Editor’s note: This is the second in a five-part series exploring the history of Japanese-American incarceration camps in the US during World War II and the artists who contributed to documenting that history and tried to help the people impacted. Part One can be found here.
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After photographing families and other residents being led into “assembly centers” in the central and coastal cities of California and the county seats of Salinas, Stockton, Turlock, and San Bruno, photographer Dorothea Lange turned her camera to southern California, towards the first concentration camp to open for residents of Japanese descent.
In 1942, the US Army opened Manzanar camp in the desert of east-central California, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, on land that they leased from the city of Los Angeles. Named after the agricultural settlement that was effectively quashed when the city’s mighty Department of Water and Power finished acquiring the area’s water and land rights, Manzanar had already been the site of the forced relocation 80 years before when the Owens Valley Paiute, the Native Americans who had been there for 1,400 years, were displaced.
Manzanar was, among the ten camps, in the middle population-wise with 10,046 incarcerees. Tule Lake incarceration camp, on the state’s northern border with Oregon had 18,790 at its height and it was the largest, while Amache, in southwest Colorado, had 7,320, which made it the smallest. Manzanar’s 814-acre main camp, ringed by a 5,700-acre fenced and guarded perimeter, contained 36 blocks, each made up of 14 residential barracks, none of which were insulated. Within each barrack 20-by-25 foot spaces were designated for families of four, but in practice held up to 11 people. Upon arrival, each person was assigned a cot, a few blankets, and a canvas bag that they had to fill with straw in order to create their own mattresses.
Manzanar, which was 220 miles south of Los Angeles, was where the residents of Washington’s Bainbridge Island were sent. They were the first group to receive the civilian exclusion order because of their proximity to naval bases. US government posters targeted the island known for its Japanese population and demanded they report for relocation. The mainstream media at the time reported on the forced removals but it caused little public outcry. These residents were considered high-risk by the US military for being a population that was mostly nisei living on an island in Puget Sound that faced Seattle. There were several other islands in the same inlet that US Navy ships had to pass before reaching the Pacific so it was fairly ludicrous to think island residents could successfully perform acts of sabotage when in fact they were busy fishermen more concerned with making a living.
Manzanar was also where 2,500 members of the nisei fishing village on LA’s Terminal Island were, at the US Navy’s insistence, sent. The men of the area had already been arrested and put in stockades for, believe it or not, owning and working on fishing boats. The exclusion order for the district issued over a week after the men were removed meant the government would focus on uprooting the women and children who remained behind.
The contrast between these residents’ fate and that of Bainbridge Islanders after the war is stark. The group from Washington state were able to return to their homes with the support of non-Japanese friends and neighbors, whereas Terminal Island’s former residents were not as the California state legislature passed laws during their incarceration that prevented Japanese fishermen from returning to their pre-war way of life.The majority of Manzanar incarcerees were from LA, and for two months, from June through July 1942, Dorothea Lange photographed them in their dusty new surroundings. “The deeper I got into it, the bigger it became,” she later said about the experience.
Manzanar had the only orphanage among all the camps, and it housed a total of 101 children at one point. Called the Children’s Village, it had a sympathetic Japanese-American director, but its young residents were shunned by the rest of the camp — outcasts in a ethnic community that valued family ties and pure-Japanese identity. Incarcerated parents discouraged their children from playing or associating with the orphans.
Although some of the orphanage’s children were left to the care of professionals before the war due to economic hardship, Japanese American society at the time was bluntly racist, and multiracial children faced discrimination within the tight knit LA community. Nineteen children at Los Angeles’ Shonien Home orphanage were recorded as mixed race, and a fifth of the orphans in the Children’s Village were multiracial according to records from the period.The day before taking photos at the Children’s Village, Lange captured images of the camp’s first grave, which belonged to 62-year-old Matsunosuke Murakami. One of the camp’s first detainees, Murakami had fallen ill upon arrival and was confined to the camp hospital for less than two months before passing away in May 1942. Roughly 150 people died in the camp before it was closed on November 21, 1945. Six graves remain at Manzanar, and one is for the body of an unnamed stillborn infant in an unmarked grave whose parents were later moved to another camp.
