Trove of Japanese internment photos prompt search for surviving elders
on October 15, 2015
During his years of internment at Heart Mountain, Jimi Yamaichi mastered living in a frozen world. He insulated his barrack with ice. He substituted cold cow dung for cement. He grew summer vegetables in below-zero temperatures. He stood perfectly still when guards at the Heart Mountain War Relocation Camp ordered him to pack his belongings and prepare to be transferred to Tule Lake War Relocation Center. At least, he thought, it would be warmer. “I kept my street clothes on when I went to bed because I only had two blankets,” Yamaichi said as he shuffled slowly to the Heart Mountain photo albums displayed in the Japanese American Museum of San Jose. At 93 years old, Yamaichi still remembers the camp like it was yesterday. “It was cold and miserable,” he said.
During World War II, Yamaichi was one of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans placed in internment camps, also known as a war relocation camps. Internment camps in the U.S. were government-funded civilian holding spaces created to supervise populations that were considered a security threat. Many Americans feared that Japanese Americans were working undercover for the Japanese government. Much of the propaganda at the time was racially charged, and so the vast majority of citizens interned were Japanese American, even though the U.S. was simultaneously at war with European countries. Yamaichi and his family, who lived in Pomona at the time, were sent to Heart Mountain in 1942 right after then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forced many Japanese Americans, especially on the West Coast, to evacuate their homes and relocate to barb wire-fenced camps.
Patti Hirahara of Anaheim, California, a fourth-generation Japanese American, found her father and her grandfather’s collection of over 2,000 photos they took during their time at Heart Mountain in 1992 and 2011. Since then, she has displayed these photos at the San Francisco Films of Remembrance this year. Her goal is to find as many ex-internees and their family members as she can and have them identify people in the photos.
Now, the collection is on display at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose.
Hirahara is hoping to find residents from Oakland, San Jose, and any other Bay Area cities with Japanese American residents who might recognize friends and family in the photographs.
Hirahara has had no luck so far in finding former internees from the Oakland/Alameda area, so she hopes their descendants can identify people. Japanese Americans only make up 0.53 percent of Oakland residents, making the chances of living ex-internees in the city sparse. Still, Hirahara believes there’s time for anyone, including Oaklanders, to find someone they know in her collection. “This is the last leg of a five year endeavor before I close everything up,” she said. “I’ve found that one visitor did identify two photos so far.” The visitor was a resident of San Jose.
Michael Sera, a docent at the museum, said he is not surprised that he has yet to see Oaklanders identify anyone. “A lot of folks were probably in the Santa Clara Valley, a lot of Japanese farming was down here, so you’re going to have a minority in the outskirts,” Sera said as he spread out a glossy map of San Jose’s Japantown. “There were more than 50 Japantowns at one time. Now there’s only three, one in here in San Jose.” The other remaining Japantowns are in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The one in Los Angeles is usually referred to as “Little Tokyo.”
Hirahara’s project has resulted in an Emmy award-winning documentary, The Legacy of Heart Mountain, and multiple presentations across the country including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and at Washington State University where an unprecedented campus wide look into the incarceration was done during the Fall semester in 2014. “I’ve been an advocate for promoting the Japanese American legacy. It’s a unique perspective from my family’s viewpoint,” Hirahara said in a phone interview. Being an only child growing up and when her father passed away in 2006, she wanted to share her family’s heritage and stories with others. By sharing her father’s family’s photos, she said, she knew their history and that of other internees could help Japanese Americans reclaim their past. “It’s been a long labor of love, but one that’s been able to have other Japanese Americans have an opportunity to own their own history,” Hirahara said.
The photos are located in three large photo albums at the front of the museum. All the photos come with a special form that anyone can fill out if they identify someone. While these albums don’t include images of Hirahara’s father, Frank, nor her grandfather, George—they were usually the ones behind the lens—they do show pictures of daily life from the camp. The men caught scenes of a land barren of vegetation, the earth dusty and crumbling. They captured the dimness of the barracks, the poses of giddy young children, and the expressions of uncertainty of the adults who held those kids.
And among them, Jimi Yamaichi found members of his own family. “This is my cousin, John Araki,” Yamaichi said as he stopped on a grainy photo in the album. “He was at Heart Mountain all the way through the time we were interned.” The plastic covering on the pages made crinkling noises as Yamaichi flipped through photos of the imprisoned: a young girl in pigtails standing on a dirt road, a baby on a blanket looking out of frame, its hands clenched, a high school dance with teenagers holding one another at arm’s length—snapshots of the ordinary in a difficult situation.
Yamaichi could not identify anyone else, but he recalled the buildings the photos were taken in and he remembered the moments he spent in them. “The [interned] community got together to help each other out as much as we could: to find work in the camps, to find housing,” he said as he closed the albums and made his way toward a large panoramic photograph of the Heart Mountain barracks. “It was not good, but at least we had each other.”
Hirahara’s photo collection will be on display at the museum until October 23, 2015 (http://www.jamsj.org/jamsj-news-item/2015/7/upcoming/1/help-identify-heart-mountain-photos/). If you were interned at Heart Mountain or are a family member or friend of a former internee, you may be able to identify people in the collection. The museum is open Wednesday thru Sunday from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
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