Toyo Miyatake's Camera

Background information

Nobuho Nagasawa, 1993. 18"h x 18"w x 21-3/4"l atop 4' high tripod. 369 E. First Street
Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, began one of the most disgraceful chapters in America's enduring legacy of bigotry and racism. Legitimate concerns and anger over the bombing were exploited by self-serving politicians and irresponsible journalists promoting suspicion and fear of Japanese Americans. Responding to an increasingly irrational clamor to do something, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, authorizing the Army to remove all people of Japanese ancestry from the west coast of the United States. By year's end, more than 120,000 people--two-thirds were native born Americans--were rounded up, driven from their homes and sent to concentration camps located in barren and isolated areas of the United States.

One of the more than 10,000 people imprisoned at Manzanar, the camp in the Owens Valley of California, was Toyo Miyatake. Born in Japan in 1895, he emigrated to the United States with his mother and two brothers in 1909 to join his father in Los Angeles. After opening his photography studio in 1923, he continued recording on film the private and public histories of the city's Japanese American community until he died in 1979. Part of his extraordinary collection of wedding pictures, shots of community events and portraits of ordinary and famous people are photographs taken at Manzanar. Forced to leave his cameras in Los Angeles, Miyatake defied the authorities and secretly began documenting the community's daily life with a handmade camera using a 150mm lens he smuggled into camp. He later obtained professional equipment with the help of the camp director, and proceeded to compile a photographic record of Manzanar until the last internee left in November 1945.

That history has now been brought into the public realm by the installation of Nobuho Nagasawa's small but symbolically rich "Toyo Miyatake's Camera". Her work, a triple-sized bronze replica of the camera Miyatake secretly made at Manzanar, restores his presence in Little Tokyo where his studio was located, while it lifts the veil of anonymity from the internment.

At night, slides of Miyatake's photographs are projected from the "camera" onto a screen hanging in a window of what formerly was the Nishi Hongwangi Buddhist Temple and is now the Japanese American National Museum. These photographs combined with the sculpture give new meaning to the term "site specific" by reinforcing the historic fabric of a block long section of First Street containing the Little Tokyo Historic District and Jerry Matsukuma's nine panel photomural, "Senzo (Ancestors)." By serving as a frame for Miyatake's photographs, the Japanese American National Museum's purpose--to "Make known the Japanese American experience as an integral part of our nation's heritage to improve understanding and appreciation for America's ethnic and cultural"--extends beyond the museum walls into the street.

Nagasawa developed the concept for her work in 1990. Responding to a competition of the First Street Public Improvement Project Art Program, she proposed 13 small sculptures, each representing a separate event from 1843, when the first Japanese arrived in America after being rescued at sea, to 1942, when the internment began. A model of Miyatake's original camera, which has been exhibited at museums and has become a symbol of defiance and resistance, was to represent the detention. Nagasawa also planned to project a single slide of Manzanar from the camera onto the facade of the Japanese American National Museum at night, and to show a photograph of the same scene inside the camera that could be viewed through the lens during the day. Sheila Levrant de Bretteville's entry won the competition. Her proposal, which was installed in 1996, incorporates images designed by Sonya Ishii, time-lines, and text embedded into the entire length of the block long sidewalk. However, the Public Arts Task Force of the Little Tokyo Community Development Advisory Committee was struck by the poignancy of Nagasawa's "Camera", and commissioned it with funds generated from the Community Redevelopment Agency's percent-for-art program. After consideration was given to temporarily installing the Camera in either the Noguchi Plaza or in front of the south wall of the Temporary Contemporary of the Museum of Contemporary Art, it was decided to place it next to the Japanese American National Museum, where Nagasawa originally proposed. Responding to suggestions that more of the community's history than the internment be presented, Nagasawa increased the number of photographs by incorporating a tray of 28 slides.

The camera, cast in bronze and etched with a wood-like patina on its exterior, combined with the projection of photographs, intensifies Miyatake's connection with the street's history while shifting attention to the events he memorialized. We relive the 1932 summer Olympic games in Los Angeles through his photographs for the Japanese newspaper "Asahi Shimbun." We also become participants in the community as we witness the motorcade of Japan's crown prince in 1931 and watch the Nisei Week parade in 1939 pass near the spot where the "camera" now stands. And we are made aware by a 1945 photograph of returning internees reclaiming possessions stored in what is now the museum, that we are standing at a commemorative site that is part of the internment story.

