Enduring Spirit: The Photography of Paul Kitagaki Jr. | KCET
Enduring Spirit: The Photography of Paul Kitagaki Jr.
In a room crowded with anxious families, 14-year-old Kiyoshi Kitagaki sits with his sister and parents. It is May 6, 1942, and the Kitagaki family is at the Oakland Wartime Civil Control administration station. They wait as their Caucasian friend Dorothy Hightower hands them a pamphlet that explains in terse, government terms that they, along with nearly ten thousand other Japanese Americans from the San Francisco Bay Area, are about to be imprisoned in wartime camps. Kiyoshi's parents and sister are turned towards Mrs. Hightower, who not only came to say goodbye; she also stored many of the Kitakagi family belongings for the duration of the war. Only Kiyoshi faces the photographer, the renowned artist Dorothea Lange, wearing a stunned expression of utter loss. Like all West Coast Japanese Americans, the Kitagakis left behind their home (located behind the family business, Arthur's Dye and Cleaning in Oakland) and every aspect of life as they knew it. Even if Lange's War Relocation Authority photo doesn't overtly express any anger or a harrowing sorrow, the Kitagaki's faces are also void of any sense of belonging, or of who they were as Americans.
Only three months prior, on February 19, 1942, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which defined all persons of Japanese descent — citizens and aliens alike — as potential dangers to national security and banished them from designated areas of Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona. Families were given one to two weeks’ notice to shutter all business, sell equipment and personal belongings and instructed to meet with only what they could carry at civil control stations that had been quickly set up throughout the West Coast. On May 6, as rain steadily pelted them, Kiyoshi Kitagaki and his family boarded the bus in Oakland headed to the Tanforan Race Track, where they were led to whitewashed horse stalls and told that these were their temporary living quarters.Nearly thirty years later, Kiyoshi's son, Paul Jr., is the one behind the lens, shooting portraits of Japanese Americans using the same 4 x 5 format camera that Lange used in 1942. Now a senior photographer at the Sacramento Bee, Kitagaki has traveled the world, capturing both natural and man-made disasters and moments of everyday humanity, earning him dozens of photo awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and an Emmy nomination. Since 2005, he has been painstakingly tracking down the people that Lange and other wartime photographers captured on film. If they are willing, he also interviews them about their memories or knowledge of that moment in history. Many of them have no idea that the government photographed them on those fateful days. Then he sets up his equipment and takes a black and white portrait to juxtapose with these now-iconic, wartime photos, connecting past with present. Occasionally, these portraits are taken in the same historic spot where their photo was taken back in 1942, which adds the power of place to the image's energy, but many times Kitagaki photographs these people where they are most at ease — at home. What Kitagaki returns to these Japanese Americans can be read in their eyes: That person in 1942, who lived through this terrible act of racism perpetuated by our government, is still inside of me.
Paul Kitagaki was sixteen and living in South San Francisco, mere miles from the detention center at Tanforan, where his parents and grandparents were incarcerated, when he first learned about the World War II American concentration camps, which his family had kept a secret his entire life. At that age, Kitagaki was heavy into music, playing in the school's jazz band and dreaming of becoming a professional drummer. He enrolled at a summer school history course in San Mateo to catch up on credits, which is where he discovered the truth about the American concentration camps. Furious, he returned home and asked his parents, "What camps?" but their response (his father, ironically, was also a high school teacher) was far less impassioned than he expected. Their response was: "Oh yeah, the food was bad," but dismissed the issue as part of the long-ago past that wasn't any concern of his. His father didn't tell him anything more about the five months they lived in the crowded, often unsanitary stalls at Tanforan or what it felt like when they were transferred by train to the Topaz Relocation Center, located in the harsh salt deserts of Central Utah. The Kitagakis would endure this suspended life in prison camp until the war was declared over, and the Japanese Americans were informed that they could return to California, although at their own risk.
Slide left and right on the photos below to see the subjects THEN and NOW: In this photo by Dorothea Lange, Paul Kitagaki Jr.’s family waits to depart from 1117 Oak Street, the W.C.C.A. (Wartime Civil Control Authority) Control Station, in Oakland in 1942 for the Tanforan Assembly Center. In this 2005 photo, Paul Kitakagi, Jr. returns with Kimiko Kitagaki Wong and Paul Kiyoshi Kitagaki to that same Oakland building where the East Bay evacuees were sent to camps. After returning from camp, their father, Suyematsu, was unable to restart his business and worked as a domestic cleaning homes in Piedmont.
