Japanese new media artist Masaki Fujihata's exhibition and groundbreaking accompanying public augmented reality (AR) installation “BeHere/1942: A New Lens on the Japanese American Incarceration” remind us that even after eighty years, the ghost life of World War II Japanese American internment continues to haunt us. “BeHere/1942” revisits the War Relocation Authority's photographic history of the Japanese American incarceration experience using digital technology, including AR, which allows contemporary spectators to immerse themselves in the events of “relocation day” in the spring of 1942. Fujihata provides a new way of seeing, remembering, and experiencing photographs of the Japanese American wartime past in the present—empowered with contemporary media tools that are distinctly from what he calls “our own time”: AR.
On Saturday May 9, 1942, the lives of Japanese Americans in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, were forever changed. This is the day they were sent off to America's own concentration camps, like 120,000 others all along the coast. “BeHere/1942” invites you to engage with this terrible history in a new way. Take a look around you. It's still here.—Masaki Fujihata, “BeHere/1942”
The visual history of the Japanese American internment camp experience during World War II is complex. Starting in 1942, more than 120,000 men, women, and children were relocated to ten different camps—deliberately out of mainstream sight—in remote regions of the United States, a process that was visually documented by photographers engaged by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), even as the state initially deemed cameras and recording devices contraband in the hands of internees. Though the visibility of this government project of visual documentation is rendered more fraught by containment, censorship, and relative archival neglect, as Wendy Kozol, Jasmine Alinder, myself, and others have reminded, the WRA intended its wartime records to be public.1 This visual history is further complicated by the forbidden nature of an internee gaze that has long been a theme in the Japanese American wartime experience. The right to look from both sides of an outlawed camera has been practically mythologized in the well-known story of Manzanar internee and Japanese Issei photographer Toyo Miyatake and his famous “lunchbox” camera—crafted out of scrap lumber and a smuggled lens and film winder. Miyatake's illicit camera was discovered by camp director Ralph Palmer Merritt, a compassionate man who realized the historic importance of what Miyatake was doing in chronicling camp life and permitted the Los Angeles–based photographer to set up his camera—but insisted that a white camp worker trip the shutter to ensure that, technically, no Japanese American was photographing the camp. The complexities of this visual record of the Japanese American incarceration are captured at a plaza outside the Japanese American National Museum in the district still called Little Tokyo—itself a historic site where hundreds of Japanese Americans were gathered for removal in Los Angeles in 1942 next to the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple—where, in 1993, artist Nobuho Nagasawa created a bronze sculpture in tribute to Miyatake's camera.2
Japanese new media artist Masaki Fujihata's “BeHere/1942: A New Lens on the Japanese American Incarceration” (fig. 1) makes powerful use of this same site. Fujihata is considered one of the greatest pioneers of Japanese new media art; since the early 1980s his work has explored the intersection between digital technology, virtuality, and photography. “BeHere/1942” reminds us that the ghost life of World War II Japanese American internment—and its visual imaging—continues to haunt us. Copresented by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, the Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities at UCLA, and Waseda University in Tokyo, this stunning multimedia work focuses on archival images from WRA photographers Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee. Fujihata showcases his close-up scrutiny of black-and-white photographs alongside their digital video re-creations and an accompanying augmented reality (AR) installation of living, breathing, technicolor Japanese American bodies—volunteer actors dressed in period costume—who can be seen waiting for the trains and buses to transport them to the wartime assembly centers and concentration camps.3 In the racist logic of World War II, the distinction between Japanese and Japanese Americans was blurred—as if differences between Asian bodies, national origins, and claims on national belonging were deemed irrelevant or unreadable after Pearl Harbor. Fujihata reminds us that this chapter of American history should resonate for anyone who is invested in the visual representation of wartime memory and visuality.
Two images by Lange and Lee serve as centerpieces for Fujihata's exhibition. Working with extreme close-ups of some of Lange's photographs of Japanese Americans, the artist noticed something that had slipped by generations of viewers and researchers familiar with these images. “BeHere/1942” focuses on a series of photographs from the spring of 1942, when Japanese Americans were assembled—tagged with numbers instead of names and dressed in their Sunday best—in designated public sites for removal to relocation centers. Using high-resolution, super-sized extreme close-ups printed from original film negatives, he discovered that he could clearly see the shadowy figures of the original WRA photographers—complete with cameras—reflected in the eyes of the Japanese Americans (fig. 2).
