Donor: Rae S. Fujimoto
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Two months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Roosevelt ordered the relocation of Japanese-Americans from the west coast. In March 1942, Japanese Americans from the San Francisco area were temporarily housed at Tanforan Race Track in San Bruno, California. After living in horse stalls for months, Tanforan internees were moved to more permanent relocation camps throughout the United States, including the Topaz Relocation Center near Delta, Utah.
As the former Bay Area residents stepped off the hot and cramped train, they saw a dry and barren landscape. The camp was still under construction. Camp was divided into 12 barracks to a block, with 34 blocks total. The flimsy barracks offered very little protection from the region’s extreme temperatures. Constructed of pine board sheeting covered in tar paper, they had no insulation, and some of them did not yet have roofs. One bare light bulb hung in each barrack, furnished with only cots and an uninstalled pot bellied stove. Internees used sheets or blankets to separate the barracks into small rooms. A fine film of dust settled onto their meager possessions. Latrines, bathing, and washing facilities were located at a separate building for each block, but were also unfinished when residents arrived.
Despite the bleakness of their surroundings, internees sought ways to bring a semblance of normalcy to their lives. Children went to school, adults found work to do in camp, and residents created a beauty parlor, photo service, barbershop, post office, library, and consumers’ cooperative. Residents organized recreational activities, such as dances, parties, and camp administrators supervised picnics and hikes. Students from Topaz High School played football against area high school teams. For the duration of the war, Topaz internees did their best to continue with their lives.
Residents saved a variety of materials to create beautiful arts and crafts. They saved nails from boxes and found scrap lumber to construct shelves or chests. They painted, wrote poetry, and produced a variety of folk art. Both Tule Lake (California) and Topaz were situated on dry lake beds, and internees noticed that the ground was littered with tiny shells, some of which were smaller than seeds. Residents used screens to separate the dirt from the shells, sorted them by size and shape, bleached them in the sun, and painted them. In the absence of real flowers, these shells were painstakingly arranged by steady hands to create corsages, brooches, necklaces, and trinkets.
These shell brooches from Topaz connect the Japanese-American internees to the unique landscape of Delta, Utah. The floral arrangements suggest the Japanese tradition of Hana Kanzashi (floral hair decoration). Hair pins, barrettes, combs, and sticks often featured silk flowers made of very small silk squares, each of which was folded to make a single petal, and attached to a base to create a whole flower. Without access to silk, perhaps internees saw the indigenous shells as an alternative. The shell brooches from Topaz are a beautiful example of Japanese-American resilience and the ability to create beauty in the face of hardship.