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The Untold History of Japanese American Bird Pins

They were one of the most ubiquitous crafts to come out of Japanese incarceration camps. But few knew their back story — until now.

Since the camp barracks and grounds were nearly empty when they arrived, the incarcerated people spent their early days making their surroundings habitable: building furniture, carving clothes hangers, planting gardens, opening schools. They also took jobs, initially for no pay. Each camp eventually had a hospital, newspaper, mess hall, dry goods store and police and fire department, so many found ways to continue their careers as doctors, journalists, teachers or farmers. By the end of 1943, 85% of the vegetables eaten in the camps came from within them.

People sought out more leisurely distractions, too. “Stuck in that one-square-mile area, it was like, how do you entertain yourself, how do you keep your sanity?” said Delphine Hirasuna, the author of The Art of Gaman, a book about the arts and crafts of Japanese incarceration. In addition to forming sports leagues, they taught each other pursuits like flower arranging, doll making, sewing and quilting. “If somebody had a particular skill,” Hirasuna said, “the other people who were stuck in camp would say, ‘Could you teach me?’” 

In Poston, Roy Takahashi, who’d been an art student prior to the war, offered a bird-carving class in September 1944. Within two weeks, the camp newspaper, the Poston Chronicle, declared that “bird carving seems to be one of the most popular pastimes now.” Archival records suggest that Takahashi offered several more sessions to meet the demand. 

One reason the bird pins were so popular, Hirasuna said, is they didn’t require a lot of materials. Many of the people at camp had knives they’d fashioned out of scrap metal,  and paint could be ordered fairly easily from a Sears catalog. For the birds’ bodies, they salvaged scraps of wood from delivery crates; for the legs and feet, they used wire from window screens. 

They created all manner of birds: My jichan’s repertoire included cranes, wood ducks, road runners, pheasants, eagles — even a toucan. They reportedly used an Audubon field guide for inspiration, as well as copies of National Geographic, which was “deluged” with orders for back issues, according to Allen H. Eaton’s 1952 book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire. And, though bird carving spread to many other camps, perhaps through letters and packages sent between them, Eaton wrote that Poston “outnumbered all others in the quantity and quality of carved and painted American birds.”