As Japanese Americans, we can state, without much argument, that we have a shared history.
Specific events occurred over the span of time that constitute our existence as a community.
We relate to our history through memory and citation.
As Japanese Americans, do we have a shared, communal memory?
The evacuation and incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent from the West Coast during World War II is the most significant single event in our community’s history. It was massive in scale and devastating in its impact. The ramifications of internment have shaped the Japanese American community for seventy years.
While it is a concrete object of our history, is it part of our collective communal memory?
How do Japanese Americans with little or no direct relationship to internment relate to the fact of it?
These are issues that are dealt with in surprising depth and scope at an art gallery in a small public college in Southern New Jersey.
Photography by Kevin J. Miyazaki and Jon Yamashiro at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Art Gallery displays the work of two Japanese American artists who neither live nor work in mainstream Japanese American environments. Each artist has created work that explores their direct relationship with the internment of Japanese Americans, which occurred more than twenty years before either artist was born.
One artist sees the later repurposing of the detention camp buildings as a connection to his deeper understanding of the internment experience and the meaning and value of “home.” Another makes a pilgrimage to each major camp, seeking his own relationship with internment and sharing that experience with his family.
The show was curated by Wendel White, a photographer and Distinguished Professor of Art at the college.
“I got interested in this idea of a contemporary view of the internment camps from within the Japanese American art community and within the photographic practice that would be helpful to my students,” White explains. “One of the things I’ve been thinking about is pairing photographers that are working with the same idea but working it in very different ways. It’s a very instructive way for students to see and think about what artists do, the choices they make, and the range of experiences that they might bring to the process of art-making. I thought it would be ideal to join together these two different ways of looking at this idea, this notion of cultural resonance that still exists today. They were both looking at ways in which there was a residue and memory as well as the contemporary experience of this past event. Their work was approaching it in different ways.”
Jon Yamashiro was born in Hawaii, the grandchild of Okinawan immigrants. His grandparents settled in Oahu in the late 1920s and his father recalls playing outdoors one day and seeing Japanese planes overhead, on their way to bomb Pearl Harbor. Living in Hawaii, no one in his family was interned during World War II.
After graduating high school in Oahu, Yamashiro attended college at Washington University in St. Louis. He is currently a Professor of Photography at Miami University of Ohio. He lives in Indiana with his wife and two young children.
Having settled in the American Midwest and raising a bi-racial family, Yamashiro has become much more sensitized to issues of race than when he was growing up in Hawaii. He titles the introduction to his work “The Way We Look.”
“Becoming a father and raising a family . . . I am more aware of the way I look and how much we stand out in the Midwest today. I have also become very aware of how this quiet part of history [internment] continues to shape the Japanese American experience in this country. It also plays an essential part in current conversations about race in America.”
In conversation, he further explains the genesis of the project, in which he visits and photographs all ten major internment camps, accompanied by at least one of his two young children and his wife.
“One of the reasons I started the project was my realization that my daughter, who is bi-racial, was beginning to deal with those situations and questions,” Yamashiro says. “The work I usually do is about my background, my cultural upbringing, the stories I was told growing up in Hawaii, and trying to figure out who I am, what I believe and how I see the world. My work has always been connected to me and my experiences. The Internment Project is really different for me because it was something that I went out and actually documented. The photography style is different. It wasn’t me creating things in a photograph. It was me going out and finding things and photographing what was there. I learned a whole bunch. I did a lot of research for it. But it’s still connected to my culture and who I am. And my kids were growing up. It was an educational experience for them. They know about the camps. They understand what happened there. Hopefully it will help them as they grow older so they can understand the whole thing . . . ”
His photographs are of the camp sites as they exist today, in varying states of maintenance and disrepair. His young son and daughter are present in most of the photographs.
The pictures are black and white and, while often stark and plain, they envelop the past, the present, and future into single statements of reflection and optimism.
Engaging with the camps connects Yamashiro and his family with their ethnic culture and teaches them about the nature of race in mainland America. The historical “fact” of the camps is counterbalanced by the spiritual weight they carry.
“Being in these places was, for me, pretty emotional,” he says. “I felt the weight of the place. I tried to communicate that in the photographs. Physically being in that place and feeling the breeze and seeing the mountains and structures was pretty heavy. I had that same flutter in my chest every time I came upon a camp site for the first time.”
Kevin J. Miyazaki grew up in Wisconsin, aware that his father’s family had been interned in Tule Lake and, later, Heart Mountain. On a trip to Northern California, he found himself at a museum near the Tule Lake site where, in addition to information about the internment of Japanese Americans, he discovered that, starting in 1946, many buildings that had housed internees during the War had been offered to homesteaders to resettle the area after the war’s end. These homesteaders were American veterans of WWII who participated in a lottery to work the land for an ownership stake. Buildings from the camp site were offered to lottery winners and moved to the homestead properties.
