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Japanese American Resettlement Through the Lens

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In Japanese American Resettlement through the Lens, Lane Ryo Hirabayashi gathers a unique collection of photographs by War Relocation Authority photographer Hikaru Iwasaki, the only full-time WRA photographer from the period still living. With substantive focus on resettlement - and in particular Iwasaki's photos of Japanese Americans following their release from WRA camps from 1943 to 1945 - Hirabayashi explores the WRA's use of photography in its mission not only to encourage "loyal" Japanese Americans to return to society at large as quickly as possible but also to convince Euro-Americans this was safe and advantageous. Hirabayashi also assesses the relative success of the WRA project, as well as the multiple uses of the photographs over time, first by the WRA and then by students, scholars, and community members in the present day. Although the photos have been used to illustrate a number of publications, this book is the first sustained treatment addressing questions directly related to official WRA photographs. How and under what conditions were they taken? Where were they developed, selected, and stored? How were they used during the 1940s? What impact did they have during and following the war? By focusing on the WRA's Photographic Section, Japanese American Resettlement through the Lens makes a unique contribution to the body of literature on Japanese Americans during World War II.

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CHAPTER ONE Introduction

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This book has two primary aims. The first is to describe the War Relocation Authority’s use of photography as part and parcel of its primary bureaucratic mission to pressure “loyal” Japanese Americans in its camps to return to the larger society as quickly as possible.1 The second aim is to assess the WRA Photographic Section’s output.

Our analytic approach to WRAPS photo work has two related dimensions. One is to evaluate critically the overall contribution of the WRA’s Photographic Section to the resettlement process from 1943 to 1945, the key years in which the WRAPS was in operation. This is a descriptive task, but one that also involves gauging the efficacy of a federal agency’s use of photography in a public relations campaign geared to promote its policies.

A second dimension is theoretical and has to do with explicating the communicative power of the WRA’s photographs. Examination of the official resettlement photographs in terms of the WRA’s policies reveals a great deal about their construction, in regard to both their visual and their textual aspects. I contend that the combination of image and text produced a type of testimonial that was anything but neutral.

 

CHAPTER TWO Policy and Production of WRAPS Photographs

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From the beginning of the WRA’s program, plans were in place to photograph the mass removal, initial concentration, longer-term incarceration, and release of Japanese Americans. As early as 1942, the stated purpose of this record was to document every step of the process. Authorities in charge of the incarceration also realized early on that pictures were needed for public relations purposes.1

Our analysis of the archival records, along with the secondary literature, indicates that the photographic mission changed over time. It is thus convenient to divide WRA photo operations into two phases. What I am calling Phase One started in March 1942 and lasted through the end of that year. Phase Two was in place by 1943 and lasted until the WRA’s Photographic Section was closed in January 1946.

The available records indicate that photographers were on the payroll even as the WRA came into existence. As far as we have been able to determine, early WRA photographic work was done via short-term assignments given to select professional photographers, such as Clement Albers, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, and Francis L. Stewart.2 These photographers were assigned (Lee) or hired (Albers, Lange, and Stewart) by federal agencies, including the Office of War Information and the War Relocation Authority. Although some of the four’s WRA pictures had to do with removal, most of their photographs detailed selected, typically noncontroversial aspects of Japanese Americans’ daily life in Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) assembly centers as well as scenes from the first months in the ten more permanent WRA camps.3

 

CHAPTER THREE Hikaru Iwasaki’s Resettlement Photos, 1943–1945

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By the time he retired in the 1990s, Carl Iwasaki had reached the peak of the photojournalism profession. When I first visited his home, he showed me some of his featured photographs in magazines like Life, People, Sports Illustrated, and Time.1 A number of his shots are iconic and include pieces like the 1961 photograph showing a shadow of two teenagers enjoying a kiss.

