Between 1942 and 1944, thousands of incarcerated Japanese Americans were moved from assembly centers and concentration camps to farm labor camps as a way to mitigate the wartime labor shortage. In the summer of 1942, Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographer Russell Lee—best known for his series on Pie Town, New Mexico—documented four such camps in Oregon and Idaho, capturing the laborers’ day-to-day lives in evocative detail. Many of these photographs, which capture a little-recorded episode of American history, have never before been exhibited.
For an illuminating look at the origins of this exhibition, read our Discover Nikkei interview with curator Morgen Young. A consulting historian based in Portland, Oregon, Young studied the FSA photography program in graduate school. Working on Uprooted has taught her much about Japanese American history, and she believes that the farm labor camps are an important and under-recognized part of that history. In her own words: “These individuals and families volunteered for agricultural labor—they went into new environments, where they didn’t know how they would be received by the local communities. They contributed directly to the war effort and still have not received the recognition they deserve for their efforts.”
Uprooted is a multi-pronged project that includes the traveling physical exhibition, oral history interviews with subjects in the photographs who were identified by viewers, documentary videos, school curricula, and a comprehensive website. A visit to the website is a great idea both before and after your visit to the exhibition; there, you can learn more about the farm labor camps, review copies of official documents, watch excerpts of oral history videos, view photos of the camps taken by people who lived in them, download lesson plans, and more.
Help Identify People in the Photographs
When you come to see Uprooted, pay close attention to the people in the photographs. Do you recognize anyone? Efforts to identify the subjects in Russell Lee’s photographs are still ongoing; according to Young, no one in the Idaho camp images has been identified, and the organizers are hoping that LA visitors will be able to help. A photo identification binder will be made available for visitors to write down possible names and/or details about the subjects’ lives.
James Tanaka, a JANM docent, has already come forward to share his story of living in the Twin Falls camp as a child; information about Tanaka and his family is available here.
On May 17, the Japanese American National Museum partnered with the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to host a National Youth Summit on Japanese American incarceration in World War II. Over 3,600 students and teachers from 36 states and three countries tuned in to the live webcast of the event! In case you missed it, the program is now archived and available to watch online.
In addition to the panel discussion here in JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum and its webcast, we also hosted a simultaneous web chat where students enthusiastically checked in and asked some very thoughtful questions. There were so many questions that we were not able to answer all of them during the time allotted. Thanks to this blog, however, we now have a chance to follow up with our curious viewers and answer more of their questions.
JANM’s Curator of History, Dr. Lily Anne Welty Tamai, was on hand to answer questions about the Japanese American World War II incarceration.
Caroline asked: How were Japanese Americans treated differently from Jews during this time?
Dr. Tamai: The World War II experiences of the two groups were very different. Technically, both the Nazi and the American camps were concentration camps, meaning they were used “for the detention or imprisonment of aliens, members of ethnic minorities, or political opponents.” However, after the war, the term “concentration camp” became associated most strongly with the Nazis, who used their camps to systematically execute Jews and other minority groups. Although Japanese Americans were imprisoned without due process, the War Relocation Authority camps were NOT death camps—they met the prisoners’ basic needs for food and shelter and allowed them to work, go to school, and live with their families for the most part.
The DC Area asked: What happened to Japanese Americans who resisted incarceration?
Dr. Tamai: There were several acts of resistance against the incarceration, which led to arrests and four subsequent Supreme Court cases (Gordon Hirabayashi 1943, Minoru Yasui 1943, Fred Korematsu 1944, and Mitsuye Endo 1944) that questioned the constitutionality of various aspects of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. In the first three cases, government authorities misled the court by exaggerating the military’s estimates of the security risk posed by Japanese Americans. All convictions were overturned 40 years later thanks to the leadership of the Nisei and Sansei generations, who achieved historic court victories that paved the way for the Redress Movement. This in turn led to the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted a formal apology and reparations to Japanese Americans.
Caroline asked: Did any other Americans try to stand up for Japanese Americans’ rights?
Dr. Tamai: After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese American community was perceived to be allied with Japan and thus, it was extremely unpopular to stand up for them. Several notable people did, however.
Clara Breed, a librarian in San Diego, wrote many letters to her former students who were incarcerated at Manzanar War Relocation Center. For more information, see Joanne Oppenheim, Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference (Scholastic Nonfiction, 2006). There was also a Mexican-Irish teenager named Ralph Lazo who decided to show his support of his Japanese American friends by joining them at Manzanar during the war.
