A Photographer's Quest: Japanese-American Internment Then and Now

Mary Ann Yahiro, center, recites the Pledge of Allegiance at Raphael Weill School in San Francisco in 1942 before being sent to Topaz internment camp in Utah. (Dorothea Lange/National Archives and Records Administration)

Photojournalist Paul Kitagaki Jr. is trying to keep history alive.

It's been harder than he ever imagined.

His exhibition at the California Museum in Sacramento reflects a decade of work. It explores the World War II internment of 120,000 people of Japanese descent -- two-thirds of them U.S. citizens -- months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. But it doesn't just look at the past: Historic photos by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams and others are juxtaposed with contemporary images of the same people, taken by Kitagaki.

"A lot of them right now are in their 80s and 90s," he says. "And soon they’ll be gone, and the stories will be lost forever."

Paul Kitagaki Jr and his daughter, Naomi Kitagaki, at his exhibition at the California Museum in Sacramento.
Paul Kitagaki Jr. and his daughter, Naomi Kitagaki, at his exhibition at the California Museum in Sacramento. (Patricia Yollin/KQED)

There are 30 sets of then-and-now photographs in the exhibition. At a reception in the museum, several of Kitagaki's subjects are taking it all in, looking at their past and present selves.

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'It Was Just Bare Nothing'

Mitsuo "Mits" Mori gazes at a photograph shot by Carl Mydans at the Tule Lake Segregation Center. It ran in the February 1944 issue of Life Magazine. It's next to one taken by Kitagaki in 2012.

"There I'm in the barbershop getting a haircut," Mori says. "But here I am with no hair anymore."

He was 9 -- a San Francisco kid whose parents were forced to sell their South of Market dry-cleaning business for $450 when they were hauled off to an internment camp. He's 80 now, a retired architect who lives near San Francisco State. He still remembers when he and his family arrived at Tule Lake.

Mitsuo 'Mits' Mori stands next to a 2012 portrait of him by Paul Kitagaki Jr. and one by Carl Mydans in 1944 in the Tule Lake barbershop.
Mitsuo 'Mits' Mori stands next to a 2012 portrait of him by Paul Kitagaki Jr. and one by Carl Mydans in 1944 in the Tule Lake barbershop. (Patricia Yollin/KQED)

"When they walked into that room, it was just bare nothing," Mori says. "A mattress and a cot bed and a potbelly stove. And that was it -- that's all they had. My father, my mom, myself, my sister and my uncle lived in that space for two years."

The people in the photographs are the personification of gambatte, a Japanese word that means "don't give up, do your best." It inspired the name of the exhibition: "Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit."

"It speaks to the spirit of (those) who were incarcerated during World War II," says Kitagaki, who is a photographer with the Sacramento Bee. "And it’s how, from their inner spirit, they did not let anything hold them back, and they persevered and moved beyond the internment."

'So Many Nameless People'

Kitagaki has persevered, too. Remarkably, he had never heard of the internment until he was a teenager.

"My family didn’t talk about their experience being interned," says Kitagaki, a Bay Area native who is almost 61. "I really didn’t find out until I learned in a high school class in 1970 when I was 16. And then I went home and basically asked my parents: What was going on? What happened? Why didn’t you talk about this?"

Almost a decade later, he got another big surprise: His uncle mentioned that Lange -- a famed documentary photographer -- had taken a picture of Kitagaki's grandparents, father and aunt in Oakland, waiting for a bus that would bring them to an assembly center at Tanforan Racetrack, where the San Bruno BART Station now stands.

In 1984, Kitagaki visited the National Archives in Washington and went through boxes and boxes of photographs taken by Lange for the War Relocation Authority. Finally, he found the one she'd shot of his family.

"There (were) so many faces ... looking up at me when I was flipping through the pictures," he says. "And there were so many nameless people. And I really wanted to find out what happened to their lives."

In 2005, his quest began. He was determined to locate the people in the historic photos and photograph them again, often where the original image had been taken. He went to Japanese churches, summer bazaars and other gatherings where someone might recognize their pictures. His first subjects were his father and aunt, at the same building in Oakland where Lange had encountered them.

"It's one of the most challenging projects of my career," Kitagaki says. "I'm working with pictures that are more than 70 years old. There's barely any caption information, and almost no names. It's quite challenging to put a name with the person, and then try to track them down and see if they're alive. The other challenge is that they're Japanese, and they like to hold their emotions inside."

It wasn't easy to get people to agree to be photographed -- and also to be interviewed at length.

"They thought I was going to come in and snap a picture and be out of their hair in a second," Kitagaki says. "Instead, I was using a 4x5 camera and black-and-white film, and my setups were taking longer than they thought. It might be an hour to figure out a location and have them stand for a picture."

He says some of his subjects became very emotional.

"It did bring back memories," says Gladys Matsumoto Katsuki, 88, of Sacramento. "I still wonder why all of this happened to us."

Of course it happened to German-Americans and Italian-Americans, too, to a much lesser extent. And it could happen again to other groups, say some internees, who are acutely mindful of how civil rights have been violated in the years since 9/11.

