Japanese American History

Documenting the Japanese American WWII Camp Experience

December 7, 1941. Japan attacks Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, which forced “all persons of Japanese ancestry, including aliens and non-aliens” into American concentration camps until the end of World War II. During this incarceration, images of daily camp life were captured through photographs and home movie footage, by Japanese American and non-Japanese American individuals, whose courageous documentation of life in the camps have contributed immensely to our understanding of this dark time in U.S. history, and providing a lasting effect on many generations to come.

Some of the photographers including Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange were renowned professionals before the war, although for very different types of works. Adams was known primarily for his signature style of landscape photography, particularly of the Yosemite Valley. However, in the summer of 1943, his friend Ralph Merritt, Director of the Manzanar War Relocation Center, asked Adams if he would be interested in creating a photographic record of the camp. In the four trips he made from October 1943 to July 1944 at his own expense, he talked to the inmates and photographed their portraits as well as views of their daily lives behind barbed wire. In 1944, he published these images in a book, Born Free and Equal. He hoped it might influence public opinion, but it was not well received at the time because of wartime racial prejudice. He eventually donated his Manzanar photographs to the Library of Congress.

Dorothea Lange is best known for her photographs of migrant farmers during the Depression. The War Relocation Authority hired her to photograph Japanese American neighborhoods, processing centers, and camp facilities primarily of the evacuation in the San Francisco and extended areas. She was also sent to several assembly centers including Turlock, Stockton, and Tanforan. The only WRA camp she photographed at was Manzanar. However, she was restricted at nearly all of the twenty-one sites. Despite not being allowed to photograph the barbed wire fences, watchtowers with searchlights, and armed guards, her photographs captured the sadness and bewilderment of the prisoners. As a result, many of Lange’s hundreds of photographs were impounded by the government. They were not widely shown until a 1972 exhibition at the Whitney Museum that incorporated twenty-seven of her photographs into Executive Order 9066.

There were other WRA photographers who documented the evacuation and incarceration. Most notable among them was Clem Albers, a former San Francisco Chronicle photographer. He also photographed at Manzanar, although during an earlier period of the camp than Lange and Adams. Some of his more well-known photographs are of the evacuation in Los Angeles where Japanese Americans reported with only what they could carry.

LIFE Magazine sent Hansel Mieth and Otto Hagel to Heart Mountain in Wyoming in the winter of 1943. A German immigrant, Mieth was only the second female photographer hired by the magazine. She and her husband Hagel photographed daily life in the camp. However, only a few of their photos were published by the magazine. The majority remained in their personal files unseen by the public until rediscovered in the 1990s, some of which were featured in The Heart Mountain Story exhibition and book by Mamoru Inouye.

In addition to the photographs taken by these professional photographers who came from outside the camps, there were many more photographs taken by both professional and amateur inmates from within the camps. The most well known of these Japanese American photographers was Toyo Miyatake. Although cameras were considered contraband, he smuggled a lens, film, and photo chemicals into the Manzanar Relocation Center where he and his family were incarcerated during the war. He constructed a makeshift camera with which he secretly recorded those early days in the camp. He was caught, but allowed to continue photographing as long as he had a Caucasian assistant who would actually click the shutter. His equipment in storage was returned to him. Eventually, he was allowed to photograph without supervision. Miyatake took about 2,500 photos of daily life in Manzanar.

Jack Iwata was a Kibei Nisei born in Seattle who is best known for chronicling the evolution of U.S.-Japan relations for nearly six decades after the war with the Kyodo News Service, playing a fundamental role in the founding of Kyodo News California Inc. His professional career began in 1937 when Toyo Miyatake took an interest in the young Iwata, offering him a position at his studio. Iwata worked for Miyatake until the outbreak of World War II, when he and his wife were forcibly removed to Manzanar. He rejoined forces with Miyatake at Manzanar and helped to organize the camp's first photo lab. Iwata was reunited with his father at Tule Lake where he was appointed the official camp photographer in 1945. There he captured some of the most poignant photographs of his career.

In addition to still photography, the World War II camps were also documented on film. Dave Tatsuno is especially notable for chronicling the history of the Japanese American concentration camps through home movie footage. Prior to the war, Tatsuno ran the family business, Nichi Bei Bussan, a department store in San Francisco that his father founded, for many years. In 1942, Tatsuno and his family were incarcerated at the Topaz concentration camp in the Utah desert. Over the next three years, Tatsuno secretly filmed life in the camp with an 8-millimeter Bell & Howell camera that Walter Honderick, his supervisor at the camp’s co-op store, helped smuggle in. Because the camera was forbidden, Tatsuno kept it hidden in a shoe box, taking it out only when guards were not looking. These images of daily life in Topaz—of church services, birthday celebrations, and other daily events—left viewers with a stark image of what life was like during those difficult years.

Tatsuno’s footage was later compiled into the 48-minute silent film “Topaz,” that was placed on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1996. His film is one of only two home movies on the Registry’s 425-film list; the other is Abraham Zapruder’s footage of the John F. Kennedy assassination. Portions of his footage were included in Something Strong Within—the award-winning documentary by Karen Ishizuka and Robert Nakamura that compiled home movie footage from several of the WRA camps.

In the past few decades, many museums, historical societies, authors, and filmmakers have used the work of these and other courageous recorders of history to educate a younger and more diverse audience about the story of the Japanese American wartime experience. Now and forever, these photographs and film footage serve to connect and humanize this past with future generations so that this history is never repeated.

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