Counter-Narratives of Japanese Immigrant Labor in the Densho Archive


Founded in 1996 with the mission of preserving the testimonies of those Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during WWII, Densho’s digital repository and archives contain extensive photographic documentation of 20th century Japanese-American history. Among the archive’s many collections are a body of images that portray the variety of economic arenas Japanese immigrants inhabited during the pre-war, pre-incarceration era, including canneries, agriculture, domestic service, and small business. From these archives, I have compiled a series of images that provide a counterpoint to mainstream narratives of immigrant labor that reinforce the idealized white, masculine worker citizen, or deficit-centered narratives that portray Japanese-American communities as downtrodden and oppressed by racist institutional and social barriers to their livelihood and wellbeing. Pre-incarceration photographs taken in spaces of economic production where Japanese Americans may inhabit the role of “worker citizen” offer instances of leisure, kinship, and joy. A contextualized reading of these images works toward a representation of complex Japanese-American personhood and combat the kinds of nationalist molds and ideals that are often mapped onto representations of immigrant workers.


To provide an example of the kind of representation these photographs might work against I turn to Ansel Adams’ photographic essay of Japanese internment camps during WWII, “Born Free and Equal.” While Adams’ photographs aim to resist the othering and dehumanization of his subjects that allowed for mass relocation and incarceration, his molding of those interned at Manzanar into hardworking, uber-loyal American citizens reinforces US nationalism through the substitution of a fearful and racist conception of the Japanese-American subject for one that is whitewashed and decontextualized, both historically and politically.

In this image, we see an idealization of the agricultural labor performed in the camps along with a fetisization of the physical spaces in which that labor occurred. The dangerous subtext of this image and the photo essay on the whole is the erasure of the extreme violence and suffering of the experiences of Japanese Americans who were relocated to internment camps.

In order to work against this harmful representation of Japanese Americans in Adams photo essay, it is important to situate photographs of Japanese immigrant labor within a history of anti-japanese racism and xenophobia. Anti-Japanese racism has been a marginalizing force in immigrant communities starting from the turn of the 20th century, when the first generation of issei immigrants arrived on the west coast of the US, mostly young men hoping to work for a few years and return to Japan. Starting as unskilled laborers but later launching their own business enterprises, these newly formed communities faced racism and “growing anti-Japanese agitation.” They were excluded from employment certain segments of the economy including “most industrial and office settings.”

This racism was codified into law by “a series of… measures designed to reduce immigration and to discourage permanent settlement. The 1907 ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’ between Japan and the United States closed entry to laborers,” with the loophole that those men who had already emigrated could sponsor the entry of wives and relatives. This second wave of relatives who moved to the US built the groundwork for the Japanese ethnic enclaves that would later be dismantled by Executive Order 9066. In 1913, California passed an “Alien Land Law… prohibiting issei… from owning land or leasing it for more than three years.” Nation-based quotas in the “Immigration Act of 1924 cut off all further immigration from Asia.” Second generation Japanese-American children of these migrants were able to gain US citizenship, but experienced the institutional racism mobilized against their parents as they continued to be “barred from union jobs and employment in white-run offices and stores.” *

These kinds of racialized legal and social restrictions on the ability of a community to access economic resources give economic urgency to the pursuit of simultaneous stakes in the free labor market and liberal citizenship. This confluence leads towards the idealized status of “worker citizen,” which has historically been coded white and masculine. My hope is that this brief historical outline gives specificity to the resistance that can be read in these archival photographs, so as not to reproduce the assimilationist, abstract humanity that Adams asserts in his portraiture and documentation of Japanese-American subjects and labor.


These first two images, dated 1904 and 1905 respectively, portray groups of first generation Japanese immigrant men inhabiting the role of “laborer.” These images stand out from other archival images of “laborers” because their subjects are captured in moments of leisure or rest. The first image shows men playing cards at Shear Water Bay cannery near Kodiak, Alaska. From left to right they are identified in Densho’s caption as “unidentified, Tom Matsudaira, “Cannon” Watanabe, (first name unknown) Yamasaki, and Paul Sakai.” Their clothing is striking; even though they are on a break and socializing with their co-workers, they are well dressed and stylish. They project both seriousness and nonchalance, which are counterbalanced by Tom Matsudaira’s look of visible excitement. The image portrays a community at the cannery that is not as immediately tangible in images of men “hard at work” in the same setting. The second image portrays workers at rest in the process of clearing stumps for agricultural land use in Tacoma, Washington. This scene contains similar connotations of dignity, humanity, and community in spaces of labor, but is obviously less candid. Here, the projection of seriousness and nonchalance is calculated and intentional, as the photographer and camera assume a more active role in the fashioning of the image.

