Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience

On May 9, join us for a special free screening at JANM of Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience. This documentary, a co-production between JANM’s Watase Media Arts Center and KCET for the series ARTBOUND, explores how the World War II American concentration camp experience impacted the lives of five Japanese American artists and designers and ultimately sent them on trajectories that led to their changing the face of American culture with their immense talents.

From the hand-drawn typeface on the cover of The Godfather to Herman Miller’s biomorphic coffee table, the work of Japanese American designers including Ruth Asawa, George Nakashima, Isamu Noguchi, S. Neil Fujita, and Gyo Obata permeated postwar culture. While these second-generation Japanese American artists have been celebrated, less-discussed is how their WW II incarceration—a period of great hardship and discrimination—had a powerful effect on their lives and art.

We talked to Akira Boch, Director of the Watase Media Arts Center, about the process of making this documentary.

JANM: Did you learn anything surprising or new about the featured artists that you didn’t know before?

Akira Boch: I only had a basic knowledge of each of these artists before jumping into this project. I knew the highlights—that Fujita created The Godfather logo and legendary jazz album covers, Noguchi made the Akari lanterns and lots of public sculptures, Asawa made her iconic hanging wire sculptures, Obata was the architect behind America’s most celebrated sports stadiums (and JANM of course), and Nakashima was famous for his live-edge wood furniture. Delving deeply into their lives made me realize that each of them lived boldly, and had lives of great adventure. They lived with curiosity and without fear—which made each of them a great artist whose work we’re still celebrating today. I hope that we were able to capture some of that and do justice to their lives in our film.

JANM: How long did it take to produce the documentary?

AB: The idea for the film came from an article written by Alexandra Lange for Curbed. I was first contacted about working on the project in September of last year. I immediately started researching and making contact with potential interviewees. We shot the film primarily in October and November of 2018. Editing started shortly after that.

JANM: What was the most challenging thing about making the documentary?

AB: The most challenging thing was creating a structure for the film that told the stories of five main characters and tying them all together thematically. Ensemble stories are difficult to tell because a limited amount of screen time needs to be shared equally. We wanted to be sure that the audience got a good sense of each of the artists, their struggles and accomplishments.

JANM: Was there a location you visited while making the documentary that stands out in your mind?

AB: We shot this film primarily in San Francisco, New York City, and New Hope, Pennsylvania. I think shooting in New Hope was the highlight in terms of locations. There, we were able to see the magnificent compound—utopia, if you will—that George Nakashima created in the woods of Pennsylvania. He was the architect of all of the structures on the property, which includes a couple of houses, a work studio, a showroom, a wood storage barn, and a guest house. Because he had worked as an architect and lived in Japan for several years, he embraced Japanese aesthetics. So, it was amazing to see those Japanese architectural influences in the middle of an American forest. And of course, the buildings were full of his gorgeous furniture.

JANM: What did you learn by making the documentary?

AB: All that I learned about the extraordinary lives of the artists that we featured could not be included in the one-hour time limitation of this film. That’s why the final piece is so packed with fascinating material. For the audience, I hope this film is a jumping-off point for further investigation because each of these artists led such rich, complex lives. In terms of life lessons gleaned from these artists, I’d say that the combination of persistence, hard work, curiosity, and courage can lead to a remarkable existence.

This screening is free, but RSVPs are recommended using this link. A Q&A with the filmmakers and some of the people interviewed for the film and a light reception will follow the screening. If you’re not able to make the screening, starting May 15, the film will be broadcast in Southern California on KCET and available for streaming on kcet.org/artbound.


A Recap of the 2019 Gala Dinner and Silent Auction

Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres welcomed guests to the annual Gala Dinner and Silent Auction on April 13, kicking off a festive evening for more than 1,000 people who came together in support of JANM and its wide-ranging work. This year’s theme paid tribute to the museum’s Charter Members—the first individuals and families to see and believe in the importance of the museum and its enduring role in our democratic society. JANM’s Watase Media Arts Center produced a video about some of these individuals; it featured poet and educator Amy Uyematsu, scholar and author Barbara Kawakami, World War II Military Intelligence Service veteran and author Edwin Nakasone, and photographer Stan Honda–all JANM Charter Members.

