Gaman and the Story of the Vest with a Thousand Knots

Mother of George Matsushita, Interned at Amache, Colorado, Senninbari vest, Silk cloth, thread, ink, buttons, paint, Japanese American Archival Collection Library, California State University, Sacramento, From "The Art of Gaman" by Delphine Hirasuna, ©2005, Ten Speed Press. Terry Heffernan photo.

Our closer look at the exhibition, The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese Internment Camps, 1942-1946, continues with The Vest with a Thousand Knots. The story of each object unravels with a tale of its use and the materials that were available in the camps. Each illustrates the definition of gaman: enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity. The Senninbari (literally, thousand-person-stitches) vest, was created by the mother of George Matsushita who was interned at a camp in Amache, Colorado. Like many other Japanese American men in the camps, he was either drafted from the camps or volunteered to serve in the army during World War II. He was a member of Company I, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and wore this vest while serving in Italy.

"I always feel strongly about the Senninbari vest because each knot had to be put in by a different individual," says guest curator Delphine Hirasuna, "When people went into the armed services and into harm's way—and in Japan they also made senninbari for firemen and policemen—they are being sent off with the good wishes of a thousand people."

In addition to the knots stitched in red, (possibly to symbolize the sun, as well as energy and vitality in Japanese traditions), the tiger painted on the silk symbolized courage. In terms of the fabric used for the vest, Hirasuna said, "We think it's her slip that she donated to the cause. My own father's senninbari—a sash—was made from a rice sack. He was drafted from the camps when he was thirty-seven. When men were going into the service, these vests were being made everywhere. In every camp people were making senninbari. I like the tradition and its significance. If a thousand people knew you were going off to war, that's important." In fact, with so many men entering the U.S. Army from the camps, "knot-gathering" became a familiar pastime.

One of the things I like most about this exhibition is that every object has a story to tell, sometimes two, sometimes even more. Here, with Mrs. Matsushita’s extraordinary vest, we may have reached one thousand.

The exhibition The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese Internment Camps, 1942-1946 continues at our Renwick Gallery through January 30, 2011.