Photo Essay: Hikaru Iwasaki’s Sunny Views of Resettlement Americana

While the photographs of Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange have helped shape visual understandings of World War II incarceration, there are many lesser known photographers who documented the Japanese American experience during era. One of those photographers, Hikaru “Carl” Iwasaki, captured intimate family moments in camps like Heart Mountain and Jerome, as well as the resettlement process in cities from Bellevue to Buffalo and beyond. 

As a scrappy middle school student in 1930s San Jose, Calif., Iwasaki developed a passion for photography. He found every opportunity to sharpen his skills, be it through shooting for his school newspaper and yearbook or working at a local photo studio. As a teen, he perfected dark room techniques and chemical alchemies needed to print his captivating portraits.

Hikaru [Carl] Iwasaki photographs Japan’s Prince Akihiro in 1953. Over the course of his career with Time, Life, and People, Iwasaki did shoots with U.S. presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford) and many distinguished Americans.

But at age 19, Executive Order 9066 temporarily interrupted his dream of becoming a professional photographer. Along with his family and some 120,000 other Japanese Americans, Iwasaki was forced into mandatory detention facilities for the remainder of World War II. After a brief stay at the Santa Anita racetrack-turned-prison, Iwasaki was relocated to a more permanent prison at Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming.

The U.S. Government forbade detainees from bringing cameras into the camps. Having to abandon his true passion, Iwasaki found the closest approximation to putting his photographic skills to use: working as an x-ray technician for the camp hospital. By July of 1943, however, he had obtained a position working as a darkroom technician for the War Relocation Authority’s Photographic Section (WRAPS), the governmental organization sanctioned to document life in the camps. As demand for photographs increased, Iwasaki became the third full-time WRAPS photographer, a position he held from 1944 to 1945.

Many of Iwasaki’s images from this period capture the winding down of the incarceration camps and resettlement of those Japanese Americans who were granted early leave to go to school or take jobs in new cities. Although the WRA field staff guided him towards particular subjects, he had autonomy in choosing his shots and his photos were never censored by the WRA nor by the U.S. Army as Dorothea Lange’s had been. Many of the images have patriotic, wholesome motifs that were echoed by detailed captions.

Iwasaki openly sought to emphasize the hopeful promise of post-camp life. As Lane Ryo Hirabayashi writes in his book about Iwasaki, Japanese American Resettlement Through the Lens:

“Perhaps because of his youth and his personality, his WRAPS photos reveal a fundamental sense of optimism….Although he acknowledges the racism and hatred that faced people of Japanese ancestry during the 1940s, he told me there was not much point in waiting out the war in confinement….that bona fide opportunities existed for Japanese Americans during the war if they were willing to be open-minded and give their best efforts. He deliberately and self-consciously tried to imbue his photographs with this optimism.”

But while many of Iwasaki’s photographs call to mind the works of Norman Rockwell, some quietly capture the emotional and physical wounds inflicted by incarceration. Others feature desolate buildings and abandoned grave sites, left behind when the camps closed.

After his stint as a WRAPS photographer, Iwasaki went on to enjoy a career as a well respected photographer contributing to publications like Time, LIFE, Sports Illustrated, and People. One of his best known photos series documented the hardships faced by Brown v. Board of Education subject, Linda Brown, and her sister as they made their long trek to an African American school, which was further away than their neighborhood “Whites Only” school.

Iwasaki passed away in 2016 at the age of 93, leaving behind family and an impressive and illuminating body of work.

Leaving Camp

While many Iwasaki photos of post-incarceration life capture sunny images of Japanese Americans integrating into mainstream culture, his shots of people leaving camp show their trepidation and worry about what their new lives might hold. These were juxtaposed with optimistic captions like, “Home again and happy!”

