Francis Stewart, Newell (Tule Lake), California, October 31, 1942. Original WRA caption: “Great originality in costumes was shown at the Harvest Festival Parade held at this relocation center” (© and courtesy UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library)

In the middle of Gambatte! — an exhibition of photographs of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans incarcerated in United States concentration camps during WWII, paired with portraits, taken over half a century later, by Paul Kitagaki Jr., of the same people, elders now, as well as their descendants and the descendants of those who died — there is one photo in particular that encapsulates the perverse psychosis that is settler colonialism in the United States. The photograph is of a parade. There is a crowd of people in costumes. Two of the people, identified as Kazuo and Kimiye Kawai, husband and wife, are in the foreground to the right. Kazuo is wearing a black suit and gloves. Kimiye is wearing a head-rag and a floral skirt. And both Kazuo and Kimiye are in blackface. “Harvest Day,” the caption says. “Halloween, Tule Lake, October 31, 1942.”

It is the only photograph I remember. It breathes on my shoulder. Every time I have returned to the exhibition, I have gone directly to it. The appearance of a young Nikkei couple in blackface in a U.S. concentration camp on land that had, until the late 1800s, been inhabited for thousands of years by the Modoc people, articulates the dynamic in which non-white people (native, alien, slave) are manipulated as the subjects and counter-subjects of a chronic performance. The photograph illuminates a nearly subliminal moment of antiblackness masquerading as minstrelsy, masquerading as carefree (careless) communal play-acting, masquerading as jubilation under duress (a.k.a. mass oppression). It is probably not the moment Kitagaki imagined as the keystone of his tribute to, and resuscitation of, incarceration history. But for me, it is: a photograph by which incarceration as a facet of the ongoing project of exclusion and erasure in the United States is laid (a little more) bare.

The photograph is by Francis Stewart. He, along with Dorothea Lange, was hired by the War Relocation Authority to document the incarceration. Their photographs form a majority of the past to which Kitagaki’s photographs pay tribute. Stewart’s portrait of Kazuo and Kimiye, for example, is paired with Kitagaki’s photograph of their son, Steve Nobuo Kawai, 71 years old in the portrait. In the accompanying narrative, Kawai describes his parents as being dressed in “typical vaudevillian blackface.”

Dorothea Lange, Oakland, California, May 6, 1942 (via Densho Digital Repository). Original WRA caption: Mr. and Mrs. Kitagaki with two of their children at the Wartime Civil Control Administration station a few minutes before departure by bus for Tanforan Assembly center. A local church member is handing Kimiko a pamphlet expressing the good wishes of the church toward the departing evacuees. Mr. Kitagaki, prior to evacuation, was in the cleaning and dyeing business.

“I was angry for most of my life,” Kawai says. He was born a prisoner in Tule Lake. His family’s number was 28201. Kawai, much older than his parents, in the portrait beside his, looks wistful. His parents, despite marching in a parade, look almost tentative, but their relationship to Stewart’s camera feels more incidental than Steve’s relationship to Kitagaki’s. They were living in the moment. History had bound them to it. And held them there, while eliminating, from the other side of the barbed wire, everything else. It is not that they died there, bound to the present, but that their newborn (American citizen) son formed, for them, a bridge into time, the future, that is, the realization of their trauma. Steve is not posing alone. He is posing with his parents. He is posing, that is, with and for the dead, everything the dead did not want to or could not express, and everything they died without knowing.

Gambatte could be translated several ways. Don’t give up, for one. The full title is ​​​​Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit: Triumphing over Adversity. A mouthful, and maybe a little anticipatory. The exclamation point is meant as amplification. But it also hints at an underlying lament. There is a discrepancy between the emotion of the exclamation point and the emotion on the faces of the descendants, some of whom look even more uncertain than their forebears. Because their portraits rely so heavily on the past, the present feels evacuated, without context. Even though the backgrounds were specifically chosen to extend the narrative of each individual, they form an ameliorated, almost placeless, America.

Which is perhaps an accurate echo. Kitagaki’s portraits are of people who embody the legacy of incarceration, which is unsettled, disquieted, even, as incarceration was a sweeping fabrication. The portraits embody who and/or what the past had dreamed, in the opacity beyond the barbed wire. But the future, in their embodiment, seems perishable. What have they, what have any of us, fulfilled, of those dreams?

Dorothea Lange, Oakland, California, March 1942. (via Library of Congress). Original WRA caption: A large sign reading “I am an American” placed in the window of a store, at 13th and Franklin streets, on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed following orders to persons of Japanese descent to evacuate from certain West Coast areas. The owner, a University of California graduate, will be housed with hundreds of evacuees in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration of the war

Kitagaki’s intention was “to create images that complement and mirror the original photographs” to “reveal the strength and perseverance” of his subjects. I have always been frustrated by the word perseverance, as I have by its Japanese counterpart, gaman. Both are used within my own family, not only when talking about incarceration, but when talking about what it means to be Japanese. The words essentialize Japaneseness as an inherent, reflexive set of behaviors, especially in response to atrocity and trauma, and especially when invoked, in the United States, as a kind of euphemism for model minority. I do not want to defeat what I am saying by saying also, not always. But the underlying and unacknowledged power of these words is that they are accomplices to silence.