“The homesteaders had their lottery for a piece of land,” Miyazaki explains. “It was just the land, there were no roads or anything. All the infrastructure had to be built. They were given, or could buy very cheaply, these buildings. They could each have one-and-a-half buildings. They would cut them in half, put them on a flatbed truck and drive them right to their spot and drop them . . . They could become houses or barns or outbuildings. They are really every imaginable shape you can think of. There are also buildings that look like nothing was ever done to them; there’s still tarpaper on the sides.”
Miyazaki began to seek out the repurposed buildings and the people who lived in them. “What I’m most interested in is the houses,” he says.
“Once I realized what I was looking for, I could see the shape that you know from all the historical pictures, except that there is siding, or they may have joined them together in an L-shape or a T-shape, but it’s all the same proportion . . . All over the landscape there are hundreds of these buildings, so it was just me driving and knocking on doors. At first, it was a little scary. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was terrific. People were open and welcoming. I was standing in people’s kitchens talking to them.”
He later discovered that the same arrangement followed the closure of the Heart Mountain internment camp – returning veterans homesteading the surrounding area, using internment camp buildings as domiciles and work structures. He made a trip to Wyoming and repeated the process of identifying, visiting, and photographing the buildings.
The resultant photographs that comprise Camp Home are simple images of American homes and workplaces that do not, on their own, seem to exist in the context of the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. For Miyazaki, the story of the repurposed use of internment buildings was his vehicle to engage in his personal relationship with internment.
“As an artist, I had been thinking about it and trying to make art about the internment for twenty years. I couldn’t wrap my head around how I would do that. When I discovered this story, everything kind of clicked. It makes perfect sense, given my interest in architecture and space and the element of home.”
He acknowledges, “It may not make as much sense to everybody. I’ve had people say to me, ‘You’re taking pictures of somebody else’s house.’ But I’m capturing the domesticity and the idea of home. It’s the same building . . . My father could have lived in any one of those buildings I was standing in. So there is this documentation of the texture of home, which I think is important.”
Also included at the Stockton Art Gallery is Miyazaki’s book, A Guide to Modern Camp Homes: 10 New Models & Plans for Persons of Japanese Ancestry.
From 1908 through 1940, Sears Roebuck & Company, like other consumer catalogues of the day, merchandised “modern” homes for sale and delivery to an expanding American middle-class consumer population. Until December 7, 1941, the West Coast Japanese American community was fully immersed in that upwardly mobile society.
“I was thinking a lot about what my family and the other families left behind. The house my father grew up in was a lovely two-story house in Tacoma. I wanted to think about this movement to camp – what they expected and what they didn’t know about moving and what they found.”
The result, Modern Camp Homes, is an “artist’s book,” essentially a mock Sears Catalogue merchandising “home” for prison-bound Japanese American internees. Miyazaki uses the upbeat language of the catalogues of the time and the burnished, positive images of internment sourced from the National Archives, including photographs by Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange. He commissioned architectural drawings of camp structures to add to the thoroughness of the imitation and includes General DeWitt’s infamous “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry,” as a welcoming introduction.
The result is an unsettling, sardonic compendium of an idealized version of life in the camps that underscores how much “home” the Japanese American internees irretrievably lost.
We think of photography as a medium entwined with memory. We take pictures at key moments in our personal history and view them at a later time, when they evoke recollection and emotion.
Ansel Adams, often cited as one of the greatest American photographers, went to Manzanar Relocation Center in 1943 and photographed the camp and the internees who lived there. Those photographs were gathered into a book and exhibit entitled Born Free and Equal.
In a lecture commissioned by Richard Stockton College in conjunction with this exhibit, Stephen Perloff, editor of The Photo Review and Photograph Collector declared, in spite of Adams’s best intentions, “ . . . ultimately, his photographs of Manzanar are a failure. They fail to affect us deeply because they do not convey the truth of the dislocation and suffering the Japanese Americans suffered during their internment. As a document, it fails to get below the surface.”
Seven decades after Ansel Adams went to Manzanar, two Japanese American photographers engage the internment camps as they exist today. Miyazaki sees a different sustaining and positive life emanating from the physical foundations of the internment camps. This new life is imbued with the same values of family, hard work, and legacy that Japanese Americans lost in the camps. Yamashiro uses the remnants of the camps today to enter into a discourse with mainstream America, the mainland Japanese American community he has not known, and his own family. He engages generations past, present, and future.
Their work is honest, soul-searching, and optimistic. It affects us deeply, conveys our historical truth, and gets below the surface of imagery to mine a communal memory the artists themselves may not have known was there.
Kevin J. Miyazki’s Camp Home and Jon Yamashiro’s WWI Japanese Internment Camps will be on exhibition until Sunday, March 23 (closed during the college’s spring break, from March 7 through March 16). For more information, please visit the Stockton Art Gallery’s website.
Tamio Spiegel is an independent consultant who has advised businesses in Asia and the US on manufacturing, product development, and cross-Pacific trading. He is a past Executive Director of The Gohan Society, a New York City-based non-profit organization that promotes Japanese food and food culture. He has written on arts and current affairs for NY Nichibei, AsianWeek, and Nikkei Heritage.