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Justice Denied 

Then-and-now photos at Tucson Desert Art Museum document the horrors of the Japanese internment

click to enlarge “Mae Yanagi, May 8, 1942; Hayward, CA.,” by Dorothea Lange for the War Relocation Authority.

National Archives

“Mae Yanagi, May 8, 1942; Hayward, CA.,” by Dorothea Lange for the War Relocation Authority. 

On May 8, 1942, seven-year-old Mae Yanagi was all dressed up in her springtime finery. She was wearing a pastel plaid jacket, a print dress with a Peter Pan collar and a straw hat that curved into the air like a flying saucer. A woman wanted to take her picture and Mae, peering out from under her bangs, smiled shyly for the camera.

Mae also had a paper tag dangling from a string around her neck. So did her pregnant mother, Kinuye Yanagi, 37, who stood just behind her in the photo, and so did the rest of the Yanagi family.

Mae was too young to understand the tag's sinister meaning. In the wartime hysteria that followed the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, American citizens of Japanese descent like Mae, as well as Japanese immigrants who had long resided in the U.S., were branded as dangerous security risks, as possible spies and saboteurs. The tag signified her new status.

Mae, her mother, father, siblings and neighbors were uprooted from their home in Hayward, Calif., and ordered to report for detention—and incarceration. On the day that Mae posed for the camera, she and her family were on their way to a Japanese-American internment camp.

For three years during World War II, the U.S. operated the desolate, poorly outfitted camps, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt unabashedly called concentration camps. There were 10 in all, in remote locations around the West. Some 117,000 people were imprisoned, without benefit of judges or juries, in rough barracks that were cold in winter, hot in summer. Walls encircled the camps, and armed guards policed the perimeters.

Two-thirds of the prisoners were American citizens.

An intense and brilliant exhibition at the Tucson Desert Art Museum—timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the FDR executive order of Feb. 19 1942, that authorized the mass detentions—illuminates the experience of these prisoners. It's a timely show in more ways than one, with sinister echoes of today's racist rhetoric against Mexican immigrants and Muslims, with officials from the President on down broadly painting the former as criminals and the latter as terrorists.

Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit, Triumph over Adversity, includes reproductions of nearly 50 photos by Dorothea Lange, the distinguished photographer of the Dust Bowl refugees. Lange was hired by the feds to document the "evacuation" and "relocation" but her pictures, including the bittersweet image of little Mae, were deemed too sympathetic. The military seized the images and suppressed. Later they were deposited in the National Archives; many were rediscovered only in 2006.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Paul Kitagaki Jr., a grandson of detainees, set out to find the people in Lange's pictures, or their descendants. The beautifully composed images he made of now-elderly women and men reflecting on the sorrows of their parents are heartbreaking. He also recorded his subjects' memories, which appear on placards next to the pictures; these oral histories are valuable first-hand accounts of life in the camps and the aftermath of incarceration.

The show also includes searing documentary films that conjure up the horrors of the day. A wall display documents Arizona's two major camps, both on Indian land, one in Poston and the other along the Gila River. Still another section houses a poignant collection of watercolors and crafts created by the detainees in the camps.

Racial prejudice against the Japanese had been building for years, we learn: a 1922 law barred Japanese immigrants from becoming citizens. A follow-up law in 1924 banned all future Japanese immigrants.

When war broke out, the hatred for the Japanese exploded, and nearly all ethnic Japanese living in Washington, Oregon, California and southern Arizona were ordered to report for detention. (An "outcry" by angry Arizona residents led to an expansion of the demarcation line within the state.)

Most of the camps and "assembly centers," hastily organized, were unfit for human habitation.

Mae, now known as Mae Yanagi Ferral, told Kitagaki in 2007, that her family spent the first several months living in a horse stall, at Tanforan Racetrack, grandly renamed Tanforan Assembly Center for the occasion. From those animal quarters, the Yanagis were transferred to Topaz, an unfinished internment camp in the hot and isolated desert town of Delta, Utah.

The dust was "everywhere," Mae remembered. "Maybe four or five inches. You could not get away from it."

As a kid, Mae said, she was "too young to understand what was going on." But another child detainee, Mamoru Takeuchi, just 5 on Dec. 7, 1941, remembers the times as "very traumatic."

His father was seized from their home on Pearl Harbor Day, accused of being a spy. He would not see his wife and four small children again until 1944.

On May 9, 1942, when the rest of the family was detained, Lange shot a picture of the young Takeuchi. His mother had dressed him in a child-size U.S. Army uniform, the better, perhaps, to demonstrate their loyalty to Uncle Sam. The Takeuchis were eventually reunited at a camp in Texas, but Mamoru's mother died in the barracks without ever seeing her home again.

"It was very hard on my dad," said the now 80-year-old Takeuchi, photographed in front of his home in Santa Barbara. "How do you start a new life out of nothing? ... He lost everything because of the war happening."

After the war, detainees were released with $25 apiece to restart their lives. Takeuchi's father found work as a gardener. But he remained a "lost person," his son said, never able to recover.

More than 30 years later, an investigation during the Carter administration concluded that the internment was not about national security: it was about racism. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that apologized for the mass imprisonment.

"Here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law," Reagan said. His words echo through the museum rooms on a continuously playing video loop.

Each survivor was to receive $20,000. But as Reagan said, "no payment can make up for those lost years."

Mae would agree.

"My dad had started a successful nursery in Hayward 18 years before the war," Mae told Kitagaki. When the family was incarcerated, "he left his house and business in the care of a businessman. When we got back it had been sold. Somebody else was living there."

He had to start over as a low-paid gardener.

"He had the most difficult time with the relocation," she said. "For many years he was very angry. My father felt the injustice ..."

Mae is an old woman in the follow-up photo. Kitagaki has deftly posed her in a lush California landscape, thick with trees and plants, a reminder of the livelihood—and everything else—that her family lost.

More by Margaret Regan

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