Ann Curry, the Gala’s featured speaker, was one of the highlights of the evening. A former NBC News anchor and international correspondent, Curry has reported on conflicts and humanitarian disasters all over the world. In October 2018, as a writer for National Geographic Magazine, Curry wrote about the mass incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II and the racism and prejudice that gave rise to it. Her speech at the Gala touched upon the political divisiveness the world has seen in recent years as well as her family’s own experiences with discrimination.

Earlier in the evening, a fast and furious round of donations went to support JANM’s Bid for Education; over $200,000 was raised. Those funds go to support bus transportation and museum admission for primary and secondary school students from Title I schools and groups who have demonstrated financial need. Bid for Education funds also supports K-12 educator workshops and many other educational initiatives.

On a more somber note, the night included an In Memoriam segment, honoring remarkable individuals who played significant roles in furthering JANM’s mission to promote appreciation of diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience. Grateful Four, a group of music-loving friends that try to connect to their Japanese American culture and give back to their community through the power of song, accompanied the video presentation of those who passed in the year since the last Gala.

As the night concluded, guests left with an even deeper understanding of the vital work the museum does: presenting engaging exhibitions, providing docent-led tours for school groups, speaking out against injustice and discrimination, preserving our sizable permanent collection of artifacts, and much more. To all of our generous supporters and friends who made the Gala such a successful and meaningful evening, thank you for joining us!

See Gambatte! Before It Closes

It’s almost your last chance to see the exhibition Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit. Closing April 28, the exhibition features contemporary photos taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Paul Kitagaki Jr. displayed next to images shot 75 years ago by War Relocation Authority (WRA) photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Clem Albers during World War II. Each pairing in the exhibition features the same individuals or their direct descendants as the subject matter. Paul spent years tracking down the formerly unknown subjects in WRA-era photos. After countless hours at the National Archives in Washington, DC, and through tips from family, friends, and the public, he found more than 60 individuals or their descendants to photograph. One such pair of photos in the exhibition features Yukiko Okinaga Hayakawa.

Yukiko Okinaga Hayakawa was two years old in 1942 when she was photographed waiting at Los Angeles’s Union Station, not far from her home in Little Tokyo, for a train that would take her and her mother to the Manzanar concentration camp. In the photo, she’s holding a partially eaten apple in one hand and a tiny purse in the other. Peeking out from her corduroy jacket is is the paper family identification tags worn by those forcibly removed, serving as a reminder of their second class status during this time. Photographer Clem Albers captured the far-off look in her eyes–a look of confusion and uncertainty. This now-famous photo has become representative of innocence lost during that time in history.

In 2005, Paul Kitagaki Jr. traveled with Yukiko on her first visit to Manzanar since her incarceration. He took her photo in a field near the camp’s Block 2, where she had once lived. Among the last of the incarcerees released, she and her mother left Manzanar in October 1945 for Cleveland, Ohio, where another Japanese American family sponsored them. Her mother went on to work as a cleaning woman and later as a seamstress. Yukiko went to Lake Forest College in Illinois and then graduate school at Tulane University in New Orleans.

Today Yukiko Okinaga Llewellyn (née Hayakawa) is a retired Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Registered Student Organizations at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, where she worked with Asian student groups and helped establish the university’s Asian Studies program. She taught about the incarceration experience and was active in the redress movement.In fact, in the fall of 1986, she wrote to her congressman, Representative Terry Bruce, and spoke with his staff about the movement. Through her persistence, the “little girl with the apple” helped win Rep. Bruce’s support. To this day, Yukiko continues to educate others about what happened to Japanese Americans in the 1940s in the hope that it doesn’t happen again to someone else.

To learn more about this exhibition and to see additional exhibition photos visit http://www.janm.org/exhibits/gambatte/

Bid for Education, Supporting Students and Educators

Photo by Tracy Kumono

If you’ve visited JANM on a weekday morning, chances are you’ve witnessed our onsite School Visits Program in action. Every Tuesday through Friday, JANM opens its doors early to offer specially-designed tours and activities for K-12 school groups from across the greater Los Angeles area. Some of the best learning opportunities happen outside the classroom; here at JANM, and we aim to give students a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience to explore more of the world through a field trip we hope they’ll never forget!