Fujihata zooms in on one of Lange's photographs, which she captioned: “A girl awaiting the evacuation bus with her family. Hayward, California” (fig. 3). In locating the tiny image of Lange herself mirrored in Japanese American eyes in his huge-scale reproductions, Fujihata discovered a way to erase the boundary between the photographer and the photographed (fig. 4).
“BeHere/1942” also makes creative use of one of Russell Lee's most poignant photographs, of a young Japanese American girl sitting on a suitcase amid a pile of baggage, an apple held forlornly in one hand and a tiny purse held in the other, waiting at Union Station in Los Angeles for the train that will transport her and her mother to Manzanar War Relocation Center (fig. 5). This striking photograph has been miscredited to WRA photographer Clem Albers, and the girl in the photo was misgendered by Lee in his original caption: “Los Angeles, California. Japanese-American child who is being evacuated with his parents to Owens Valley. April 1942.”
The photograph features two-year-old Yuki Okinaga Hayakawa.4 In 2005 Yuki Llewellyn, then in her mid-seventies, returned to Manzanar for the first time since childhood in spite of her lifelong ambivalence about how such a visit might reopen old wounds. When she arrived at the desert ruins of her wartime camp, “there was little left of what she remembered”— “nothing for her to really hang her thoughts or emotions on” and “nothing to say ‘I was here.’”6 Yet, as a result of Fujihata's digital installation, Yuki Llewellyn is now remembered in “BeHere/1942” where a digitally reimagined Russell Lee hovers around the two-year-old girl, unable to resist the photo opportunity she represents in her wartime innocence (figs. 6 and 7).
Fujihata's digital installation was designed to be experienced beyond the walls of the museum. With the assistance of the freely downloadable “BH/1942” app, visitors can become virtual photographers through the screens of their personal hand-held devices.
Through digital innovation in photography, video, green-screen technology, and the creative restaging of eighty-year-old photographs, Fujihata's contemporary AR actors are outfitted with period travel clothing, numbered identity tags, and piles of luggage. Children play with dolls and each other. Some hold tiny American flags. They sit, talk, walk, play, and anxiously await relocation. The AR bodies also include white photographers (in video and still form) who take pictures for a WRA record as well as a trio of armed and uniformed military police officers who stand guard over the tableau of Japanese American bodies. Looking through Fujihata's AR portal, visitors bear witness and can circulate freely among these simulated ghosts from 1942, taking smart phone pictures or videos of themselves with ease and freedom, thus rendering an invisible history newly visible (figs. 8, 9, and 10).
“BeHere/1942” offers a response to a key question posed by critics on whether and how it is possible to know history by providing a holodeck for the merging of real and imagined wartime representation. If Miyatake's lunchbox camera embodies the defiant Japanese American wartime gaze from the past, then Fujihata offers an equally defiant gaze rendered in digital form (fig. 11). “BeHere/1942” positions us all as photographers.
I wish to give special thanks to Masaki Fujihata, Karen Tei Yamashita, Dan Kwong, and the staff at the Japanese American National Museum.
See Kozol, “Relocating Citizenship in Photographs of Japanese Americans,” 228; Alinder, Moving Images; Creef, Imaging Japanese America; Lawrence, “Correcting the Record on Dorothea Lange's Japanese Internment Photos.”
Fujihata creates his 3D models using “Volumetric Capture” computer software, which allows his figures to appear as if they are moving sculptures. He describes this process on the “Technology” page embedded in the “BeHere/1942” app, which is available for iOS from the App Store for the iPhone. For further discussion of the way the “BeHere” series serves as a form of “prosthetic memory,” see Lushetich and Fujihata, “BeHere.”
Russell Lee's image of Yuki Helen Okinaga Hayakawa is housed in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division under the digital ID: LC-DIG-fsa-8a31197. It is part of the United States Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information domestic photographic units. The WRA photographs, including Dorothea Lange's collection of images, are available in the Still Pictures Branch of the National Archives, in College Park, Maryland, and in the National Archives Catalog.