Lange had initially hesitated before taking her WRA position, and the agency’s first director was disturbed enough by his job that he resigned after only 90 days. His replacement, Dillon Myer, a New Deal administrator from Ohio, was more of a zealot. Myer was not satisfied with merely incarcerating the issei and nisei but felt it his mission to let its individuals “have a chance” to develop a government-approved brand of patriotism. He and other officials viewed Japanese culture and language as explicitly preventing the formation of national loyalty, even though Myer’s superiors had in hand military information that residents of Japanese descent posed no security threat to the US. The teaching of Japanese was forbidden in the camp schools, niseis were promoted over Japanese-speaking isseis to positions of responsibility, and also as part of Manzanar’s Americanization program, incarcerees, stripped of their jobs, could opt to contribute to the war effort (in exchange for money that could be used in camp) by producing camouflage nets for troop gun emplacements and the materials to produce much-needed rubber for the US military effort.
Lange’s photos of the guayule plant project raised a red flag for military censors. A Cal Tech professor had organized incarcerees experienced in chemistry, agricultural sciences, horticulture, and construction to develop natural rubber from a flowering desert shrub because the military supply lines for latex from Southeast Asia had been cut by the Japanese Imperial Army. Lath houses with propagation beds, field plots, a chemical lab, and a biogenetics lab were all built and used, but Lange’s striking photos of these activities were censored because WPA officials thought the strips and shadows in the series were too reminiscent of prison enclosures.
Other WRA photographers included Russell Lee, Associated Press photographer and innkeeper Charles E. Mace, art school graduate Francis Stewart, freelance photographer Clem Albers, lifetime government employee Tom Parker (the Densho Encyclopedia describes his work as “illustrat[ing] the worst elements of paternalism and condescension towards Japanese Americans subject to the WRA’s management ideology”), and Hiraku Iwasaki, the agency’s only Japanese-American photographer who was only promoted from his former position in the darkroom after Stewart resigned from the WRA in disgust. All were hired to document that the military was not torturing or otherwise improperly dealing with the incarcerees, 62 percent of whom were US citizens. All the photographers were forbidden to take pictures of the camps’ barbed wire fences, watchtowers, and armed guards, although Albers and Iwasaki managed to find ways to take some anyway.
The rules about what could and could not be photographed were relaxed over time, and a photograph that later became canonical of the Japanese American incarceration experience was taken in 1944 by a Manzanar incarceree, Toyo Miyatake.
Miyatake had his own studio in LA’s Little Tokyo before the war, and he had managed to sneak in parts to build a camera, which along with shortwave radios, alcohol, literature in Japanese, and other items, were considered contraband for residents. At one point, Miyatake was caught with his camera, but the relatively liberal camp director, Ralph Merritt, allowed him to continue but only after promising that a white person would release Miyatake’s camera shutter for him for every shot. Miyatake was eventually allowed to drop this bizarre restriction due to its impracticality, and he later became the camp’s official photographer.
Although he was much loved and honored in his community and in LA even after his death in 1979, Miyatake’s work is generally not considered as strong as Lange’s, though his iconic photo of the three boys, as well as a few others, were clearly exceptions. He tended to focus on weddings, school activities, and he seemed less interested in capturing the communal drama the incarcerees were embroiled in. As New York-based journalist Nancy Matsumoto wrote in her analysis of the photo documentation of Manzanar for Discover Nikkei, Miyatake “was no crusader for social justice in the Lange mold,” even if he clearly felt responsible for documenting life in the prison camp to prevent such a miscarriage of justice from happening again.
As for Lange, looking at the historical record, it appears that she was treated differently from the other WRA photographers. She was discouraged from talking to the incarcerees, was constantly followed by a censor, and faced harassment. She was refused access to areas after being given clearance, and she was often hounded over phone charges and receipts.
On July 30, 1942, the WRA laid her off “without prejudice,” adding that the cause was “completion of work.” So while her images under the Farm Security Administration remain well-known, including “Migrant Mother,” the WRA impounded the majority of her photographs of Manzanar and the forced detentions, and later deposited 800 image from the series in the National Archives without announcement.