Although we can read dignity and personhood beyond the role of laborer in these images, they also contain a set of problematics relating to the idealized identity of the white, masculine “worker citizen.”  These images come from an historical context in which Japanese men had no formalized path to American citizenship, and lived in communities of exclusively other men. While the clothing can be read in terms of a dignified self-fashioning, we can also see a degree of assimilation towards whiteness, as their formal wear appears distinctly American. Posturing and dress combine to project a performance of masculinity, accented by the tobacco pipe held by the man in the foreground on the left. Read through an uncritical eye that maintains whiteness as the default or the norm, these images run the risk of contributing to the trend of assimilation.

On the other hand, a foregrounding of Japanese-American ethnic identity allows these images to work against the normalization of whiteness. Specifically, the presence of leisure in the portrayal of migrant laborers works to decouple the link between leisure and whiteness. The association between whiteness and leisure or recreation is naturalized through a history of economic marginalization of communities of color. This same history creates a possible association of laziness with racialized laborers at rest.


This set of images comes were taken after spouses and family members of first-wave issei men immigrated to establish “ethnic enclaves” and economic enterprises, which would later be broken up by Executive Order 9066. The first image lacks metadata, but the second and third are dated 1933 and 1927. Both are taken on farms in Washington state. As a group, these images show that, while some Japanese Americans were barred from purchasing land, others were able to establish family farms where they asserted economic and social autonomy. These farms served multiple roles. They were spaces for economic production and places for raising families, strengthening the Japanese-American community’s stake in the US economy and sociopolitical geography.

The first image of a mother and child in a garden depicts the often erased labor of women in the formation of immigrant communities and of the United States as a whole. It also asserts the versatility of agricultural spaces as a place for family and leisure as well as economic production. The third image shows Kamezo Nakashima, a dairy farmer who owned a 1,300 acre farm in Days, Washington. Six of his eleven children are pictured (left to right): Teruyo, Karoku (George), Yoneo (Johnny), Tsutaye (Sue), Masato, and Masumi. The presence of family in the context of land ownership and economic enterprise makes visible the ways that Japanese Americans claimed cultural and physical space in this pre-war era.

Again, it is important to acknowledge the problematics of these images as they relate to whiteness and tendencies toward assimilation. The family farm connotes ideologies of rugged individualism, American whiteness, and manifest destiny. The nuclear family has historically served to reinforce social hierarchies of race and gender. There is also a problem that arises with the selective portrayal of happiness that comes out of posed family photos. In reading these images, it is important to consider the specific political and social barriers that prevented these kinds of scenes from existing on a larger scale, while foregrounding of the Japanese identity of their subjects.



In reading this final set of images, I want to foreground the presence of and potential for non-performative joy in photographs of Japanese-American workers. The first two images depict oyster farms at rest in the Pacific Northwest during the 1930s. While the presence of the camera and photographer are very active, their poses and expressions feel authentically joyful. Although they are dressed for hard work, their postures and expressions work against the “worker citizen” mold.

The final image, titled “Tsutakawa Company camping trip” departs from the physical space of economic production, but illustrates all three themes. The Tsutakawa Company was a family-owned import-export business in Seattle Washington. Here, we see a Japanese-American community of extended family members, working against the mold of the normalized nuclear family. They share collective stake in a successful economic enterprise, and are documenting themselves in the context of leisure activity. They claim economic, physical, and cultural space despite legal and social barriers to access.


Photographic representation in spaces of economic production have unique potential to erase the personhood and ethnic identity of immigrant workers, especially those who are institutionally and culturally denied rights to safety and dignity. In each photograph of Japanese-American workers or families, we see how these instances of documentation and self-fashioning have multiple potentialities; they can be read to reproduce and reify the cultural markers of white supremacist US nationalism, but may also be read to assert visibility, autonomy, humanity, and dignity in spaces where they may otherwise be dehumanized. My goal here is acknowledge the complexity and multiplicity of readings contained in each photograph, but to offer a framework through which counter-narratives of autonomy and complex humanity can emerge.

* source: Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “The Dialectics of Wage Work: Japanese-American Women and Domestic Service, 1905-1940” in Labor Immigration Under Capitalism, ed. Cheng & Bonacich (Berkeley: UC Press, 1984), 470-73.


Creef, Elena Tajima. Imaging Japanese America. New York: NYU Press, 2004.

Nakano Glenn, Evelyn. “The Dialectics of Wage Work: Japanese-American Women and Domestic Service, 1905-1940.” in Labor Immigration Under Capitalism edited by Lucie Cheng & Edna Bonacich. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 470-511

Nakano Glenn, Evelyn. Unequal Freedom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Wexler, Laura. “Techniques of the Imaginary Nation: Engendering Family Photography” In Race and the Production of Modern American Nationalism edited by Reynold J. Scott-Childress. Routledge, 1998. 359-379.