Karin Higa’s chapter “Toyo Miyatake and ‘Our World’” centers on a 1944 high school year book called Our World and the photographer who made it possible, Toyo Miyatake. The yearbook was product of high school students interned in the American concentration camp Manzanar in California which held more than 11,000 Japanese Americans from March 1942 to November 1945. Higa’s chapter analyzes the many roles of Miyatake- as a photographer for the Our World yearbook, as the official photographer of Manzanar, as an artist and as an interned Japanese American – in relation to the phenomenon of Japanese internment and notion of Americanness in a unique historical moment.
Miyatake served for all intents and purposes as the official photograph at Manzanar assuming this role first in an illicit manner using a camera and film he had smuggled into the camp from Los Angeles, before being given essentially free reign to photograph by the camp’s director. Prior to his internment, Miyatake had been a fairly successful photographer. In addition to owning his own photographic studio in, Miyatake participated in a number of international and national photography salons and even worked as a correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun photographing the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. In addition, Miyatake’s work with the Shaku-do-Sha, “an interdisciplinary group of painter, poets and photographers based in Little Tokyo” uniquely positioned him as “both insider and outsider in his photographic practice” a role that likely influenced his role as a photographer in Manzanar (337).
While interned, Miyatake continued to operate as a photographer in much the same way as he had outside of the camp, photographing family events as well as daily life around the camp. The desire to have these moments captured on film was so strong that it became necessary to institute a system of rationing whereby coupons were distributed to families for particular events. Miyatake also photographed nearly all of the images for the Our World yearbook (with the famed Ansel Adams contributing the few not by Miyatake). Finally, Miyatake photographed the images for Valediction which was the yearbook for Manzanar High School’s class of 1945, the final graduating class from Manzanar.
Miyatake’s personal background and the ways in which he continued to operate within some degree of normalcy are essential to Higa’s discussion of Our World as Miyatake embodies in many ways the underlying tensions of the project. At its core, Our World represented a desire for normalcy, as the forward explains the purpose of the yearbook was to “approximate in all activities we knew ‘back home.’” (335). The yearbook bears much in common with conventional high school annuals of the day. Individual students are presented in rows of headshots and are identified by name as well as by the name of their home high schools, those which they would be attending were it not for their internment. The annual also featured collaged photographs assembled to look like candid snapshots as well as an “Activities” section. Another section entitled “Democracy” featured photographs of town hall meetings and Japanese American soldiers. The rest of the sections were devoted to depicting various aspects of daily life in Manzanar.
A central thesis of Higa’s analysis of the yearbooks is that they function as deliberate and orchestrated performances of American-ness through an excessive attempt at presenting normality intended to counteract conceptions of Japanese-Americans as the enemy. In turn, Miyatake’s photographs extend the project beyond mere documentation by presenting images that on the surface lack a constructed narrative. Thus, the almost banal nature of Miyatake’s photographs “underscores the absurdity of the incarceration itself.” (340). When viewed in the context of the present day, it is this banality that makes the images even more unsettling. As Higa writes, “it is difficult to reconcile the severe and harrowing experiences of incarceration with a seemingly contradictory picture of utter normality.” (338).
While I agree with much of Higa’s analysis of the yearbooks and the work of Miyatake, leaves little room for divergence regarding the identities of those in the camps. In other words, Higa presents the experience of the internment camps as a monolith; an experience that erased all differences among the Japanese Americans in the camps. As with any shared experience this was undoubtedly true to a certain extent. While in the internment camps, outside signifiers of difference disappeared creating a shared sense of identity and experience. However, the experience of those in the camps must inherently have diverged as well. Within internment camps were business owners who were forced to give up their businesses while others came into the camps with little to their name. In addition, some in the camps were already second generation American citizens while others were still citizens of Japan. In this light, the forward of Our World stating that the students sought an approximation of activities from “back home” is problematized. The home to which this refers is different for each student in more than just the literal sense. While the images in the yearbook may serve as a holistic performance of “American-ness”, they did not derive from a singular sense of what that American-ness meant and what it ought to look like. While Miyatake’s images may at first present an image of normalcy in America, in addition to overlooking the absurdity of internment to which Higa alludes, they also overlook the artificiality of this normalcy within the Japanese American community. The presentation of the Japanese American community as just that, a singular community, is in of itself a creation within a creation and one that is not accounted for in Higa’s analysis of Miyatake’s photos
Along this same line, Higa describes Miyatake’s continued devotion to American ideals and identity even in the face of “assaults on person liberty, property, and political identity.” (343). Higa hints at how this concept is problematic and is in fact problematized somewhat by the “self-conscious fashioning of young Japanese Americans who knew that because they looked like the enemy, they were deemed so by their own government.” (343). However, Higa fails to address the way in which this tension was concurrently playing itself out in a national and nationalistic sense. Is a nation reductive in the sense that it represents what we all have in common, or is it about a geographical boundary within which diversity persists but exists under the umbrella of the nation?
Such a struggle plays itself out in the photographs of Miyatake as they present images seeking to demonstrate a shared identity between those within the camps and those outside of them. These are not images of the enemy but are instead images of Americans. At the same time, the images, and in particular Our World, demonstrate a separate community, one defined by geographical space. This community is the one inside the camps, and in a literal sense you are either in or you’re out. To the extent that Our World served as a performance of American-ness it also served as a performance of Japanese-American-ness one that functioned to identify otherness just as much as sameness.
While internment camps, unfortunately, came to define in part what it meant to be Japanese American, the sheer existence of such camps cut at the notion of what it meant to be American. The American ideals Miyatake sought to uphold were in flux and not just within the camps. In many ways, the entire country during this time was taking part in a performance of American-ness that, in the same manner as the ongoing performance in Manzanar, left unresolved many of the questions of what this American-ness meant or to what end it was serving.
Finally, the question arises as to how these images should be approached today. For many Americans, the existence of internment camps remains a dark spot in our history, an occurrence that is often overlooked or minimized. As has been discussed in this essay, this struggle is not new and it is likely the case that these images would have been just as troubling to some in 1944 as they remain in 2012. Thus, who were these images intended for? The answer to this question plays an important role in how we look at these images today. It seems unlikely that at the time anyone outside of the camp would have seen them or that those within the camp would have expected their audience to be anyone other than themselves. At the same time, the entire staging of both Our World and Valediction suggest, perhaps idealistically, a broader audience. Further, yearbooks inherently speak to a future audience, encapsulating memories with the idea that we will one day return to reflect on our former selves. Depicting vulnerable and awkward periods of our lives, yearbooks anticipate our looking back with both nostalgia and regret.
Anyone who has ever returned to a yearbook can appreciate the exercise. For some, they see a time to which they wish they could return, other see things they wish they could forget. In many ways, it is not so much what yearbooks depict that determines their importance in our lives. Rather, it is just that they exist. It is comfort that comes with knowing our memories are safely stored, that they remain in a medium to which we can always return. A yearbook can be shared not only with those from our past but also those from our present. The function of Miyatake’s images in this capacity both in the lives of those pictured as well as within the particular moment of American history, should not be overlooked. Our World remains the world of those interned in Manzanar, but its existence permits those who count themselves amongst the “our” in that phrase to continue not only to exist, but more importantly to expand.
All page numbers refer to-
Higa, Karin. “Toyo Miyatake and “Our World.” In Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis. New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.