Friday, September 16, 2011


Families were allowed to take only what they could carry.
During the winter of 1942, in the first months of the war with Japan, the US government incarcerated more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry—two-thirds of them American citizens—in internment camps supervised by the Army.  In a chilling and grotesque parallel to what was happening to Jews in Germany, the media and government deliberately manufactured mass hysteria with demeaning propaganda and grotesque racial stereotypes (The LA Times used the conceit of "viper" to describe the lurking threat of ancestral ties: "A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched — so a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents — grows up to be Japanese, not an American.")

Tanforan horse stalls converted into housing.
The unspeakable conditions they encountered included wretched food (Western, of course), common toilets with no privacy, extended families in one room (or horse stall as in the infamous Tanforan, a former racetrack), no grass or trees, rats, mice, and fleas, extremes of heat and cold, forced labor, fake executions, and having to walk through a gauntlet of soldiers who pointed bayonets at them. As well as the trauma and persecution, they experienced billions of dollars in losses from thriving businesses and had to sell their possessions for pennies on the dollar.

One-half of a unit that housed an extended family.
Dorothea Lange was hired to photograph the process of moving the Japanese Americans to the camps. However, she was forbidden to speak to detainees or to take photos of guards, watchtowers, or barbed wire, and she experienced constant and arbitrary interference from camp commanders. Upon receipt of her 800 images, the government promptly hid them from view in the National Archives where they remained unseen until several years ago. Many of them—including those on this page—appear in Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment. I highly recommend it.
A grandfather teaches his grandson to walk.


  1. I was riveted by your blog. This is something you don't hear about it, "America's dirty secret" perhaps.

  2. Yes, you're right. I had known about it, but the documentation took the horror to an entire new level.

  3. Palm Springs BoricuaSeptember 16, 2011 at 9:20 PM

    Being an aficionada of Dorethea Lange's work, I purchased "Impounded." It's a stunning visualization of the human spirit @ its best while being buffeted by government-sanctioned nightmare, case in point, Executive Order 9066. AMERICANS of Japanese descent -- I include Isseis & Nisseis -- were deprived of their rights to liberty, property & lifestyles, yet stove to make the best of these situations and conditions forced upon them through no fault of their own other than the accident of birth. Ms Lange's photographs speak for themselves, and ironically, no better tribute be made to the Bill of Rights in that the US Government did'nt confiscate or destroy these historic photographs. For all it's warts & moles, it's a wonderful country in which to live in and call it home.

  4. It is heartening to hear the revulsion expressed by viewers in this peaceful time, and I am glad such documentation exists. But it must be pointed out that the Japanese were inflicting far greater horrors upon the peoples of China and Korea back then, without leaving photographic evidence behind. This is not to defend the actions portrayed here, but to warn against making moral judgements from a distant time, a different world.