Constructing “Home”: Interpreting the Built Environments of WWII Incarceration Camps

Introduction

The photography that emerged from World War II Japanese American incarceration camps (also referred to as internment camps) revealed the widespread practice of constructing semblances of home within the camps. Initial readings of these environments interpreted this practice as Japanese American agency within the camps and lessened the severity of incarceration.

Yet, to what extent do these images demonstrate the violence of torn-apart families forced to remain ‘patriotic’? Conversely, do these images reveal modes of resistance — the creation of furniture, art, and architectural additions asserting the humanity of a population incarcerated in inhumane environments?

above: Yoneko Tanaka (left) and Norio Mitsuoka carry away lumber to make furniture, 1944, Camp Minidoka, Image via Densho Digital Repository, Mitsuoka Family Collection

Slideshow & Summary

Exhibition Essay

I. Agency & Patriotism

In depictions of incarceration camps created by War Relocation Authority photographers, inmates are shown smiling, enjoying their new ‘homes.’[1]  The use of the term ‘home’ in this exhibit is intentional, and derives from one of the first images (below) in Ansel Adams’ Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese Americans, a collection of photos and writings by the photographer on the topic of internment.[2]  In the photograph, a couple stands at the front door of their barracks. Photographic conventions complicate interpretation – the couple smiles for the camera, and though they appear to be the same height, the woman is placed one step below her husband to create the illusion of difference. Adams’ caption further enforces a positive reading: “A Young Couple at Their Manzanar Home.”


The image and caption clash – the couple is well-dressed, at odds with the poverty of their dwelling. Without the context of internment, any other couple would seem out of place in such a ‘home.’ To call this barrack a home relays a message of contentment that frames inmates as positively adjusting and lessens the severity of incarceration. Defining a tarpaper barrack as a home is a construction that deserves interpretation.

Upon arrival, families found themselves with little to fill bare rooms – cots, bare light bulbs, and a few thin mattresses. Multiple families were placed into single barracks, with little privacy between units. Across the ten camps, inmates attempted to improve their environments by constructing interior walls, building furniture from whatever materials were at hand, and planting gardens outside their front doors.[3]  Much of this work was gendered, with men constructing furniture from wood and women knitting, sewing, and weaving textile-based crafts, but many instances of crossing gendered barriers have been documented as well (see images below). This crossing of gendered barriers was prevalent in, but not limited to, the many cases in which prominent Japanese American men were incarcerated separately from their families.[4]

 

 

 

 

 

In the watercolor sketch by Kengo Takamura at left, three men sit over sewing machines. In the photo at right, Yoneko Tanaka sits in front of a vanity she constructed. Tanaka is also the woman pictured carrying lumber in the photograph at the top of this page.


In photograph from Camp Amache (above), three women sit around a comfortably furnished room that gives little indication of its location within a camp. A patterned floral motif covers the table and benches, and fabric draping lines the shelves and desk along the walls of the room. They sit in candid positions looking toward a small child, sitting on a small blanket on the floor, her doll beside her.
In the photo of the Miyatake family below, the environment looks similarly domestic. Mr. and Mrs. Miyatake stand over their daughter as she works at a sturdily built desk. Photographs and cutout characters line the walls, and childrens’ toys line the back shelf of the room. Yet, slight indications of violence pervade. A diagonal ceiling support juts into the top edge of the photograph; the wall to its right stops several feet short of the ceiling. These signs point to the fabricated nature of this home, the state-enforced denial of privacy pervading an otherwise homelike environment.

Though they reveal varying amounts of the architecture of incarceration, both photographs demonstrate the visual satisfaction of the completed environment. Neither reveals the inhuman living conditions with which the inmates were confronted upon arrival. Nor do they demonstrate the non-photogenic labor that provided the photographer with his finished images of comfortable homes – former inmates speak of digging in the sand around construction sites for any nails they could find and scavenging for recyclable wooden crates.[5]  In many instances, camp authorities were hostile to bringing in extra materials.

When camp photographers did point their lenses at labor, such activities speak to the narrative of agency within the camps. The photograph above shows inmates at Camp Rohwer constructing porches on the exteriors of the barracks out of felled trees – the Arkansas-based camp was unique in its proximity to forest. This attention on inmates’ ability to alter their environments follows the historic American pioneer narrative, while lessening the severity of incarceration.

