Alphawood Gallery used to be a bank. For its latest exhibition, focusing on Japanese Americans incarcerated in U.S. camps during World War II, Alphawood curators placed a video of former Chicagoan inmates in front of the old bank vault, bars and all. The effect is striking: A familiar gallery in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood has become a jail.
“Then They Came For Me” marks the 75th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the "internment" of all people on the West Coast thought to be a threat to national security. Nearly 120,000 people of Japanese descent were “evacuated to and confined in isolated, fenced, and guarded relocation centers,” according to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
The anniversary was a convenient peg for the show, but there is something much more substantial in the timing, Anthony Hirschel, director of exhibitions at the gallery and former director of the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, said.
“The more important reason was because of the way this story informs the conversations that are going on today about how we treat people whom we think of as looking like the enemy — people we think might not be able to assimilate into American culture,” Hirschel said. “That really plays upon exactly the same kind of racism and fear that eventually resulted in incarcerating [those with] Japanese ancestry during World War II.”
The photos in the exhibition, which closes Nov. 19, display that hatred in stark detail. In one picture — by renowned photographer Dorothea Lange, dated May 8, 1942 — the Mochida family has painted its name and identifying symbol on each of its bags so the children can track their belongings. “Dad was never the same,” Kayoko, a family member shown in the photograph, said, as quoted in the exhibit. “His confidence was really shaken. He could not provide for his family.”
Looking at Lange’s photograph, it’s striking to note both family and luggage are covered in labels. “This family, all with their tags … the bags have the tags, they have the tags,” Hirschel said. There could hardly be a better illustration of people being treated like things.
From Camps to Chicago
The full story of what happened in the camps is little known, Greg Robinson, a history professor at Université du Québec à Montréal and author of the book By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans, said. But it's clear that at a time of war, Americans got scared.
“The camps built on existing racial fears and stereotypes about ethnic Japanese as fanatical for the emperor and not ‘real’ Americans,” Robinson said. “I think most Americans, at least outside the West Coast, knew and cared little about the camps. They figured that if the government was acting to control them, the authorities must know what they were doing.”
Nearly 80,000 of the 120,000 people in the camps were U.S. citizens, suggesting racial profiling played a role along with suspicions around immigration and national loyalty.
“Their children and grandchildren were guilty only of being of Japanese ancestry,” Hirschel said.
“We all learn very little of this. Our government did this.”
Chicago is a meaningful city in which to explore this history in an exhibition. According to Hirschel, before the war, 400 people of Japanese ancestry lived in the city — after the war, that number swelled to 20,000.
“Places in the Midwest were actually advertising in the camps,” Hirschel said. “‘We have jobs for you. Come here.’”
Hirschel credits this massive hiring push to the contradictions of nationalism and economics.
“On the one hand, [the government said] ‘People are dangerous and can’t be allowed to live on the West Coast and they have to be removed from their homes, their businesses, their farms, and they have to be moved to these camps,’” Hirschel said. “And then the government, recognizing that the vast majority — essentially all of them — were no threat, said, ‘Well, OK. It’s a burden to have them in these camps. It’s a waste of everybody’s time and money. We should encourage them.”
Those who could get into college received scholarships to leave the camps. And those who landed jobs could accept. If job applicants could line up jobs for their families, too, the whole family was allowed to leave.
Contradictions in Confinement
Exhibition viewers who spend some time absorbing the videos, photos, and other artifacts included in "Then They Came For Me" will come away with an understanding of the contradictions present in the camps.
“I think that one thing that might surprise people is how productive [those incarcerated] were,” Robinson said. “People planted vegetables and grew enough to feed themselves. They used the things around them to create art. Some people even built private gardens and fish ponds.” (The exhibit has a section on “Art in the camps.”)
At communal mess halls, families couldn’t eat together, and teens tended to run off and spend time with one another. Often, it was only the oldest sibling who felt responsibility to the parents, Hirschel said, and grandparents — who were the likeliest to think that the camps were like death camps — were the immigrants who felt they had lost the most.
“They lost their traditional authority. They lost what they had built up in this country. And they had not been allowed to become citizens, so they were ‘enemy aliens,’” Hirschel said. “Everything that had mattered to them had been taken away.” Some of that older generation never recovered.
And then there was the propaganda. Dorothea Lange was one of the artists employed by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to ensure good press for the camps and reassure Americans of the effort's morality, as was Clem Albers, whose photo dated April 1942 shows Akira Toya and his mother Aki in a camp. Though their accommodations look rustic and homey, the photo is misleading — spiders, mice, and rats infested camps, and the smells could be horrible.
“It looks not so bad,” Hirschel said. “But in reality, this is probably one of the newly-constructed barracks.” What looks like a cabin “is absolutely high end. It has a Potemkin village quality,” he says.
A March 13, 1942, photo by Lange shows an enormous “I am an American” sign hanging in the window of the Wanto Company grocery store. Tatsuro Masuda, who owned the store, commissioned the sign the day after Pearl Harbor, anticipating a backlash against Japanese Americans.
Yet, according to the exhibit's text, “Tatsuro and his wife never returned to the store after their incarceration.” And some of the works in the exhibit show what sanitized propaganda imagery does not: guard towers, barbed wire fences, pain, and isolation.
Lange would later have a nervous breakdown and leave the WRA program. “Pretty rapidly, her sympathy went to her subjects, far more than to the government’s mission of telling a happy story about what was going on,” Hirschel said.
Walking through the show, viewers can be forgiven for having breakdowns themselves. Here a magazine offers advice on “How to tell Japs from the Chinese” (recalling Nazi phrenology); elsewhere, a “Jap hunting license” is dated Dec. 7, 1941, and calls for an “open season” on all Japanese people, “and that no limit has been set for their extermination.” A postcard declares, “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched, so a Japanese-American born of Japanese parents grows up to be a Japanese. Not an American.”
But nowhere, perhaps, was a gap more pronounced than between Lange’s approach and that of another prominent photographer whose photographs appear in the show: Ansel Adams.
Adams, who wasn’t part of the WRA, was a close friend of the commander of the Manzanar camp. Adams “felt that the people in these camps demonstrated great dignity, and he took beautiful photographs,” Hirschel said. He exhibited that work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1944.
“Dorothea wrote to him to say, ‘We have to stop this. Our photos can do the job.’ Ansel Adams said, ‘No,’” Hirschel said. “He wanted to use his photographs for his exhibition at MOMA.”
The MOMA show led to criticism of both Adams and the museum for being too sympathetic to the people of Japanese ancestry. Later, Adams was criticized for taking photos that were too pretty, rather than showing the reality of the camps.
“Throughout his life, he maintained this was the most important work he ever did,” Hirschel said. “But he got it from both sides.”
One of Adam’s photos in the Alphawood exhibit shows half a dozen children standing outside a church. A priest stands in the doorway and several nuns mill about. A large white cross looks down from atop the church, and all the people are smiling. But like every other facet of identity in the camps, religion was not simple. While the camps encouraged the practice of Buddhism and Christianity, they prohibited the use of Japanese in religious services, and the Japanese state religion of Shinto was banned. The government’s fear, according to the wall note, was that Shinto’s “reverence for the Japanese emperor would encourage disloyalty.”
Adams didn’t suggest it in the image, but this church in this camp recalls the one in the Garden of Love of William Blake’s poem — the chapel with “'Thou shalt not.' writ over the door.”