Day of Remembrance: Japanese Angelenos at Manzanar

NHM collections recount the unjust WWII internment of Japanese Angelenos through historic photographs and luggage packed for an uncertain future.

Barbara Carrasco mural detail Japanese Americans WWII
A portion of a mural by Los Angeles artist Barbara Carrasco which illustrates the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. See the full mural in this virtual gallery: L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective.

In NHM's Becoming Los Angeles exhibition, visitors can see suitcases that Japanese-American families in Los Angeles brought with them to internment camps. 

The trunks were donated by Frances (Ban) Hiraoka, daughter of Reverend Takeshi S. Ban, to include the impact of World War II on Japanese Angelenos in Becoming Los Angeles. The collection of trunks confronts visitors with something familiar– packed luggage – to make forced relocation more of an understandable reality. What possessions would you bring knowing you might never see home or the rest of your belongings again? The luggage emotionally anchors the story of Japanese Angelenos forcibly removed from their homes and relocated against their will without trial or charges.

Suitcases in Becoming Los Angeles

A display case in Becoming Los Angeles. Fred Asaichi Hiraoka used the green trunk on the right when he was incarcerated at Manzanar. Fred met his future wife Frances Ban, who owned the large trunk at the back, on the train leaving Manzanar. The metal trunk on the right belonged to Fred Asaichi Hiraoka, and the Early Steamer trunk in the back belonged to Frances Y. (Ban) Hiraoka.

Suitcases in Becoming Los Angeles view 2

Jenn Berger

Unevenly cut strips of wood and metal, mismatching hinges and bottlecap feet suggest that Takeshi S. Ban fashioned the smaller of the two green trunks while he was incarcerated in a concentration camp using whatever material he could get his hands on.

Japanese Internment Reverend Takeshi S. Ban portrait

The two trunks in the previous image, labeled T.S.B., belonged to Reverend Takeshi S. Ban—(1884-1956)—pictured here with his wife. He was a leader in Los Angeles's Japanese-American community.

Yuki Llewellyn, waiting with luggage Japanese Internment

Yuki Llewellyn, a Japanese-American child in Los Angeles, going to an internment camp in the Owens Valley during World War II. This photograph, and historical artifacts related to the Japanese internment, are on view in NHM's Becoming Los Angeles exhibition.

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A display case in Becoming Los Angeles. Fred Asaichi Hiraoka used the green trunk on the right when he was incarcerated at Manzanar. Fred met his future wife Frances Ban, who owned the large trunk at the back, on the train leaving Manzanar. The metal trunk on the right belonged to Fred Asaichi Hiraoka, and the Early Steamer trunk in the back belonged to Frances Y. (Ban) Hiraoka.

Unevenly cut strips of wood and metal, mismatching hinges and bottlecap feet suggest that Takeshi S. Ban fashioned the smaller of the two green trunks while he was incarcerated in a concentration camp using whatever material he could get his hands on.

Jenn Berger

The two trunks in the previous image, labeled T.S.B., belonged to Reverend Takeshi S. Ban—(1884-1956)—pictured here with his wife. He was a leader in Los Angeles's Japanese-American community.

Yuki Llewellyn, a Japanese-American child in Los Angeles, going to an internment camp in the Owens Valley during World War II. This photograph, and historical artifacts related to the Japanese internment, are on view in NHM's Becoming Los Angeles exhibition.

The simple truth is the camp was no more ready for us when we got there than we were ready for it. We had only the dimmest ideas of what to expect.

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment

 

The black-and-white photographs below from the Seaver Center for Western History Research at NHM capture moments both disturbing and heartwarming, showcasing the ease with which a democratic society turned on its citizens and the resiliency of the people so wronged by their government. 

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, and the United States government forcibly removed more than 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes along the West Coast in Oregon, Washington, and California, in a shameful cowing to racist hysteria surrounding World War II. Japanese Angelenos were incarcerated in Manzanar and other concentration camps like Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Rohwer in Arkansas, and Poston in Arizona.

Farewell sign from Manzanar: Story of a Concentration Camp
Farewell sign taped in drugstore window from Mr. & Mrs. K. Iseri, at beginning of internment (Manzanar). Colgate toothpaste and bottles with Japanese labels are in the window below. The sign reads, " Many thanks for your patronage. Hope to serve you in near future. God be with you till we meet again. Mr. and Mrs. K. Iseri" - Exhibit photo from Manzanar: Story of a Concentration Camp, 1971. 
Seaver Center for Western History Research

NHM's 1971 exhibition Manzanar: Story of a Concentration Camp explored the internment camp through photographs by L.A. photographer and internee Toyo Miyatake, including the black-and-white photos above and below. Miyatake was able to hide a lens in his pocket, slipping it past guards. He went on to construct the rest of his camera from materials found at the internment camp. 

