The following is a guest post by Mitsuko Brooks, an Archives, History and Heritage Advanced (AHHA) intern at the Library of Congress. Brooks is in her final semester as a student at Queens College (CUNY) working towards a Master of Library Science degree with a certificate in Archives and Preservation of Cultural Materials.
This fall I worked in the Prints & Photographs Division on projects that combined visual literacy and subject indexing to improve the descriptions of images in online collections. One of my projects involved revising summary notes and adding subject headings to catalog records for War Relocation Authority (WRA) photographs that depict the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
This photo of Little Tokyo was taken in one of the few Japantowns that still exist today. There were over forty in existence before World War II. I consulted historic business maps to provide more detail in the summary note of the catalog record.
This additional information supplements the original title for the photo by describing more of what is shown in the image and establishing the historical context. The new note reads: “Photograph shows unidentified Japanese American women and a boy walking past Hogetsu Sushi restaurant on Little Tokyo’s East 2nd Street, which was forced to close before Japanese Americans were incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II. Many Japanese Americans temporarily or permanently lost their property, and the majority of Japantowns were destroyed as a result of Executive Order 9066.” (The phrases incarceration camp and concentration camp are widely used to represent the forced removal and confinement of Japanese Americans.)
The WRA photos document a part of national history that some Americans may not be aware of. A few months after Japanese forces bombed the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 to authorize the forced removal to incarceration camps of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast of the United States. The WRA was created to execute this directive. The WRA hired photographers Dorothea Lange, Clem Albers, and Francis Stewart to document farm lands, homes, and businesses that the owners and their families were required by law to leave. The photographers also captured scenes in the detention centers.
In some of the photographs, the Japanese Americans are smiling, and I began to wonder: Did they know when they were photographed that they were about to lose their property and would be forced to live in incarceration camps for up to three years?
I was particularly struck by the resilience of George S. Takemura, a landscape artist from Los Angeles who, while incarcerated at the Manzanar camp in California, created a wishing well, shaded umbrella, and sculptures from wood found around his camp barracks to provide some aesthetic and emotional respite for his community. Takemura was no doubt one of many in these camps who did their best to create beauty and establish a sense of solidarity in difficult circumstances.
Many of the people depicted in the WRA images are unidentified. The Prints & Photographs Division is sharing 30 photographs from the WRA images through the Library of Congress Flickr Project, and inviting the public to provide the names of unidentified persons and deeper context for the history behind the photos. An example of a subject term I added to some descriptions is “Loss of property,” to label photographs depicting “going out of business” storefront signs and others related to the massive property loss and resulting vandalism that occurred when Japanese Americans were forced to live in camps and were not allowed to legally hold property. All are welcome to comment on the photographs posted in the Flickr album. People with free Flickr accounts can contribute comments using that platform, and anybody can contact us through our Ask a Librarian service to provide information. The information you provide may be added to the catalog records for the images in the online catalog. In this way, we strive to respect the histories and legacies of the survivors and their descendants of World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans.
- See a description of the War Relocation Authority photos, and browse the photos that have been digitized.
- The War Relocation Authority photographs discussed in this blog post form a small part of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) collection. Read about and search the larger FSA/OWI collection, which includes photographs made by several federal agencies to document life in the United States before and during World War II. A blog post about untitled images in that collection explains some of the challenges of cataloging images that came to the Library without any caption information, and shows how research and close looking can solve some mysteries.
- Read more Picture This blog posts that discuss the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II:
- Learn more about the War Relocation Authority records at the National Archives, including the photographs. See Lawrence, Kerrie. “Correcting the Record on Dorothea Lange’s Japanese Internment Photos,” 2017, https://www.archives.gov/news/articles/japanese-internment-75th-anniversary