Ralph Carr, former governor of Colorado, welcomed Japanese Americans who wished to resettle in Colorado after the war—an unpopular move that cost him his bid for the US Senate. American Friends Service Committee (the Quakers) also gave public support to Japanese Americans who were resettling. San Francisco–based civil rights attorney Wayne Collins helped nearly 5,000 Japanese Americans reinstate their US citizenship after they had been coerced into renouncing it. He also served as defense attorney for Fred Korematsu, Mitsuye Endo, and Japanese Latin Americans who had been extradited from Latin America and imprisoned in US Department of Justice camps.
Anonymous asked: Why didn’t they send Japanese Americans back to Japan?
Dr. Tamai: By 1942, nearly two-thirds of the Japanese American community had been born in the US, making them US citizens. Although most had family members who were still in Japan, many had never even been there, and therefore going “back” was not an option. For the first-generation Japanese immigrants who made up one-third of the community, many had already established themselves in the US—they were legal residents; they owned businesses, farms, and homes; and their children were American citizens. The US government was not in a position to deport an entire ethnic community.
During the first part of the program, students heard from JANM volunteer William “Bill” Shishima, who talked about his childhood incarceration at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. The students responded very positively to his story and asked him a few more questions via the web chat.
NadeShot asked: What was it like saying goodbye to your friends and not knowing when you would be back?
Bill Shishima: It was very short and sweet. Basically, we just said goodbye and we didn’t know where we were going or for how long.
Cate asked: Did the formal US apology help you at all emotionally?
Shishima: Yes, I was shocked that the country said that they were sorry we were incarcerated during the war. It takes a great country to admit a wrong to their citizens. I donated my $20,000 reparation money to the Japanese American National Museum, which exists to tell the Japanese American incarceration story so that it will never happen again!
A huge thank you to everybody who participated in this year’s National Youth Summit! In closing, we’d like to leave you with a link to the rap song we played to kick off the program. It’s called “9066” and it’s by “Kamikaze” Kane Tenorio. You can listen to it here. You can also read about Kane and his family here. Enjoy!
This Saturday, May 7, at 2 p.m., JANM will present a dramatic reading of Moss on the Mirror, a fictional play inspired by the life and work of renowned photographer Toyo Miyatake. Taking place in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district in the late 1920s and early 1930s, where Miyatake’s practice flourished before World War II, the play examines the creativity, hope, and optimism, as well as the struggles and challenges, of the Japanese immigrant photographers community.
Although not a literal retelling of actual events, the piece seeks to transport audiences to the feelings and circumstances of those times. Moss on the Mirror was written by Warren Sata, whose paternal grandfather was J.T. Sata (1896–1975), a featured photographer (along with Miyatake) in the current exhibition Making Waves: Japanese American Photography, 1920–1940. To learn more about the play, we conducted a brief interview with Sata via email.
JANM: What does the title Moss on the Mirror refer to?
Warren Sata: The title refers to the notion that we understand ourselves and our communities through reflection, or looking in the mirror. The moss evokes a clouded mirror, alluding to the influence of outside circumstances like poverty and racism.
JANM: What inspired you to write this play?
WS: The story of Los Angeles’ Issei photographers has fascinated me and inspired my imagination since I learned about them from my father some years ago. A conversation with actor/director Chris Tashima, who serves as the play’s director, helped me to recognize the importance of Toyo Miyatake’s journey toward becoming a pillar of the community. I began to understand the value of artistry and responsibility in a different way, which led me to take an interest in sketching the story of Japanese Americans photographers and their interests and practices prior to the WWII incarceration.
JANM: What is your favorite image by a Japanese American photographer, and why?
WS: I am drawn to an abstract self-portrait created by my grandfather, J.T. Sata, which is currently on display in Making Waves. It utilizes triangles and a photographic image of his face. The interplay between a realistic portrait and an abstract prepared background fascinates me; it seems to suggest a doorway between the real world and subjective experience. This allows for a dialogue between these worlds and gives value to the notion of participating in both. I enjoy this because it pushes me to understand the Issei experience and what that might have felt like.
JANM: What do you hope audiences will get out of the dramatic reading?
WS: I hope that audience members will be motivated to honor the contributions of the Issei photographic pioneers, but also to consider what their experiences were like in the 1920s and ’30s—their creativity, their principles, their aesthetics, and the culture and context of the times.
Admission to JANM will be free to the public on Saturday, March 12, in celebration of the Smithsonian Institution’s annual Museum Day Live! event. This day is intended to encourage all people to explore our nation’s museums, cultural institutions, zoos, aquariums, parks, and libraries. This year, in recognition of Women’s History Month, the event has a special focus on reaching women and girls of color in underserved communities.
