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George Nakashima: Artisan imprisoned in US internment camps

By Bradley Campbell
PRI's The World

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  • World War Two
image copyrightGeorge Nakashima, Woodworker
image captionGeorge and Mira Nakashima (courtesy of George Nakashima, Woodworker)

This week, one US mayor lauded the Japanese internment camps that imprisoned US citizens and residents during World War Two. A family who lived in such a camp responds.

Mayor David Bowers of Roanoke, Virginia, doesn't want any Syrians resettled in his community. He even lauded the internment camps many Japanese-Americans were confined to during World War Two.

"President Franklin D Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from Isis now is just as real," he wrote in a statement.

Numerous people have decried the mayor for his words - especially as the Japanese interned in camps were US citizens, not foreign nationals. On Friday, Mr Bowers apologised.

The differences between these two situations are many - Japanese-Americans had been living in the States for decades before they were interned. They were not refugees fleeing a war.

George Nakashima knew. He was forced, along with his wife and newborn daughter, into a camp in Idaho, starting in 1942.

Nakashima is considered one of the greatest American craftsmen. He worked for Frank Lloyd Wright and his furniture is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

image copyrightGeorge Nakashima, Woodworker
image captionGeorge, Marion and Mira Nakashima (courtesy George Nakashima, Woodworker)

Nakashima died in 1990. But his daughter, Mira Nakashima, keeps his legacy alive. She's the artistic director of a shop and museum in her father's name located in New Hope, Pennsylvania. She too makes furniture.

Her parents never talked much about their internment.

"I found out indirectly that my mother basically had a mental breakdown while in the camp," she says.

"I was a newborn baby. We were put into the camps and there were pretty awful toilet facilities. There was a mess hall with food that none of us Japanese-Americans ate. My mother even had trouble finding formula for me."

The family had everything. They were given two weeks to leave their home once the order came down from the federal government to report to camp.

Mira is quick to mention that others suffered more. She feels for the experiences of Japanese-American soldiers. They fought with the Allies, many heading off to deadly battles in Europe.

image copyrightAP
image captionA former site of one of the Japanese-American interment camps

"They fought knowing their families were in these camps," she says. "I can't imagine what that would be like, to sacrifice for the same country that has imprisoned your parents."

In 1943, Mira Nakashima and her family were able to leave the camp. They were lucky. They had a sponsor in Antonin Raymond, a famous architect, and the family moved to Raymond's farm in New Hope. But Mira had to drink a teaspoon of cod liver oil every day to fight off rickets caused by malnourishment in the camp.

"I have bone problems to this day that were probably caused by lack of good nutrition," she says.

image copyrightGeorge Nakashima, Woodworker
image captionMira Nakashima

Essentially, she was a prisoner without committing a crime. In addition to the health issues, her time in the camp has affected her in subtle ways.

"I don't have a lot of self-confidence," she says, despite now being one of the greatest furniture designers in the world.

Nakashima says her father always maintained that his own wounds had healed. But she isn't sure if he was trying to justify what happened, or prove that he was just as good as he was before.

She'll never know. He's gone. And he never talked about it.

But when she hears that a politician would suggest that the internment camps kept America safe, she bristles. "It's a lie. It's an outright lie."

While George Nakashima remained quiet about his experiences, there's evidence it flowed into his work. Years later, he created three distinct Altars of Peace. "They're gigantic tables made of black walnut. He took matching cuts and attached them together with butterfly joints - his woodworking signature."

image copyrightGeorge Nakashima, Woodworker
image captionOne of George Nakashima's "Peace" tables (courtesy of George Nakashima, Woodworker)

One sits in the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City. The second resides at the Russian Academy of Art in Moscow. The third is in the Hall of Peace in Auroville, India. Each is a masterpiece. There's tranquillity in the design, a natural flow that follows the characteristics of the wood.

"He wanted the works to inspire peace," Nakashima says. "I'm sure it related to his experiences during the war."

During a particularly hectic day in New York, I sat down at one of his tables inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a half-hour. I touched its butterfly joints. I admired the snugness and smoothness of the fit. All parts of the table were in harmony. Everything balanced. When I finally stood to leave, my stress vanished. I felt at peace. All thanks to a table.

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