The incredible story of Japanese bird pins

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

By now, you should all know how much I love brooches and pins. I have a great little collection of owls and other animal pins. But one day, a good friend showed me something like I had never seen before! In his hand was an exquisitely carved wooden bird pin. Now, some jewelry designers do incorporate wood into their pieces, but it’s pretty unusual. And to have a whole piece made entirely from wood, it’s quite rare.


So I had lots of questions. And I learned a fascinating story.

Made by the Japanese

It turns out that this pin, and many others like it, were created by the Japanese when they were imprisoned in camps during World War II. Today, we look back at the internment of our own citizens as a dark chapter in our history. But these pins really show the resilience of people, who created something so beautiful in such an awful place. The birds showed amazing artistry and creativity. To me, this is a story of how jewelry (as an art form) can have incredible meaning and symbolism.

Japanese bird pins

Japanese interned after Pearl Harbor

For those who need a little refresher on their history, the attack on Pearl Harbor happened in December 1941. America had no warning, and we suffered incredible losses. We were shocked and outraged at what happened, and before long, we were part of World War II.



In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. This gave the War Department authority to set up military areas. And imprison Japanese Americans. It didn’t matter that the vast majority were American citizens. In that time of fear, they looked like the enemy.

Japanese life in the camps

As someone who lives on the west coast, I have seen footage of this time period in various museums. It’s striking how nonchalantly the media reported on this order, and how compliant the Japanese were. They willingly showed up to be relocated, on short notice and only allowed to bring what they could carry. About 120,000 people were first moved to county fairgrounds or someplace similar. Livestock stalls were upgraded to living quarters. Later on, they were moved to ten different camps across the U.S. Where they stayed. For years.


The camps were sparse. Often, there was just a light bulb, a wood stove, and cots. At first, the Japanese did what they could to create better living quarters. They made pieces of furniture, like tables and chairs, from scrap lumber. As the years dragged on, they made lots of other things – like tools, toys, and musical instruments. And also, bird pins.

The Meaning of Gaman

Gaman is a Japanese Zen Buddhist term that means “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.”

And indeed, the Japanese did persevere. They did show incredible resilience. And quiet courage. There’s an amazing book, The Art of Gaman, that showcases what was created during this period. Since it was published back in 2005, there has been more education and awareness. Several museums have had exhibitions, like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the Arizona Armory Center for the Arts, and the Holocaust Museum of Houston.



Finding bird pins today

For a long time, the Japanese weren’t real eager to discuss their time in the camps. Who can blame them?! They were happy to be out, but had to rebuild entire lives and businesses that had been lost. Pieces that had been made in that awful time were forgotten, given away, or thrown in the trash. The children of the survivors all tel the same story – they found these pins in storage after their mom or dad died.


A recent uproar occurred when people found out artwork from the camps would be auctioned. Last spring, an auction house in New Jersey announced a sale of about 450 objects created in the camps. Most were from the collection of Allen Hendershott Eaton. He was a writer and historian who had actively collected the objects. In fact, he wrote a book called “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps” back in 1952. He’d gotten the objects from all the the camp prisoners he’d talked to over the years. Although he had hoped to exhibit everything one day, that never happened, and his collection ultimately ended up with the auction house.

Who owns the bird pins?

The whole situation brings up interesting questions about who art belongs to. Many descendants were horrified at the idea of these pieces being auctioned off. Once the auction house realized how significant these items were to the Japanese American community, they called off the auction. They ended up working with Hollywood star and activist, George Takei. And in what seems like a good fit, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles ended up acquiring all the objects.

I was so inspired by the story behind these little pins! If you’re interested in learning more, check out the websites I’ve listed below or visit the board I created on Pinterest for all my favorite bird pins.

  1. A Year of Gaman: 5 Questions with Curator Delphine Hirasuna

  2. A free on-line resource about the history of the Japanese American WWII exclusion and incarceration experience

  3. The creative art of coping

So tell me …… Did you know about the art created by the Japanese during their internment? What do you think? Let me know by leaving a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!


This post has been edited and updated since it was originally published on April 2, 2016.


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