After being discharged, Lange expressed in letters her dismay that her work was ineffective in helping the people she documented. Her assistant Christina Clausen later noted the ferocity of this body of work also marked the beginning of the photographer’s bleeding gastric ulcers. Lange was unable to work for a number of years after her harrowing experience at Manzanar, and she would later die from esophageal cancer in the 1960s.
After Lange’s departure, Manzanar’s director Ralph Merritt visited renowned environmentalist and landscape photographer Ansel Adams and suggested he document the camp — Merritt and Adams were friends from the Sierra Club. Lange, also friends with Adams, encouraged him to take the job. (Coincidentally Adams printed “Migrant Mother” for her.) According to Jasmine Alinder, author of Moving Images: Photography and the Japanese American Internment, on November 12, 1943, Lange wrote to Adams:
I fear the intolerance and prejudice is constantly growing. We have a disease. It’s Jap-baiting and hatred. You have a job on your hands to do to make a dent in it — but I don’t know a more challenging nor more important one. I went through an experience I’ll never forget when I was working on it and learned a lot, even if I accomplished nothing.
Adams was well-aware of the situation facing Japanese Americans during World War II since after the attack on Pearl Harbor, an elderly Japanese domestic worker his family employed, Harry Ose, had been arrested by the FBI. Adams had also been reading about the forced relocations through the writing of ex-California public servant Carey McWilliams, who published regularly in magazines like The Nation. During the same period as Adams’ visits to Manzanar, McWilliams collected interviews and writings of over 100 nisei. The resulting book, Prejudice, includes heart-wrenching tales of alienation and survival, including one young incarceree’s reaction to being placed in central Utah’s Topaz incarceration camp. Upon arrival, the youth writes:
[The camp] looked so big, so enormous to us. It made me feel like an ant … Every place we go we cannot escape the dust … dust and more dust, dust everywhere … I wonder who found this desert and why they put us in a place like this, but I hear it is a good place to live for the duration of a long war.
Another more pointed reaction by Togo Tanaka, a Manzanar incarceree who was a journalist by training, describes an occasion in which he and his wife were sitting in the middle of a dust storm one afternoon, “with the thick clouds of dust practically billowing in our barrack room.” He writes:
It was mostly in such moments as this, when our eyes became bloodshot with the fine dust, our throats parched, and I suppose our reason a little obtuse, that we fell into the common practice of trying to figure out just how in the world we would find our way out of this little man-made hell. Why were we here? What had happened to us? Was this the America we knew, had known?
Ansel Adams made several trips to Manzanar between October 1943 and July 1944 for this new personal project, and, as Alinder writes, he was primed to try the kind of documentary photography regularly practiced by Dorothea Lange and the Farm Security Administration that he had earlier shunned. Unlike Lange, a white woman who had been viewed with suspicion by her subjects, Adams was welcomed by the incarcerees, even greeted as a celebrity in a cultural community that had a deep appreciation of nature — many incarcerees at Manzanar literally opened their doors to him dressed in their finest clothes.
By all accounts Adams was also warm and sociable, and one former camp resident recalled him square-dancing with incarcerees. Yet it would be a mistake to think the photographer’s fame or cheer was the reason behind the brighter moods among the people in the camp. By 1943, Manzanar’s incarcarees had had time to settle in and enjoy the fruits of their collective work. In less than ideal surroundings, they had collectively built their own post office, town hall, library, auditorium, co-op store system, police station, jail, cemetery with memorial, published their own newspaper (the ironically named the Manzanar Free Press, which was regularly censored by the military), and even their own YMCA. Traditionally Japanese people take a dim view of idleness, and as Miné Okubo, an artist and writer incarcerated at Topaz, would describe in the Asian American studies classic Citizen 13660, work fixing up camp was a way to forget many of its hardships.
