"Suffering Under a Great Injustice": Ansel Adams's Photographs of
Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar
Ansel Adams's Manzanar photographs reflect the early Japanese-American experience and the evacuation of this population to internment camps during World War II. The collection provides an in-depth look at daily life at the camp at Manzanar. It also touches upon the participation of Japanese Americans in the war and their relocation to the interior United States as the war progressed.
The Early Japanese-American Experience
In the late 1860s, a new ruling dynasty in Japan initiated an era of industrialization. By the 1890s, people living in agricultural areas were finding ever fewer economic opportunities, while the population grew and poverty increased. Many Japanese, especially rural middle-class families, sought new opportunities abroad. Eighty percent of the Japanese who emigrated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries went to the United States.
When Japanese immigrants arrived in the U.S., they entered a culture that already included a strong anti-Asian sentiment. Chinese immigrants who had arrived a few decades earlier had aroused animosity by providing a cheap source of labor that threatened other people's jobs. This economic competition was strongest in the western states where Chinese immigrants vied for jobs in agriculture. It was also in this region that racism against the Chinese was strongest.
Like the Chinese, the majority of Japanese immigrants also settled in the West to find agricultural work. As the Japanese-American population grew, many labor unions, politicians, and white supremacists in the region lobbied against them. As a result, legislation was passed to limit Japanese immigration to the United States. Other laws limited the amount of land that Japanese Americans could buy. Separate schools were created for children of Japanese as well as Indian, Chinese, and Mongolian parents. And in 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court denied people born in Japan the opportunity to become U.S. citizens.
Though the text of Adams’s book about Manzanar, Born Free and Equal, is not searchable, it can be browsed for information about Japanese immigration and the early Japanese-American experience. For example, Adams includes statistics about the Japanese-American population, and he discusses the problem of economic competition. Adams argues that discrimination against Japanese Americans forced them to underbid their competitors and he calls for the establishment of a minimum wage.
- Why do you think Adams thought that the readers of Born Free and Equal should know these facts about the Japanese-American population?
- Why did Chinese and Japanese Americans provide cheaper labor than their competitors?
- Why would this source of cheap labor upset some people?
- What factors contributed to the development of racism against people of Chinese and Japanese descent?
- How were other immigrant groups such as the Germans and Irish received by U.S. citizens?
- How effective do you think establishing a minimum wage would be in solving the problem of racial strife created by economic competition? Why?
The early Japanese-American experience is also reflected in interviews that Adams conducted with Manzanar residents, found throughout Born Free and Equal. Adams introduces his readers to a first-generation Japanese American, or Issei, named Mr. Francis Yonemitsu :
Mr. Francis Yonemitsu…was born in Japan. He is not and cannot be a citizen. But he is American in spirit, and he is a realist. In regard to his pre-war life in America he said he would have liked to be truly assimilated, but that the Caucasians themselves prevented it. He was automatically barred from many public places. As to the future he says, '‘At present I am undecided. I leave my children's plans up to them. They are citizens; my problem is far more difficult.' Mr. Yonemitsu hopes that in the post-war world 'our federal government will take steps to smooth out once and for all the minority problems of the Japanese, Negroes, etc…'
Adams also introduces his reader to a second-generation Japanese American, or Nisei, named Mr. Roy Takeno. Search on Roy Takeno for several photographs of this Manzanar resident who became the editor of the largest Japanese language newspaper in the country after his internment. According to Adams, Takeno expresses the "general attitude" of "all the Nisei" in an editorial that he wrote for the Manzanar Free Press and in his conversation:
Of his life prior to the war he says he was "comfortable, but felt confined in his Japanese community." Trained in American schools, and believing in American ways, he feels, along with thousands of his fellow Nisei, the unsatisfactory elements of enforced racial segregation. America has not assimilated all who have assimilated America.
- What do the interviews with Yonemitsu and Takeno as well as Takeno's editorial reveal about the Japanese-American experience in the early-twentieth century?
- What do you think was the Japanese Americans' "stake in America" at this time and how did it change with their evacuation to interment camps?
- What were Mr. Yonemitsu's and Mr. Takeno's goals and attitudes as Japanese Americans in the United States?
- What other goals and attitudes might you expect from immigrants and their descendants?
- What impression do you get of Mr. Takeno from the series of photographs that Adams made of him?
- To what extent does Adams interpret the early Japanese-American experience in this material? Do you think that his interpretation is legitimate?
Browse Born Free and Equal for other passages and images pertaining to the early Japanese-American experience, such as a photograph and a quotation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt stating that " 'Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.' "
- What are the implications of the definition (found in the forward) of "Americanism" upon immigrants and their descendants?
- How does the rest of the book relate to this quotation?
- What does the forward imply about the role of immigrants in the United States? How does the book as a whole represent the role of immigrants?
- What does the photograph's caption imply about the Japanese-American experience?
- What does it imply about the immigrant experience?
For more on the early Japanese-American experience see The Teachers Page feature presentation, Immigration — The Changing Face of America.