There are nearly 200 photographs in Michael Williams and Richard Cahan’s new book Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War Two. But one in particular stands out for Cahan. “The photograph of Rachel, in my opinion, was the most compelling and beautiful photograph in the book,” Cahan says. “Dorothea Lange had this unique ability to get so close to people, even people that were strangers, and look into their eyes.”
Lange’s portrait of Rachel Kuruma is startling in its simplicity: The 11-year-old San Francisco schoolkid looks into the camera, smiling quietly, in a cute, floral-print dress. The shock comes at the fact that only days after Lange shot this photo at Raphael Weill Elementary School on April 20, 1942, Kuruma and her family were bundled off to prison camp.
Awakening long-lost memories
Fast forward 75 years, and Kuruma is back at her former school for the very first time since Lange took her picture in 1942. Cahan and Kuruma have become friends since he tracked her down for his book project last year, and we’re there to see if the surroundings might help jog childhood memories for Kuruma. But the school, which is now called Rosa Parks Elementary, has changed almost beyond recognition since she was a student. And the spry, 85-year-old has absolutely no recollection of posing for Lange.
Cahan has brought a copy of Lange’s photo along. Being at the school and looking at the picture gradually brings back distant memories for Kuruma of the three-plus years she spent living in the prison camps at Tanforan, California, and Topaz, Utah as a girl. “The toilets, none of them had doors,” she says. “So you tried to pick one that was facing against the wall, preferably the one in the corner so you have some privacy.”
Executive order 9066
On Feb. 19, 1942, in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This led to the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II at prison camps across the western United States.
Roosevelt’s government hired photographers like Lange to show off the camps in their best light. But she and some of the other hired guns ended up exposing what life in the dusty, hastily-built enclaves was really like. As a result, Cahan says, some of her images were locked away during the war. “They were impounded primarily because they gave away ‘military secrets’ — that guards were using machine guns and that there was barbed wire around the camp,” Cahan says.
Tracking down survivors
After the war, the photos ended up in the National Archives in Washington, D.C, where the collection can still be found today. (It’s also available online.) Many more photos from the approx. 7,500-image collection have appeared in publications since the war years. But Cahan and his co-author decided they wanted to go deeper, to truly get people to understand what innocent Japanese Americans went through during the war. So they set about capturing the personal stories of as many of the people in the pictures as they could.
“The book lets you hear the words of the people who were picked up,” Cahan says. “When you see a person 75 years earlier and hear them talk about that very picture and that very day and what happened to them, I think it has great power. I think that there’s an emotional hole that it fills that really has not been filled before.”
Cahan says tracking down survivors wasn’t easy. In Kuruma’s case, her name was misspelled in the records — as “Rachael Kurumi” instead of “Rachel Kuruma.” “I had the list of all of the survivors of the camps,” Cahan says. “There was no ‘Rachael’ spelled that way, and there was no ‘Kurumi’ spelled that way.”
A search on the genealogy website Ancestry.com led Cahan to a 1949 yearbook photo of Kuruma as a student at Lowell High School. He did more poking around on Google. Then, one day, he got hold of her phone number. But Kuruma thought the caller was trying to sell her something. “I called her, and she picked up the phone,” Cahan says. “I said ‘My name is Rich Cahan and I’m a…’ and before I had said ‘journalist’ she hung up the phone.”
Cahan was persistent. Eventually, he managed to meet Kuruma. She says she rarely thinks or talks about the prison camps, and had no idea the photograph existed until the day Cahan showed it to her. “He’s talking about this picture. I say, what picture?” Kuruma says. “So he brought it over and I looked. It was kind of interesting.”
The past as a catalyst for present-day activism
Some of the people the authors approached weren’t so taken by surprise when Cahan got in touch. Berkeley psychotherapist, filmmaker and activist Satsuki Ina was born in a maximum security prison camp in Tule Lake, California in 1944, after her parents were labeled as dissidents for refusing to swear unqualified allegiance to the United States. She’s studied the National Archives photo collection. The arresting image in Cahan and Williams’ book of a young woman standing in line in San Francisco, waiting to hear news of her fate, is one Ina knows very well.
“This is a photo of my mother,” she says, looking at the picture in Un-American. “She had no idea what this was going to lead to, where they were going to be and for how long. So I see that expression on her face. It captures the confusion and the fear that she wrote about in her diary.”
Ina has made a study of her parents’ diaries and letters from the camp. She shows me her mother’s original journals, segments of which she gave Cahan and Williams permission to use in their book. Ina locates the entry dated Friday, Apr. 24, 1942, from right before Lange took that photo of her mother.
She reads it aloud, and the reality of this young woman’s predicament, as she waits to receive her marching orders, suddenly feels three-dimensional: “Twelve noon today our evacuation order is effective,” Ina reads. “Every corner of the block has a notice on it. There are so many people that we’ve been waiting almost three hours to get a slip of appointment for tomorrow.”
Ina has made documentary films based on the diaries and other memorabilia, and is at work on a book. Like others from her community, she sees a worrying link between how the U.S. government treated Japanese Americans during the Second World War and recent calls by the Trump administration for a Muslim registry. “People were hysterical about Japan attacking the U.S.,” she says. “So today of course that resonates with the same kind of mass hysteria that is being rung up about terrorism.”
Like Cahan, Ina says she wants to do everything she can to teach people about this irredeemable chapter of American history — to prevent the same horrors from happening again.
Editor’s note: Although the phrase “internment camps” is most commonly used in this country to describe the sites where 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated during the WWII, many members of the Japanese community believe that “internment” is not an accurate descriptor for the camps. Members of the Japanese community believe they were wrongfully imprisoned, and many use the terms “incarceration camps” or “prison camps” to describe the sites where they were detained against their will. We opted to use these terms in lieu of the more common term out of respect for the community.