SHADOW TRACES: SEEING JAPANESE/AMERICAN AND AINU WOMEN IN PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVES
By Elena Tajima Creef (Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2022, 188 pp., $26, paperback)


Looking at the photos presented in “Shadow Traces,” I am struck by how integral the photographic record is in telling the history of Japanese American women, and how few in-depth treatments there are of this archive. Elena Tajima Creef, a leading scholar in the examination of the photographic archive of Japanese America, presents a study of, in her words, “Japanese/American” and Ainu women, providing a deep reading of four contexts of photographs with a perspective informed by feminist theory. Indeed, Creef’s usage of the “/” between Japanese and American, notes the complexities of identity for women who moved between Japan and the United States, continuing a trend of transnational analysis for these histories. The result is a compelling story of the visual narratives of women in the early to mid-20th century, which moves between the archival and the personal.


In each of the four thematic chapters of “Shadow Traces,” Creef profiles photographs of different contexts: Ainu women at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, immigrant picture brides, incarcerated Japanese American women during WWII, and postwar war brides. In each chapter she conducts a close reading of photographs while providing historical context and analysis. Both an important treatment of photographic analysis and of Japanese American history, Creef delivers insight into much understudied topics. For instance, the inclusion of Ainu women at the World’s Fair is one of the few discussions of Ainu people in the United States and teases out the agency that Indigenous women had while under an explicitly imperial and colonial gaze. While the intersections of Indigeneity and marginalization of Ainu people by the Japanese Empire are only touched upon in this chapter, Creef’s analysis importantly expands and contemplates the question of who is included in histories of Japanese America.


It was surprising as well to appreciate how only a small number of works focus on the photographic archive of picture brides. Creef’s chapter is one of the few studies which focuses explicitly on the subject, looking at the exchange of photos between Japanese men in America and women in Japan, as well as immigration station photographs and “runaway brides.” In her chapter on WWII incarceration, Creef builds off her earlier writing on the subject and explores the topic of femininity, looking at the ways in which Japanese American women subverted gendered expectations. In the book’s final chapter, Creef introduces the most personal aspect of her study, examining photographs of her own family’s archive and the lives of “war brides” in the 1950s and 1960s. This chapter not only speaks to the history of postwar Japanese women immigrating to the U.S., but also provides an analysis of how to put one’s family archive in conversation with larger historical topics.

Throughout the book Creef provides an important perspective on reading the visual archive of Japanese/American and Ainu women. With the epilogue concluding at page 134, it is a remarkably short book given the range of topics, leaving me wishing for longer discussions which could help to expand on the many complexities touched upon. Still, the book manages to do a lot within the space provided — thought provoking, revealing, and touching, it is a well-constructed addition to the historiography of Asian American visual analysis and Japanese American history.

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