State Violence & Student Resistance: WWII-Era Japanese American School Photography


When Executive Order 9066 was issued in response to the 1942 Pearl Harbor attack, thousands of Japanese American children were affected. Not only were their home lives uprooted, but the structure of their education was drastically changed. Students from elementary to high school age, from Bainbridge, Washington to San Francisco, California, were forced to leave relatively well-resourced and integrated classrooms for the segregated and oppressive conditions in incarceration camps.

State violence can be seen in the physical removal of the students from their school communities into incarceration camps, but less obvious are the ways that the State asserts control over young Japanese Americans and their citizenship before incarceration. In this exhibit, I analyze the ways that the State attempts to define Japanese American citizenship through schooling both before and during incarceration, as well as the ways that Japanese American students resist colonization and personal erasure.

above: Flag of allegiance pledge at Raphael Weill Public School1942, San Francisco, Image via Densho Digital Repository, Dorothea Lange Collection

Slideshow & Summary

Bainbridge Island, Washington became one of the first communities to carry out Executive Order 9066 requiring that over 200 people of Japanese ancestry be sent to the Manzanar incarceration camp in California. Many of those incarcerated included school-age children.[1] While school conditions in Manzanar were poor in comparison to schools on the Island, class photos show similarities between Japanese American schooling within and outside the incarceration camps. Specifically, these photographs bring attention to the physical colonization of the Japanese American body through schooling traditions and structures.


What is immediately striking about these photos is the rigid stance of the children, whether standing or seated. In each photograph, students stand or sit upright with their feet together and their hands by their side or folded in front of them. In the top left photo of a Bainbridge elementary class in the 1920s, these structures are upheld by the watchful eye of the teacher, a white woman who functions as a State authority. While a physical representation of the State appears to be absent from the top right photograph of another Bainbridge class in the 1930s, State authority through uniformity can be read in the style of the students.

In this class mix of Japanese and European Americans, every little girl has the same short and rounded haircut–the only noticeable variation between them being the shade of their hair. This uniformity suggests a “model” American student, one that conforms to white American schooling traditions. This uniformity is not completely abandoned in the segregated Japanese incarceration camp schools as seen in the bottom photograph of a Manzanar elementary class taken by Shinjo Nagatomi. Despite the lack of white teachers employed by the State, the same colonization through uniformity is seen in this incarceration school photo, making it comfortable for a white American gaze while the background scenery maintains clear reminders of incarceration, suggesting that incarceration is necessary to ensure that Japanese American students become the model American citizen.[2]

What the pre-incarceration class photos do not show is the United States’ relentless efforts to “Orientalize” and “Other” Japanese Americans during this time, even going so far as to publish diagrams on how to “distinguish friendly Chinese from enemy alien Japs.”[3] This photo of Yuichi Sumi (left, Japanese ancestry) and Tommy Wong (right, Chinese ancestry) taken by Dorothea Lange at a San Francisco public school immediately preceding Japanese American incarceration brings attention to efforts to “de-Orientalize” Asian Americans, and Japanese Americans in particular.[4]

Yet, in this process, these two young boys are reinscribed with recognizable signs of American culture, implying what a “good” citizen looks like and promoting a “model minority.” Similar to the class photos, this photo of two young friends on the school blacktop highlights familiar eurocentric American structures and identity markers, from their clothes to their hairstyles and the similarly rigid stances.


These constructed ideas of model citizenry and “American identity” again come up in some of Lange’s more notable photographs from Raphael Weill Public School. In the early morning pledge of allegiance flag ceremony, Lange captured a variety of photos that bring American identity, loyalty, and forced conformity into question. In each of these photos, the act of pledging allegiance to the United States is very clearly marked in the recognizable stance of the students with their hands over their hearts, gazing upward at the American flag.

The God-like presence of the flag is apparent in the bottom photo in which it does not appear at all. The angle of the camera allows the viewer to feel as though they are the flag or the State to which the students are pledging, putting the students’ loyalty and citizenship into question. Lange captures the terrible irony that the Japanese American students in these pictures will soon be incarcerated despite their portrayed commitment to society’s idea of an “American citizenry.”


The above two photos contrast with the blacktop and schoolhouse photos where students are neatly organized in a recognizable space. In these photos, students sit sprawled on sandy grounds or kneeling on hard wooden floors, contorting their bodies in order to do their schoolwork, which was often meant to teach “American” values. The citizenship markers from the previous photos feel distant, but the presence of the State remains palpable in these oppressive environments that require students to discipline their bodies in order to learn about American democracy within the constraints of barbed wire and watchtowers.[5] In these photos, the Japanese American students’ citizenship is no longer a question. Instead, it is clear that these are not the model American children that citizens know, love, and should care for.

While in previous photos students participate in schooling traditions or rituals, Japanese American students are seen here doing learning activities. This difference in photographed student activity suggests an active resistance on behalf of incarcerated Japanese American students. It shows a dedication to learning despite the violence and trauma of incarceration. At the same time, the suggested self-discipline of Japanese American students under violent conditions, physically, mentally, and spiritually, may also serve to dehumanize students and contribute to the “model minority” myth that is prevalent today.

These final photos by Shinjo Nagatomi from the Manzanar High School graduation (1943) also contain parallel acts of violence and resistance. In the right photograph, a facade has been created so as to imply the presence of a typical school auditorium with parents and family seated to witness a great accomplishment. Yet, in this broader shot, the viewer can see what lies beyond this facade: barracks, barren land, mountains that hide the outside world, and imprisonment. In looking beyond the facade, one wonders what lies ahead in the future of these graduates while their surroundings insinuate the mountain of barriers they will likely face as Japanese Americans. And still, many students saw graduating from incarceration high schools as a proud life achievement.[6] These photos imply the student resistance and persistence that was necessary in order to complete schooling within the inhumane confines of an incarceration camp.

This set of photos positions Japanese American students as both victims and survivors, incarcerated beings and the seekers of liberation. Together, they comment on the ways in which photographs can both critique and perpetuate State violence and the ways in which State violence has preyed on Japanese American students through systems of education. I urge readers to think about the implications of this institutionalized violence in contemporary public education and what should be done now to address this invisible pain in our schools.

[1] The City of Bainbridge Island, “Island History,” Bainbridge Island Washington, April 2017,

[2] Elena Creef, Imaging Japanese America the visual construction of citizenship, nation, and the body (New York: New York University Press, 2004).

[3] “How to Tell Japs from the Chinese,” Life Magazine, December 1941, 81-82

[4] Elena Creef, 2004.

[5] Thomas James, Exile Within: The Schooling of Japanese Americans, 1942-1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987).

[6] Thomas James, 1987.