There was yet another reason for the general cheeriness of Adams’s subjects. About half of nisei of military age at Manzanar had declined to express a willingness to volunteer for a segregated military unit on the so-called 1943 “loyalty questionnaire,” a confusing set of questions designed to iron-out loyalty issues for a massive bureaucracy keen on culling more soldiers and detecting people’s national fealty but instead demonstrating utter cluelessness about residents who grew up bicultural. A second question asked whether one would “forswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization,” insulting to nisei who as Americans had never entertained the notion of such an allegiance. Yet the same question was a loaded one for issei, who, barred from US citizenship under the Immigration Act of 1924, did not feel they could forswear anything lest they end up stateless. Incarcerees who refused to answer either question, answered no, or gave qualified answers, were categorized as “disloyal,” and segregated from the others. If an incarceree hadn’t expressed a desire to be repatriated to Japan, they were sent eight hours north to Tule Lake.
By the time of Adams’s arrival, nisei were also being allowed to leave for wartime agricultural work outside of California. The incarcerees he photographed at Manzanar however were also expressing pride in their ability to be largely self-sufficient in the face of racist policies and attitudes. They nourished themselves by supplementing their own food rations, for example: unfortunately camp administrators complied with outside fearmongers who screamed of the favorable treatment of “the Japanese,” and allotted incarcerees soldiers’ rations. Camp employees also skimmed off rations and resold them on the black market to line their own pockets.
At Manzanar, one-third of residents were farmers, so its population was able to augment their food supplies by working over 1,500 acres of the perimeter outside the main camp with cucumber, corn, tomatoes, radishes, squash, cabbage, and melon crops overseen by government-approved nisei foremen. Farming at camp was also supplying excess crops and meat to other camps, and producing and selling meat ― of hogs, chicken, cattle, and other farm animals ― on the open market to benefit the running of Manzanar, which by then had become the size of a small city. The value of this war effort? Farm production levels in 1943 at Manzanar and three other camps reached the equivalent of $37.6 million in today’s dollars.
Although his was not officially for the WRA, Adams was also subject to the rules governing photographers, including the prohibition on images of barbed wire and guard towers. His photos at Manzanar, with one or two exceptions, were thus absent of the so-called “disloyals,” or segregees, since they had to be cleared through the official censors beforehand.
When I was first saw these photos, I was astonished at how contemporary many of the faces looked. It’s incredible for me to see people’s grandmothers and grandfathers looking very much like the Japanese I know and have seen in Japan and in the US today. And I feel like I can practically touch Richard Miyatake’s face in the bottom right of the Adams photo of the Miyatake family. Mrs. Izuno and Mrs. Shimizu, the older man squatting in the interior photo by Lange, and Mr. and Mrs. Miyatake leaning forward toward their daughter are postures that might read “Japanese-different,” but to me are simply Japanese. They express age-old cultural mannerisms that I’m intimately familiar with. And like any example of good art, the images also reveal more the longer you look at them: Among the things Adams was saying with the Miyatake family photo was that Miyatake cared more about his family than being in an Ansel Adams photo. Both their work and Lange’s also fill a still wide cultural gap that seems to say that Asians and Asian Americans are unworthy subjects in the Western mainstream. These images thus also fire up my anger about the US media and its stranglehold on most people’s perceptions of this country. I’m infuriated that as a visual artist living in New York City I only learned of these pictures when my sister-in-law, whose grandmother was held at Tule Lake, told me about them: Growing up outside of Boston and in the “New South,” Nashville, and attending Brown University, I only knew of Miyatake’s three boys and a few of Lange’s pictures. Being East Coast-based and a non-academic, I simply had no idea there were more. One can understand the machinations of history and society reading about it but to see the faces behind that one paragraph in US history textbooks, and by artists of the time, is indescribably more powerful.
These photos make me want to meet more West Coast Japanese Americans, and Asian Americans. Knowing how Americans are not great with history, the ‘rediscovery‘ of the history of slavery in New York being but one recent example, I feel an enormous sense of responsibility to tell this particular story right and uncover unexamined aspects and perspectives to share. Being Japanese, I am astounded that two of the most famous photographers of that period tried to help — one to the point of degrading her health — and I’m grateful that I live in a country with a responsive government that has acknowledged its horrible past and continues to try to rectify it by sharing it openly.
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