Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit, Triumphing over Adversity:

Japanese American Incarceration Reflections, Then and Now 

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On Feb. 19, 1942, with a frightened nation still reeling from the Japanese attack on  two months earlier, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which led to the forced removal of almost 120,000 ethnic Japanese to incarceration camps during World War II. Two-thirds of them were native-born American citizens who were given but a few days to settle their financial affairs and report for a forced removal to 10 desolate incarceration camps away from the West Coast.

The order deemed California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona a military zone and gave the U.S.  War Relocation Authority (WRA) jurisdiction over people of Japanese ancestry living in those states. 

Even though they had done nothing wrong, many of the Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) didn’t talk about their incarceration camp experiences because of the shame and pain they felt. Not only did they want to put the past behind them, they also didn't want to burden their children with their personal loss.


In the late 1970s, as I started on my path as a photographer, I learned from my uncle, San Francisco artist Nobuo Kitagaki, that Dorothea Lange had photographed my grandparents, father and aunt in 1942 as they awaited a bus in Oakland, Calif., to begin their journey into detention. Several years later, while looking through over 900 of Lange’s photographs at the National Archives in Washington D.C., I found her original images of my family.

As I examined Lange’s work, I realized that every photograph represented an untold story that was quietly buried in the past. I had many questions and few answers. Most importantly, I wanted to know how Executive Order 9066 forever changed the lives of these internees who unjustly lost their homes, businesses and, sometimes, their families.

In 2005 I began searching for the identities of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans whose images of forced relocation were captured by Lange and the other War Relocation Authority photographers, including Clem Albers, Tom Parker and Francis Stewart. It’s a complicated and difficult task, as most of the photographs did not identify incarcerated subjects. During the past 13 years, I’ve photographed over 60 of the original subjects, or their direct descendants, living in California, Oregon, Washington, Missouri, Texas and New Jersey. Recently I’ve located a few more subjects to be photographed.

Gambatte! is that rare exhibit that synthesizes artistic achievement with historical documentation. Paul Kitagaki’s beautifully executed photographs capture the dignity of his subjects, while the accompanying oral histories provide a personal perspective on the profound effects that the unconstitutional incarceration of Japanese Americans wrought on a generation. Meanwhile, Kitagaki’s detective work in tracing the anonymous subjects of 1940s photographs to capture their images and stories today is a thrilling back-story. Gambatte is an important exhibit that touches the heart.”
— Amanda Meeker, Executive Director The California Museum


As each year passes, we are losing the Nisei generation along with their untold stories. 

This is an American story told by Americans. Ethnic Japanese Americans were rounded up by Americans, forcibly incarcerated into American prison camps guarded by armed Americans. After WWII ended, they returned to their American communities and, in 1988, Americans formally apologized for the violation of their rights as American citizens.

As President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that apologized and granted reparations to the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated, he said that three things had led to the internment: racism and prejudice, war-time hysteria and the failure of the political leaders to uphold the Constitution.

Cheryl Hirata-Dulas, a member and past president of the Twin Cities chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, said the exhibit shows the humanity of the experience on many levels. It took three visits to go through the more than 40 photo panels of 50 individuals because it was so emotionally powerful, she said.
“I think it’s a very personal story,” Hirata-Dulas said. “We have learned about what happened and all of the facts but this really grabs you from the heart.”
— Cheryl Hirata-Dulas, Historic Fort Snelling Exhibition 2017

Many of the Issei (first generation Japanese-American) and Nisei (second generation Japanese-American) never shared their stories with their own families. As some of the subjects recounted their experiences, they were overcome with tears and emotion as long-forgotten memories returned. For many, this was the first time for them to publicly speak about what they endured.

I strive to create contemporary images that complement and mirror the original photographs of Lange and her counterparts and that reveal the strength and perseverance of my subjects. My photographs are captured with a 4x5 camera, similar to the format used in the 1940s, using Polaroid black and white film, which produces an instant print and negative and T-Max 400 sheet film. I have recorded audio and video interviews with my subjects, allowing their faces and voices to reach out and recount in their own words the incarceration experience. 

I’m searching for more subjects willing to share their stories with me. And I am looking for a publisher and funding for a book on my project “Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit” so we can share this story.

So that we will all remember – always.

-Paul Kitagaki Jr.