Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series exploring the history of Japanese-American internment camps in the United States during World War II and the artists who contributed to documenting that history and helping the people impacted.
* * *
The successful sale of the 450 items once belonging to Japanese American WWII incarcerees that was temporarily and controversially up for public bid at Rago Arts and Auction House in New Jersey was announced Saturday night. Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles announced it would be the new owner and caretaker of the collection of personal items and photographs of and artwork by former residents of camps in California, Idaho, Arkansas, Arizona, and Colorado at their annual gala. The consignee of the items, John Ryan, of Connecticut had come forward on April 16 to defend his family’s strange decision claiming: “We weren’t trying to extort money from anyone.” And the international blowback — which included active campaigns on Facebook and Change.org, intervention from celebrity George Takei, and a lot of angry phone calls and tweets to Rago from Japanese Americans (including myself) and supporters — made Ryan, an executive in a credit card company’s sales and marketing department “fear for his safety and that of his family.”
Ryan had originally claimed he was “not in a financial position” to donate the material to institutions (this evolved on April 18 into “a family member in financial difficulty [that] needed help”). Meanwhile, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, created by former residents of a prominent former concentration camp in the country’s least populous state, said they had been working since March to avoid the public auction, including bidding on the collection for far more than its value. Rago justified their client’s refusal of that offer saying that he “did not feel qualified to choose one institution over another.” Whether the auction house was persuaded by the charming Takei or by the threat of injunction, it’s clear that ignorance remains about this awful chapter of US history, especially on this side of the country. This article is a small attempt to remedy some of that.
Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 7, 1941, the FBI started arresting a number of first-generation Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Fearing for the safety of Hawaii and the West Coast, conservatives in Congress called for mass reprisals. At the time in California, Japanese and Japanese Americans were a considerable force within agriculture, often having transformed land that was previously considered un-arable, to produce 30 to 40 percent of the state’s truckable crops. This despite the fact because of “alien” land laws targeted against them, foreign-born Japanese were never allowed to own more than 2 percent of the state’s cultivated acreage. (Some bought in their children’s names as a work around of the prohibition.)
As the Japanese Imperial Army advanced into Asia, California’s agricultural groups who competed with these determined farmers, joined in the effort to ramp up calls for retaliation against them. The press were of no help. President Roosevelt caved and issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, damning the Democratic Party from Japanese American support for at least a generation. (It was Ronald Reagan who would go on to sign into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that granted $20,000 redress and a formal apology to every surviving person of Japanese ancestry incarcerated during this time. A total 82,219 people eventually received checks and a written apology from the first George Bush.)
Executive Order 9066 targeted for removal of residents of Japanese descent in California, Oregon, and Washington, regardless of citizenship status. Mr. and Mrs. Shibuya of Mountain View, California, shown here, photographed by Dorothea Lange, were born in Japan, the former coming to the US in 1904 with $60 and a basketful of clothes. He built a successful business growing select varieties of chrysanthemums that he shipped to Eastern markets under his own company name.
Although all six of the Shibuya children were born in the US, and thus automatic citizens, all were sent away into the American interior. The executive order also included people of German and Italian descent but not US citizens from these groups.
From March through June of 1942, West Coast neighborhoods were systematically emptied of people of Japanese descent, by a department called the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA), headed by Karl Bendetsen, a Stanford graduate from Washington State who played an important role in the promulgation of 9066. Only 34 at the time, he was thereafter promoted to colonel.
Families were given one to two weeks notice and were allowed to pack up and take only what they could carry. Pets were thus abandoned, and neighbors and others bought up real estate, business and farm equipment, and personal belongings at bargain prices.
Accompanied by US soldiers carrying rifles with bayonets, these sudden wartime enemies on the homefront, totaling about 110,000 in number, were first put into 15 of what were euphemistically called “assembly centers”: fairgrounds, racetracks, and livestock staging areas all along on the West Coast, including in Pomona, CA and Portland, OR, while the federal government sorted out where to hold them for longer and built 10 concentration camps in the country’s interior, away from communities that objected to their presence.
The Santa Anita “assembly center,” 13 miles northeast of Los Angeles, alone housed over 18,000 in poor condition, nearly half in horse stables, and was surrounded by a high barbed wire fence and 200 US soldiers on guard. Medical supplies were lacking and sanitary facilities were overcrowded. Until the beginning of July 1942, there were only 150 showers available for over 18,000 people. When the six new shower buildings with 75 showers each were completed, this brought the shower-inmate ratio down to 1 for every 30 people.
Being close to LA, however had some advantages: The LA city and county schools donated schoolbooks for the elementary, middle, and high schools that were formed in the Santa Anita Assembly Center, and Isamu Noguchi came and taught art classes. Right after Pearl Harbor, Noguchi had formed an anti-fascist group on the West Coast, and as pressure mounted, he got famed African-American singer-activist Paul Robeson to testify before a congressional committee inquiring into the issue of mass removal. When the House Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration failed to recommend that Congress not give in to the racist standards of Executive Order 9066, Noguchi, exempt from the order as an East Coast resident, volunteered to be placed into Santa Anita, and later Poston concentration camp in southwest Arizona.
A month after the executive order, the War Relocation Authority (WRA), a civilian agency, was created to feed, house, and care for these people; President Roosevelt appointed Milton Eisenhower, then with the Department of Agriculture, to head it. This younger brother of Dwight Eisenhower had at first attempted voluntary “evacuation” which was followed by complaints from inland communities about the entry of “dangerous Japanese.” After an April 1942 meeting where western state officials refused to accept members of the forced migrant group except in custody, Eisenhower decided on mass detention. Before resigning two months later, he established a kind of Japanese American advisory council, while also approving leave programs whereby college students that were nisei (second generation, or children of Japanese immigrants) could leave the West Coast to continue their studies. He also helped develop a set of propaganda policies which mandated the use of euphemistic words for this massive undertaking, requiring inmates to be referred as “evacuees” and the facilities they were planning as “relocation centers” rather than “internment centers” or “concentration camps.” The word camp was forbidden under these rules.
Although it’s not entirely clear why the WRA hired Dorothea Lange, already famous for her sympathetic and policy-changing portraits of rural victims of the Dust Bowl, as one of their photographers, she was at the time settled in the Bay Area with her second husband, Paul Schuster Taylor, a progressive agricultural economist at UC Berkeley, and their children. The couple had many Japanese-American friends, and were distressed about what was happening. (Taylor was one of the few prominent White Americans during WWII who protested the mass incarceration.) Through their connections to the Social Security Board, they were alerted to the WRA’s need for photographers, and WRA director Eisenhower’s relative sympathy to the plight of the incarcerees could possibly have made him look the other way when she was hired by the agency. (Growing uncomfortable about his responsibilities banishing 110,000 people to remote parts of Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, California, and Arkansas, Eisenhower himself resigned from the position in June 1942, after only three months on the job.)
At the end of March 1942, Lange started documenting for the WRA the process of forced removal in both rural and urban areas in Northern California. The Densho Encyclopedia, a website for the Japanese American WWII experience, writes that:
The job description for Photographer makes it clear that although general assignments were given, a great deal of the responsibility for choosing subject matter fell to the individual photographers.
She took hundreds of photos, some clearly showing her experience photographing for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s. Others demonstrated the style she honed shooting the urban effects of the Depression on her own.
Part 2 will be published next week.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.