Former Reedley resident Shigeo Naito (Poston block 307-6-C) spent three years in a Japanese internment camp, where he carved several figures that are now on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History
By Joe Proudman
The Reedley Exponent
July 22, 2010
Shigeo Naito (307-6-C) was a 53-year-old farmer in Orosi prior to World War II. Soon after America entered the war, Naito found himself along with his wife and eight children relocating to Poston, Ariz. with other people of Japanese decent.
He would spend the next three and a half years there, imprisoned in one of 10 internment camps across the county simply because he was of Japanese decent.
It was a scary time for America; the country was pulled into war after being struck hard by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. The country reacted by ordering all Japanese on the West Coast to be held in the internment camps.
“The people were given a weeks notice basically. They could only take what they could carry,” said Daphnie Hirasuna, curator of “The Art of Gaman” exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. “Even though World War II has been over for 60-plus years, it's so amazing how few people know about camps.”
Once at the camp, detainees didn't have much. They were lacking simple items, such as chairs and shelves and out of necessity some began to carve and build. Eventually, like Naito, detainees began to carve and create sculptures, pins and other decorative objects.
“When you've lost everything how do you retain a sense of yourself,” Hirasuna said. “In some way I think people did reclaim it through making art.”
Examples of all these items are in Hirasuna's show, including sculptures by Naito, who moved to Reedley once released from Poston (camp III).
Whittling Away Time
Naito has all of his six pieces in the show at the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian. They are carvings of Japanese folklore that he whittled out of ironwood and mesquite, which are indigenous to the area. To get a smooth finish, he used broken glass glued to paper to sand the sculptures.
“Considering he was not a trained artist, what he produced was pretty amazing, it was pretty wonderful,” Hirasuna said. “I'm impressed people made these things with humble tools and no formal training.”
Naito passed along his sculptures to some of his eight children after leaving the camp. Three of them still live in the area including some grand children, though 36 members convened in Washington D.C. to see the exhibit at the Smithsonian in late June. They traveled from California, Hawaii, Georgia, Minnesota and North Carolina.
“It was really nice to have the family go and see it,” said Judy (Naito) Kobayashi, Naito's granddaughter. “My sister said she felt a sense of pride to see it.
“This is probably the only time the pieces will be together because each family has them at their home,” she added.
When he was released in 1946, Naito returned to the area, farming land in Reedley but didn't whittle anymore sculptures. He passed away in 1972.
“It was just something for him to be doing while passing time at the camp,” Kobayashi said. “He never ever carved after that.”