Inspired by the accounts of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II, photographer Andy Frazer now shares their stories through profiles on his Website, Kioku: Portraits of Japanese-American Internment. Kioku means remembrance in Japanese.
Frazer interviews the former inmates and shoots black-and-white images that he then displays online at www.gorillasites.com/kioku/default.htm.
“The original goal was to photograph Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II and who currently live in the South Bay area,” he said.
Frazer, who works in the software industry, photographs his subjects with the same arrangement used by American portrait photographer Richard Avedon: in natural light under open shade and against a solid white background.
Frazer started the project after photographing the Day of Remembrance event in San Jose’s Japantown in 2006. The event is designed to remember the incarceration of persons of Japanese descent during World War II.
Frazer had known Will Kaku, of the board of directors of the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee (the organization that hosts the San Jose Day of Remembrance), for years, having both worked at the same company in San Jose. The Committee needed a photographer, and Frazer offered his services. Frazer subsequently developed the idea for the Kioku Project.
What follows is a condensed and edited version of the Nichi Bei Weekly’s e-mail interview with Frazer.
Nichi Bei Weekly: How did your involvement in the Day of Remembrance event influence your decision to undertake the Kioku Project? Were there other factors that also influenced you to begin the project?
Andy Frazer: When I look back on why I started the Kioku Project, it seems that a whole set of factors all came together at the right time. For the past 10 years my primary photographic interest was night photography. I photographed abandoned buildings and empty landscapes at night under a full moon. The photographs can be very surreal, but the process is slow and lonely. I love that, but I was also looking for some sort of portrait project that I could do during the daytime, and would let me connect with people … After my wife and I attended the Day of Remembrance ceremony in San Jose, I left with a greater appreciation of the plight of the Japanese American community during [incarceration] … I told Will I was interested in doing a portrait project of former [inmates], and he offered to introduce me to many people … Then one day I heard Kiyo Sato’s interview on KQED’s “Forum” radio talk show. That was the moment that I realized I had to get this project started, immediately.
NBW: How do you select the subjects for the Kioku Project?
AF: Eventually, I would love to photograph one representative from every [incarceration] camp, every DOJ prison camp, and every assembly center … Many people who were incarcerated during the war do not want to talk about it and don’t want to be featured on a Website. So I work with a few wonderful people who are well-connected with the Japanese American community here in San Jose and they’ve been kind enough to introduce me to people who are willing to meet with me…
NBW: What are the most rewarding aspects of the Kioku Project?
AF: Aside from the obvious reward of pursuing a focused and historically significant photography project, and the reward of meeting some wonderful people, I feel fortunate to be able to sit down with someone and listen to their firsthand recollection of something that is so important to this country’s history, and is so important to each person.
Years ago, I used to write letters to my great aunt asking her about growing up in Scotland during WWII. I never had the chance to talk with her directly. It was always through letters. But with the Japanese Americans, I can sit with them, listen to them, and ask questions. If they tell funny stories, we can laugh together about it. And sometimes I hear tragic stories that leave me speechless. One of the most memorable was when I was photographing one of my very first portraits in San Jose. After the gentleman told me his memories of [being incarcerated], he said he was surprised that someone like myself (I’m Caucasian, born in the United Kingdom, and raised in Massachusetts) was so interested in his story. He said even his children and grandchildren never took the time to ask him as much as I had asked him. It wasn’t that they didn’t love him: I’m sure they did. But like me many years ago, they’re probably busy with their lives and they won’t regret not asking and talking to him until after he’s gone.
Another story that comes to mind is when I interviewed one gentleman who was one of the leaders of the draft resistance movement at Heart Mountain. He wasn’t afraid to serve his country. He just wanted the government to restore his family’s Constitutional rights in exchange for his serving in the military. He was eventually imprisoned along with many other draft resisters from Heart Mountain. After we finished the interview he thanked me for taking the time to come see him because he had always been afraid that he was going to have to take his story with him to his grave. Those sorts of things not only inspire me to keep working on this project, but I actually feel honored that these people trust me with their stories.
For more information, visit www.gorillasites.com/kioku/default.htm.
Snapshots of wartime incarceration
By ERIN YASUDA SOTO
Nichi Bei Weekly
Aiko Jio vividly remembers being suddenly uprooted from her home in San Jose during World War II following Executive Order 9066. Traveling on the last train to Wyoming, she was subsequently incarcerated in the Heart Mountain concentration camp.
“It was a long train ride through the Southwest and then up through Colorado to Wyoming. I remember Heart Mountain being a barren place and very cold. I had never been in such cold temperatures before,” she said.
Jio is one of the many former wartime prisoners who have been photographed and interviewed by photographer Andy Frazer for the Kioku Project, an online collection of profiles. Jio has served as a longtime volunteer with many organizations, including the San Jose chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League and the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee (NOC).
Jio enjoyed the process of working with Frazer on the Kioku Project.
“Andy and I talked for awhile and then he did the set-up for the photos. It was a wonderful experience and Andy was terrific,” said Jio, who was photographed in the garden at her home in Fuji Towers, a senior apartment building in San Jose’s Japantown.
She met Frazer through her son, Gary, who works with NOC. He contacted Frazer after seeing a photo that he had taken of her at the 2010 Day of Remembrance program.
Jio said that she hopes that the Kioku Project will help to inform others about Japanese American history.
“I hope the project will educate the greater community to Japanese American history through our personal experiences. Putting real people’s backgrounds with the photos relates history on a basic human level through their stories. I am grateful to Andy for setting up the project and allowing the public to access it on his Website,” she said.
Like Jio, Joe Yasutake also enjoyed the opportunity to work with Frazer on the Kioku Project.
Yasutake, the vice president of the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, was only 10 years old when he was incarcerated in the Puyallup Assembly Center (Washington), Minidoka concentration camp (Idaho) and the Crystal City Justice Department internment camp in Texas.
“My memories of camp stretch from pleasant and good, to severe anxiety and fear,” he said. “On the positive side as a 10-year-old, not aware of the serious implications of incarceration, I enjoyed school, friends and sports. On the other hand, I have vivid memories of my mother crying and discussing issues such as the fate of my father, my brother leaving for the Army, my other brother and sister leaving to go to school, etc. These discussions were always late at night after they all thought I was sleeping. I recall such discussions being extremely anxiety-arousing, making my stomach ache.
“I was born in 1932 and raised in Seattle until World War II,” Yasutake continued. “Because my father worked for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service as an interpreter, he was considered a leader in the Japanese community and a potential threat. Thus, he was arrested by the FBI within a few hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequently put in a Department of Justice camp.”
Like Yasutake and Jio, Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz also possesses vivid memories of the wartime camps. She was held at the Poston concentration camp in Arizona.
“I remember camp as the most horrendous period of my life. I always had my Dad and brothers and sisters available before school and after school. In camp, I was so alone as everyone had their agenda and I was left by myself,” said de Queiroz, whose photos of camp life are currently on display at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose.
De Queiroz also enjoyed being photographed and interviewed by Frazer.
“Andy interviewed and took photos and told me all about his project, which I thought was wonderful. He and so many others are interested in the history of what happened to the Japanese Americans in the concentration camps during World War II. It is really phenomenal,” she said.