From the Archive
Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.
July 2007 - Moving Images: Film from inside an Incarceration Camp
Still frame of barracks at Heart Mountain (from denshovh-seiichi-02-001)
"I had permission from the guard to be able to take pictures."
The rich trove of photographs in the Densho Digital Archive that help us understand what life was like for the 120,000 Japanese Americans confined in government-run incarceration camps are now joined by rare moving images. San Jose native Eiichi Edward Sakauye was one of very few Nisei who secured both the equipment and permission to film daily life in the War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps.
Sakauye grew up working on his family's extensive farm holdings. He graduated from San Jose Teachers College, but before having the chance to start a career, he was ordered into an assembly center along with all other Japanese Americans on the West Coast after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Having conceived a love of photography as a young man, Sakauye was reluctant to give up his camera as ordered by the authorities. He left his photography equipment with a high-school friend who shipped it to the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, incarceration camp after Sakauye received the War Relocation Authority's permission to take photos.
Sakauye's 8-millimeter home movie footage from 1943-44, described in a voice-over interview recorded by documentary maker Wendy Hanamura, gives us a remarkable glimpse into the living conditions, work routine, and recreational activities at Heart Mountain. The film opens with an aerial view of snow-covered barracks taken from a guard tower:
Eiichi Sakauye: My name is Eiichi Edward Sakauye, born January 25, 1912, and still living in the place where I was born, San Jose, California, born and educated here. You're about to see my experience in one of the ten relocation centers. The entire two and a half years that I've been there at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, which is a concentration camp located between the town of Cody and Powell, on a plateau with elevation of a little over four thousand feet, the most desolate, barren country. The camp comprised of about 11,000 evacuees. Their tarpapered buildings where evacuees were interned, in between this opening that is the recreational fields, where we have baseball and ice skating and other community activities, outdoor activities. I was standing on, on the guards, that was a guard tower just now, went by so fast, and I had permission from the guard to be able to take picture.
In a second interview with Hanamura, also in the Densho Digital Archive, Sakauye related how much of his meager camp pay ($19 per month) he spent on mail-order film. He goes on to explain how difficult it was to develop film in his makeshift darkroom under extreme weather conditions:
Developing film is a very hard situation, 'cause in the winter, the temperature outside goes thirty below zero. Normally in the winter, it's twelve below zero, and summer is, highs is eighty degrees there. In the winter months, when it's cold outside, it's difficult to keep the chemical temperatures where they should be. And in the winter months when it's thirty below zero, we have no running water in our barracks, so we go to the latrine or washroom to get a bucket of water. The bucket we used was not plastic like today, but it was a galvanized bucket, so that wasn't very good for chemical use. Anyway, that's all we had. So I would go to the washroom, pick up a bucket of water, and at that temperature, thirty below zero or twelve below zero, the top of the bucket would be ice by the time I get to my barrack. So we got the potbelly stove going, so we put it on, just a stove like this behind your back, and warm up the water. But we got to be very careful, we don't want it too hot or too cold. It should be around, as I recall, between sixty-five and sixty-eight degrees, so we watched carefully, and then we dissolve our chemical in there. And that made our developing solution. Then our, we had to, after developing, we had to affix it, and we can't use ice-cold water. Again, we have to have normal temperature water. And that kept us busy all the time, carefully trying to meet the needs of proper development.
Into Sakauye's matter-of-fact descriptions of everyday social activities in camp-from USO dances to Boy Scout marches--creep dry references to the underlying injustice of the situation:
This is one of, another activities, those who wished to learn how to play piano, be an opportunity to learn how to play piano. This is the USO. This is the only U.S.-, registered USO in ten relocation centers. Here the boys who are in service or returning from service meet their friends, families, sweethearts, and enjoy the day while they're here. There's a welcoming party. We have people from all theaters of war here come through this door. Here they are registering at the USO. Now, this is social activity, dancing. Now, after the dancing, we have a little snack period, and here they're enjoying the snacks...
Like the government's public relations photos of the camps, which showed smiling Japanese Americans productively working and happily engaged in sports and social activities, Sakauye's movie footage of Nisei dancing, ice skating, and shopping at the camp store can be misleading. None other than CBS newsman Walter Cronkite got the wrong impression of life in the WRA camps when he requested a viewing of Sakauye's film shortly after the camps closed. Cronkite declared, "You fellows had a beautiful time, wonderful time, vacation." Sakauye was quick to correct him:
I says, "You looked at the bright side only. Look at the other side, and the other side is gloomy. We were uprooted from home, we were put in this desolate place in a barrack like this, in a small room, and we lost all our business. We had nothing but what we could carry, our life was just destroyed." "So," he says, "I'll show the other side."
Eiichi Sakauye passed away shortly after completing this interview. Densho, community historians, and all who care about preserving the full record of the Japanese American incarceration are indebted to this amateur filmmaker for taking the incentive to capture scenes of daily life behind barbed wire, and for generously donating these moving images to cultural institutions in the interest of educating future generations.
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