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Confirmation of the incarceration became a hunger for more information about what happened to the Japanese Americans during World War II. Eventually, Kitagaki found two seminal publications about the forced removal that became essential resources: “American Concentration Camps” by Allan R. Bosworth and “Executive Order 9066” by Maise and Richard Conrat. The Bosworth book outlined the chain of events that led to the incarceration and how unjust the mass removal was. It also had the distinction of being the first book published in the U.S. to use the term "concentration camps" to describe the centers that the Japanese were forced into and helped Kitagaki understand the severity of what had happened. The Conrat book would become his bible. “Executive Order 9066” accompanied a landmark photo exhibition that first opened at the California Historical Society in 1972, before touring nationally and introducing many Americans both to the story of the Japanese American incarceration and the details of camp. “Executive Order 9066” compiled photographs taken by the War Relocation Center's photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Clem Alberts, Charles Mace, Ansel Adams and Toyo Miyatake, the latter being the only photographer who was an inmate himself. “Executive Order 9066” not only gave Kitagaki a visual language for the incarceration, it also exposed him to the emotional impact of the experience, and how hard the Japanese Americans fought for their dignity in spite of the immeasurable losses.
Kitagaki didn't take up photography until his last year in high school. While in college, he purchased a Nikon Nikkormat camera and read photo magazines as a hobby. Tendonitis from drumming forced him to switch his major from music to broadcasting, but during his last semester, he took a photojournalism class with San Francisco Examiner Sunday magazine photographer Fran Ortiz, which set him on the path to do the same. "After graduating, I started to freelance in the Bay Area and kept working at the J.C. Penny department store where I had worked to pay for college, which, ironically, was located in the Tanforan Mall." Unbeknownst to Paul, he had been working in retail right over the site where his family had been detained.
Some years later, his uncle Nobuo, who had traveled with Kitagaki's grandparents, father and aunt to the Oakland Civil Control Station in 1942 but wasn't in the photograph, told Paul that Dorothea Lange had taken pictures of the family at the moment that their lives were irreversibly changed. A successful San Francisco artist, best known for his modernist paintings and colleges and his Japanese shoji (paper-covered sliding door) store in North Beach, Nobuo Kitagaki encouraged his nephew's creative explorations by inviting him to his annual New Year studio party and gifting him photography and art books. Nobuo also revealed that when he was faced with the dilemma of bringing what he valued most to camp, he chose a Victrola turntable and his precious collection of opera records. While incarcerated at Tanforan, Nobuo maintained the camp library and wrote for the Tanforan Totalizer newspaper, which was written by inmates but censored for content and forbidden from publishing articles in the Japanese language. He also applied his literary and artistic interests to Trek magazine, a rich visual and literary anthology that was entirely written, illustrated, and published in Topaz by the incarcerated.
With time, Nobuo would help connect his nephew to the San Francisco Japanese American community by introducing him to a community eldercare organization, where Kitagaki volunteered to take portraits of the Issei (first generation) residents and others. Meanwhile, Kitagaki had begun work as a professional photographer, advancing from freelance to a staff job at the San Francisco Progress and then to the San Francisco Examiner. He moved to progressively more prominent newspapers across the West Coast, and his assignments grew more ambitious to include photographing Iraqis under Saddam Hussein's regime and the aftermath of the SF Bay Area earthquake.
In 1988, while working as a photographer on the campaign trail for presidential candidate Gary Hart, he landed in Washington D.C. and with some time to spare, decided to look up the Dorothea Lange collection at the National Archives and Library of Congress. Lange was hired by the WRA to photograph the mass evacuation and despite being opposed to the effort, as she believed “a true record of the evacuation would be valuable in the future.” Lange worked tirelessly, traveling up and down California to document Japanese Americans as they were herded onto buses and trains and moved into barracks and stables at horse racetracks and fairgrounds. However, she was eventually fired by WRA staff for her "sympathetic" approach. Since the humanity and hardship of her photographs contradicted the hysterical portrait painted by the mass media about the dangers of the Japanese, her photos were seized by the government and marked with the word "impoundment" then quietly deposited away from the public for half a century. Despite much resistance from the camp authorities and military police and several constraints on what she could photograph, she produced over 800 photographs during her assignment.