Securing funding is sometimes the biggest obstacle for schools to pursue these experiences and activities. At JANM, many of the student groups we welcome are only able to visit the museum due to our Bid for Education program. The program provides bus transportation and museum admission for primary and secondary school students from Title I schools and groups who have demonstrated financial need. The late US Senator Daniel K. Inouye launched Bid for Education at JANM’s Gala Dinner in 2000, in reaction to budget cuts at the state level that threatened to take away bus transportation for field trips. Since its inception, Bid for Education has provided field trips to over 12,000 primary and secondary school students and teachers every year.

Recently a 12th-grade student told a volunteer docent, “Thank you for speaking to my class during our trip to the Japanese American National Museum. It was a special experience to hear from an actual camp survivor, definitely something not everyone can experience. While it was a great experience, I’m very sorry that you had that story to tell. But I feel very honored to have been able to listen to it. It was definitely a memorable experience that I will never forget.”

Photo by Tracy Kumono

The Bid for Education program has grown to include support for K–12 educator workshops, the development of free resources for educators, docent recruitment and training, and many other educational initiatives. Going beyond the doors of JANM, the program helps expand the horizons of students across the country through the museum’s teacher training programs and web-based resources. Through these ongoing educational initiatives, the museum continues its commitment to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience with classrooms on a nationwide scale.

Please think about supporting the Bid for Education. The program receives much of its funding during the annual Gala Dinner, which this year is taking place on April 13. However, donations can be made at any time online. We greatly appreciate your contribution of any size.

Celebrating Women’s History Month with Mitsuye Yamada and Wakako Yamauchi

In honor of Women’s History Month, we want to highlight the work of two pioneering Japanese American women.

Mitsuye Yamada is a poet, essayist, activist, and former professor of English. In 1942, when Mitsuye was 17, she and her family were sent to America’s concentration camps, where they were forced to stay for the duration of World War II. After the war, she received a BA from New York University, then an MA from the University of Chicago, and an honorary doctorate from Simmons College.

traci kato-kiriyma, curator for Discover Nikkei’s monthly poetry column, recently wrote about Mitsuye, who, at age 95, has a new book,  Full Circle, New and Selected Poems, being published in June 2019. Here’s an excerpt of Mitsuye’s thoughts on her new book:

“Many of these poems seem to focus on my relationships with my family. My parents had always taught my brothers and me to move forward in life, no matter what obstacles are placed before us, I continue to hear their admonitions and put them into writing. Each of us are keepers of our unique family histories. Writing them down in whatever form you choose is a way of keeping your family lore alive.

Also you might say I’m quite opinionated, and can’t help responding to whatever that is going on around me and tend to express these thoughts in poetry. At my present advanced age, I decided it is about time I published another book.”

You can read the full article and a few of Mitsuye’s poems here:  http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2019/2/21/nikkei-uncovered-27/

Wakako Yamauchi, who died in 2018 at the age of 93, was a Nisei playwright. Her most celebrated work, And the Soul Shall Dance, is a staple of the Japanese American theatrical repertoire. Ross Levine recently authored a multi-part exploration about her life. Here’s a brief excerpt from Part 1:

“Yamauchi, who was a personal friend of mine, achieved her greatest renown as a playwright, but when relating an incident or articulating her thoughts, she always seemed to be speaking in prose, searching for the mot juste as she gestured broadly with upturned palms.

She was a thin, energetic woman with an oval face, a wide smile and eyes that effortlessly toggled between a mischievous delight and an expression of deep empathy. She was born Wakako Nakamura in the small town of Westmoreland (now Westmorland), socked between Brawley and the Salton Sea in California’s Imperial Valley. There was little ’imperial‘ about life there, and the ’valley‘ was part of the vast Sonoran Desert, flat and barren, its soil encrusted with white alkali, amenable to agriculture only through relentless irrigation.