Kimiko Kitagaki Wong and Paul Kiyoshi Kitagaki (September 18, 2005), outside the building in Oakland to which the East Bay Nikkei were first sent after removal (© 2017 Paul Kitagaki Jr.)

Maybe there is some part of that conflict registering on some of the descendants’ faces. Kitagaki’s aunt Kimiko Wong (family number 20247), first photographed as a teenager by Lange, looks, in Kitagaki’s portrait, standing beside Kitagaki’s father, stricken. Her hands are in fists. She looks like she is weathering the camera’s flash while staring beyond into a vaguely accessible memory. Maybe that is reading into the image too much. But the photograph is what is available to me. And the faces, stricken with the past, are conscripted to be its bearers. Because: as the grandson of a Japanese immigrant who was incarcerated, I am staring beyond the camera too, as well as beyond the words and phrases, in English and Japanese, with which the history of one arm of racial injustice is fighting to be enshrined. Another translation of Gambatte is: Good luck.

There is something dispiriting about the realization of a future. One of the most iconic of Lange’s photos is of Wanto Grocery, owned by the Masuda family, in Oakland. Hanging above the storefront is an enormous sign, black text on white, that says: I AM AN AMERICAN. Torasaburo Masuda made the sign the day after Pearl Harbor. Kitagaki’s photo shows three of Masuda’s descendants standing in front of where the store used to be. It is now a Chase Bank.

The Tucson Desert Art Museum, in Tucson, Arizona, shares a parking lot with a Chase Bank. It is not just that Chase Bank is everywhere (CHASE BANK IS AN AMERICAN), but that it seems to be constantly enfolding history into its shadows.

The museum was once a mall; the exhibition occupies an old store. At first I thought, why is there an exhibition on Japanese American incarceration in a museum in an old mall (which is also part of a strip mall with a hair salon, cleaner, and cross-fit) patronized by old white people, along some random stretch of desert? But then I thought: no, why aren’t there more, along even more random stretches of desert? The old white people on whom I spied walked very slowly through the galleries, studying each photograph; they spoke, while staring at the faces, of Japanese Americans they knew. Old friends, classmates, some dead, resolved, in their minds, as emblems of a shameful chapter, which has, to them, closed, even as it continues to bleed through the pages.

Dorothea Lange, Turlock, California, May 2, 1942 (via Densho Digital Repository). Original WRA caption: This aged woman of Japanese ancestry, in foreground, has just arrived at this Assembly center

Arizona had (at least) seven incarceration sites. The ruins of the Tucson Federal Prison Camp are just a few miles up the road from the museum. Another was on the Gila River Indian Reservation, outside Phoenix. That is where Yasuke Shimada died. She was 57. Her family number was 06350. She died of a heart attack. Lange took her photograph on the half-mile walk between the train station and the temporary detention center in Turlock, California, where she was incarcerated before Gila River. Shimada’s is one of the more indelible portraits. Not only because she is standing beside (is she holding?) what appears to be a very large leaf with softly illuminated edges, although there is that. Her son Yoshi remembers, in the narrative accompanying his portrait, the time a military policeman touched him with the tip of his bayonet. “We were the first group into the unfinished camp and then we had to help dig trenches for the outhouse,” he remembers.

There seem to be, as expressed in the narratives, two sentiments, by which the living continue to memorialize: indignation and resignation. The sentiments seem, at first, antithetical, but they might actually be separate phases of the same unending eclipse. When it comes to the mass incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans, I am, despite the redress and reparations, and the various, unfolding forms of remembrance and memorialization, entirely unconvinced that there has been any resolution, or even such a possibility. There is, in the wake, the unspoken injunction of faces appearing again—to express stories, to form new meanings out of a history that has not passed (is not past). Closure is being betrayed by the imperative to resurrect, against time, precisely those stories, precisely those meanings, newer and more instructive, precisely those lives, which are not at rest, nor the generations that each represents. There can be no ruins where the people who once occupied them are still living.

Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit: Triumphing over Adversity. Japanese American WWII Incarceration Reflections, Then and Now continues at the Tucson Desert Art Museum (7000 E Tanque Verde Road, Tucson, Arizona) through April 30.

Brandon Shimoda is the author of several books, most recently Evening Oracle (Letter Machine Editions), which received the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. Recent writings,...

One reply on “I Am an American: The Photographic Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration”

  1. Does first photo (by Stewart) include to the viewer’s right a mocking portrayal in the minstrel tradition?

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