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The Gaman Mittens

By Susan M. Strawn

Chinatown-International District, Seattle, 2014

The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (the “Wing”) in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District displays a pair of knitted mittens, wooly and gray and embroidered with delicate pastel flowers. The mittens are among many objects handmade in World War II relocation camps in the United States. Some were made of scrap wood and metal, others woven from raveled twine or fashioned from discarded kimono fabric. These are gaman, the artistic expression of people who endured seemingly unbearable adversity with dignity and patience. 

On the museum label, I read that Amy Yoshi Hara’s mother, Shizuko (Inagaki) Hara, had embroidered the mittens for her daughter in 1943 while they were held at the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. Amy Hara had saved the mittens and donated them to the museum.

Surely, I thought, more of the story of the mittens wants to be told.

In the Wing library, filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, the collections manager placed Amy Hara’s mittens on a worktable for me to examine and photograph. Machine-knitted and army-issued, the plain gray mittens were sent as a gift from Amy’s father while he was detained at the Alien Detention Center in Missoula, Montana. Amy’s mother embroidered flowers, whimsical and cheerful, with lavender, pink, green, and yellow embroidery floss onto the mitten backs. I loved the asymmetry of her embroidery. Floral designs on right and left mittens are similar, yet slightly different.

After December 7, 1941, and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had removed Amy’s father from his home in Seattle for his high-profile service in the Japanese American Community. In August 1942, Amy, her mother, and brother Ben had been removed under Executive Order 9066, along with 120,000 other West Coast people of Japanese heritage—everyone with one-sixteenth or more Japanese blood—to relocation or detention centers. The Haras went to the Minidoka Relocation Center on an isolated volcanic plain near Hunt, Utah. They were allowed to bring only what they could carry.

“And here is the Hara family,” the collections manager told me.

He placed Hara family photos on the worktable beside the mittens.

“This is Amy and her mother,” he said. In a formal black-and-white portrait, Amy and Shizuko wear kimonos, Amy’s kimono youthful and exuberant, her mother’s kimono dark and sedate. The photo, a reminder of their former life as free people, was taken in 1939 before forced removal from their Seattle home.

“The Densho Project also has an interview with Amy Hara,” he added. “I’ll send you a copy.”

In the extensive Densho Project—a collection of oral history interviews with surviving wartime internees—Amy describes her family as fortunate to have been able to store their belongings in the family’s hotel in the International District and to have lost few possessions. Many evacuees lost everything. At the nearby Panama Hotel, a new owner had discovered the basement of the building filled with stored belongings of Japanese Americans removed from their homes. In the hotel’s tearoom, through an opening cut in the floor and covered with thick clear plastic, I saw the lighted view of a sampling of stored luggage and belongings kept in place since 1942, never reclaimed. A baby carriage stands out in my memory. 

In the museum photo, I studied the faces of Amy and her mother. What had life had been like for Shizuko, the mother of a teenage daughter, living through freezing winters and searing summers in barracks surrounded by barbed wire, armed guards, and searchlights? So little she could have done for her daughter. So Shizuko embroidered the cherry blossoms, a likely reminiscence of her own childhood in Japan. Had she embroidered the mittens as a special gift, perhaps for a birthday or graduation? How did other parents living under such conditions find ways to love and care for children? So many ways. In A Cold Wind from Idaho, poet Lawrence Matsuda writes of a Japanese American mother knitting “as if possessed” for her soldier son, Private First Class Harry, off to the fighting in Italy:

Knitting needles clicked furiously,
Not a missed stitch or hole
For a bullet to find.

I recalled my shock when I had first learned about the forced removal and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. At age fourteen, I had watched a television documentary, a historic narrative with film clips and photographs about the internment. I sat in front of the family television set transfixed by blizzardy black and white images—the antenna on our roof had to pull television programs from sixty miles away in Sioux City, Iowa—and dumbfounded by the humiliation of American citizens herded into relocation camps without charge or trial. Mothers carried babies, small children held hands, families huddled together boarding ferries and trains to barracks hastily constructed on isolated, desolate land.

Why have I never heard of this? I wondered, stunned.

I knew the answer. American history taught in my small town was laughable. The teacher hired to coach football taught—with far less enthusiasm—the history classes, his emphasis on stellar achievements punctuated with amusing battlefield chalk talks. The stern gatekeeper at the public library restricted me from reading books with historical substance. People in my town never spoke of such things. They were best forgotten.

