Adding Context: Photographs of Japanese Americans Imprisoned During World War II

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.

Los Angeles, Calif. Apr. 1942. A store for rent in "Little Tokyo" after residents of Japanese ancestry were assigned to War Relocation Authority centers for the duration. Photo by Clem Albers, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.73164

Los Angeles, Calif. Apr. 1942. A store for rent in “Little Tokyo” after residents of Japanese ancestry were assigned to War Relocation Authority centers for the duration. Photo by Clem Albers, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.73164

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.

Los Angeles, Calif. Apr. 1942. A sign in a shop window in Little Tokyo after the residents of Japanese ancestry were instructed to evacuate. They will be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration of the war. Photo by Clem Albers, 1942.. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.73465

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?

<em>Mountain View, Calif. Apr. 1942. A scene in an orchard of a 20-acre farm before the operators, of Japanese ancestry, were evacuated, to go later to War Relocation Authority centers for the duration.</em> Photo by Dorothea Lange. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.73370

Mountain View, Calif. Apr. 1942. A scene in an orchard of a 20-acre farm before the operators, of Japanese ancestry, were evacuated, to go later to War Relocation Authority centers for the duration. Photo by Dorothea Lange, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.73370

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.

Manzanar, Calif. May 1942. George S. Takemura, center, landscape artist from West Los Angeles, building a wishing well and other rustic articles for his quarters at the War Relocation Authority center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry. Photo by Francis Stewart, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.74323

Manzanar, Calif. May 1942. George S. Takemura, landscape artist from West Los Angeles, building a rustic wishing well at the War Relocation Authority center where the evacuees of Japanese ancestry will remain for the duration of the war. Photo by Francis Stewart, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.74014

Manzanar, Calif. May 1942. Mrs. T. Kakehashi; Mitsoshi, 5 months old, and Mrs. M. Shijo, on a rustic bench under a twig umbrella built by George S. Takemura, landscape artist from West Los Angeles. These evacuees of Japanese ancestry will be housed for the duration of the war at the War Relocation Authority center. Photo by Francis Stewart, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.74324

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.

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One Comment

  1. Thomas Holbrook
    November 22, 2021 at 1:29 pm

    Absolutely shameful. One of the most despicable of the country’s despicable actions.

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