History's dark viewfinder
A new exhibit documents one Sacramento photographer’s mission to preserve the stories of Japanese men and women interned during World War II
Paul Kitagaki Jr. is accustomed to capturing news as it happens. But for the last 10 years, the Sacramento Bee senior photographer’s life work has turned to preserving the stories of his parents’ generation. Kitagaki’s photographic portraits of Japanese men and women interned during World War II form a collective work called Gambatte! The Legacy of an Enduring Spirit, currently on display at the California Museum through May 3.
In 1942, the U.S. government passed Executive Order 9066 and incarcerated 120,000 ethnically Japanese people, two-thirds of whom were natural-born citizens. Kitagaki’s own family was interned at the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, only miles from South San Francisco, where he grew up.
“As a kid we drove by the race track,” says Kitagaki, who says he learned about this internment not from his parents, but in a history class.
“Imagine I’m 16 years old. I’m shocked, I’m surprised, I’m angry at the injustice,” says Kitagaki. “They were U.S. citizens. How could this happen?”
His parents spoke little of the experience. “Bad food, desolate and dusty living conditions, that’s pretty much what I got from conversation,” he says now.
Like other Japanese of their generation, Kitagaki says his parents kept it to themselves.
“They didn’t want to burden my generation with their experiences.”
Burden or not, the images on display in Gambatte! now give voice to those stories of his parents’ generation.
The seed for this project was planted in the late ’70s when Kitagaki’s uncle mentioned that Dorothea Lange had photographed their family in 1942. Lange photographed internees for the War Relocation Authority, but according to Kitagaki, those photos were “suppressed or censored during the war and buried in the national archives.” Not until Lange’s assistant collected the photos in 1972 did they become publicly known.
In 1984, Kitagaki visited the National Archives to find Lange’s photo of his family. He spent hours sifting through thousands of photos stuffed in “dozens of shoe-sized boxes,” none with names and only a few with locations written on the back. Kitagaki saw in those photos “so many faces, so many stories, but very few answers.” He found what he had come for, but left with more questions.
“I really wanted to find out how Executive Order 9066 changed the lives of internees who lost their homes, their businesses and sometimes their families,” he says.
But first he had to find them.
Kitagaki began asking members of the Japanese community to help identify family and friends from WRA photos. He left poster boards with photographs at Buddhist temples and churches with strong Japanese communities. It was a slow process, but “that’s how it got started,” says Kitagaki. He’s identified 30 people over the last 10 years.
After Kitagaki located subjects, he photographed them with a 4x5 camera and Polaroid Type 55 film to recreate what he describes as the “feeling” of Lange’s work. His exhibit displays original portraits beside the WRA photos, and includes a written narrative.
“It was hard to get them to open up and talk,” Kitagaki admits, but once they recalled memories either forgotten or never before vocalized, many came to tears.
The people who he located had remarkable stories.
Harvey Itano was top of his class at UC Berkeley, and was interned before his graduation ceremony. Itano couldn’t walk with his class, but went on to co-discover the genetic cause of sickle cell anemia.
Ben Kuroki volunteered with the Army Air Corps in an attempt to prove his loyalty. He received dispensation to become a fighter pilot, flew missions over Europe as well as Japan and established his reputation as a war hero.
Mary Ann Yahiro was 7 when interned. Her mother, a schoolteacher, was arrested and taken to a separate camp, and Yahiro never saw her again.
Mitsuo Mori, third-generation Japanese-American, stood next to his own portrait in the California Museum.
At 9, Mori says he made the best of “camp,” though his parents struggled with hopelessness. “They had no idea what the future was going to be,” he says. They had owned a successful dry-cleaning business in San Francisco, which internment forced them to sell for $450. When they finally left Tule Lake Segregation Center in 1946, “they couldn’t come back and start all over.”
Mori would become an architect, but his parents’ lives had been irrevocably interrupted. After internment, they moved to Watsonville to work on a strawberry farm where they stayed “the rest of their lives as farmers.”
While Gambatte! tells these stories in depth, Kitagaki makes clear that they don’t just belong behind museum walls—the photographs are still relevant in today’s social milieu. In February, he made this case before an audience at the California Museum, presenting his exhibit at the annual Northern California Time of Remembrance, a program hosted by the Japanese American Citizens League. Both Kitagaki and representatives from the JACL shared the same message: These stories aren’t just for Japanese Americans, but for all Americans.
At the beginning of the program, emcee Cheryl Miles, former Florin JACL president, led the mostly Japanese audience in the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a moment of silence for the February 10 Chapel Hill shooting of three Muslims.
“These tragic shootings remind us that the work of all the JACLs and all the organizations dedicated to the protection of all Americans’ rights to live a life free of fear and persecution is not only relevant today, but urgent,” said Miles.
Then, to express solidarity with Muslim Americans, Miles added, “We stand beside you, we were you, we are you, we are all Americans.”
Maheen Ahmed, a representative with the Council on American-Islamic Relations who was in the audience, says she felt inspired by Kitagaki’s work. Because, she explains, “If we don’t document these stories within our own communities, who will? If he didn’t do it, that history would be lost.”
In the last decade, CAIR has recorded a rise in crimes against Muslim Americans, which Ahmed believes makes Kitagaki’s exhibit more relevant than ever. “The phobia is worse now than after 9/11,” she says.
“Although we don’t have internment,” she admits, “we do have different policies in place that give a similar fear in the Muslim community.”
Legislation like the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows the government to detain citizens without due process, has left Muslim Americans with a sense that “we are not welcome, we’re not seen as American citizens,” says Ahmed—a sentiment that was shared by many Japanese Americans during internment.
But according to Ahmed, this isn’t just a Japanese or Muslim problem. “This is our history as Americans,” she stresses. “To understand what’s going on now, you have to understand our history, and hope we don’t repeat injustices.”
But for Kitagaki, time is of the essence to document and share these stories.
“The Japanese community is shrinking,” he tells SN&R. “I don’t want these stories to get lost.”
“I need your help,” Kitagaki told the audience. “As you know, many of you guys are in your 80s and 90s, and soon you’ll be gone and then your stories will be forgotten.”
In the end, it’s about documenting and preserving both the universal and personal histories, he explained.
“You guys were so much more than the numbers you were forced to wear on your clothing. … You’re not a number.”