Photos from Japanese internment camps shed new light on our un-American past

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In 1942, the US government forced nearly 110,000 Japanese Americans into detention centers. They had to leave their homes, their businesses and most of their possessions. Some were given just 48 hours notice. Most of them stayed in these internment camps for the duration of World War II.

To oversee the process, the government established the War Relocation Authority (WRA). It hired photographers to capture it all, from the rounding up of Japanese Americans to their years in the camps.

A few of the photographers were famous, such as Dorothea Lange, known for the Migrant Mother. Ansel Adams also took photos but wasn’t officially part of the government effort.

Thousands of photos were produced. After the war, they went to the National Archives and Library of Congress.

Now 140 photos are published in a new book titled Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II. The book comes out amid fears that Muslim Americans could be the next targeted group.

To tell the story behind each photo, co-authors Richard Cahan and Michael Williams got personal anecdotes from 25 subjects and worked with local historical societies and libraries. Of the 7000 photos they found, they chose 140 images to tell the story. “We looked for pictures that really gave readers a chance to go back to those places, and stand in the fields with farmers, and be next to people who were about to be picked up by buses or trains,” said Cahan.

While there’s no documented evidence for why the government hired photographers, Dorothea Lange had taken photos for the government during the 1930s. She also talked to the first director of the WRA, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s brother. Cahan believes Lange convinced the WRA that it was worthwhile to document what was happening.

“Dorothea Lange was the wrong photographer for the government to hire if they wanted propaganda photographs,” Cahan said. “She was feisty, she had a conscience, she got very close to people, she showed their angst, she showed the sparseness of the camps they were taken to.”

The book documents a striking contrast in the lives of Japanese Americans. There are photos showing Japanese Americans living their usual middle-class lives, then being transported in cattle cars and living at detention centers. One photo that surprised Cahan was of two young men playing a board game by the window of a San Francisco apartment. Their belongings sit in the foreground, packed and ready to go.“The simplicity that their life was continuing, and within hours everything would change, was just remarkable to me,” he said.

At the time, many newspapers portrayed the transfer as a festivity, and Japanese Americans acted as if they were going on picnics.. “They had no idea if they were leaving for the weekend, for the week, for the year, forever. They had just sold all their possessions for basically nothing,” said Cahan.“If there’s pictures of festivity, I think it’s more pride and strength and dignity than festivity.”

The book also features photos from Ansel Adams. He was not paid by the government, but had special authorization to shoot at Manzanar, California, a year after the relocation effort started. He portrayed people in a positive, proud light. While he was criticized for not showing the hardships of the camp, Cahan said he admired”fact that he showed these people are human beings.”

The photographers were not allowed to show the barbed wire, soldiers, power plants and the like and at the time, there was little institutional or media opposition to the internment.. “Ultimately there was a war hysteria that made them [Caucasians in California] worry about Japanese Americans, and the idea of sending them out of California seemed to solve a lot of problems – not just security. Unfortunately, local newspapers wrote a lot about ‘how once these people left, we could take over their farms and life would be the way it was before they started arriving in California.’ ”

This hatred continued when most of the Japanese Americans returned home, Cahan said. “There were 36 reports of vigilantism, dynamiting, shooting, general harassment. Many people didn’t want to return to California. They had bad memories and wanted to start new lives. Chicago only had a couple hundred Japanese Americans at the start of WWII, and by 1948, they had 20,000. So the government had a big effort to relocate them throughout the United States.”

According to Cahan, the government told Japanese Americans that they shouldn’t live together or form neighborhoods – they’ll do better if they separate.

Japanese Americans didn’t receive a formal apology from the government until 1988. Those who were still living received a $20,000 tax-free reparation check. The government formed a commission to investigate the causes of the incarceration. “They concluded it was caused by race, prejudice, war hysteria, and the failure of political leadership,” Cahan said.

For Cahan, the book resonates at a time when supporter of President-elect Donald Trump said the Japanese incarceration was a precedent for a Muslim registry. “I think that if he took a careful look at this book, or at novels or other books about the incarceration, he could conclude it was a bad precedent, not just a precedent,” said Cahan. “When segments of the American population are separated, and some are asked to register and some aren’t asked to register, it is the beginning of what happened in the 1940s.”

Many of the people in the photos are still alive. “It shows what happens when fear really ends up eclipsing civil liberties,” said Cahan. “And one of our civil liberties is we should not be forced to register as groups.”