Leaving Everything Behind

In 1943, Ansel Adams ran across the 15-year-old Katsuki in Manzanar as she was walking home from school with two other girls. Her parents were farmers in Elk Grove on Feb. 19, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment.

"When we left, the strawberries were red, ripe," she says. "And we had to leave everything behind. ... It was devastating because they worked so hard to get this property – and then to have it taken away from you. When we came back, it was all gone."

She looks again at Adams' Manzanar photo. It was lunchtime, she says, and she was the one in the middle. There were often sudden winds and lots of sand, which would gust around and matte her hair.

"I have two kids," she says. "I've told them about what we went through, but they can't seem to visualize it. They just say, 'Why?' "

Gladys Matsumoto Katsuki stands in front of a 1943 Manzanar photo by Ansel Adams, top left, where she's in the middle. To its right is her portrait by Paul Kitagaki Jr. in 2012.
Gladys Matsumoto Katsuki stands in front of a 1943 Manzanar photo by Ansel Adams, top left, where she's in the middle. To its right is her portrait by Paul Kitagaki Jr. in 2012. (Patricia Yollin/KQED)

Willie Hayashida’s wartime portrait was also shot at Manzanar by Ansel Adams. He’s 3 years old in the picture, eating a meal in a mess hall with another young boy.

At the museum, he laughs at the sight of the full plates of food.

"It's been propped up," he says. "Normally, we won't get this much food for little kids."

'A Loss of Innocence'

Hayashida grew up to be an engineer at Intel. Now he's 74. Like Kitagaki, he recalls how reluctant his family was to talk about what had happened.

When he bought his mother a computer to write her autobiography, her account of the internment took up just a few sentences. "I said, 'Mom, there's more than that. We were there for 3½ years. There's more than that.' "

For a long time, he tried to find Takashi Uchida, the other boy in the mess-hall photograph. It turned out that Uchida had suffered a stroke and was in a nursing home in Las Vegas. Hayashida paid a visit and presented him with a gift: a  custom-made T-shirt with the Ansel Adams photo of the two of them at Manzanar.

Another retired engineer, 81-year-old Andrew Nozaka of Saratoga, was almost 9 when he and his family were incarcerated. He still remembers the route the bus took, going past his house on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley on its way to San Bruno. That's where Lange saw them, standing in front of the grandstand. His mother, in Lange's photograph, is asking for help finding their barracks. He's holding her purse and a metal mess kit.

"That day was a loss of innocence," Nozaka says, as he stares at the photo.

Andrew Nozaka visits the California Museum in Sacramento. He's next to a photo of him and his mother taken by Dorothea Lange at Tanforan in 1942.
Andrew Nozaka visits the California Museum in Sacramento. He's next to a photo of him and his mother taken by Dorothea Lange at Tanforan in 1942. (Patricia Yollin/KQED)

He remembers canned string beans, boiled potatoes, canned Vienna sausages and outbreaks of diarrhea at camp. Postwar life was also a struggle. He especially dreaded going to school on Dec. 7, the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing.

"Man, that was hard, especially during the '50s," says Nozaka.

His eyes scan other photographs on the wall. Topaz, Poston, Heart Mountain, Tule Lake -- some of the camp names that live in infamy for the people incarcerated during the war.

"We were kind of the silent generation," Nozaka says. "We were told to study hard and achieve. Looking back on it, maybe we should have protested a hell of a lot more."

Kitagaki's exhibition eventually will include audio and video, and he wants to produce a book. Meanwhile, he's looking for more people. He has interviewed and photographed 31 so far, with seven more lined up. He's hoping for 50 total.

Pictures of people he's searching for can be found on his website, along with some sets of then-and-now photos. If you know who they are, just email him at paul@kitagakiphoto.com.

The California Museum exhibition runs through May 3.  Twenty-one of the photos will then be on display at the Viewpoint Photographic Art Center in Sacramento from May 7 to June 7.

One of Lange's best-known photographs shows two little girls saying the Pledge of Allegiance at Raphael Weill School in San Francisco in 1942. One of those girls, Mary Ann Yahiro, is 80 now and lives in Illinois. Three years ago, I interviewed her by phone for a story I was doing on Kitagaki's earlier exhibition, now permanent, at the San Bruno BART Station.

Yahiro was interned at Topaz, where she was separated from her mother and didn't see her again until she was lying in a casket, after dying in camp at age 51. In 2007, Yahiro and her classmate returned to their old school, now Rosa Parks Elementary, to be photographed by Kitagaki. Even then, he had a sense of urgency in finding more people.

"He's got to hurry," said Yahiro. "Everybody's getting old."

Mary Ann Yahiro, right, and Helene Nakamoto return in 2007 to what used to be Raphael Weill School in San Francisco, 65 years after Dorothea Lange took their picture.
Mary Ann Yahiro, right, and Helene Nakamoto return in 2007 to what used to be Raphael Weill School in San Francisco, 65 years after Dorothea Lange took their picture. (Photo by Paul Kitagaki Jr.)

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