Picturing Incarceration: The WWII Sketches and Paintings of Kango Takamura

Photographs and moving images of World War II incarceration have helped keep memories of that era alive for decades. But since cameras were largely forbidden inside the camps, few images from the point of view of prisoners exist. Though not permitted to take photos, Kango Takamura documented his wartime experience at Santa Fe and, later, Manzanar through expert sketches and watercolors. Like the better-known works of Mine Okubo, Takamura depicted camp life with a keen and sometimes darkly humorous eye. 

“You are not allowed to shoot photographs. That’s why I sketch exactly what was, everything I saw. It was exactly like this,” Takamura later recalled. [1]

Born in Kumamoto-ken, Japan in 1895, artist Kango Takamura immigrated to the United States when he was seventeen years old. He lived in Hawai’i for ten years, then his interest in the motion picture industry brought him to New York. There, he worked at the Paramount Studios before relocating to Hollywood. He took a job in Los Angeles with RKO studios, where he worked on film projects like King Kong (1933) and retouched publicity photographs. He aspired to be an assistant cameraman but was told he was “too short, too small.”[2]

After he arranged to sell a motion-picture camera to a visiting Japanese general, Takamura aroused the suspicion of the FBI. He later explained that he was simply looking to make a little extra money. [3] Nevertheless, he was placed under observation and then arrested shortly after the Pearl Harbor bombing. He was held at the Santa Fe detention facility for several months, then relocated to the Manzanar concentration camp. His images and handwritten captions, paired with recollections from an interview he conducted at age 88, reveal intimate details of daily life in both facilities.

Caption on reverse: “Panorama of Santa Fe Internment Center. Drawn on writing paper – with anxiety – during early days when I was not sure that drawings of any kind were permitted.” Santa Fe, New Mexico, April 26, 1942. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

Caption on reverse: “Chow time at the mess hall. Santa Fe.” Santa Fe, New Mexico. June 8, 1942. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

Caption on reverse: “Our roommates in Barracks No 5. Santa Fe Internment.” Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1942. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

Since Takamura was initially uncertain about whether or not his sketches were permissible, he often gave them a cartoonish effect in order to make them seem more benign.

“As you know, we cannot use any camera. So I thought sketching’s alright. But I was afraid I was not supposed to sketch. Maybe government doesn’t like that I sketch…so I work in a very funny way purposely, made these funny pictures.” [4]

Caption: “His bald pate shined as bright as a full moon. At first they inspected the barracks three times a night, waking us. Later, they stopped this.” Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1942. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

Caption: “Our guard in the watch tower became a spring baseball fan at Santa Fe.” Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1942. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

“Very often we play baseball. This is the kitchen band. And always the umpire says ‘fifty-fifty’nobody wins or loses. Always fifty-fifty. And after that, they made noodles for people, you see. So people appreciate so much. This is the way we play. And sometimes the ball runs over the fence and then the guard would come down and get it. He liked it so much.” [5]

Takamura also saw symbolism and beauty in the natural world.

Caption: “Our pet hawk died on May 22. The following day Mr. Sato of Chula Vista died. But same day over 80 of us internees were released.” Santa Fe, New Mexico. May 22, 1942. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

“One day we saw a wonderful cloud to the South. It was evening time. Oh, it was a big cloud. All pink. I had never seen this kind of cloud before. Really I was surprised. So we called it a ‘lucky cloud.’ ‘Look at that cloud. It won’t be long, this war,’ we said. So everybody was very happy.”[6]

After several months at Santa Fe, Takamura was relocated to the War Relocation Authority camp at Manzanar, California. He was reunited with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, and remained there until the war ended in 1945. Takamura documented his travel from Santa Fe to Manzanar concentration camp.

Caption: “Mojave, Calif. We waited for our bus here for seven long hours in a desert windstorm – after we disembarked from the trin [sic].” Mojave, California. June 15, 1942. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

Caption: “We stopped briefly at a small town – Needles, they said. To our pleasant surprise, Japanese workers brought us boxes of food.” Needles, California. June 15, 1942. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

Caption: “Home sweet home for men coming home to Manzanar from furlough.” Manzanar concentration camp. June 16, 1942. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

Caption: “First impression of Manzanar.” Manzanar concentration camp. June, 1942. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

Takamura recalled the beautiful mountains surrounding Manzanar, but also that it was hot and windy. “It is miserable, really,” he said. But after a year, more shade trees had grown and camp infrastructure had been developed. He adapted to camp life, continued making art, and took on a post as the head of a small camp museum. Years later, Takamura spoke almost fondly of his time in the concentration camp, calling it “peaceful” and “not so miserable.”

