My new book Colors of Confinement presents dozens of stunning Kodachrome photographs of everyday life inside the barbed wire confines of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in 1943 and 1944. The photographer was Bill Manbo, a thirty-something auto mechanic from Hollywood, California, who was locked up there in September of 1942 along with his family and his wife Mary’s family. Although Manbo was not a documentary photographer, his pictures (and the fact that he was allowed to take them) capture much of what was unique about the confinement sites that the U.S. government created for the West Coast’s ethnically Japanese population during the war.
On the one hand, the photographs reveal a population held captive in a desolate desert compound with no conceivable justification other than suppositions about racial loyalties.
On the other hand, the photos reveal that the population’s captors allowed them a surprising number of freedoms, including the freedom to engage openly in Japanese cultural and religious activities … and the freedom to wander around taking pictures of them.
Of the first point — the injustice of the mass incarceration — there can be no doubt. Months after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government uprooted and exiled some 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry — citizens and resident aliens alike — for reasons that included biological racism and economic opportunism. The U.S. Army general who ordered the roundup explained that U.S. citizens were just as dangerous as their Japanese immigrant parents because the “Japanese race” was an “enemy race” in which the “racial strains” ran “undiluted” in the blood of the second generation. White-dominated agricultural interests on the coast that had long sought the ouster of successful Japanese farmers saw an opportunity to put them out of business and were among the most forceful advocates for mass exclusion. It would be a distortion to say that the ouster of the Japanese from the West Coast and the ouster of the Jews from Germany had exactly the same causes, but it would also be a mistake to miss the fact that the two mass deportations shared key motives. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy noted this in a 1943 decision when he wrote that the government’s treatment of Japanese Americans bore “a melancholy resemblance” to Germany’s treatment of its Jews. Continue reading