At JANM, we are very fortunate to have some significant pieces in our collection created by Japanese American women, such as the artist Miné Okubo (1912–2001), whose collection has been digitized and can be viewed on our museum’s website.
Okubo was a young woman during World War II. She and her family were removed from San Francisco to Tanforan Assembly Center, and then incarcerated in the concentration camp at Topaz, Utah, for the remainder of the war. Okubo was a keen observer; she made sketches and ink drawings that depicted what life was really like in camp.
In many ways, Okubo was ahead of her time. Her graphic novel, Citizen 13660 (1946), was the first published personal account of the camp experience. Through her pen and ink drawings, readers got an intimate view of what daily life became when Okubo, an American citizen by birth, was reduced to a number: 13660.
JANM’s School Programs Developer Lynn Yamasaki and her family recently had the opportunity to view artworks by her great uncle, Jack Yamasaki, that are part of the museum’s permanent collection.
Jack Yamasaki, my father’s uncle, is someone I only have the faintest memories of seeing on occasion and visiting during holidays. I always knew he was an artist though, because I’ve been surrounded by his artwork my entire life—drawings and paintings by “Uncle Jack” have always hung on the walls of my parents’ and grandmother’s homes. Looking back, his artwork was probably my earliest exposure to art as a child.
A few decades later, I find myself fortunate enough to have studied art and to have worked in museums. I’ve had the opportunity to see some incredible artwork in the various institutions in which I’ve worked, including the Japanese American National Museum, where I currently spend my days. Recently, I had the great privilege of bringing several members of my family to the museum, where staff in the Collections Management and Access (CMA) Unit were kind enough to bring out five works by Uncle Jack for us to look at.
Most of these were pieces that my family and I had never seen before. In some cases, they were gifted to the museum by donors who are not family members. And it was a little odd for me to see Jack Yamasaki’s name among the other great artists in JANM’s collection. Though always appreciated by my family, it wasn’t until recently that I gained respect for the broader significance of his artwork and the events documented in them.
This 1942 painting was really interesting for us to see. It is a depiction of life in the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming, where Jack spent the war years. Reminiscent of JANM’s recent Colors of Confinement display, this work depicts camp life in bright, vivid colors; a rare and striking thing when you’re used to looking at black-and-white photographs. We noticed that it is still in its original frame, made by Jack.
I was also attracted to this pencil and ink drawing. In a busy scene, again from Heart Mountain in 1942, men are laying bricks in winter. On the left, one figure tosses a brick to another, with the brick depicted in mid-air. The cloudy sky and the way the figures are bundled up and hunched over as they walk really conveys a sense of the cold climate.
This one is a definite favorite for more personal reasons. The figure in pink in the foreground is my grandmother, someone I spend a great deal of time with. At 99 years old, she is one of the most impressive people I know. She says this was painted when the family was farming in Utah after the war. The other figures in the painting are family friends from pre-war days in the Imperial Valley. Her account doesn’t quite match the official description on file at the museum. However, my grandma is pretty sharp and has a great memory, so I prefer her version of the story.
My family had seen a reproduction of this painting, but it wasn’t until the CMA Unit staff brought it out that we saw the original. We were all struck by how the colors were much brighter than we thought they were. It was the first time my grandma had seen it since Uncle Jack painted it so many years ago.
At first, seeing it again brought up an old annoyance. According to her, she had told Jack she wanted to buy the painting and he said she could. But after one of his exhibitions, she found out that he had sold it to someone else! I remarked that this painting’s journey brought it to JANM, where it is now professionally cared for in a controlled environment. It is probably better off than it would be at her house, and she agreed!
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 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.
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.
January 30 is the birthday of the late Fred Korematsu and it is also Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and Social Justice!
Over the past few years, we have had a chance to get to know his daughter, Karen Korematsu, who has taken on the role of Co-Founder and now Executive Director of the Korematsu Institute, whose mission is to advance pan-ethnic civil and human rights through education.
Karen is joining with others to spread the word about her father’s story. As a young man, Mr. Korematsu purposely disobeyed the government’s 1942 order that excluded all people of Japanese ancestry, without due process, from the West Coast. He was arrested and eventually removed to a Japanese American concentration camp in Utah. He appealed his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in 1944 the Court ruled against him, declaring that the exclusion and confinement of people of Japanese descent was justified. It wasn’t until 1983 that his conviction was finally overturned. (Here is a link to his full bio.)