Original caption: Roaring into Sacramento Monday morning, July 30, a special train of seven cars brought some 450 Japanese American residents of California back to their homes after residences of over three years at the Rohwer Center of the War Relocation Authority, McGehee, Arkansas. Met by several officers of the WRA at Sacramento, Robert Allison, Assistant Relocation Officer at the Rohwer Center, who accompanied the returnees and all the passengers, reported a satisfactory and uneventful trip during the 2,000 miles, over lines of four railways and with equipment varying from a fairly modern cafe car to antiquated wooden coaches of the gaslight era. However, there were no complaints from the returnees, numbering young, old, and babies in arms, with a tourist sleeper reserved for the aged and a few who were ill. En route several crowded troop trains, in some cases bearing G.I.’s back from the South Pacific, were met by the Rohwer Special on sidings. All reported that hearty and cordial greetings were exchanged. Disembarking at various stations between Sacramento and Los Angeles, the returnees found many friends to greet them, both Caucasian and Japanese Americans. The unanimous verdict? We’re glad to get home! July 30, 1945. Courtesy of War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

Original caption: Home again and happy! Heart Mountain Special No. 2, carrying nearly 100 Santa Clara County evacuees, pulled into 16th Street Station in Oakland around 1:00 P.M.–three hours late but no one seemed to care. Relocation Officers from San Jose and a Reports Officer from the Northern California Area office boarded the train in Oakland and delivered a formal Welcome Home. Came then, the always interesting ferry ride across San Francisco Bay, a taxi dash across busy bustling San Francisco to Third and Townsend and the final lap on the Three Five in a special car down the peninsula to Santa Clara County. In Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale friends –Caucasian and Japanese–were waiting with cars and words of genuine welcome. Due to San Jose Depot congestion, the main body left the train in Santa Clara, where a large crowd waited to deliver evacuees to their final destinations. Reception plans throughout were worked out by WRA and the Santa Clara County Chapter of the Council for Civic Unity. July 9, 1945. Courtesy of War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

The Children Are the Future

Despite the visceral anxiety of the early resettlement photos, Iwasaki soon began showing Japanese American youth and their families as happily resettled model minorities. These sunny photos contradict countless testimony of discrimination, violence, and racism that returnees faced.

Original caption: Jerry Nomura is planning the next play with his neighbor pals as the team goes into a huddle. Jerry attends Randall School with his sisters, Judy and Gloria. His oldest sister, Violet, attends Madison’s West Junior High School. The Nomura family came to Madison from Oakland, California, early in 1942 as volunteer evacuees. Mr. Nomura was active in organizing and maintaining the Madison Resettlement Committee. He is employed in a local department store. September 17, 1944. Courtesy of War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

Original caption: Mr. Nakada’s son is pictured with his Caucasian neighbor, Roger Abbot. Mr. Nakada, who owns a 10-acre ranch at 101 W. Bonita Ave., Azusa, California, has been farming for over eleven years. His products are largely vegetables. He states he has no difficulty in marketing any of these products. He has been a resident in southern California for over 38 years. What places Mr. Nakada (formerly from Gila) at the top of the list of all evacuees is the fact that he has contributed 7 sons to the U.S. Army! September 1, 1945. Courtesy of War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

Original caption: Steven Sakaguchi, left, and Sharon Sakaguchi, cousins, enjoy life in Bellevue farm home of their parents, the Taki and the Takeshi Sakaguchis, who owns a 10-acre fruit and vegetable farm. The two brothers find no time for idle moments because they are employed full time on their own and neighboring farms. May 17, 1945. Courtesy of War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

All American Family

Iwasaki also captured wholesome images of Japanese American families, happily settling into domestic bliss that belied the many hardships and disruptions to family life that had occurred as a result of WWII incarceration.

Original caption: Mr. and Mrs. Fred Masao Kaizuka and their two children, Allan Kiyoshi, 1 year, and Dennis Tadao, 3 years old. Their former home was in West Los Angeles and from there were evacuated to the Turlock Assembly Center and thence to Gila River. Mr. Kaizuka was a manager of a flower nursery in Beverly Hills, California, before evacuation, and his wife operated a beauty shop in West Los Angeles. Having relocated to Snyder, New York, a suburb of Buffalo, the family live on the grounds of the Park School. Mr. Kaizuka is employed there as a maintenance man of the buildings and also caretaker of the school grounds. The Park School of Buffalo is a private high school, and the headmaster, Mr. Adolphus Cheek is also president of the Japanese American Relocation Committee in Buffalo, New York. September, 1944. Courtesy of War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

Original caption: Mr. and Mrs. Susumu Igauye, formerly of the Central Utah Relocation Center and Long Beach, California, where Mr. Igauye was a petroleum engineer, are relaxing the living room of the Greater New York Relocation Hostel. The hostel is operated on a non-secretarian basis by the Brethren Service Committee of the Church of the Brethren. August, 1944. Courtesy of War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

At times, Iwasaki did hint at the darker side of resettlement. Here, his caption forecasts a bright future for the Kodama family while the photo of the happy couple is visually disrupted by barbed wire and the presence of a soldier with a gun holstered at his hip.

