The Beautiful Carved Birds of Takahashi

The Beautiful Carved Birds of Takahashi
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9102 which required that Japanese Americans be relocated into Internment camps. They were given only a few days notice to sell or store their belongings before they were relocated into gated and guarded compounds. Among the Americans sent to the camps were Yoneguma and Kiyoka Takahashi and their three young sons, Joe, Tom, and Jim. Son Roger would be born a few years later. When I contacted Carol Takahashi, granddaughter of Yoneguma and Kiyoka, she said, “my Grandma told me she proudly carried her most precious possessions, her three baby boys and her family pictures.”

The Takahaski family was sent to Poston Camp in Arizona where they remained for 3 ½ years. Poston was actually made up of three separate camps; in each one families lived in wood and tarpaper barracks; usually four families lived in one building. The camps had a honeymoon cottage which was set aside for newlyweds; 662 babies were born at Poston between May 1942 and November, 1945 when the camp was closed. During their internment, Yoneguma and Kiyoka participated in the Bird Carving School of Adult Education where they learned how to carve and paint small birds which were made into brooches. The materials used to create the birds were wooden egg crates, bits of wire clipped from window screens, and twigs found scattered on the ground of the camp.

When the family was released, Mr. Takahashi discovered that no one would hire him. So the enterprising couple continued to carve birds and they created a thriving family business that spanned over 40 years. The demand for their lovely birds always exceeded what they could supply and their jewelry was sold in selected department stores including Gump’s and Abercrombie and Fitch.

Carol remembers how hard her grandparents worked to realize their American dream. She said that her grandmother often painted at night and into the early morning hours because during the day she was busy taking care of the family. In 1999 Yoneguma and Kiyoka were named American Historical Artists; today their work is part of the permanent collection at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, California.

Carol noted that her grandparents never expected charity and “felt no ill will as life moved on with patience and dignity.” Just before he died at the age of 95, Mr. Takahashi saw the website that was created by his granddaughter to honor the memory of her grandparents and their life’s work. Unfortunately her grandmother did not live to see it; she died from Lou Gehrig’s disease ten years before her husband passed away.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan admitted a wrong had been committed against Japanese Americans and reaffirmed a nation of equal justice when he signed Public Law 100-383. People who had been sent to the camps received restitution and an apology from the U.S. Government.

Takahashi birds are unique, colorful, and expertly made. Collectors love these brooches and are ecstatic when they can find the rare matching earrings. They willingly pay $100.00 and more for authentic Takahashi brooches. Carol points out that the eyes are what set Takahashi birds apart from the other, similarly carved and painted jewelry. She said that her grandmother “always painted these the same.” Takahashi birds never had the screw-in, flat headed nails to attach the pin backs. Carol points out that her grandparents did not use that type, but rather used only push-in nails.

Signatures help too; some birds created before the 1970’s are marked with the initials K.T. After 1970 the initials K&Y.T and the year appear on the clasp side of each Takahashi bird. Designs include parrots, pheasants, parakeets, quail, robins, owls, and hummingbirds, among other beautiful designs.

For more information visit the Takahashi web site

Takahashi birds will be featured for the first time in a reference book on costume jewelry--Costume Jewelry 303 by Julia Carroll.

All photos are courtesy of Nicole Goodwin of Toy Nicole’s on Rubylane.

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