Manzanar reception center
A soldier stationed at the reception center for the Manzanar internment camp beneath an American flag. Exhibit photo from Manzanar: Story of a Concentration Camp, 1971.
Seaver Center for Western History Research

An ally smuggled in film, letting Miyatake capture life in Manzanar for posterity. More than half the photographs used in the exhibition were Mr. Miyatake's. 

Manzanar internment camp mountains in the background
Supplies and construction at the Manzanar internment camp. Automobiles, boxes and bags of supplies are lined up in an open dirt area, while the buildings behind are under construction and the Sierra Nevada Mountains are in the distance Exhibit photo from Manzanar: Story of a Concentration Camp, 1971.
Seaver Center for Western History Research

While his photography in Manzanar began in secret, Miyatake would go on to talk his way into becoming the internment camp's official photographer, letting him photograph Japanese Americans who'd volunteered to fight in the war before leaving for service and commemorate momentous occasions, like weddings. Photography was still initially not allowed by internees, so Miyatake would frame the shot, arrange the subjects, and set up the camera, but a white person would have to push the button.

Manzanar mail delivery
Manzanar mail delivery: a Japanese woman and man stand in front of a building, holding letters. A list of the building's residents is nailed to the wall. Exhibit photo from Manzanar: Story of a Concentration Camp, 1971.
Seaver Center for Western History Research

After the war, Miyatake reopened his Los Angeles studio in Little Tokyo, working alongside all of his children who have kept the studio running since his death in 1979. The studio operates to this day, run by Miyatake's grandson at a new location in San Gabriel, California. 

Manzanar internment camp greenhouse
Two gardeners with seedlings in the Manzanar internment camp greenhouse. Exhibit photo from Manzanar: Story of a Concentration Camp, 1971.
Seaver Center for Western History Research

The forced evacuations forever altered the landscape of farming in California, where Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans had a tremendous presence, making up, for example,  almost 80% of all strawberry farming within L.A. before the war.  In the Fall 1971 issue of NHM's magazine Terra, then History Curator William Mason wrote about Miyatake's photographs. Touching on horticulture within Manzanar and the cruel absurdity of the camps, Mason wrote: "The Issei, or Japan-born oldsters, had their moments of satisfaction, too. They were able to grow guayule plants from mere seedlings into mature plants in a fraction of the time estimated by the government. They did so by caring for the plants in a nursery where each plant received much attention and intensive work. The product of their work was the production of synthetic rubber, badly needed by the U.S. during World War II. It is ironic that these men worked so hard for a country which would not permit them to become citizens."

Manzanar - women with lumber in front of a tar papered cabin
Three women with lumber in front of a tar-papered cabin. They appear to be clearing cut scrap lumber out of the building. Exhibit photo from Manzanar: Story of a Concentration Camp, 1971.
Seaver Center for Western History Research

The first of ten internment camps ultimately constructed to house Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals, Manzanar was erected in the shadow of the High Sierras between the towns of Independence and Lone Pine, the largest "town" in Inyo County during its existence. 

Manzanar internment camp baseball game
A crowd surrounds a baseball game on an open dirt field in the Manzanar internment camp. Exhibit photo from Manzanar: Story of a Concentration Camp, 1971.
Seaver Center for Western History Research

Citing the above photo, Mason wrote: "One outlet for much of Manzanar's population was baseball. Enjoyed by young and old alike, it was one of the events which helped to relieve the boredom of incarceration. This was the great problem for many people who were accustomed to working hard and who had often been self-employed. There was not enough to do, and time went slowly. In that respect, Manzanar was like any other concentration camp." 

    Manzanar internment camp street & relocation buildings
Manzanar internment camp street and relocation buildings. Construction or packaging boxes at right, mountains in distance. Exhibit photo from Manzanar: Story of a Concentration Camp, 1971.
Seaver Center for Western History Research

The reason I want to remember this is because I know we'll never be able to do it again.

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment

Los Angeles County, along with the state of California, communities across the country observe a Day of Remembrance on February 19th, the date of Executive Order 9066. Learn more about Manzanar at the National Park Service website and dig deeper into the incredible photographic history of Los Angeles and more at NHM's Seaver Center for Western History Research.