Yamauchi’s parents, Yasaku and Hama, were Issei—that is, immigrants from a truly imperial land, Japan. They had left their homeland lured by the promise of prosperity and the chance to escape the stifling traditions that defined all aspects of life in the Shizuoka Prefecture southeast of Tokyo. What awaited them in California was the Alien Land Law, first enacted in 1913 and aimed expressly at the Japanese. It prohibited ’aliens ineligible for citizenship‘ from owning agricultural land or leasing it long-term, thus relegating the Nakamuras to the peripatetic life of itinerant tenant farmers.”

You can read all of Part 1, and the rest of the series as well, at: http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2019/1/11/wakako-yamauchi-1/

The 2019 Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium Meeting

Members of the Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium get ready for Congressional visits. (L to R: Prentiss Uchida, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation; Darrell Kunitomi, HMWF; Katharine Hirata, Japanese American Citizens League Fellow; Mia Russell, Executive Director of Friends of Minidoka; Larry Oda, Chair of the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation; Brian Liesinger, Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium Coordinator; Ann Burroughs, President and CEO of JANM; and Sam Mihara, HMWF). Photo by David Inoue.

I wanted to share with you my reflections on the recent Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium meeting in Washington, DC, at the end of February, while they are still fresh in my mind.

The Consortium is made up of organizations that have been recipients of funding from the Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grant program of the National Park Service. Our purpose is to preserve and protect the history, the sites and artifacts related to the Japanese American confinement experience. We are also committed to elevating the social justice lessons of the incarceration and to highlighting ways that civil and human rights abuses put at risk the rights of all Americans. We are led by an Advisory Council that is made up of JANM, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, JACL, Friends of Minidoka and the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation.

After four years in the making, the Consortium has finally come of age. We have a clear sense of purpose and direction, and, importantly, how to leverage our platform to build coalitions and reach a wider audience. I am immensely proud that JANM, with guidance from our Board Chair Norm Mineta, Trustee Harvey Yamagata, and Governor Doug Nelson, has played a pivotal role in helping to shape the Consortium.

Over two days, representatives of 16 organizations met with 22 legislators and their staff to educate them about the JACS program, to encourage their support for the re-appropriation of funding in this year’s budget, and to ensure that they remember the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans when they consider policy or legislation that may cause harm or marginalize any group. We heard bipartisan support for the JACS program and what it has achieved.

A small group of us met with staffers for key legislators who serve on the Appropriations Committee to advocate for current funding but more importantly, to lay the groundwork for a permanently funded program. We met with the staff from the offices of Representatives Mark Takano, Betty McCollum, and Ed Case, and Senators Diane Feinstein, Brian Schatz, and Mazie Hirono.

Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium members representing 20 organizations gather around House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after meeting in her office in the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Brian Liesinger. 

The culmination and high point of the visits was a meeting with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who gave her full commitment to ensuring that the program be funded. It was particularly meaningful for all of us to have Chairman Norm Mineta join us for this meeting.  Speaker Pelosi was a co-sponsor of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, and she and Norm have fought in many of the same trenches over the years. It was enormously encouraging to know that we have strong support in such high places!

Norm also spoke movingly at a congressional briefing that was sponsored by Representatives Judy Chu and Mark Takano and co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, Japanese American Citizens League, and the Consortium. The briefing drew parallels between the trauma of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans and the present detention of immigrant families and children at the border, and the separation of children from their parents. 

When I took over as Chair of the Consortium, I and others have started working to ensure that funding is made permanent. These legislative visits were in many respects a ‘dry run.’ We gleaned useful information on what we need to do to prepare, who the key influencers will be, and most importantly, that there is strong support for this. We have limited time to accomplish this task: there is approximately $7 million left in the original JACS fund, which represents only two – three more years of funding.  We know that the overall impact has been substantial and JANM has benefited greatly over the years.

Ann Burroughs; David Inoue, Executive Director of the Japanese American Citizens League; Senator Diane Feinstein of California; and Prentiss Uchida. Photo by Darrell Kunitomi. 

