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Photo courtesy of Pail Kitagaki Jr.

A new exhibit featuring historic photographs by Dorothea Lange and contemporary images by photojournalist Paul Kitagaki Jr. reveals a generation’s triumph over their incarceration during World War II.

By P.C. Staff

“Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit,” which features historic images by U.S. War Relocation Authority staff photographers including Dorothea Lange and contemporary images by photojournalist Paul Kitagaki Jr., runs through May 3 at the California Museum.

A visual exploration of the Japanese concept of gambatte or “to triumph over adversity,” the exhibit — sponsored by the Japanese American Citizens League’s Northern California Time of Remembrance Committee, the Sacramento Bee and Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee — chronicles the legacy of Japanese Americans who persevered over their incarceration during World War II through a display of past and present images from an often overlooked chapter of U.S. history.

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A historic photograph of Helene Nakamoto (left) and Mary Ann Yahiro reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at their San Francisco elementary school before their relocation to the Topaz Internment Camp. The photo was taken in 1942 by Dorothea Lange, National Archives and Records Administration

“It’s important to bring light to this experience in American history,” explained Brenna Hamilton, communications and marketing director for the California Museum. “The internment story is powerful and extremely loving, showing the strength, resilience and perseverance of Japanese Americans during this awful event.”

Since 2000, the California Museum has made an effort to educate the public and inform visitors about the internment of Japanese Americans with the “Uprooted! Japanese Americans During World War II” exhibit and the “Time of Remembrance” annual learning program.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, more than 120,000 Japanese Americans residing on the West Coast, two-thirds of whom were American by birth, were forced to leave their homes and incarcerated at one of 10 War Relocation Centers located in isolated areas under Executive Order 9066. Issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, the order deemed California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona a military zone and gave the U.S. War Relocation Authority jurisdiction over people of Japanese ancestry living in these states.

During the WRA’s existence from 1942-46, the agency maintained records of its work through reports and photographs taken by Dorothea Lange, Tom Parker and other professional photographers commissioned to document the daily life and treatment of Japanese Americans during their incarceration through images.

Lange found herself at odds with her employer due to issues of racism and civil rights raised by the assignment. Her work juxtaposed signs of courage and determination with evidence of the indignities of incarceration, and as a result, many of her photographs were censored by the federal government. It was not until 1972, when the Whitney Museum of American Art first displayed 27 of her images in an exhibit on Japanese American internment titled “Executive Order 9066,” that her work became widely known and began to serve as a public record of Japanese Americans’ internment during WWII.

In the late 1970s, Kitagaki was beginning his career as a photojournalist in San Francisco when he learned that Lange had photographed his family in 1942 while they awaited a relocation bus in Oakland, Calif. While researching Lange’s work to locate images of his relatives, his interest in the effects of Executive Order 9066 led him to begin researching other individuals captured in WRA photographs and how their incarceration during WWII changed their lives.

“I wanted to put a name to the impersonal ID tags that were given to them. It dehumanized them,” said Kitagaki. “Many still don’t know about the forced removal of Japanese and Japanese Americans and I wanted to know what happened to those nameless people and investigate how Executive Order 9066 changed their lives and the generations that followed.”

To date, Kitagaki has documented more than 25 of the individuals originally shot by the WRA staff with his own contemporary photographs. Utilizing a 4×5 format camera, similar to equipment used by photographers in the 1940s, as well as black-and-white film, his work is designed to mirror his predecessors while revealing the strength and legacy of perseverance of his subjects.

“Paul Kitagaki’s visual resurrection of a tragic and intergenerational trauma of the WWII incarceration of innocent people is a stirring reminder to all citizens of the world of inhumane injustices perpetrated in the name of war,” said Dr. Satsuki Ina, a subject featured in the exhibit and filmmaker of the documentaries “Children of the Camp” (2003) and “From a Silk Cocoon” (2005). “Kitagaki’s inspired work has a profound message that brings the past into today’s perspective.”

Added Dori Moorehead, executive director of the California Museum: “The California Museum is proud to exhibit these powerful images from the past and present documenting Japanese Americans’ internment during WWII. They serve as not only a visual record of this chapter of history but also as an inspiration as examples of mankind’s ability to triumph over adversity.”

A photojournalist for more than 35 years, Kitagaki has worked for the Sacramento Bee(ITAL) since 2003 and been featured in lectures, books exhibits and national publications.

— Additional reporting by The Pacific Citizen

One Comment

  • dewey says:

    It was my good fortune to be visiting in Sacramento when my friend suggested going to see this new exhibit, Gambatte. I hope that Mr. Kitagaki produces a book from this work. Quite impressive!