II. Violence & Resistance

In the stark emptiness of the Mojave Desert, this bare room sat among many within hastily constructed, wood and tarpaper barracks that composed Poston Relocation Camp from 1942 to 1945. The walls appear thin, the floor bare. Exposed beams hold up a low ceiling, and simple knee braces insert into the wall by each small window. The room does not look hospitable; records show that such a space would not have had running water and that dust storms continually provided a thin film of silt over every unprotected surface. This does not resemble a place of human habitation.
This scene would have greeted many of the 120,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II. At this point in their journey, families, young children, elderly American-born citizens had already been forced to evacuate their homes and leave the majority of their belongings, community, and former lives behind (image at left). They would have slept for many nights on flimsy cots, shoved into animal stables or quickly-constructed sheds – many of which still smelled of animal dung (image at right).[6]

          

In the final incarceration camps themselves, furnishings provided by camp authorities were basic, if not inhuman. In the photograph from Tule Lake below, camp-issued room dividers separate individual units during a period of overcrowding. Despite the low ceilings, the partitions extend neither to the floor nor to the ceiling. Anyone who sat, slept, or ate on the floor would be fully exposed. A similar lack of privacy extended to the latrines, where inmates were confronted with long, open rows of toilets and forced to construct their own privacy partitions.

Against this backdrop, the construction of home resembles a mode of resistance, or at least self-preservation. Faced with dehumanizing conditions, impromptu carpenters, furniture-makers, rug weavers, and other amateur craftspeople asserted their own humanity.

At Camp Rohwer, women took apart burlap sacks for their material, remaking the recycled ‘yarn’ with vegetable dye and weaving the colored fiber into new crafts. Other inmates constructed over seven hundred rugs from the torn up strips of old clothes, and pieced together small scraps of wood to construct privacy screens.[7]  This labor combats against the de-individualizing and dehumanizing force of the camp environment while enforcing Japanese American self preservation.[8]  In the photograph of porch-builders above, the front additions break up the single, monotonous mass, giving each family’s unit a discrete, independent identity.

Outside the gaze of state-funded photographers, inmate-made artwork gives further insight into the labor of constructing home in the incarceration camps. In this watercolor by Kengo Takamura, a couple sits on their front stoop, consumed by knitting and carving. The artist’s caption narrates scene, “The enjoy their hobbies.” Takamura’s stance as a fellow internee gives his reading more credibility than Adams’. He reads the couple’s work as a diversion amidst the ramshackle environment he executes in quick strokes of pencil and watercolor.

Contemporary readings of incarceration camp photography can only provide a limited view into the lived experiences of inmates. However, photography from the period reveals both the realities of inhumane camp construction and the state narratives of hard work, patriotism, and agency during and after incarceration. These photographs demonstrate the ways in which resisting dehumanization by creating impressive ‘homes’ could have served as a tool for Japanese Americans to use to combat state-sponsored violence while simultaneously serving as evidence for the federal government to co-opt in defending incarceration as a tolerable wartime necessity.

 

 

[1] Elena Tajima Creef, Imaging Japanese America: the Visual Construction of Citizenship, Nation, and the Body (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2004), 21.

[2] Ansel Adams, Born Free and Equal: the Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans (New York: U.S. Camera, 1944).

[3] Bonnie Clark, “Cultivating Community: The Archaeology of Japanese American Confinement at Amache,” in Legacies of Space and Intangible Heritage: Archaeology, Ethnohistory, and the Politics of Cultural Continuity in the Americas, by Fernando Armstrong-Fumero and Julio Hoil Gutierrez (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2017).

[4] Caroline Chung Simpson, An Absent Presence: Japanese Americans in Postwar American Culture, 1945-1960 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 27-30.

[5] Jane Dusselier, “Gendering Resistance and Remaking Place: Art in Japanese American Concentration Camps,” Peace Change 30, no. 2 (2005): 177-182.

[6] “Japanese Americans Move to the Portland Assembly Center,” Life on the Home Front: Oregon Responds to World War II Web Exhibit, 2008, accessed May 02, 2017, http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/pages/exhibits/ww2/index.htm.

[7] Jane E. Dusselier, Artifacts of Loss: Crafting Survival in Japanese American Concentration Camps (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 27.

[8] Dusselier, “Gendering Resistance and Remaking Place,” 196.