Coming closely on the heels of our Capitol Hill visits, we heard not surprisingly, that the President’s budget has again zeroed out the JACS program. In the coming weeks, the Consortium will be mounting another advocacy campaign, spearheaded by JACL, to mobilize our networks and the relationships with our elected officials to ensure that the funding is restored. Many of you helped us last year, so please stand by – we will need support from every one of you again.

The meetings occurred at a tumultuous time, which emphasizes how important the legacy and lessons of the Japanese American experience remain today. At the end of our time together in DC, Stan Shikuma, who is a member of the Tule Lake Committee, stated that he had not seen this kind of collaboration or mobilization in the Japanese American community since the redress movement.  To me, that highlights how important it is to use the lessons of history to strengthen these bonds for the betterment of our field and the country as a whole.

2019 Los Angeles Day of Remembrance Recap


Watch the entire 2019 Los Angeles Day of Remembrance program. To see the program’s schedule broken out by time codes visit youtube.com/janmdotorg

On February 16, the Japanese American National Museum proudly hosted the 2019 Los Angeles Day of Remembrance, marking the 77th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066, which led to the forced exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. With our many partners for the event, we honored and remembered those who were confined in America’s concentration camps during the war.

The day centered on the theme Behind Barbed Wire: Keeping Children Safe and Families Together. By exploring parallels of America during the 1940s and those in our country today, the program drew comparisons between the concentration camps that forcibly held Japanese Americans and the eerily similar modern-day detention centers currently used to hold migrants, mostly from Central America, who are seeking asylum in the United States to escape poverty, violence, and gangs. The evolution of rhetoric surrounding immigration in America was also probed.

The 2019 Los Angeles Day of Remembrance opened with a solemn but vibrant musical performance by Ichiza Taiko, followed by a dramatic reading (in two parts) of the Kondo family letters from camp by Edward Hong and Kelvin Han Yee. The letters told a story of trauma, perseverance, and ultimately survival that put a very personal face on those who lived during this tragic chapter in the nation’s history. The Day of Remembrance closed with the audience taking a poignant oath together, promising to be unafraid to use their voice and to care for others who are voiceless.

JANM’s partners for the Day of Remembrance were Go For Broke National Education Center, Japanese American Citizens League–Pacific Southwest District, Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, Kizuna, Manzanar Committee, Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, Nikkei Progressives, Organization of Chinese Americans–Greater Los Angeles, and Progressive Asian Network for Action (PANA).


Take the Global Nikkei Survey!


Photo courtesy of Kimiko Medlock .

The Japanese American National Museum is collaborating with The Nippon Foundation on a large-scale research project trying to learn about how young people of Japanese ancestry (Nikkei) experience and express their Japanese heritage. The first of its kind, this project seeks to dig deep into Nikkei communities around the world and to explore their differences and similarities.

Are you a Nikkei age 18 to 35? We want to hear from you! Regardless of when your ancestors emigrated from Japan, their destination country, or where you now reside, we want you to help develop a picture of current Nikkei communities, needs or challenges they face now, and those that may arise soon. There is currently no other research investigating younger generation Nikkei communities on a global level.

The team leading this research includes Dr. Curtiss Takada Rooks, who is Assistant Professor, Department of Asian and Asian American Studies, and Senior Research Associate Psychology Applied Research Center and Program Coordinator, Asian Pacific American Studies at Loyola Marymount University; and Dr. Lindsey Sasaki Kogasaka, Assistant Director of Study Abroad at Pomona College. Rooks’ research focuses on ethnic and multiracial identity, ethnic community development, and cultural competency in community health and wellness. Kogasaka specializes in cross-cultural exchange and training, international migration, and the Asian diaspora in Latin America.

The Nippon Foundation, which initiated this project and selected JANM as its partner, was established in 1962 as a nonprofit philanthropic organization, active in Japan and around the world. Its range of activities encompasses education, social welfare, public health, and other fields—carried out in more than 100 countries to date. The Nippon Foundation also reached out to Discover Nikkei, which has a global network, for its help in conducting the research. The results of this study will be published after the spring of 2020.

The survey takes just 10-15 minutes to complete. Although the target audience is Nikkei, including those with mixed ancestry, between the ages of 18–35, others are welcome to participate. Please share this opportunity with friends or family who may be interested. Hurry—the survey closes at midnight (PST) on February 28, 2019!

