LOS ANGELES — A new video and photography exhibit describing the dark days in May 1942 when the United States government carried out the mass removal and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast — including thousands from Los Angeles — is now on display at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.
The UCLA-supported exhibit, “Be Here / 1942: A New Lens on the Japanese American Incarceration,” uses images by photographers Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee to highlight a video re-creation of 200 Japanese American families reporting with their luggage on May 9, 1942, to the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, one of the mass-removal sites. Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawai‘i, thousands of Little Tokyo residents were ordered to report to the temple site to be shipped on trains and buses to the concentration camps.
The exhibit, opened during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, was launched to remember the day 80 years ago, when 3,475 Little Tokyo residents lost their homes, their possessions and their freedom. It was among the largest of the wartime Japanese American removals. About 37,000 Los Angeles residents of Japanese descent were incarcerated, including many who were taken from the Nishi Hongwanji location, now known as the Historic Building on the museum’s campus.
“BeHere / 1942” is a presentation of the Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities, a joint project of UCLA and Japan’s Waseda University, in collaboration with the museum. Produced by Japanese media artist and former UCLA visiting professor Masaki Fujihata, the project uses augmented reality videos and hyper-enlarges others to reveal the reflections in subjects’ eyes, allowing visitors to see what they saw: reporters and government officials hovering just outside the frame.
At the museum’s outdoor plaza facing the historic temple building, visitors can use smartphones or museum-provided devices to view Fujihata’s massive 200-person AR installation. The installation will remain visible even after the exhibit concludes on Oct. 9.
Inside the museum is a smaller AR installation, a re-creation of downtown Los Angeles’ Santa Fe train depot from which Japanese Americans were sent to the Manzanar concentration camp. The scene is viewable only through specialized replicas of the Graflex camera used by Lange, and the installation displays pictures visitors take.
“I tried to understand how these photographs were made … from the perspective of the person behind the camera,” said Fujihata, who conceived the exhibition while a Regents’ Professor at UCLA in 2019–20. “When a cameraman came and asked to take your photograph, you couldn’t say no, especially in a situation like the forced removal, over which you had no control.”
The digital re-creation involved dozens of volunteer “actors” in both Los Angeles and Tokyo who donned period costumes — some even got 1940s-style haircuts — then entered special film studios to have their likenesses recorded and integrated into the AR app. Two of those volunteers, Michi Tanioka and June Aochi Berk, were among those incarcerated in 1942. Michi Tanioka was exiled from Little Tokyo with her family as a 5-year-old, and June Aochi Berk was 10.
Tanioka is featured on the exhibition’s catalog clutching a doll while a Japanese woman kneels next to her as two white cameramen record her. Fujihata used this image for reference in one of his AR scenes. He reviewed dozens of photos to depict one such moment frozen in time, with the camera panning to reveal the intimidating scene Tanioka and other children encountered.
Dressed in 1940s Style
“Since I was only five years old in 1942, the exhibit really does not bring back any memories, except in retrospect when I see those photos of me at that age in old newspapers and at JANM,” Tanioka, now 85, told Nichi Bei Weekly. “I am grateful for the work of Masaki Fujihata in recreating that time in history.”
The JANM docent didn’t really think of herself as a former inmate, and thought of the exhibit only as Fujihata’s project. “I’m not sure why I was picked for the project except that there must have been a lot of pictures floating around …
It wasn’t because I was a cute kid, but probably because I was carrying around a big doll, which became an iconic photo. It didn’t hold any special meaning for me.”
She recalled that her family lived across the street from Nishi Hongwanji and was taken from there to the Santa Fe Train Station to go to Manzanar. She remembers starting school in Manzanar and being excited at the prospect of learning how to read. And while incarcerated, her father had leisure time to paint, while her mother had the time to explore her interests in sewing and other crafts.
Weighing the effects of the racist incarceration of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government on her, Tanioka stated, “I think I experienced the sense of being a ‘second class citizen.’ My self-image was not as good as those of people who were born and raised in Hawai‘i, as JAs were the majority in Hawai‘i.”
June Aochi Berk, 90, another participant in the AR re-creation, vividly recalled, in a JANM news release, that her parents and neighbors had a few days in 1942 to sell most of their belongings, and, fearing arrest as they saw community leaders taken away, they built backyard bonfires to destroy family heirlooms suggesting connections to Japan.
“My older sister was very upset, and I remember she said, ‘I know I have civil rights. They can’t do this to us. We’re American citizens,’” recalled the JANM docent. Though she used to avoid discussing her past, she now speaks about the incarceration to groups of students, many who have never heard of the camps, or only know about them from a single paragraph in history books.
“This photo exhibit brought back a flood of memories, mostly about my parents and all of the Issei waiting to board the bus and the trains,” she e-mailed Nichi Bei Weekly. “The evacuees were very nicely dressed and looked calm, as if we were going to church or a nice event. I think there was a lot of pride among the Issei … they still kept their dignity.”
Berk said she was “so pleased and honored that Professor Masaki Fujihata researched these photos and enlarged them so that you could see the facial expressions of the people standing in line to get … on the bus. He was able to capture the essence of their emotions.”
“It’s a sad day when the government is pressured by hate groups to forcibly remove people from their homes and send them away for an indefinite period of time,” she stated. “The U.S. leadership at that time failed to protect us 80,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry and 40,000 hard-working Japanese immigrants.”
This is the history of Issei immigrant parents “who endured prejudice and persecution all their lives in America, and then were exiled from their homes on the West Coast,” she remarked. “Even in the most painful experiences, they kept strong … I wish to thank my parents for their courage and for protecting us children.”
The Aochi family was taken to Santa Anita Assembly Center, living in horse stables for about five months; then they were shipped by train to Rohwer, Ark., where they were incarcerated for about three and-a-half years. “I remember playing with a lot of other children, and making new friends in camp. My sister and brother both left camp about a year-and-a-half after we arrived. The Quaker American Friends Committee made it possible for young people to leave camp for jobs or to attend colleges and schools outside.”
She and her parents stayed in camp until the very end, Berk said. “We were each given $25 and a train ticket to wherever we wanted to go to. The government did not care where we went, nor did they care what would happen to us on the outside. They just ordered us to leave. They were closing down all the camps.” The Aochi family moved to Denver for a while before returning to Los Angeles, where Berk’s father passed away six months later.
Berk said she never felt self-conscious about being a Nikkei in postwar America. “I think because my parents never felt ashamed of being Japanese, that feeling carried over to the children … But it did affect a lot of people in different ways and some have very bad painful memories of this experience.”