Now in his eighties, Iwasaki can look back on a lifetime of creative work. As a staff photographer who also worked on assignment, he traveled all over the world and covered all kinds of stories. He has witnessed humanity’s highs and lows, having covered stories from the infamous Starkweather case; to Jackie Kennedy skiing with her kids in Aspen; to an iconic photo of Linda Brown (of Brown vs. Board of Education); to the football season when he followed Joe Namath around, on and off the field, for Sports Illustrated.2

Before presenting a number of Iwasaki’s resettlement photographs, it is fitting to say something about his background as well as the criteria that governed the selection of his WRAPS photographs herein.3

 

WRA Photographs

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ANTI-DISCRIMINATION POSTER

Government’s latest anti-discrimination poster. [Photographer not identified.] Denver, Colorado. 7/19/43

National Archives photo no. 210 G-B-986

DR. HOWARD SUENAGA AND RED CROSS NURSE

Dr. Howard Suenaga, physician and surgeon formerly of Guadalupe, California, leader of thirty-five Japanese Americans who volunteered to give their blood to the American Red Cross blood donor section in Denver as a protest against outrage perpetries [sic] by Japanese troops on American prisoners of war in the Philippines. Shown with Dr. Suenaga, a Sansei, or third-generation Japanese American, is Mrs. Margaret Plotkin, a Red Cross staff assistant, as she registers Dr. Suenaga preliminary to the blood donation. Dr. Suenaga relocated in Denver from the Gila River, Arizona, Relocation Center.—Photographer: Iwasaki, Hikaru—Denver, Colorado. 1/28/44

National Archives photo no. 210-G-G-344

HEART MOUNTAIN SELECTEES

Heart Mountain selectees contingent in front of the Powell Draft Board Office waiting for bus to take them to Fort Warren, Wyoming, for pre-induction physicals. Front row (left to right), John Kitasako, Tom Higashi, James Nakashima, Sam Okada, and Masao Higashiuchi. Second row (left to right), Mason Funabiki, Albert Tanouye, Noboru Kikigawa, and John Miyamoto. Third row (left to right), Frank Shiraki, Sanji Murase, Edward Higashi, Harry Noda, Sadaji Ikuta, Motomu Nakasako, and John Okamura.—Photographer: Iwasaki, Hikaru—Powell, Wyoming. 3/3/44

 

CHAPTER FOUR Assessment

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Although resettlement was the key mission of the WRA by 1943, it is significant that the Authority made no effort during its lifetime to highlight the way that it was using public relations, including photography, to implement its policies. Nor, in fact, did the WRA make a serious effort, either during the war or after, to evaluate how the WRAPS photos were received by Japanese Americans and the public at large.1 In retrospect, however, we can use measures to at least partially assess the impact of the WRA photo campaign. Although these indices are indirect, they offer relevant evidence for assessing the impact of the WRA’s efforts from 1943 to 1945.

In 1946, the first year after the end of the war, the authoritative National Opinion Research Center (NORC) conducted a scientifically sampled poll. This poll, published under the title Attitudes toward “the Japanese in Our Midst,” was designed to measure popular sentiment with regard to people of Japanese ancestry in the United States.2 Although this poll was conducted after the total defeat of Japan and after almost all of the Japanese Americans had returned to society, the findings reveal that there was still a great deal of suspicion toward people of Japanese ancestry immediately after the end of the war. The poll indicated that two-thirds (66 percent) of persons interviewed believed that “Issei and Nisei in this country had acted as spies for the Japanese government.”3 Regarding the right of persons of Japanese ancestry to return to the Pacific coast, when the public was sampled in the five western states of California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and Arizona, almost a third (31 percent) said that they “would allow none to return.”4 And the general public’s attitude toward employment opportunities for persons of Japanese descent, particularly Issei, was marked by hostility. Over half (56 percent) thought that Issei should not be given equal employment opportunities, and another third (33 percent) responded that Issei should simply be “sent back to Japan.” Four out of ten persons surveyed were not in favor of equal employment opportunities even for the American-born, second-generation Nisei, who were U.S. citizens by birth.5

 

CHAPTER FIVE Reflections

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Beyond heightening the possibilities for critical evaluation of the WRAPS photos, what ramifications does this analysis offer? There may in fact be an enduring value to the WRAPS photographs, whatever their historical origins were. If my analysis of the performative nature of WRAPS work is accurate, then I submit that the photos by themselves have no necessary or inherent meaning.

Even if the WRAPS images bear the traces of power that overdetermined their social relations of production in the first place, there is no reason the photos cannot be appropriated and redeployed for new purposes and with new visions in mind. That much has happened already, albeit selectively. In fact, the wholesale reappropriation of WRA photographs has been going on since at least the 1970s. In the pre-Redress context the manifestations of this reappropriation had largely to do with the use of the WRA’s own photos to illustrate the injustices that mass incarceration entailed.1 If this is so, also possible are additional configurations of meaning far beyond what the WRA and its postwar critics intended or even anticipated.

 

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