For teachers who are planning to commemorate Mr. Korematsu’s stand for civil liberties, we’ve put together a few links to FREE resources that we hope might be helpful to you:
The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia is currently featuring the drawing All In One Room by Estelle Ishigo in their permanent exhibition The Story of We, the People. The drawing will be on display through November of 2014.
Estelle Peck Ishigo (1899-1990) is most well known as an artist who chronicled the experience at the Heart Mountain concentration camp.
Estelle Peck was born in Oakland in 1899 to parents of English, Dutch, French ancestry. Her family moved to Los Angeles and Estelle attended the Otis Art Institute, where she met Arthur Ishigo (1902-1957), a San Francisco-born Nisei who was working as a chauffeur for California Lieutenant Governor Robert Kenny. As anti-miscegenation laws at the time prohibited interracial couples from getting married, Peck and Ishigo took a trip across the border to Tijuana to be wed in 1928. Hoping for a career as an actor, Arthur worked as a janitor at Paramount Studios while Estelle worked as an art teacher. Shunned by her family, the couple lived among the Japanese American community.
With the outbreak of World War II and the removal of all West Coast Japanese Americans to inland concentration camps, the couple faced a dilemma. As a Nisei, Arthur was required to be removed while his wife was not. Though he wanted her to stay behind, she accompanied her husband, first to the Pomona Assembly Center in California, and then to Heart Mountain, Wyoming.
Throughout the war years, Estelle drew, sketched, and painted what she saw, providing a valuable document of life in the American concentration camps. “Strange as it may sound, in this desolate, lonely place I felt accepted for the first time in my life,” she later wrote of her time at Heart Mountain. She and her husband remained at Heart Mountain in order to record the last days of the camp until it was officially closed. The Ishigos were given $25 and put on a train to the West Coast. “I felt as if I were part of a defeated Indian tribe,” she remembered later.
In 1990, filmmaker Steven Okazaki made a documentary of Estelle Ishigo’s life titled Days of Waiting. Estelle passed away before seeing the film, which went on to win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
Estelle Ishigo’s story and drawings comprise an important aspect of the permanent collection at the National Museum. The Estelle Ishigo Collection can be seen on the Museum’s website at: janm.org/collections/estelle-ishigo-collection
The exhibition chronicles the history of Japanese American Nisei soldiers from the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and Military Intelligence Service who served during World War II to prove their loyalty to the nation that had disowned them.
The Aratani Central Hall was packed for the reception and program with enthusiastic members and special guests. This preview included an informal gallery walkthrough given by curator, Eric Saul.
The program started with America the Beautiful performed by Keiko Kawashima; a welcome by Helen H. Ota, External Relations Officer at JANM; and a special keynote by Eric Saul.
It was a very intimate exhibition preview—it allowed guests to reflect on history, and to appreciate the efforts of Japanese American Nisei veterans before, during and even after World War II.
Check out these photos from the member’s preview!
Photo Credits: Tsuneo Takasugi, Richard Murakami, and Richard Watanabe.
Go For Broke: Japanese American Soldiers Fighting on Two Fronts is on view at JANM through March 2, 2014. For more details, visit: janm.org/goforbroke
On Saturday, October 26, 2013 at 2:00PM, JANM will present a special screening of The Untold Story: Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawai`i. Produced by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai`i, The Untold Story is the first full-length documentary to chronicle the internment experience of Japanese Americans in Hawai`i.
Within 48 hours of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawai`i authorities arrested several hundred local residents—targeting Buddhist priests, Japanese language-school officials, newspaper editors, and business and community leaders. In total, more than 2,000 men and women of Japanese ancestry were arrested, detained, and interned at 13 different confinement sites located in Hawai`i. There was no evidence of espionage or sabotage, and no charges were ever filed against them. The Untold Story chronicles their story through oral histories, documents, interviews, and reenactments.
“While people have heard of places like Manzanar and Tule Lake, the sites where Japanese Americans were incarcerated on the mainland, few people are familiar with places like Honouliuli, Kalaheo Stockade, or that Japanese Americans were held at the Kilauea Military Camp during WWII,” said Carole Hayashino, president and executive director of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai`i.
“Our film, The Untold Story, helps to ensure that the experience of over 2,000 persons of Japanese ancestry in Hawai`i who were picked up and imprisoned simply because of their ancestry is not forgotten.”
Don’t miss this special film screening and the Q&A session with the filmmakers afterwards!
Visit the Discover Nikkei website for an insightful behind-the-scenes article on The Untold Story written by the director, Ryan Kawamoto: