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More “Made in Camp” Samurai Swords Discovered

The Samurai Spirit

In my 2015 Discover Nikkei essay, “Samurai Spirit in WWII Camps,” I put forth my belief that gaman—a Japanese term of Zen Buddhist origin that means "enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity"—surely must have burned especially bright in the hearts and minds of the Issei. Gaman was also characteristic of the temperament of the samurai, whose spirit I believe led to the making of swords in camp. My earlier essay discussed two handcrafted swords. Now, more swords are being discovered.

In facing American racism, gaman was necessary for self-preservation. The Issei were denied the right to US citizenship—this denial was not imposed on European immigrants. Along with the Chinese, the Issei were also denied the right to property ownership thanks to the Alien Land Laws that were enacted from 1913 through the end of World War II. Then the Immigration Act of 1924 put an end to further immigration from Japan. Recalling these laws, I can’t help but wonder where our current administration’s policies are going?

This hostile anti-Asian climate was already in place when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. The United States declared war on Japan, and thousands of Japanese American community leaders were immediately arrested from their homes and places of business, based on FBI lists that had been developed years earlier. They were imprisoned in Department of Justice camps as enemy aliens. Next, their families of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were rounded up and put into 10 American concentration camps. These wartime imprisonments were an extension of the racism and economic opportunism that fueled White special interest groups’ desire to eliminate competition.

I strongly feel the Issei were psychologically impacted by the imprisonment by their adopted country. The Issei family heads were emasculated.

“For the honor-conscious Issei, it was the repudiation of many years of effort and hard work in this country. Under the communal camp conditions Issei men lost their traditional roles as the heads of household and civic leaders.” In addition to losing their livelihoods and no longer being the primary wage-earners, they found that their wives, freed from household chores, could take on camp jobs for the same pay as men....At the same time, the Issei experienced an additional loss of status as a result of WRA policy that prohibited them from taking on leadership positions at the beginning of the camps and instead placed the younger Nisei in those roles.1

I believe these negative effects must have smoldered more for those whose families revered and had relatively close ties to the samurai culture. It was that connection that I feel must have motivated them to create objects that symbolized their samurai spirit. “The sense of Honor, a vivid consciousness of personal dignity and worth,” is one of the eight virtues of the samurai, as documented by bestselling author Nitobe Inazo in his book, Bushido: The Soul of Japan, which was favored by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Discovering More Swords Made in Camp

Several months after I published “Samurai Spirit in WWII Camps,” Sonoma State University archaeologist Dana Ogo Shew was awarded a grant to organize Amache Digitization Day at the Enmanji Buddhist Temple in Sebastopol, California, on April 23, 2016. Shew invited Amache camp survivors and their family members to bring in their Amache photographs and artifacts to help create a digital archive and to receive a digital record for themselves. The photograph below, taken by Shew’s husband Rich Adao, shows the activities of the day.

Since I had some Amache photos and artifacts—including the tanto (short sword) that was forged there by Jack Muro’s father, which I discussed in my previous article—I decided to make the road trip up from Southern California—a trip made more lively by the company of my grandson, Chava Valdez-Ono, who had worked with me in Amache for the University of Denver Archaeology Field Study program in the summer of 2014.

While the sword that Jack gave me was being photographed, it attracted the enthusiastic attention of Sensei Henry Kaku of the Petaluma De Leon Judo Club. He called me over to a table and showed me two steel swords and their scabbards that were made in camp—not Amache, but Poston! They had been made by Kameki Fukumura, the great-grandfather of Kaku’s mother-in-law, Fumi Fujimoto (née Tajii) of Arroyo Grande, whose family farmed near San Luis Obispo before the war. While Fukumura was not a samurai, according to Sensei Kaku, he was from a region where many samurai resided, and he had many samurai friends and was able to learn about swords and sword fighting.

I too was excited. I told Sensei Kaku (above right) about my Discover Nikkei essay and asked if I could include him, his story, and the swords in this follow-up essay. Kaku-san readily agreed.

So now the number of Japanese swords that were discovered to have been made in camp add up to seven: one from Manzanar, one from Amache, two from Topaz, one from Tanforan Assembly Center, and two from Poston. There was a third sword that was made in Poston, which would have brought the total to eight, but it was “lost in a house move” according to Sensei Kaku.

How Did They Do It?

How exactly these swords were forged in the camps is a mystery, since the swords were only recently discovered and the Issei bladesmiths have long since passed on. The blade produced in Manzanar was authenticated by Michael Yamasaki and his Japanese sword dealership, Jack Muro doesn’t know how his father crafted his tanto, but he does know that coal was the primary source of heat, as they were burned in pot-bellied stoves in the barracks.

I recently discovered a TV series on the History Channel titled Forged in Fire, in which experienced bladesmiths are invited to produce weapons in a live competition using metals, a forge, and various tools provided by the show. It is hosted by a former Army Ranger and Air Force veteran, expert in all forms of weaponry, backed by a panel made up of three certified bladesmiths steeped in historical weaponry and armed martial arts who serve as judges.

In the episode that caught my attention, they denied the bladesmiths use of electric tools and only provided a hand-cranked coal forge. The metals they provided were basically scraps of used tools. I imagined that our concentration camp bladesmiths—like Kameki Fukumura and Tokuichi Muro at their coal-burning, pot-bellied stoves—worked under similar conditions.

