Born in Japan in 1895, Toyo Miyatake came to the U.S. in 1909. As an adult, he set up a photo studio in the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles, and in the 1930s became famous for photographing Michio Ito’s dance troupe.
These beginnings are covered in Toyo’s Camera, the excellent first film in director Junichi Suzuki’s Nisei Trilogy (“Nisei” is a word meaning “second generation Japanese-Americans”). The main focus of the movie, however, is what happens after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the order authorized the forced removal of anyone of Japanese ancestry from their homes and placed them in concentration camps.
Toyo and his family were sent to Manzanar. Detainees were only allowed to bring what they could carry, and cameras weren’t allowed. Toyo, however, snuck in materials to build a camera and received film through the guards he befriended. He risked this because, as he told his son, he felt it was his duty to document camp life.
The film shows these photos, mentions Caucasian Americans who were against the order (including a teacher and a librarian) and interviews people who lived in the camps, as well as experts on that time period — and on the racism that led to the detainment of Japanese-Americans, but not German or Italian-Americans. Several photographers also objected to the concentration camps, including Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams (the latter of whom mentored Toyo), both of whom took photos in the camps (in 1944, Adams put together a book called Born Free and Equal, which contains photos from Manzanar. Unlike most of his photography, these photographs focus on individuals instead of landscapes). Even Ralph Merritt, the director of Manzanar, helped. Merritt was a photography aficionado and knew Edward Weston, another of Toyo’s mentors. He eventually allowed Toyo to bring in photographic equipment from his studio, saying, “A photographer without a camera is like a bird without wings.” At first, a Caucasian person had to push the shutter, but after going through eight assistants, Merritt confided to Toyo, “You know, I’m basically blind out of my left side,” which led Toyo to understand that he could take the photos himself.
While the film focuses on Toyo (mainly through remembrances by his son, Archie, as well as people he photographed around the neighborhood) — while building a more complete societal portrait of those times — there is a detour into a generational issue that arises between the Issei (first generation Japanese-Americans) and the Nisei over questions 27 and 28 of the loyalty questionnaire, which detainees were forced to answer in 1942. Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered? Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization? Never mind that no one else had to answer this questionnaire, or that two-thirds of the 110,000 people held at the camps were American citizens, or that these questions were asked of both men and women, boys and girls, regardless of age or circumstances. Many of the Nisei agreed to fight, while those who answered “no” to either question were sent to Tule Lake, another concentration camp (and coincidentally, the last incarceration camp operated by the War Relocation Authority to close). And yet this segue makes sense, after which we find ourselves back in Manzanar with Toyo, during its final days. When the camps closed, everyone got $25 ($330 in today’s money) and a bus ticket back home, where vandalized houses and missing property greeted its former owners. Toyo stayed till the end, taking photos almost up until the point where they closed the gates (in fact, he wanted to be the one to close them).
Then we jump to years later, when President Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which gave payment and official apologies to the survivors of the camps; and to today, where many people (particularly Japanese people living in Japan) don’t know that Japanese and Japanese-Americans were put in concentration camps during the war. My only criticism of the film, in fact, is that when people leave the concentration camps, George Takei’s voiceover makes it sound like their troubles ended, a view that former concentration camp incarceree Cho Shimizu corrected during the Q&A which followed the movie. He was joined by President-Elect Eileen Yamada Lamphere of the Puyallup Valley JACL and Seattle JACL President Paul Tashima, who MC’d. For Cho’s family, the post-war (and post-concentration camp) years included overcoming homelessness and racism (“we were still considered the enemy”). People threw rocks at him when he went to school, which led to him taking different routes there each day, and he got into many fights. One time, when he came home with his shirt torn, his mother went into her room, shut the door, and cried. At that point, he realized how hard camp life and post-camp life had been on his mom, too.
Cho explained that before they were sent to the concentration camps, Japanese and Japanese-Americans were sent to assembly centers. In Seattle, people were sent to Pullayup to a place called Camp Harmony. Eileen mentioned that 2017 is the anniversary of its closure. Cho said that the assembly centers were even worse than the concentration camps: Camp Harmony (for example) had plywood with holes cut into them for toilets, where each person would be touching each other when they sat. The rumor was that food at the assembly centers (where detainees waited to be relocated to concentration camps) came from World War I. From there, Cho and his family were sent to Minidoka.
One of his brothers joined the 442nd division, a legendary group of soldiers made up entirely of Nisei (according to Wikipedia, “The 442nd Regiment was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare”). He remembers finding a German POW camp and noticing it looked exactly like Minidoka. The other brother joined a platoon that operated in a small village in Tokyo after the war. He was told by his commanding officer, “Some of them don’t know the war is over yet, so don’t tell ’em you’re American or you’ll be shot.” Though things were difficult for Cho after the war, he said his parents and older brothers had it worse, as the Issei at least made sure there was some sort of social structure for the Nisei in the camps. And yet, while millions of dollars poured into Japan after the war, detainees only got a bus ticket.
After their internment, Cho and his family moved to Renton, which had low-income housing. Eileen mentioned that another place many Japanese-Americans went was to 14th and Weller, where a Japanese school was located (later dubbed the Hunt Hotel). Partitions were put up and many families moved in.
Then came time for questions from the audience, the first two written by students. The first questioner wondered if those detainees who answered “yes” to question 27 and 28 felt more American, while those who had answered “no” felt more Japanese. Cho mentioned there were other factors behind saying “no” to those two questions, one being “to let the government know [the internment]’s unjust.” Eileen mentioned that one or two “no”s landed detainees at Tule Lake, but there was another group at Heart Mountain who answered “yes” to both questions, but resisted the draft as long as their families were in the concentration camps.
The second questioner wondered if, in the absence of the relocation to concentration camps, it would’ve been risky for families to stay, due to increased racism. Cho said they “would still do what they did” and mentioned a case where a Caucasian woman, married to a Japanese man, was allowed to stay out of the concentration camps, with neither her Caucasian nor Japanese neighbors feeling resentful about it. What I am not sure about is if the whole family was allowed to stay, or just the mother.
Then we got a question from the audience. The film mentioned that Japanese women had an easier time in the camps than they would have at home, since they didn’t have to cook, clean, or keep up social engagements. The woman asking the question wondered if the camps really offered relief for them. Cho said it was, in a way, as “wives were basically slaves to their husbands” and might bear them ten kids, aged 2-18. In this way, camp life was more convenient. On the other hand, they didn’t know what would happen to the families. In Japan, the Emperor would exile people by sending them to the desert. The concentration camps were in the desert. Wasn’t sending them there like exile? And while mothers could handle the responsibilities of everyday life, they had a harder time dealing with prejudice and injustice. Eileen mentioned that there was a breakdown of the family unit in the camps, as the Issei hung out together and the teens hung out together, as opposed to families hanging out together. Often, the mothers were left to themselves.
One might reasonably ask why they should watch a film about something that happened 70 years ago. My answer is because fear brings out the worst in how we treat each other, and only by understanding that we’re capable of doing such things can we prevent ourselves from doing them in the future. Plus, it’s a really good film.
442-Live With Honor, Die With Dignity plays on Saturday, June 27 at 6:30 at NVC Memorial Hall. MIS: Human Secret Weapon plays on Sunday, June 28 at noon at SIFF Uptown (click on the locations for ticket information). Director Junichi Suzuki and his wife are scheduled to attend both performances.