By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, clearing the way for the mass removal of Japanese Americans from their homes just two months after Pearl Harbor, anti-Asian sentiment had already been woven thoroughly into the national fabric. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act became the country’s first racially restrictive immigration law; it was followed in 1924 by the Immigration Act, which banned immigrants from all Asian countries. In between these two appalling milestones came the 1913 Alien Land Law, which targeted Asian immigrants by forbidding those foreign nationals who were ineligible for citizenship from owning land in California, where white farmers sought to expel Japanese Americans for “taking” agricultural jobs.
The wartime media understood how the power of written and visual language could be used to depict Japanese Americans as the enemy. One particularly egregious guide, published by Life magazine a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, used portraits of “Chinese public servant” Ong Wen-hao and “Japanese warrior” Tojo Hideki to educate readers on how to distinguish “enemy alien Japs” from “friendly Chinese.” Scribbled annotations contrasted Ong’s “longer, narrower face” and “parchment yellow complexion” with Tojo’s “massive cheek and jawbone” and “earthy” tone. Ong’s and Tojo’s faces gaze out from beneath the heavy web of marks, drawn by an anonymous hand.
Later in 1942, Roosevelt tasked the War Relocation Authority with overseeing the transfer of Japanese Americans to the nation’s 10 incarceration camps. Government officials were instructed to seize family photo albums from detainees’ homes, and prisoners themselves were forbidden from bringing cameras or other recording devices into the camps. A WRA memo stated that the agency’s goals were to “reestablish the evacuated people as a productive segment of the American population” and to “facilitate…reassimilation.” In order to document its presumed success in meeting these objectives, the WRA hired its own photographers to fill in the gaps in the visual record that it had created with images taken under exacting restrictions: No barbed wire or guard towers were to be pictured, and all negatives would be subject to review by the agency’s senior photographers. Stipulations like these sought to ensure that images of Japanese-American incarceration projected the WRA’s efforts as orderly and, above all, humane.
At the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City, the exhibit “Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II” features more than 100 photographs documenting the imprisonment of more than 110,000 citizens and legal residents from 1942 to ’45. (The Japanese American Citizens League distinguishes between the word “incarceration” and its euphemism “internment”: “Incarceration….reflects the prison-like conditions faced by Japanese Americans as well as the view that they were treated as if guilty of sabotage, espionage, and/or suspect loyalty.”) The exhibit immediately calls attention to history with its title, which comes from a phrase often attributed to the anti-Nazi theologian Martin Niemöller. In one of his postwar lectures, he said, “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”