"They wheeled out trays of 'shoeboxes' filled with her 4 x 5 contact prints," Kitagaki remembers. To his dismay, most of Lange's photographs bore spare captions that only listed the date, photographer and where the photo was taken; the identity of the people looking back at him was a mystery. He was looking for the photos of his family but had no idea what it looked like as flipped through box after box. Even so, he wasn't wholly prepared when he found his teenaged father, Kiyoshi, and his young aunt Kimiko, staring back at him across time. He was also surprised that both his photo with his father and grandparents and a second photo he uncovered of his aunt wearing the family number on a tag hung around her neck standing alone beside a mountain of similarly tagged luggage, identified them by name on the back.
It took several more years before Kitagaki decided that he had to track down the people he saw in those War Relocation Authority photographs. He knew he had to start with his own family, but his mother refused an interview and his father and aunt were reticent to share too many details. Undaunted, Kitagaki widened his circle and turned to the Japanese American community at large to help him identify the subjects of those lost photographs, which at that point had not been digitized or widely circulated. "I started out going to different churches in the Sacramento area and also asking people I knew in the San Francisco and Sacramento communities to help identify people in the historical photos from Dorothea Lange and others," Kitagaki says. Finally, someone recognized Ted Miyata, a soldier who returned home to help his mother harvest strawberries before she was sent to the camps. He eventually reached Miyata's daughter and did his first photoshoot. Kitagaki slowly built up from there, showing copies of the WRA photographs, conducting phone book and Google searches, and making cold calls all across the country. Time was running out to locate living subjects, and then there was the obstacle of convincing them to participate in the project to share their story, to let Kitagaki in.
Hover over the photos to learn more about their past. Click on the three photos below to learn their stories after the camps:
By 2012, Kitagaki had sixteen pairs of historic/contemporary photos in hand. In honor of the 70th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, he published stories in The Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle. This led to an exhibition, now a permanent installation at the San Bruno BART station, mere steps from the former Tanforan Assembly Center, where public transit commuters see the story every day. Three years later, Kitagaki had added 45 more pairs of photographs and stories and launched "Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit: Triumphing Over Adversity Japanese American WWII Incarceration Reflections: Then and Now," now a national traveling exhibition. So far, he has photographed over 60 of the original subjects or their direct descendants, living in California, Oregon, Washington, Missouri, Texas and New Jersey. In just the past year, he has photographed and interviewed three more people and found a handful more to approach.
These photo sessions have occasionally brought him to the historic sites of the forced removal: the ninety-nine former wartime civil control stations, where Japanese Americans were ordered to report for a government number and to wait for transportation into camp; the fifteen former World War II short-term "assembly center camps" (thirteen in California, one each in Washington, Arizona, and Oregon); and the eleven permanent concentration camps (located California, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Texas, and Arkansas.) But he has only visited a few. As the remaining survivors from the WRA photos pass on, Kitagaki has been working towards launching a related project of the landscape and archaeological remnants of every site of the World War II Japanese American incarceration. If the first phase of his project was about giving back the identities to the nameless, the next phase might be about connecting to the ephemeral. Some sites have been redeveloped, and a new historical layer has been added to these points of departure or confinement, leaving little or no visible traces of their wartime past. Other sites are just as desolate as they were 77 years ago, and the indelible mark of the war and the ghosts of the Japanese Americans still linger.
Slide left and right on the photos below to see the subjects THEN and NOW: In this photo by Ansel Adams, Henry and Ayako Tsurutani are seated at the kitchen table in their Manzanar barracks with their son, Bruce, on his 3rd birthday. In 2017, Paul Kitakagi, Jr. captures Bruce Tsurutani, 76, at his home. A senior research scientist at NASA'S Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, he has been honored for "original research and technical leadership in geomagnetism, atmospheric electricity, aeronomy, space physics and related sciences.” Although his parents never talked about their experiences in camp, Bruce returned decades later with his mother and other family members to Manzanar. More than seven decades since the internment, many things have changed in the United States. "But I still have this feeling," Bruce said, "that it could happen again."
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Top Image: San Bruno, California. A barrack building at this assembly center has been reserved for the library which has just been established with a trained librarian of Japanese ancestry in charge.| US National Archives and Records Administration
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