Photo Essay: Japanese American History Through the Eyes of Everyday Families

Personal collections are a critical component of Densho’s archives. These collections, donated by families and individuals, provide amazing insights into Japanese American history that might otherwise be forgotten, while allowing educators, researchers and the general public to see the past through the eyes of everyday families. Even though our staff has been working from home for the last several months, Densho’s collections team is still actively expanding our digital archives. Browse through these recent highlights, and then head over to the Densho Digital Repository for more — you may even find some familiar faces!

Portrait of two Japanese women wearing kimono and white gloves. One woman is seated in a chair and the other stands behind her resting her hands on her shoulders.
Kiyoko (Maeda) Yoshioka was a Kibei who lived on Terminal Island and in Los Angeles before being detained at Poston with her young family. The Yoshioka Family Collection contains family photos documenting her life from the 1900s to 1950s, like this portrait of Kiyoko (standing) and another woman.
Black and white photo of four Japanese American women cannery workers in pre-war Terminal Island. They are wearing white caps over their hair and rubber aprons.
Photograph of four cannery workers dressed for work. Second from the left is Kiyoko (Maeda) Yoshioka. Terminal Island, c. 1930-1940. Courtesy of the Yoshioka Family Collection.
Photo of hops farmers and workers on the Chikuo Hop Ranch in pre-war Oregon. Five men and a girl are standing on a wooden platform next to a truck, and two men are sitting on filled canvas bags loaded onto the truck bed. A handwritten note on the front of the photo reads "Chikuo Hop Ranch Sept. 1936"
Japanese American hops farmers on the Chikuo Hop Ranch in pre-war Oregon, from the Patricia Shigeno Collection.
Color photo of a Japanese American family posing in front of a house. A man and three women stand in a row behind three children.
The Ozaki Family Collection depicts post-war life in Chicago, Georgia, and Florida. Here, the Ozaki family poses for a portrait c. 1950.
Two Japanese American children posing with toys. A boy on the left holds a small toy and a girl on the right stands next to a toy baby stroller. A house and trees are visible in the background.
The Ozaki children posing with toys on Christmas Day, 1947. Courtesy of the Ozaki Family Collection.
Black and white photo of four men lounging outside. One man leans against a tree on the left and three others are sitting or standing on the right. A car and other people are visible in the background.
Four men lounging outside. Courtesy of the Ozaki Family Collection.
A group photo of Japanese Americans at the Merced Assembly Center. A row of women are seated in front, and two rows of men and women stand behind them.
A group photo at the Merced Assembly Center, July 1942. Courtesy of the Matsuoka Family Collection, which covers the multi-generational history of the Matsuoka family from the Issei immigration to Nisei post-war life.
Black and white photo of a uniformed Japanese American soldier posing by a sign at the 38th parallel in Korea, c. 1951.
Walter Matsuoka poses by a sign at the 38th parallel north in Korea, c. 1951. Courtesy of the Matsuoka Family Collection.
Photo of Japanese American children and caretakers at the nursery school in Topaz concentration camp.
A group photograph of children and caretakers at the nursery school in Topaz concentration camp, c. 1944. Shizuko Sumi, whose family history is showcased in the Sumi Family Collection, is in the third row, second from left.
Color photograph of two Japanese American men posing behind the jewelry counter in their gift shop. Both men are wearing glasses and ties and smiling at the camera.
Yuichi and Yuji Sumi at the “New World Gift Shop,” which they opened in New York City in 1945 after relocating to the East Coast after camp. Courtesy of the Sumi Family Collection.
Black and white photo of four Japanese American men on a hiking trip to Mount Rainier National Park. They are smiling and laughing and two of the men are posing with their fingers touching to form a peak over a sign that reads "Oh My Point, elev. 4500."
Four men, identified as Matsu, Ky, Mike, and Geo., at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington c. 1933, from the Matsuo Sakagami Collection.
Black and white photo of a Japanese American couple cutting their wedding cake. The bride is wearing a long-sleeved white silk dress and a veil, and the groom is wearing a white suit. Behind them members of the bridal party sit at a banquet table.
The Bitow Family Collection contains photos of community events attended by the Bitows both before and after WWII, like this wedding c. 1940.
Black and white photo of young women in kimono and white Western dresses stand on a Japanese Chamber of Commerce parade float.
Young women, in traditional and Western dress, stand on a Japanese Chamber of Commerce parade float. July 27, 1940. Courtesy of the Bitow Family Collection.
Group photo of Japanese American young women posing in front of columns on the University of Washington column.
Group photograph of Fuyo Kai, an organization to support Japanese American students, taken in front of the columns in Sylvan Grove on the University of Washington campus. Tamako Inouye Tokuda was president of Fuyo Kai as a senior in 1942. Her prewar life, along with that of her husband, George Tokuda, is the focus of the Tokuda Family Collection.
Photo of a Japanese American man posing with a large fish.
George Tokuda posing with a fish in Alaska in 1930. Courtesy of the Tokuda Family Collection.
A Japanese American woman sitting on the railing of a steel bridge. She is smiling and wearing a chic coat, and holds a black handbag in her lap.
Yuri Tsukada sitting on the railing of a steel bridge during her honeymoon trip to New Hampshire in August 1945. The Yuriko Domoto Tsukada Collection contains family photos and personal correspondences from before, during and after WWII.

Even with such a wide range of collections and materials, we know we are only scratching the surface of the Japanese American experience. If you’re interested in contributing your family’s story to the Densho Digital Repository, please fill out this form to get in touch with our collections team. Know someone whose story should be captured in an oral history? Fill out the narrator nomination form here! Looking for more stories? Check out Campu, a new Densho podcast that goes beyond the standard “Incarceration 101” to explore more intimate, lesser-known corners of this history. And finally, if you’d like to learn more about the work Densho does, in the archives and beyond, we hope you’ll join us at the Densho Dinner @ Home on October 24th!

By Densho Digitization Tech Micah Merryman

[Header photo: A family of four outside their home in Banks, Oregon, July 1938. Courtesy of the Patricia Shigeno Collection.]

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