Academics & Faculty

New book looks at photos used in WWII Japanese American resettlement effort

(Editors: For review copies of the book, please contact Beth Svinarich of the University Press of Colorado at 720-406-8849 x3 or
Within a year after incarcerating more than 110,000 West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry during War II, the U.S. government began releasing and relocating those it deemed "loyal" to areas outside the West.
The U.S. War Relocation Authority (WRA), which was responsible for the resettlement effort while the war was still going on, encouraged those who left its camps to avoid "Little Tokyo"–sytle neighborhoods, ostensibly to promote their assimilation into mainstream society. Thus, as early as 1943, released internees began building new lives in places like Des Moines, Iowa; Rochester, N.Y.; and Baton Rouge, La.
In "Japanese American Resettlement Through the Lens" (University Press of Colorado, 2009), Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, a UCLA professor of Asian American studies, and Kenichiro Shimada, a University of Maryland librarian, shed light on the role institutional photography played in promoting this wartime resettlement process.
The authors explain for the first time how the WRA commissioned thousands of photographs across the U.S. to convince Japanese Americans it was safe to rejoin mainstream society. The book painstakingly documents the history, mission and impact of the WRA's Photographic Section and features more than a hundred images taken as part of this government public relations effort.
The WRA photos — which appeared between 1943 and 1945 in newspapers and magazines, government brochures and posters, books, newsreels, and other sources — show content and gainfully employed Japanese Americans blending seamlessly into the larger society in cities, towns and farms of the Midwest, the Rockies, the South and the East Coast. Women were often shown engaged in clerical or service work and day-to-day tasks like cooking and child care. Men were photographed working in various industries, enjoying leisure activities or serving in the U.S. Army.
"The photos also aimed to assuage other Americans' fears about Japanese Americans leaving the WRA camps while the war was still being fought," said Hirabayashi, UCLA's Aratani Professor of the Japanese American Internment, Redress and Community. "The larger American public had long harbored suspicions of Asian immigrants and citizens alike, and they feared Japanese Americans who had been deemed dangerous enough to be incarcerated."
Of the 100-plus WRA photos featured in the book, 80 were taken by Hikaru Carl Iwasaki, the last surviving full-time WRA photographer. A native of San Jose, Calif., who was interned with his family at the WRA's Heart Mountain camp, Iwasaki became the most prolific photographer of the resettlement effort, producing more than 1,300 pictures of Japanese Americans attempting to integrate back into American society.
Hirabayashi says that despite the work of Iwasaki and other WRA photographers, the photos did not assure the majority Japanese Americans that it was safe to leave the camps and join mainstream society before the war's end. The photos also had little immediate effect on public opinion toward Japanese Americans. A 1946 National Opinion Research Center poll revealed lingering suspicion toward people of Japanese ancestry. Of those surveyed, 66 percent said they believed that first- and second-generation Japanese Americans had acted as spies for the Japanese government.
"In any case," Hirabayashi noted, "the WRA's resettlement photographs cannot and should not simply be dismissed as propaganda." Those interested in exploring this issue will find much food for thought in terms of the history and technical matrix of these photos, as well as Hirabayashi's discussion of how they can be put to new and sometimes oppositional uses today.
Counting his monographs and anthologies, both solo and co-edited, this is Hirabayashi's ninth book.
Following the war, Iwasaki, now 85 and living in Denver, went on to work for Life, People, Sports Illustrated and Time, photographing such notable figures as Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Jackie Kennedy and Joe Namath.
"Japanese American Resettlement Through the Lens" features a foreword by former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta. Mineta, who was also the first Asian American to serve as a presidential cabinet member, describes living with his family in the Heart Mountain camp. He also recounts the Mineta family's resettlement story, which resonates with the photos and accounts presented in this path-breaking study.
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