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Japanese American Relocation Archives

People

Questions to Consider

Why do so many of the photographs show smiling people?

What do these images tell you about the makeup of families before and during internment?

Why do we see barbed wire in the paintings but not in most of the photographs?

What’s missing from the WRA photographs?

About the Images

The images in this topic show the faces of Japanese Americans before, during, and after incarceration. Most of the photographs were taken by War Relocation Authority (WRA) photographers for publicity purposes and tend to show people who are smiling or stoic. The paintings by internee artists Estelle Ishigo and Henry Sugimoto suggest a more emotional and somber mood.

Overview

Before the war, Japanese Americans largely lived in rural areas and in ethnic enclaves such as Los Angeles' Little Tokyo. The photograph of the "Nisei queen" shows people looking relaxed and happy, going about their daily lives. Some Japanese Americans worked in agriculture or blue-collar jobs, such as the former longshoreman pictured here; others owned or worked in businesses; still others were teachers, or artists, or homemakers, or students. The picture of the Mitarais before evacuation shows this successful farm operator and his wife and children looking much like any other pre-war middle-class family.

During evacuation, Japanese Americans in the West were forced by government decree to leave their homes, businesses, jobs, school, and friends. The WRA photographs taken during the evacuation process show people waiting to be transported to the internment camps. The parents, grandparents, and children went as family groups. Many of the adults shown here are older adults and young women. In fact, a number of Japanese American men — like T/4 Taniguchi, shown with his wife and child, and the young man shown here in uniform — joined the US Army. One regiment, the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, was the most highly decorated American unit in WWII.

Most of the official photographs show calm, smiling, and happy internees, going about their daily lives: a woman knits in a room with her father, two women show each other their babies, and a little boy smiles for the camera, as do a group of orphans. A grandfather teaches his grandson to walk, a man supervises a camp agriculture product, a woman smiles with her bicycle, and everyone gathers to say hello to Eleanor Roosevelt on her visit to Gila Relocation Center. A camp "Labor Day Queen" happily eats an ice cream cone, in an echo of the pre-internment photograph of Little Tokyo's festival queen. The message sent by these photographs seems to be "Life goes on as usual."

Internee art, however, tells a somewhat different story. Henry Sugimoto's painting Send Off Husband at Jerome Camp shows a mother and child waving goodbye as their husband/father goes back to war. But unlike the photographs, which avoid images of forced confinement, this painting also shows a guard armed with a bayonet attached to a rifle, barring the family from leaving camp. A stop sign also blocks their way, and a guard tower is shown in the background. Estelle Ishigo's painting, in quiet brown tones, shows an interned mother and child looking out past barbed wire fences.

After the war, families were released from the internment camps to resume their lives. The irony and poignancy of this time is reflected in Ishigo's sketch of her husband with the words "Are We Americans Again?" During resettlement, photographers seem to have been able to show Japanese Americans expressing a wider range of emotions. The image of people gathering to say goodbye to former internees who are being released shows one woman in tears. Still, most photographs show happy young faces, such as the Hiyashi family, who have resumed farming. The WRA is helping the Ikeyuchis (called "loyal Americans" in the caption, presumably because they were interned without incident), to find homes and jobs.

Many of the post-war WRA photographs make a point of the fact that Japanese Americans are being reintegrated into daily life. One blind veteran is surrounded by beautiful young women; Mr. and Mrs. Nishimura are back at work in their greenhouse and, according to the caption, "things are working out fine"; disabled veteran Isamu Oka and his family, interned at Heart Mountain in Wyoming, are now living in Los Gatos, where Oka is shown sitting in an orchard; and chrysanthemum specialist Ryohitsu Shibuya is back raising flowers in Mountain View, smiling despite the fact that he and his family are living in a small apartment and a packing shed while they wait to reclaim their apartment. Yet after the war, prejudice and discrimination still existed against Japanese Americans. Captain Daniel Inouye, who lost an arm in combat in Europe and would later become a US senator, recalled being turned away from a barber shop, even when he was dressed in his uniform

Selected Browse Terms

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 4:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write information reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Make informational presentations.

Grade 11:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.4 Write historical investigation reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver oral reports on historical investigations.
2.4 Delivery multimedia presentations.

History-Social Science

Grade 4:

4.4 Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s. (4.4.5)

Grade 11:

11.7 Students analyze America's participation in World War II.

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

About WRA Photographs

The War Relocation Authority (WRA) records represent the official documentation of the evacuation, internment centers, and resettlement of Japanese Americans from 1942 to 1946. The WRA photographs and their captions are the official documentation of the WRA and reflect the point of view that the WRA wanted to present to the citizens of the United States during World War II. They present an idealistic view of the assembly centers and camps that does not reflect the sacrifices and hardships endured by the Japanese Americans.

Photographer Dorothea Lange is most famous for her Dust Bowl photographs, which showed the human face of "hard times." Although she followed the “letter of the law” in her WRA photographs, her striking images silently portray the raw emotional experience of internment. Not surprisingly, 97% of her WRA photographs (including many Calisphere images) were never published.

Racial Slurs

Some primary sources in this topic may contain racial epithets, such as "Jap," that we recognize as offensive today. The original captions from the WRA photographs, many of which were published in the Los Angeles Examiner, contain cultural references that reflect 1940s terminology. The University of California does not condone this language, but includes it in the interests of historical accuracy.

Terms to Understand

Assembly Centers/Detention Centers: Temporary local housing for evacuated Japanese Americans before they were assigned to relocation camps.

Evacuation: The removal of Japanese Americans from their homes due to Executive Order 9066, signed in 1942 by President Roosevelt.

Internment/Incarceration: Between 1942 and 1945, more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were held in camps scattered throughout the West and South. Although popularly used to refer to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, the term internment more accurately reflects the arrest and trial of non-citizens belonging to a nation the United States was fighting during World War II. Internment procedures were largely regulated by the Geneva Convention. The term incarceration more appropriately reflects the unconstitutional removal of Japanese Americans from their homes to the camps.

Issei (or Isei): Literally, "first generation"; issei (ee'-sey) are Japanese who immigrated to the United States after 1907 and were not eligible or citizenship until 1952.

Nikkei: All peoples of Japanese ancestry in the Americas.

Nisei: Literally, "second generation"; nisei (nee’-sey) are the American-born children of Japanese immigrants and therefore American citizens.

Sansei: Literally, "third generation"; sansei (son’-sey) are the American-born grandchildren of Japanese immigrants and therefore American citizens.

Relocation: Used by the US government to mean being transferred to the camps.

Relocation Camps/Internment Camps/Concentration Camps/Evacuation Centers: Terms often used interchangeably to refer to 10 remote camps in the Western and Southern United States, where more than 120,000 Japanese American men, women, and children were incarcerated during World War II.

Resettlement: Term used by the US government to refer to the release of the internees and their transition and reintegration into postwar American life.

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Posters/Visuals (PDF) (Source: Bringing History Home)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)