Iconic and Ironic: Remembering the Japanese American Incarceration Through Art
A class of first graders piles into the frame, their hands across their chests for the Pledge of Allegiance. In front, two seven-year-old girls stand side by side. The girl on the left has a daunted expression as she looks up. The girl on the right squints at the camera.
Taken at Weill Public School in San Francisco in April 1942 by Dorothea Lange, this photograph has become one of the most iconic images of the forced removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. For many years the little girls on the photo were unidentified. They didn’t even know the photo had been taken, let alone understand its significance.
“Are they the enemy?” the photo seems to ask, capturing a question that everyone should have been asking but too few actually were.
Today, on Day of Remembrance, we consider how art, and the stories beyond its frame, shape the ways in which we remember “camp.” Seventy-three years have passed since Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the executive order that paved the way for the mass incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast, and the numbers of the former incarcerees are dwindling. In the last few years, the responsibility of preserving the memory of what happened has fallen on the shoulders of those who, often, barely remember it themselves.
Helene Nakamoto Mihara, who was once the little girl on the right, and Mary Ann Yahiro, do not remember the day Dorothea Lange took their photograph, but they do remember other moments from that spring.
Mihara remembers the day her father was arrested by the FBI. “I was sitting at the top of the stairs,” she says. “We had a Victorian house, and I watched the FBI men with the fedoras on take my father away, and I remember my mother rushing around to get his overcoat so he won’t catch cold, and then I saw a lot of flashes, bulbs going off, I think, for the newspapers to take pictures.” She and the rest of her family would only be reunited with her father at Tule Lake.
Yahiro remembers how, no more than a couple weeks after Lange took the photograph, her family left their home for the last time. “We really had to leave in a hurry,” she says. “We left, I think, food on the table as we left.” She thinks they left strawberries on the table—although she’s not sure now whether she is remembering that correctly.
The girls lost track of one another after they left Weill, but both went to Tanforan. “I remember the soldiers had their guns pointed at us and not outside and they were around the barbed wire fences,” Mihara says.
Soon after Yahiro arrived, her mother was taken away. “My mother was a Japanese schoolteacher in San Francisco so they put her in a separate camp, away from her family,” she says.
That was the last time Yahiro saw her mother. A year later, months after Yahiro and the rest of her family had left Tanforan for Topaz, in Utah, the family learned that her mother had passed away. Her mother’s body was sent to Topaz for the funeral.
None of what followed can be seen in that photograph, though. Now, what Yahiro sees when she looks at that photograph—aside from how dusty and scuffed up her shoes were—is the irony.
“That’s the ironic picture because a few months later, we’re all put into camps,” says Yahiro.
If the moment Dorothea Lange captured was forgotten for other memories, Roger Shimomura has dedicated much of his career as an artist to preserving and rebuilding his few memories of that time.
A third-generation Japanese American, Shimomura wasn’t even three years old when he was sent to Puyallup Fairgrounds with his family. In fact, his first memory takes place behind barbed wire. “I remember walking in and out of the barrack and my mom had a birthday cake—I don’t know where she got the cake or how she got it,” he says. “I suspect that she ordered it outside of camp or something because you couldn’t cook inside the barracks.”
That was his third birthday. Much of his art around Minidoka, like Lange’s photograph, highlights the ironies of childhood innocence in incarceration. And yet, where Lange’s photographs seem so full of detail, the geometric lines, large blocks of color, and common use of silhouettes seem to evoke the bare bones nature of a child’s memory. Instead of capturing the fullness of a moment, Shimomura’s work around Minidoka seems to capture its emptiness.
“I don’t want to be mistaken for being a reporter or for being someone presenting things from my memory of what it was like,” he says. “Because there isn’t much there, frankly.”
Though his parents sometimes mentioned camp in passing after they left Minidoka, they were reluctant to talk about it. In high school, when Shimomura wanted to write a paper about Minidoka, his father replied, “We do not talk about that in this house.”
“All of a sudden it became shrouded in mystery,” he says, “and I think in some ways, in very obvious ways in fact, that might be behind or partially behind why I’ve been so obsessed with it in my work.”
His parents did not want to remember this period of their lives; he did not want to forget. But, in his memories, like with Mihara and Yahiro, “the meaning of camp later in life,” as Shimomura puts it. Only in retrospect could they see the ironies of their situation.
“Memories of Childhood,” in which Shimomura was prompted to recall his first ten memories of life, contains one print that shows a little boy in a bare barrack playing with a rat. He was ill, so he and his mother were quarantined.
At the time, he didn’t understand the implications of quarantine: with everyone living in such close proximity, the risk of contagion was high. In one of his grandmother’s diaries, Shimomura found that “she mentioned going to visit me in quarantine. So you know there was an interesting intersection between my memory and her diary. And then also, I had an uncle that also maintained a diary during camp and he also referenced coming to visit me while being quarantined and talked about what horrible conditions they were surrounding that particular barrack.”
Their diaries helped him supplement what he could not remember, or could not be sure of remembering accurately. “Someone once told me that you had to really be careful about recollections of certain things because as time goes by you tend to bring more to it than there actually was in that memory,” Shimomura says. “So I had a tendency to be a little bit more conservative and actually remember less because I wanted to be sure what I was remembering was truthful.”
Where Lange captures a moment that neither Yahiro nor Mihara remembers, Shimomura’s memories—and his lack of memory—clearly inspire his work. All children at the time, just a few years apart in age, their memories are bare, uncertain, and fragile, but together they paint the broad strokes of a story of childhood behind barbed wire—one that could all too quickly disappear.