Takamura’s deep sense of patriotism sometimes drew the ire of his fellow prisoners. After a snowstorm had lodged the door to his family’s barrack shut, he remembers thinking, “I thought maybe people had nailed down the door. I thought that because some people thought my family was too much pro-America.” [7]

Caption: “Snow in January 1944, block 35 at Manzanar.” Manzanar, California, January 6, 1944. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

The majority of Takamura’s paintings and sketches reflected daily life at Manzanar, from school to agricultural production to special occasions.

Caption: “Progress after one year. The mess hall line” and “Wall painting by Takamura.” Manzanar, California, May 14, 1943. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

Manzanar, California. December 31, 1942. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

“This was a very happy day for mepounding mochi. We have to have mochi on New Year’s Day. Every family does. So this was a very happy day.” [8]

Caption: “Roll call is taken. This was the first day of school he study hall. Converted from a former mess ahll, resounded with laughter as Mr. Vanderjagt aide would call a name a squeaky soprano would respond ‘Here,’ only to be followed by an off-pitch bass ‘Heah.'” Manzanar concentration camp. October 8, 1942. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

Caption: “The resients [sic] transformed dusty semi-arid land into green truck farms, growing vegetable crops of all kinds. I sketched this scene of workers harvesting large, ripe, sweet watermelons.” Manzanar concentration camp. October 26, 1942. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

Caption: “A biologist hybidizes [sic] Guayule trying to produce plants superior in quality than those existing now.” Manzanar concentration camp, 1942-44. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

Caption: “It’s nap time, but there’s more noise than rest. The youngsters wriggle around, won’t lie still. The teachers look exhausted. The scam in the foreground turns around. ‘Hiya popa, watcha doin’?’ Rest time in the nursery class.” Manzanar concentration camp, 1942-44. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

Caption on reverse: “Saturday afternoon spring scene looking south from Block 8; quiet inside, sand pillars outside Manzanar.” Manzanar concentration camp, May 1943. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.

After the war, Takamura returned to Los Angeles and resumed his post at RKO Studios. He remembered, “I came back to RKO Studios after the war and people were really surprised to see me. I’m retoucher, you see, and the president usually never says, ‘Good morning’…but when I came back to the office, the manager and the president came to my place and welcomed me back. Twenty-five years I continued to work over there, until 1957 when they closed the studio.”

Takamura lived in Los Angeles until he passed away in January 1990 at age 94. Despite the discrimination and hardship he suffered in his lifetime, he remained unflaggingly optimistic about America. At 88 he said, “I enjoy this country so much. A nice life, I had.”

By Natasha Varner, Densho Communication and Public Engagement Manager

[Header image: “Keeping the camp clean and tidy.” Manzanar concentration camp. Courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Kango Takamura Collection.]

All images by Kango Takamura. View the full Kango Takamura Collection.

1. Beyond Words: Images from America’s Concentration Camps, Deborah Gesenway and Mindy Roseman (Cornell University Press, 1987), 125.

2. Ibid., 128

3. Ibid., 118

4. Ibid., 120

5. Ibid., 120

6. Ibid., 122

7. Ibid., 126

8. Ibid. 126

 

 

14 Comments
    • 25/10/2017 at 5:25

    Inspiring Stuff!! I like the theme that you used same color combination on you paintings. I like them, as they are not dark and bright. Thanks for showing fabulous art work. Keep it up!

    • 10/02/2020 at 0:04

    I was really moved by these sketches and paintings. They give you a real “in” to the daily lives in camp while, at the same time, bringing out in stark relief how much strength it took to create “normalcy” in such an abberant situation. One of my favorite pieces was the detailing of the dead bird, with the inscription that the same day that their pet had died, many detainees were released. I liked the variety of artistic expression: there’s looseness in the baseball sketch, caricature and landscape painting… The colors seem reflective of the dusty, earthy colors at the camp.

    • 12/02/2020 at 0:47

    I loved the painting of the mess hall line at Manzanar because of the way it showed how much life and hope there was even in hard and unbearable situations through his use of bright colors. Paintings really are worth a thousand words in the way that they can show life in a way that writing can’t, no matter how detailed the description. Because taking photographs was not allowed at Manzanar and other internment camps, these pictures were a way to preserve, remember, and show the world the beauty in the midst of the hardships that many Japanese Americans endured in internment camps.