The dedication of "Toyo Miyatake's Camera" in September, 1993, has enlarged the commemorative vocabulary for remembering the internment. Seminars, pilgrimages to camp sites, exhibitions and books recounting the experiences in the camps, began during the 1960s, when Japanese Americans started prodding both their community and our nation to remember the detention. These forms of memory became more frequent when they were embraced by the redress movement, which sought financial reparations for the surviving internees and an official government apology and recognition that the internment was wrong. With the political goals of the redress movement largely fulfilled, the commemorative acts that coincided with it did not vanish, but continued with new purposes. The Smithsonian's 1987 exhibition on the internment and the redress movement, "A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the United States Constitution", honors Japanese Americans because their struggle "to ensure that all Americans understand the importance of extending the safeguards and protections of the Constitution to every citizen, regardless of race, color or creed,...have moved all of us a bit closer to the 'More Perfect Union', envisioned by the founders of the nation." For Japanese Americans the incarceration is remembered not with one exhibit, but is a continuing process that not only expresses a deep commitment and responsibility to remind our nation "so it will never happen again", but also serves to link their increasingly assimilated community with a shared past.

As the interment was acknowledged to be an abandonment of American ideals, what was remembered about the internment became increasingly complex and varied. The pain captured by Dorthea Lang's powerful photographs of Japanese Americans leaving for the camps along with her later photographs at Manzanar, was confirmed four decades later by the United States Congress when it declared that "...a grave injustice was done to both citizens and permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry by the evacuation, relocation, and internment of civilians during World War II." The 1987 Smithsonian exhibition recalled the internment as a miscarriage of justice and the failure of the American people through our Constitution, to maintain "the delicate balance between the rights of the citizen and the power of the state."

Amy Uyematsu reports in her poem "War Story" what her parents remembered:

once I was angry with you
for telling me only of the good times
two thousand nisei teenagers hanging out in mess halls, canteens, by the
north gunpost gate. sneaking away to haystacks, a lovers rendezvous. see and
hear each other all the time.
at school. next door. in the john. through the walls. lining up. lining up.
did you know who went to the dance with who, he's sure cute and does the
darndest jitterbug, mama was homecoming princess
but should've won,
anyone could tell from yearbook pictures, gila class of 43.
Memories became more painful with the redress movement as the Japanese American community started tallying up the economic loss and the emotional and psychological cost. Long suppressed emotions about the humiliation, the lack of privacy, the anxiety, the bitterness and the family disintegration were openly expressed, often in tearful testimony, at hearings conducted by the Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Recalled were political, cultural and generational tensions and divisions in the camps including the beating of Fred Tayama at Manzanar because it was thought that he was an informer. Also recalled was the riot at Manzanar that left two people dead and 10 injured after Harry Ueno, who organized a Kitchen Workers Union, was arrested while investigating shortages of sugar and meat. But another side of camp life is also remembered. In Miyatake's photographs of Manzanar, divisive and polemical issues and blame of the larger society is avoided. Indeed, his portrait of the Japanese American community pulling together and maintaining their collective and individual integrity, validates the fundamental goal David J. O'Brien and Stephen S. Fugita identified as operating in the Japanese American community--group survival.

Miyatake presents this theme against the background of drab concentration camp architecture--a watch tower, a barbed-wire fence, and unpainted wooden barracks lined up in military precision--ironically juxtaposed with the spiritually uplifting snow-capped Sierras. We also see the resulting despair in three passive and sad boys standing by a barbed-wire fence. But Miyatake was nevertheless optimistic. Focusing on the Nisei, whose youth and energy are depicted as the promise of the future, he captures them standing proudly atop a stack of vegetables, taking the oath of allegiance to join the army, leaving the hospital with newborns and preserving the traditional New Year's moichisuki--or rice pounding ceremony.

This picture of the internment is not complete, but it is not false either. In reminiscing about Poston, the camp in Arizona, Wakako Yamauchi wrote: But in the spirit of "shikataganai" or "making the best of it," we bounced back. We formed softball teams and played intramural games. We produced talent shows. We set up libraries, beauty shops, cooperatives, flower and sewing classes, art and drama departments, dug swimming holes and so on, and boy scouts continued to march with Old Glory fluttering high.

With both the replica of Miyatake's camera and the photographs, Nagasawa goes beyond personalizing our nation's most shameful expression of prejudice against the Japanese American community. She honors a revered Japanese American with an ensemble of memories, but refuses to seize the occasion and make the internment a vehicle for celebrating the virtues of a great leader who held the community together during its time of difficulty. The photographs of Manzanar, which include the three used in "Senzo" across the street, subvert the American myth that the character of a society is shaped by rugged, self-sufficient individualists. And rather than depicting villains and casting Japanese Americans as victims, she reminds us that the strength of a community is a collective endeavor by ordinary people sharing obligations and responsibilities for the common good.

The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, January 1998.

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