Here is a link to a Forged in Fire episode that culminated with the final two contestants challenged to make a Japanese katana. It’s a bit rough, but it gives you the flavor of the series:

Sensei Kaku recently told me a story about visiting Kameki Fukumura’s children, three out of five of whom are still alive to this day. This is what he said: “When we would visit them, the oldest and the youngest would tell us stories of how their dad would go around the camp grounds looking for any metals found on the ground. As an Issei, he was not allowed to take any leadership role while incarcerated and he hated gardening, even though that is what he did before being sent to camp. So, while in Poston, rather than helping raise vegetables, he sat around carving birds, writing poetry, and making numerous swords out of both wood and metal. He made a Sumi ink well out of stone, and he made his own charcoal to make the black ink. They did not share with me how he made the swords, but they remember him going to the communal kitchen to make them.”

A Taxonomy of Samurai Swords

The seven swords that have been identified so far as being made in camp are pictured below.

Tanto, made in Manzanar by Kyuhan Kageyama in the Manzanar conentration camp, as displayed in Jidai: Timeless Works of Samurai Art at JANM
Tanto made by Tokuichi Muro in Amache concentration camp
Tanto made by Tokukei Koga in Tanforan Assembly Center. Owned by grandson, Tom Koga
Tanto made in Topaz concentration camp by Tokukei Koga. Owned by Grandson, Warren Koga.
Crafted in Topaz concentration camp by Rinzo Yonekura, on display at Topaz Museum. Photo courtesy of Jane Beckwith, President Board of Directors at Topaz Museum.
Katanas (Samurai swords) made by Kameki fukumura in Poston concentration camp. Owned by Sansei Henry Kaku, Petaluma DeLeon Judo Club. 

As cited in Wikipedia, what differentiates the different types of swords or daggers are the lengths of the blades. Japanese knives are measured in shaku—approximately equal to one foot (11.93 inches), with 33 shaku exactly equal to 10 meters. The three main categories of Japanese blades are:

The Manzanar, Amache, Topaz, and Tanforan Assembly Center blades are each roughly one shaku in length, so they’d all be classified as tanto (dagger). The Poston blades as measured and described by Sensei Kaku are as follows:

  • Black metal sword: overall length of 36 inches with 25½-inch blade 
  • Red metal sword: overall length of 32 inches with 22-inch blade and a wood handle

Thus, the black scabbard sword qualifies as a two-shaku long sword or katana, while the red scabbard sword at just under two shaku would be considered a wakizashi or tachi. Notice that their handles would accommodate a two-handed hold, while the tanto handles are one-handed. So, it seems that our first three WWII camp swordsmiths chose to forge shorter, more inconspicuous weapons, while Kameki Fukumura produced fuller-sized swords at Poston.

Musings of a Sansei

As a Sansei, I can only imagine the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of the Issei and Nisei. That’s how I positioned myself when I wrote essays about my and family members’ experiences in camp during the war years, when I was just a child.

The discovery of the swords made at Poston strengthens my belief that the samurai spirit was more widespread throughout the camps than I initially thought. The samurai spirit must have raged in Mr. Fukumura, who forged three metal swords, two of which survived and are now in the respectful care of the honorable Sensei Kaku.

Many families who were proud of their Japanese heritage owned swords that had been brought over from Japan. Around 1981, after my father had passed away, a young man gave our family two samurai-era swords explaining only that his father was given the swords by our father. Now that his father had also passed away, his family felt compelled to return them to our family. No one in either of our families knew anything beyond that.

After Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan, the anti-Japanese climate became more heated. Many Japanese American families sought to rid themselves of anything that connected them to Japan for fear they would be targeted for arrest, deportation, or hateful violence. In Nisei: The Quiet Americans, author Bill Hosokawa describes how the Frank Chuman family of Los Angeles burned many photographs, letters, books, magazines, etc. that had any ties to Japan. Chuman also says: “My father went to a dresser in his bedroom where he kept two swords, one long for two hands and the other short… family treasures… handed down from ancestor samurai of the Satsuma clan… my father and I took them out to the backyard… and buried them.”

There are more fortunate stories too. My uncle Edward Takamasa “Butch” Masuoka often told us nephews and nieces about a “very long” sword that belonged to a tall samurai ancestor. This family sword survived WWII along with my uncle and two of his brothers, all of whom served in the US military. A fourth brother, Peter, was a 442nd Regimental Combat Team battalion soldier who was killed in action in Biffontaine, France. He posthumously received a Silver Star for actions of selfless bravery. Their one sister says that the family sword is now with the youngest and only surviving brother.

Based on countless similar stories, I surmise that my father gave his swords to a friend, who must have lived outside the military-sensitive zone, even possibly out of state, for the swords did survive the war. These were swords that were made in Japan.

You could say that the recently discovered made-in-camp swords were “made in America”; they add a new chapter to this story of the legacy of Japanese swords, one in which an old spirit is called upon to restore a pride that was stolen from our people.

As I was preparing this article, I learned of two more swords that were made in camp. One was made in Tule Lake Segregation Center by Dr. Satsuki Ina’s father, Itaru Ina, who worked in a boiler plant at the center. Dr. Ina is a documentary video producer whose credits include Children of the Camps and From a Silk Cocoon, two insightful works about the impact of the WWII concentration camps on her family and other internees. Dr. Ina and her brother saw their father’s sword once, but it has since disappeared. I was told of yet another sword made in Topaz, but was denied any more information. So, not having seen any of these swords, I cannot report on them at this time. I hope to learn more at a later date.

Putting myself in the shoes of the bored and disgruntled Issei, who had excessive free time on their hands while in camp, I can imagine developing an attitude of wanting to productively occupy myself by making something. Perhaps a symbol of protest against my emasculated position in a concentration camp? Maybe a made-in-camp, firm sharp weapon, a symbol of Bushido strength—a samurai sword! In the spirit of gaman, of course.


1. Donna K. Nagata, “Psychological Effects of Camp,” Densho Encyclopedia.


© 2018 Gary T. Ono

camps sword World War II