The television program about internment ended and I found my mother in the kitchen washing dishes.

“Did you know about this?” I asked. I told her the program I watched. “You lived during the war.”

She took the question in stride, her expression unchanged, her voice unemotional. She continued scrubbing a saucepan.

“Of course,” she said. “We were at war with those people.” 

“No, no, these were not people from Japan. These were Americans. The government rounded them up and put in prison camps,” I said.

“They could have been spies,” she added. “There was no way to know if they were loyal to us.”

“But your family is German,” I said with maddeningly adolescent logic. “We were at war with Germany, too. Why weren’t you and Grandma and Grandpa sent to internment camps like the Japanese?”

“That was different,” she asserted, scrubbing the pan harder.

I felt confused.

“You don’t know what it was like,” she said. “You weren’t there, so you have no right to an opinion.”

I recognized the end of the conversation. Later I would learn that German heritage had meant internment for some Americans.

I had never seen an Asian person, not in real life. It is likely I had never heard the word racism. Racism had never been an issue in the small town where I lived because, well, only white Protestant people lived in that town and possibly within a 60-miles radius. Growing up, I heard ethnic slurs about race and religion, socially acceptable, humorous slurs tossed out at will. My mother had lived through wartime when racial stereotypes cemented citizens together in common hatred of an enemy.

My haunting memory of the Japanese American exclusion stayed with me. I read author Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s memoir Farewell to Manzanar and saw an exhibition of photographer Dorothea Lange’s internment documentation. Once I diverted a road trip across California for a pilgrimage of sorts to the Manzanar National Historic Site, a deserted wartime internment camp. On an Amtrak train to Seattle, I fell into casual conversation with a woman of Japanese heritage who remembered the notice placed on the door of her Seattle home, notification that her family had one week to prepare for forced removal from their home. She reminisced about her mother, a knitter who unraveled and reknitted sweaters to fit her young daughter as she grew during their three years of internment.

Amy Hara’s family returned from Minidoka to Seattle in 1945 after the Supreme Court ruled that the War Relocation Authority had no right to detain citizens without charge. Amy became a social worker, her father continued to manage their family hotel, and her mother enjoyed sewing and doll making. Along with most evacuees, they spoke little of their wartime experiences. 

Today I live on the island from which the first people of Japanese heritage were removed from their homes and relocated to detention centers. Bainbridge Island embraces the history in their library, museum, and a memorial at the site of removal from the island. Among the public library’s collection of books and photographs, I discovered The Minidoka Interlude: September, 1942 – October, 1943, a yearbook published by the residents of the Minidoka Relocation Center. The book chronicles names, photos, and everyday activities for the 9,700 evacuees, including the Hara family, in 44 blocks of barracks.

At the Japanese American Exclusion Memorial on Bainbridge Island, I can walk in the footsteps of more than 200 Japanese and Japanese American residents, island evacuees transported under armed guard to a pier and loaded onto the ferry that took them to Tacoma, Washington, before they boarded trains to Minidoka. The Bainbridge Review protested their removal, repeatedly and loudly, the only newspaper in Western Washington to do so.

I gathered my thoughts, photos, and notes and wrote my story of Amy Hara’s mittens, a story I had waited all my life to write.

Illustrations by Susan M. Strawn
Copyright © 2023 by Susan M. Strawn

Susan M. Strawn

 Loopy: How Knitting Saved My Mind and Opened Doors to the World

Susan M. Strawn, Ph.D.

Susan Strawn researches and writes stories she finds held in cloth and clothing.

She is the author of Knitting America: A Glorious History from Warm Socks to High Art (Voyageur Press, 2007), a cultural history of hand knitting, and of more than 50 published articles, many on the history of American knitting. She serves as contributing editor and writes for PieceWork, a magazine of history and needlework.

 The extraordinary hand-crafted textiles she worked with as staff artist at Interweave Press inspired her to return for graduate studies in textiles and clothing, with an emphasis on historic and cultural textiles. Her dissertation studied the restoration of Navajo Churro sheep and wool to Navajo weavers. As professor of Fashion Design and Merchandising at Dominican University (Chicago), she taught historical and cultural dress, textile science, and surface design of fabric.

Her current project is a memoir, Loopy: How Knitting Saved My Mind and Opened Doors to the World. She lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington.