Toyo Miyatake’s Camera Captured Japanese American History

Little Tokyo is filled with public art, from street murals to commemorative statues. JANM Development Assistant Esther Shin explores one of those works.

Toyo Miyatake's Camera, a public artwork by Nobuho Nagasawa. Photo: Esther Shin.
Toyo Miyatake’s Camera, a public artwork by Nobuho Nagasawa. Photo: Esther Shin.

 

Toyo Miyatake’s Camera, a bronze sculpture by artist Nobuho Nagasawa, stands just outside of JANM’s Historic Building. Made in 1993, it is an outsized replica of an actual camera that belonged to the Japanese American photographer. In the evening, the camera projects slides of Miyatake’s photography onto a window of the Historic Building.

Toyo Miyatake established a photo studio in Little Tokyo in 1923. He became known for his photographs documenting the early Japanese American community. During World War II, Miyatake was imprisoned at the Manzanar incarceration camp along with 10,000 other Japanese Americans. He had to leave behind his home and studio, but he managed to smuggle a camera lens into the camp and constructed a camera body from wood. With this camera he secretly documented the community’s daily life behind barbed wire; the photographs from this period have become important documents of this tragic episode in American history.

A well-known photograph taken by Toyo Miyatake at Manzanar concentration camp. Courtesy of Alan Miyatake, Toyo Miyatake Studio.
A well-known photograph by Toyo Miyatake, taken at Manzanar concentration camp. Courtesy Alan Miyatake, Toyo Miyatake Studio.

 

Nagasawa’s sculpture is my favorite public artwork in Little Tokyo. Although it is relatively small and modest, it speaks loudly and is rich in meaning. I see it as a symbol of remembrance, underscoring the importance of looking back and reflecting on what has happened in the Japanese American community—not only during the incarceration of U.S. citizens during WWII, but in the years before as well. I appreciate the fact that the images projected by the installation include darker moments from our history alongside special events and celebrations that were dear to the community before the war—such as the 1932 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and the Nisei Week parade of 1939—because all of these moments, bright or dark, are part of the Japanese American story.

It is fitting that the sculpture is located on the plaza of the museum, and faces the Historic Building. It stands on the spot of a former WWII reporting site, where hundreds of Japanese Americans boarded buses to be taken to incarceration camps. It is also located across the way from JANM’s Pavilion building, where the permanent exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community—which chronicles 130 years of Japanese American history—is displayed.

To explore more works of public art in Little Tokyo, sign up for JANM’s Edible Adventures: Public Art and the Sweets of Little Tokyo tour on March 28.

Esther Shin

Esther graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles in the Summer of 2013 with a Bachelor’s degree in History and a minor degree in Japanese. She was the curatorial intern at JANM for the 2013 Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Internship Program, and has also completed a marketing internship at the museum. Esther currently works as a Development Assistant for JANM.

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