Take the survey by clicking here.

American Sutra – Buddhism as Threat in the United States

After Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment exploded. Along with general suspicion toward Japanese Americans, those who practiced Buddhism were often specifically targeted. Even before the smoke had cleared at Pearl Harbor, the American government was already rounding up Buddhist leaders for detention. With Buddhist communities under surveillance and anti-Japanese attitudes reaching a boiling point, some Japanese American Buddhists even contemplated converting to Christianity in hopes this would save them from being sent to American concentration camps.

Today, Buddhism is seen favorably by most Americans as a peaceful religion. However, this wasn’t the case in the early twentieth century. Americans in the early 1900s were warned by newspapers and individual leaders in the Christian community that Buddhism was cruel to animals, degrading toward women, and led by debaucherous priests. These unsavory sentiments led some Buddhists to consciously present their faith to be more compatible with Christian tastes by saying, like Christianity, they had a god. 

In Duncan Ryuken Williams’ new book, American Sutra. A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War, he details this bigotry against Buddhists during World War II. The book also explains how the Japanese American community, though forcibly dispossessed of their property and imprisoned in concentration camps, fought for their religious freedom, and how this gave rise to a new type American Buddhism. Williams writes that born out of the struggle to gain liberty from the concentration camps and the longing to practice religion freely “the (US) constitution became a new scripture for Buddhists in America, one that would protect their freedom to practice the Dharma in the land of liberty they called home.”

Williams, a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and Director of the University of Southern California Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture, uses internment camp newsletters, newly translated letters and diaries, and interviews with camp survivors and Japanese American WWII veterans to explain how, even in the face of suspicion and prejudice, their faith strengthened and helped them persevere. Published by Belknap Press, American Sutra also asks the question that’s still as pertinent now in the US as it was in 1941: Is a non-Christian person of color as American as a white Christian? Williams seeks answers by examining the history of Buddhist migration to the US and the roots of Buddhism being seen as a security threat to the US. The book concludes with a poignant story of an incarcerated Buddhist priest conducting the ritual practice of copying and burying a Buddhist sutra (scripture) in hopes of bringing forth the salvation of future generations of Japanese American Buddhists.

On Saturday, February 23, see Duncan Ryuken Williams speak about American Sutra while exploring questions of faith, identity, and resilience in the face of dislocation, loss, and uncertainty. His talk will be followed by comments and discussion with Brian Niiya (Content Director, Densho), Naomi Hirahara (award-winning author and historian), and Valerie Matsumoto (UCLA Aratani Chair on the Japanese American Incarceration, Redress, and Community). Reception and book signing will follow. This program is free, but RSVPs are recommended using this link.

Triumph Over Adversity – Paul Kitagaki Jr. and “Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit”


Junzo Ohara, Takeshi Motoyasu, and Eddie Kato

Have you seen our exhibition Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit yet? It features large-format contemporary photos taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Paul Kitagaki Jr. displayed next to images shot 75 years ago by War Relocation Authority (WRA) photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Clem Albers during World War II. Each pairing in the exhibition features the same individuals or their direct descendants as the subject matter.

Paul has spent years tracking down the formerly unknown subjects in WRA-era photos. After countless hours at the National Archives in Washington, DC, and through tips from family, friends, and the public he has found more than 60 individuals or their descendants to photograph. We caught up with Paul via email to ask him a few questions about this project, his process, and what he has learned by working with his subjects.

JANM:  What are the similarities and differences between your Gambatte work versus your job as a photojournalist?

Paul Kitagaki Jr: I’ve been a photojournalist for 40 years and have worked at seven different newspapers on the West Coast. This project has been similar to an investigative piece, taking a tremendous amount of research, looking for clues to the identities of unidentified people from over 70 years ago. Once the subject had been identified, I had to gain their trust to participate. It was very slow for the first few years. It has taken over 13 years to build this body of work, matching 61 historical photos with the same subjects today sharing their stories.