Original caption: Mr. and Mrs. Robert Yoshio Kodama and their small son, Junior, give their passes to Pfc. Courtland Dalheim of the Military Police at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, as they leave the gate prior to relocation. The Kodamas formerly lived in Los Angeles, California, where Robert was employed by the Jr. Produce Club as Office Manager. While living in Los Angeles, Mrs. Kodama was employed by the California State Controllers Office as Steno-Receptionist. March 18, 1944. Courtesy of War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

From Prisoners to Patriots 

A current of patriotism ran through many of the photos, seeming to make the case that Japanese Americans were anything but “enemies of the state.”

Original caption: Mrs. John M. Sakai admires her husband’s picture and looks at the Purple Heart medal which he sent to her from Italy. I love my husband and am very proud that he is an American fighting for America, said Mrs. Sakai. I also know my mother-in-law in the Gila River Relocation Center is just as proud. She is a typical American wife who is patiently waiting for her husband’s return. Mrs. Sakai is from the Gila River Relocation Center. September 20, 1944. Courtesy of War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

Still, some depictions of Japanese Americans revealed the wounds left behind by the war, juxtaposed with symbols of patriotic pride.

Original caption: Shown here are a group of wounded Nisei veterans of the 100th Battalion and 442nd Infantry Combat Team, being hospitalized at Dibble General Hospital, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, California. The boys were caught by the camera man in the Public Relations office. Left to right, front row, they are: PFC Walter Heirakuji, Box 20, Hawi, Hawaii, member of the 442nd Combat Infantry Team, wounded at St. Luciano, Italy, on July 17, 1944; Pvt. Masao Hayashida, member of the 442nd Infantry Combat Team, 160 Horualea, Hawaii, wounded at Leghorn, Italy, on July, 1944; and Corp. Minoru Yoshida, 1325 16th Avenue, Honolulu, Hawaii, member of the 100th Infantry Battalion, wounded at Cecina, Italy on July 2, 1944. Left to right, back row, they are: S/Sgt. Jack Kawamoto, Hawaii, member of the 442nd Combat Team, wounded at Leghorn, Italy, July 10, 1944; PFC Kiyotaka Uchimura, Kealakekua, Hawaii, member of the 100th Infantry Battalion, wounded at Bellefontaine, France, in October, 1944; Corp. Steve Shimizu, 2320 Young Street, Honolulu, Hawaii, member of the 442nd Combat Infantry Team, wounded at Vosges Mountains, France, on November 2, 1944; PFC Roy T. Tsutsui, 480 West Second South Street, Salt Lake City, Utah, 442nd Infantry Combat Team, wounded at Lespezia, Italy, on April 15, 1945. July 14, 1945. Courtesy of the War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

Back to School

Forever looking to the future, Iwasaki captured young college students who were eagerly hitting the books in hopes of achieving brighter tomorrows.

Original caption: Yanako Watanabe, Gila River, formerly of Pasadena, California, is a student at the University of Buffalo, and is majoring in arts and science. September, 1944. Courtesy of War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

Original caption: University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut group (evacuees only). Left to right, Jim Nakano (Topaz, Redwood City, Calif.); Tokuji Furuta (Poston, San Diego, Calif.); Kei Hori, (Heart Mountain, San Francisco, Calif.); Edna Sakamoto (Tule and Denson); Yoneo Ono (Poston, Bakersfield, Calif.); Ken Nakuoka (Denson, Torrence, Calif.). August, 1944. Courtesy of War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

What Remained

Iwasaki’s efforts to capture optimistic views of post-incarceration life didn’t completely elide the darker parts of this history. As Japanese Americans were resettling across America, Iwasaki returned to document the bleak remains of their makeshift prisons.

