world between the past and our present day.

Anyway, the deck of Hana cards I found at the archive were owned by an individual in the internment camps, and donated to the archive. These cards have remained in fairly good condition, given that they are hand- crafted and very fragile. Many people who were sent to internment camps during the Second World War burned all of their personal effects because they feared that any links that may be found between their family and the nation of Japan might be perceived as evidence of their betrayal to the United States. Many families lost cherished family portraits of loved ones in Japan along with other objects brought over from Japan. To be able to find an object like these Hana cards not only connects us to the everyday experiences of the Japanese Americans in the camps, but it also tells us of their courage to keep their belongings with them, even if they might make them vulnerable to unwarranted inquiry into their allegiance to the United States. All of the objects at the archive tell us a bit of the story of the individual who owned them. Sometimes they tells us of their courage, and other times they tells us of their hope and resilience.

Some objects that tell us of their resilience through the trails of life in the internment camps include the hand-painted bird that I mentioned in my previous post. Within the camps, many essential items of daily life were scarce, or absent. Over time, things like food, clothes, furniture, and other everyday objects became more readily available. Often, the interned individuals took it upon themselves to make the tools that the needed. Having these beautifully painted birds tells us that art, as an object essential for everyday living, was not forgotten. This artist used their skills to create pieces that help bring more color and life into the drab existence of the desert barracks. Those who were interned often tell stories of their parents building a community in the camps in an attempt to create a true home within the detention centers.

Although my work at the archive may be tedious at times, I hardly notice because the stories and the objects connect me to a world that has had a profound effect on my family's history. I will never truly know their experiences. However, through my exposure to the remnants of that past, I can gain greater access.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Art from the Camps

This week I have been working mostly on the computer, accessioning small artifacts and objects made in the internment camps. I have also been working on updating the biographies of people who either have donated to the archive, or who are associated with some of the materials. Knowing some of the background and relationships of the individuals connected to the items really brings them to life, and helps create a greater story around the objects. Instead of a selection of random objects, through the people involved the history we can develop a greater understanding of the significance of all of it.

While accessioning I came across a few very interesting items that force us to realize that the camps were a home to some people. Although their lives were halted and put off track by the events during the war; hobbies, traditions and creativity found a home in their makeshift temporary homes and communities.

The first piece I cam across was a small multicolored crocheted piece. It looked very much like a practice piece. With it was information about its origins. If I remember correctly, it was made in a relocation center in Topaz, Utah by a woman who was not the donor. When we go through these items, we often learn about the many different hands they have been passed through on their journey. We hope that at the archive we can give them a proper and respectful place to preserve their stories.

The second item I found included 4 little hand - carved and hand - painted birds. They appear to be made from found objects, as the back of one bird has a safety pin fastened to it (to be used as a brooch). Two of the birds have more sophisticated materials, and are much more detailed than the others. They are either built by a more skilled artist or perhaps the same artist using a different and more experienced style/ technique. I had information about their origin and the artist for the two more detailed birds. I hope to be able to dig up some other information about the simpler birds the next time I visit the archive. These objects were some of my favorite to work with because they gave me such a strong sense of the types of normal lives that the Japanese Americans interned hoped to achieve in whatever small ways they could. I think that art is one of the strongest links to the true experiences of people in history.

A third item was a miniature stone sculpture of a Japanese garden sculpture. This piece had a letter with it containing some information about its origin. Its was made in Block 38 of the Poston Relocation Center although the artist is unknown. The stones it is made of may have been collected from the surrounding area of the internment camp. If that is true, it could potentially be very interesting to a geologist, or anyone with an interest in natural history. Knowing the Block that the piece was made truly puts the work at the archive into perspective. In a normal circumstance, this tiny stone sculpture would be worthless, and simply a trinket. However, given the gravity of the nature surrounding it, the tiny stone piece gains great value for the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society. Without others also identifying its importance and donating these items, many features of our history would be lost forever. Without these pieces and their donors, there would be no history available to study, so we a truly indebted to their generosity.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Learning Fumio Ralph Fujimoto's Story

Last Saturday, I did something a little different from the usual archiving activities. Instead of continuing my investigations into the Arai family files, I was assigned to read over a piece written by Fumio Ralph Fujimoto which recounts his life story, from the time of his parents making their way in California, through his time in an internment camp, to his success as a CPA building bridges between Japanese and U.S. businesses. The story is especially intriguing to me as my own grandfather's life parallels Fumio's in some ways.
Fumio's parents were successful farmers and grocers in California. My grandmother also grew up on a farm, but was in Montana, and was able to escape the targeting when Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps.

Pictured above are Fumio's parents. Like many Japanese Americans before the war, Fumio's family was fairly successful, and lived a comfortable life. Although many were recent immigrants, they were able to prosper and become essential members of the community. Fumio notes that although he did not understand the economic position of his family (as he was only a few years old at the time) he points out that his little outfits looked quite posh, suggesting that his family was well - established in the California home. 
Pictured above is Fumio in a baseball outfit, learning young the love for America's favorite pastime. 

After Pearl Harbor, this California life would only be a memory. Although my grandmother was able to escape incarceration, my grandfather was not as lucky. He too was forced to face the loss of a home and a livelihood when he was sent to an internment camp in Arizona. Fumio was a teenager when he first entered the camps. Schooling in the camps was subpar, but not fully absent. Over time, families in the camps began building a true community and establishing different little businesses in order to remain productive while interned. Fumio worked many odd jobs, some harder than others. While I know very little about my grandfather's experience while in the camp, I do know that he, like Fumio, was drafted out of the camps and into the army. 

Following their service in the army and the end of the war, both my grandfather and Mr. Fujimoto moved to Chicago in hopes of finding a new home. Many Japanese Americans immigrated to Chicago after the war ended because they were not permitted to return to their homes on the West Coast. Furthermore, there was very little to return to as the families were forced to sell most of their assets before internment. Chicago, the next biggest city east of California became a haven for Japanese Americans. Fumio began working in the Rogers Park area at different odd jobs. When I read this section, I could not help but feel connected to Fumio's story as I was able to recognize the landmarks he mentioned, and the street names he lived on. My grandparents also set up their new home on the northside of Chicago after many years of finding their bearings. Later Fumio also mentioned that his family moved to live on Sedgwick, the very same street where my family lives today. I have also learned of many other stories, through my time at the CJAHS, about the similar struggles of many different Japanese American families after the end of the war. Fortunately, like Fumio's and my family's story, they end in success. 

While my family opened up a chain of successful laundromats, Fumio became a CPA focused on Japanese - U.S. business relations. Strangely enough, my father (who is descended from Greek and Irish New Yorkers) is also a CPA whose work has somehow found its way in the world of Asian - American business relations. One thing I've learned from this archive work is that although studying these many artifacts and the many diverse people connected to them might appear to lead me to a complex series of stories far beyond my own world, it seems that every time, I am brought much closer back to my own history. Reading Fumio's story only reaffirmed this. I cannot help but think that in studying history that is far from us, we will always be able to find a road back to home. 

All photos from an album dedicated to Fumio Ralph Fujimoto made by his sister for his 80th birthday.