When I started with an idea of finding the identities of the subjects photographed by Dorothea Lange, I never thought I would find the amount of subjects in the exhibition and book. These are the images that have been burned in my memory when I first learned of Executive Order 9066 as a teenager in 1970.

During my first trip to the National Archives in 1984, I searched over 900 Dorothea Lange photographs looking for my family. As I looked through the boxes of images of the government historical record of the incarceration, the faces of the unidentified Japanese Americans haunted me and I wanted to know what had happened to them and if their experience was the same or different from my family. Maybe I could learn more than what my parents hadn’t spoken of.


Yukiko Hayakawa Llewellyn

JANM: In your Gambatte portraits, are you more spontaneous with your subjects or are you trying to capture an idea you conceptualized beforehand?

PK: When I photograph a subject I have an open mind of how they will be photographed. I look at the historical photograph of the subject and try to find a feeling from the image that I might be able to incorporate in my contemporary photograph. It might be the location of the historical image or something from the subject’s life today that relates to being a Japanese American. When I meet them at their home, I collaborate with the subject and ask for something that might relate to their story. I might ask them if they have anything personal they brought to camp with them. Many times they don’t have anything from that time in their lives.

JANM: Since you’re dealing with serious, oftentimes painful memories, how do you make your subjects feel at ease and comfortable?

PK: The subject is very serious, often with painful memories that haven’t been shared outside of the family and sometimes not even in the family. I explain to them how important their stories are and that they are the only ones who can create a lasting personal and historical record of Executive Order 9066. You have to remember that many Sansei, Yonsei, and Gosei never heard the stories of the incarceration and the emotional and financial toll it took on their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Many of the Issei and Nisei didn’t share their stories with their own families.

JANM: Are there any lasting lessons you’ve learned from the camp survivors you’ve photographed?

A common theme the survivors voiced is that they don’t want this to happen again, to anybody. There was nobody to speak out and defend them as they silently went into the incarceration camps. They all have an inner strength. They wanted to move on and not burden their children with the shame they endured so many years ago. We saw how their civil rights had been violated, but they triumphed over adversity, they didn’t give up, they keep trying to do their best in the most difficult situations while locked away in the incarceration camps during WWII and that is the spirit of the word gambatte.

JANM: Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming book?

PK: The book will be out in April 2019 and is titled Behind Barbed Wire. The 152-page hardcover book with 137 photographs will have 61 stories of the Japanese Americans incarcerated in the camps. We look at the time before forced removal, the forced removal days, and life in the camps. The book is based on 13 years of research from the interviews and photographs from the national touring exhibition Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit that has been shown across the country. We are hoping to share the book and exhibition in more places across the US and abroad.

Photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr.

JANM: What would you like the legacy of this project to be?

PK: I want the stories and photographs of Executive Order 9066 to be shared with a diverse audience who might not know what had happened during WWII to Japanese American citizens. Many of the subjects have said they don’t want this to happen to anybody else and feel the importance of sharing this story.

I am still looking for more subjects and hope to add a multimedia video component to the project. Hearing the voices will be a powerful addition to the story telling.

In many public and private schools across the nation, this chapter of American history is rarely being taught. This exhibit and book offers a visual opportunity to learn about this time in history and to educate a new generation of gatekeepers, as well as the older generations, about the tragedy of war and the importance of standing up for the constitutional rights of all people. Although the Japanese American incarceration occurred over 70 years ago, events such 9/11, the upheaval that followed, and the racial turmoil in the US reveal that the message of this exhibit is more relevant than ever. I hope that future generations will be inspired by these stories and images. Hopefully, we can get it to more educational institutions such as high schools and universities as part of the reading curriculum. Many school education materials have a few paragraphs, or nothing at all, on the factual information of the incarceration but not the human toll it took on the Issei, Nisei, and Sansei and how it changed their lives forever.

On Saturday, February 9, see Paul Kitagaki Jr. at JANM in conversation with subjects of his work to discuss his creative process, stories about the images, and the effects this project has had on those both behind and in front of the camera. An audience Q&A follows the discussion. On the same day, if you are a JANM member, join Paul Kitagaki Jr. for a members only meet-and-greet and/or a gallery tour of Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit (tour limited to 25 participants). RSVP here.