Original WRA caption: Poston, Arizona. Some of the “blocks” which were vacated earlier, are already dropping to pieces as shown here. The barracks were of cheap construction, rough lumber, and tar paper and few people thought that they would be occupied for three years. Units II and III of the Colorado River Relocation center, Poston, Arizona, meet their scheduled closings ahead of the deadline. These two camps which at one time had a combined population of more than 8,500 Japanese Americans are now completely deserted. May 1, 1945. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Original WRA caption: Granada Relocation Center, Amache, Colorado. Not all the center residents will return to their former homes. Many have found permanent “relocation” in the sandy soil on which the tar paper barracks were hurriedly erected. A total of nearly 15,000 evacuees were inducted into the Granada Project, Amache, Colorado, since August 27, 1942, when the first group arrived from the Merced Assembly Center to prepare the camp for those to follow. The Relocation Center, as its name implies, was a temporary residence for those of Japanese ancestry who were transferred from their homes along the west coast under a war emergency measure of 1942. Many of the evacuees during the past three years were able to resettle and find new homes in the Middle West and eastern states. From September 1, 1945, to the closing date of October 15, 3,105 persons have gone back to their former homes or have relocated elsewhere. The last to leave the center a group of 126, left on two special coaches for Sacramento and nearby towns. At the peak of its population, Amache had 7,567 residents. 412 births were recorded and 107 deaths during the three years of its existence. October 1, 1945. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Original WRA caption: Closing of the Jerome Relocation Center, Denson, Arkansas. An evacuated block in a far corner of the Jerome Center as it looked a short time after the residents had been moved to other centers. Residents did not leave their homes in an untidy condition, however, there was necessarily a great quantity of scrap lumber, etc., strewn about and this picture was made to contrast with some of the blocks where residents maintained their gardens to the last minute. June 18, 1944. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

By Natasha Varner, Densho Communications and Public Engagement Manager

Information sourced from Lane Ryo Hirabayashi’s article on Iwasaki in the Densho Encyclopedia as well as the book, Japanese American Resettlement through the Lens: Hikaru Carl Iwasaki and the WRA’s Photographic Section, 1943-1945 by Lane Ryo Hirabayashi with Kenichiro Shimada, University Press of Colorado, 2009.

[Header photo: Original caption: Mr. and Mrs. Ted Ohashi, with their three-week-old baby, Katherine, rent a modern two-bedroom bungalow near the most exclusive residential section in St. Louis, Missouri. The Ohashis found this little house indirectly through friends after having been in St. Louis a year. They rent the house furnished by the owner for $50 per month. The Okashis were married at Rohwer Center. Ted is a graduate of the University of California and is now employed as a director of the aquatic activities at the St. Louis YMCA. March 6, 1945. Courtesy of War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.]

 

Single Comment
    • 15/11/2017 at 22:24

    I enjoyed reading the photo essay, recapitulating Mr. Iwasaki’s career and featuring some of his photos from the 1940s. Two comments come to mind, however. One is that Hikaru only took the photos; all of the captions were written by WRA staff back at headquarters. That’s why, in Japanese American Resettlement Through the Lens, I emphasized the point that the caption can often overdetermine the image.
    A second point is that, by definition, Hikaru Iwasaki’s photographs of Japanese American resettlers are really of the camp segment that Dorothy Thomas called “the Salvage” — i.e., those Nikkei who were deemed “loyal” by the government, and given permits to leave camp between 1943 and 1945. (The WRAPS was closed in 1945, and so did not document the resettlement experiences of the so-called “Spoilage” or the “Residue,” as JERS project staff sometimes designated those who remained in camp for the duration.)
    So the question remains: given that he took resettlement photos of the men and women who were probably more acculturated–who tended to be from urban, educated, Christians, and generally more Americanized backgrounds–was Iwasaki a clever propagandist who was promoting Anglo-conformity and assimilation? Or are his photos primarily realism, or realistic, in the sense that they reflect the self-images of those Nikkei who actively sought re-integration into the mainstream of American life–that is to say, precisely those persons who were released by the WRA before 1945?

Leave a Reply