“There was a story in my family,” says Nancy Ukai, about her grandfather taking a box of eucalyptus leaves with him when he and the family were sent into an incarceration camp during WWII. The family asked him why he packed such seemingly useless stuff on this journey. He replied that he didn’t know if they would ever be allowed to return home, and that the leaves were a reminder of the life that they were forced to leave.
This story is something Ukai never forgot though there is nothing left of those leaves. If they had survived, they would surely have been one of the 50 objects that she is gathering onto a website called “50 Objects, 50 Stories”, objects that remain from that wartime experience. Inspired by other projects that have been put together by the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and prompted by a recent attempt to auction off a batch of a folk art specialist’s collection of objects from the camps by Rago Auction House in New Jersey, Ukai has been locating and assembling pieces and the stories behind these objects onto a website.
The website has been launched, and every week or so, a new object and the story behind it will be put up. The search and the research involved has taken Ukai all over the U.S., tracking down families, combing archives, talking to dozens of people and doing some filming. Ukai was astounded to find that one thing would lead to another and before long, whole family histories would become part of the project.
The first object is a series of paintings done by Gene Sogioka who had been a Disney artist before the war. He was given the job of illustrating day-to-day life in the camps for a study being conducted by an anthropologist, and this painting of fellows playing with dice shows one of the pastimes that the inmates played to pass the time. Ukai’s father said that he had made money by gambling while at Topaz, one of the camps. And so any object can lead to many stories, and the personal story becomes a community story. In these ways, history is remembered, connections are made and become almost magical in opening up the past. They become prompts that jolt memories, make links, sometimes leading to insights and “aha” moments. So much was lost during that wartime period, but people did save some things, and these were probably saved for special reasons.
The truth is that many Japanese American families have not talked much about that painful traumatic period, and in their struggle to survive and reestablish their lives, didn’t have the time or inclination to reflect on it. It was something that was bigger than their individual stories and how to process what had happened to them was difficult. So, the stories often died when the people died, and the next generations grew up not knowing what had happened to grandparents and parents. But some things remain, stuck in garages and closets, or maybe displayed in a home but no one knowing the stories behind the objects.
Ukai’s project attempts to preserve some of the stories through these objects and encourages others to look for remaining memorabilia in their family’s belongings. It doesn’t take much, maybe old photographs, bits of diaries and letters, and a whole old world can come to life.
Ukai is married to a genealogist who helps her track families, and as she says, she never knows where it might lead. And she’s helped some people discover family history that had been practically lost. So, it is a gratifying project, one that has led to meeting amazing people and finding surprising material. She encourages everyone to look through family belongings and papers, and some may be the key that leads to a greater understanding of the past, the past that so many American Japanese families had locked away.