From the Archive

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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."
   -- Eiichi Edward Sakauye

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.

This is run after one of the snow blizzard. This is, snow is only about a few inches, and there isn't too much snow. The mountain on top in the center is called Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

This is the warehouse area, you can see the frozen icicles hanging. This is the wire fences frozen, this is the, under the office building was icicles hanging. They'll hang for days. That shows that temperatures was way low.

These, on one Sunday afternoon, the Caucasian personnel's youngsters had just enjoyed themselves skiing down one of the slopes.

Wendy Hanamura: What about the Japanese kids?

Sakauye: Japanese people, unfortunately, did not have the privilege having ski or sleds down its slope.

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...

This is a scene at the military police station. One day they were giving a dress rehearsal, and I got permission to take their program. That little hutment in the middle of the picture is the entrance and exit gate. There's Dr. Frederick Rowe Thorn of the First Presbyterian Church in New York City, has visited the camp.

On inclement weather, the Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls have their training in this high school gymnasium. We had a wonderful leader who was leader in Boy Scouts from Los Angeles that continued teaching Scouts to these boys and girls in this relocation center. As you see, the leader is a local boy from Mountain View. All along, we were American citizens expressing our patriotism, but the rights of American citizens were denied.

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."

Hanamura: What, can you describe for me what Walter Cronkite did not see, the other side? You know, in your film it would be easy to look and see all of the fun dances and games.

Sakauye: Yeah, dances, and the crops growing.

Hanamura: What did we not see in that film?

Sakauye: You did not see our inner feelings, our inner losses, what we were uprooted from. And the life in camp was nothing but dreary. In other words, we can get up in the morning and have breakfast, lunch and dinner, but what can we do? There's no occupation or anything that they can do, or anything they can look forward to.

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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