    • 13/02/2020 at 1:34

    My favorite piece was the internees playing baseball. This stood out to me because I really like to see them making the best out of a bad situation and still having fun in the camp. I also like how the painting featured the tower guard peering his head over to be apart of the action. This is an example of how happiness is contagious and while the guard was watching Japanese Americans play baseball, I think he realized how they are not the enemy. They are just a community of people learning to cope with their reality and have a good time. Another thing this piece shows is how strong the Japanese Americans were. They could have just tried to survive on their own, but instead, they made friends and created an environment that felt as close as they could to home. All in all, I think these pictures were better than any essay or article could ever be because they showed not told. When you look at a scene visually it really feels like you are there and it is easy to put yourself into another’s shoes.

    • 13/02/2020 at 2:25

    I felt the most for the one where the Japanese Americans were looking over to the mushroom cloud after the bombing. It’s sad because their former home is being destroyed while they’re stuck.

    • 13/02/2020 at 9:17

    The piece I was most touched by was the one of internees gazing over the fence at a pink cloud and beautiful sunset. For me, it provokes a feeling of hope and peacefulness. I can tell the people are inspired by beauty being so close to where they are imprisoned, and I think it encouraged them—perhaps they believed it to be a sign that they would be freed soon. It also shows people gathered in one spot, pointing and talking, and this instills a sense of community that was most likely present in internment camps. Internment was a tragic situation for Japanese-Americans, but in a way, it also brought them closer together.

    • 13/02/2020 at 19:22

    I really liked the last piece because it shows normal people, having a normal life, despite the bad conditions that they face in the internment camps. They really tried to live life to the fullest through the racism and xenophobia, and they made it the best they could and eventually got released.

    • 14/02/2020 at 1:25

    The piece that was the most moving to me was the picture of the mushroom cloud bomb over the mountains with the men watching it. I think that it is moving because humans don’t usually experience something as massive as that and I can’t even imagine how scared, traumatized and terrified those men were seeing that bomb. I think that this image can’t convey what it could in real life because paintings are so much different than in real life especially with things so massive and frightening. The only way you can feel what those men felt is to be there.

    • 14/02/2020 at 1:26

    The piece that was the most moving to me and the one that I like the most was the picture of the mushroom cloud bomb over the mountains with the men watching it. I think that it is moving because humans don’t usually experience something as massive as that and I can’t even imagine how scared, traumatized and terrified those men were seeing that bomb. I think that this image can’t convey what it could in real life because paintings are so much different than in real life especially with things so massive and frightening. The only way you can feel what those men felt is to be there.

    • 14/02/2020 at 19:02

    I like the contrast between the picture of how Manzanar looked when they first arrived and how it looked when they left. I thought it was a good example of how people perservered through hardships. I also like how 6 out of 7 comments excluding this one have been in the last four days and the first one was in 2017.

    • 15/02/2020 at 2:13

    I thought the painting of the hawk was very moving. There seems to be some kind of coincidental symbolism; Takamura’s hawk died the same day that over 80 prisoners were released. Words would be futile to describe what we can see for ourselves: a soulful representation of a beautiful creature that will never fly again.

    • 25/02/2020 at 3:20

    My favorite painting was the one with all the men in the barrack. This is moving to me because it shows how in the barracks people had basically no space or privacy. I think this painting convey it in a way that words cannot, because you could say they have no privacy or lots of space but seeing really shows you their experience.

    • 25/02/2020 at 6:17

    For me the most moving was the picture titled “first impression of manzanar”. I liked this one because it triggers a very strong sensory response, like you can feel the humidity of the desert and smell of the dirt and the claustrophobia of how extremely overcrowded it was. I think that this photo is much more affective and moving than a written description because a written description is very straight forward and is more telling you what it was like from one perspective, whereas a picture earns a different response from every who sees it, it is like have your own interaction/ individual experience with the image.

    • 25/02/2020 at 14:48

    My favorite piece and the one that most moved me was the picture of the internee being inspected in the night by an officer. Although this picture looks happy and cheerful, this picture shows how in every way, their rights were violated. At first, I thought that the internees hadn’t thought much about the nighttime ritual, so they drew a funny picture, however, the caption told otherwise. I think that the internees did feel violated since they were scared that if they drew the picture in a serious way, they would get in trouble. This in itself was still a call to say how they felt they were being unfairly treated, even though in the picture it seems as if they didn’t care. This is why this picture moved me and was my favorite.
    ~ Saahil G.

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