Project Documenting Japanese Americans Incarcerated During WWII is Timely

Mar 13, 2017
Paul Kitagaki, Jr.

By Sabrina Burse

Sitting in a classroom in the tenth grade, Paul Kitagaki Jr. learned for the first time about how his family was rounded up with other Japanese Americans and sent off to incarceration camps during World War II.

“Our parents didn’t talk about this story,” Kitagaki said. “I was in total shock when I learned about it. They were American citizens, so how can you do that to them?”

As he started his career as a photographer, Kitagaki’s uncle Nobuo first told him about the photos from the incarceration camps. Kitagaki learned that famed documentary photographer Dorothea Lange had photographed his father, aunt, and grandparents right before they were sent away.

His family was part of an estimated 120,000 people forcibly relocated during World War II after President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order to incarcerate Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

At left, Japanese Americans Hideno Nakamoto, 7, left, and Yoko Itashiki, 7, center, recite the Pledge of Allegiance in 1942 at the Raphael Weill School in San Francisco, California, before being sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center and then the Topaz War Relocation Center in the Utah desert. Photo by Dorothea Lange. On right, Helene Nakamoto Mihara, 72, and Mary Ann Yahiro, 72, photographed at Rosa Parks Elementary School the former Raphael Weill School in San Francisco. Photo © Paul Kitagaki, Jr.

“In 1984 I went to the National Archives and I decided to find the photographs of my family and I found three photos taken by Dorothea Lange,” said Kitagaki.

Throughout his career, Kitagaki worked on stories about the Japanese incarceration. In 2005, with the power of internet searches, he set out to find as many of the people he could who Lange photographed in 1942 in hopes of identifying them and telling their stories. He has found close to 60 people who were removed from their homes and sent to incarceration camps.

Today, his subjects say it is especially urgent for the public to know their stories because of the renewed emphasis on profiling people based on their country of origin or their faith.

“It’s important to get this story out there because of what is going on now,’ Kitagaki said. “They don’t want anything like this to happen to anyone else.”

For the project, he interviewed the people from Lange’s photos and made portraits in a style similar to that of the 1940’s with a 4x5 camera and Polaroid type 55 film that produces both a film negative and positive print.

The project became “Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit: Triumphing Over Adversity Japanese American WWII Incarceration Reflections Then and Now.” Kitagaki said that Gambatte is a Japanese word that can mean “Triumph over adversity,” “Keep trying to do your best” or “Don’t give up.”

Kitagaki said that he saw his family, through their suffering, had the spirit of gaman, a Japanese term from Zen Buddhism meaning patient perseverance. They didn’t want to talk about what had happened.

“They wanted to move past that experience and I think it was shameful and painful for them. They didn’t want that experience to cloud their children’s thoughts,” Kitagaki said. “They wanted everything to be kind of positive for us.”

Kitagaki, 62, is a senior photojournalist at the Sacramento Bee. He went to San Francisco State University and started freelancing for local newspapers after graduation. He has been a photojournalist for 38 years with additional experience in radio, television and broadcasting. He shared in a Pultizer Prize while working at the San Jose Mercury News in 1990. He has also worked at The Oregonian, The San Francisco Examiner and the Seattle Post Intelligencer. 

The Gambatte traveling exhibit started in 2012 and was helped with an NPPA Short Grant. The exhibit is at the Tucson Desert Art Museum until April 30 and then moves to the Historic Fort Snelling Museum in St. Paul Minnesota from May to October. Kitagaki is looking for other venues and for a publisher for a book from the Gambatte project.