Even J. Edgar Hoover thought it was a terrible idea: In 1942, he told United Press that by locking up 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans, America was depriving the war effort of productive workers and wasting valuable manpower by keeping them under guard.
But even the FBI’s near-omnipotent czar couldn’t dissuade FDR from issuing Executive Order 9066, one of America’s most dastardly deeds. Roosevelt had a lot of support, particularly from a hysterical west coast white population which, after Pearl Harbor, fantasized about Japan’s troops hitting the beaches from Oceanside to Half Moon Bay, with disloyal Japanese-Americans blowing up bridges and sabotaging factories to help them on their way. Even California’s liberal Governor Earl Warren — who later, as Chief Justice, ruled for school integration — was carried away by the hysteria. The military commander of the West Coast put it succinctly: “A Jap is a Jap.”
The result was, in early 1942, that tens of thousands of loyal Americans who happened to be of Japanese descent were taken from their homes, farms and businesses and sent away to spend the war in improvised “relocation” camps in various desolate inland areas in the Western states, under heavy guard by U.S. Army military police. Many were held until 13 months after the war was over.
The Skirball Center is hosting an exhibit that deeply probes this miserable episode in our national history.
Billed as “Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams,” the show is actually far more comprehensive than its title implies. It includes artifacts and works of art created by the camp dwellers, camp-produced newspapers and magazines, public documents, and notices intended for the inmates — all of them depicting both the hard lives lived in the camps and the bold social culture their exiled people created — including schools, libraries, sports teams, all uniting American and Japanese traditions. There seems even to have been an informal American Legion post.
The show includes work from Manzanar by Ansel Adams and by another great American photographer, Dorothea Lange, whose bleak vision of camp life caused her work to be suppressed until the war ended. Lange and Adams share space with a lesser-known photographer, Toyo Miyatake, a camp inmate who, working with a home-made camera, left us what is probably the most complete photographic record of one of the most deplorable times and places in U.S. history.
But there is another, even more arresting record of the Relocation that has its own gallery at the show at the Skirball. That’s Mine Okubo’s “Citizen 13660.” Okubo, a brilliant young artist who worked with Diego Rivera and studied with Fernand Leger, was interned with her brother in April 1942 as she was working on murals for an Army installation in Oakland. The siblings ended up in the Topaz camp in Utah, where Okubo did around 2,000 sketches and paintings of the relocation life in the middle of a hostile alkali desert.
Two hundred of the sketches appear in her 1946 book “Citizen 13660.” It’s all there — the distress and disorganization of the forced evacuations; the tumultuous arrivals at their terrible and filthy accommodations, which the exiles set to work rehabilitating; the high morale broken by occasional outbreaks of sheer despair; the constant battle with bureaucracy and its irrational laws; the struggle to normalize their existence as much as possible. There are celebrations of Easter and Buddha’s birthday. There is even a 150-student High School graduation, complete with rented robes and mortarboards. There are dances and picnics, scenes of people busy in laundries and kitchens.
It’s a day-by-day account, done with much subtle humor and not a trace of bitterness. It’s no wonder it’s been in print for almost 70 years. The Skirball exhibit shows many of the illustrations and selections from Okubo’s later work, but one of her quotes underlines the importance — particularly now — of her 1946 accomplishment:
"I am a realist with a creative mind," she said. "I hope that things can be learned from this tragic episode, for I believe it could happen again."
"Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams" is at the Skirball center through Feb. 21, 2016. Listen to the audio to hear Mark Pampanin's interview with Skirball assistant curator Linde Lehtinen.