The details of this photo blew me away when I first saw it and it dawned on me what it portrayed. These are Japanese American children in a World War 2 so-called “relocation camp” (sometimes called an “internment” camp, but never a “concentration camp”—which, however, is essentially what they were.)
On December 7, 1941, the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there were more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast of the United States. Within a few months, this entire population was gone. Out of fears of espionage and sabotage along the Pacific, the government removed Japanese American men, women, and children from their homes and placed them in internment camps in the interior of the country. Two-thirds of the internees were U.S. citizens. None of them was ever charged with a crime. [Smithsonian]
The “relocated” Japanese had been in many cases given ten days or less to prepare for the move. Each was allowed to bring from their former homes only what they could carry—and since they had to carry their own blankets and sheets and pillows, that didn’t leave much room for clothing—and toys for children or diapers for babies! The living conditions in the camps were Spartan at best and hellish at worst—their locations were specifically chosen because they were in out of the way places such as a mosquito-infested Arkansas swamp, a barren and bleak area of Utah subject to dust storms, or a spot in northwestern Wyoming where winter temps often reached 0 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. (Remembering that most of these folks were from California and other west coast areas with very mild winters, not told where they were headed—and thus utterly unprepared to “dress for the weather.”)
As you can see from the photo above, taken at one of the two camps which were hastily constructed in southeast Arkansas, the US government did establish makeshift schools for the children within the camps. (Teacher/grade school student ratio of almost 50/1.) And given the circumstances of their incarceration, it was very important that the children, as well as their parents, do as MUCH as they could to “prove their loyalty” to the USA. Thus the effort at ultra-patriotism for a school pageant. Exactly what the little Japanese child in “blackface” in the center back of this photo was proving is not quite clear to me, other than that this “camp” was in Jim Crow Era Arkansas…
I’m suspicious most Americans know little or nothing about the plight of Japanese Americans in that era. The topic has been pretty hush-hush since shortly after WW2 until very recently. I knew almost nothing of it myself until a “face” was put on the circumstances for me. I happen to subscribe to the Facebook feed of George Takei.
Yes, Sulu from Star Trek. He usually posts just humorous sayings and photos. But a year ago or so he posted some pics of himself during a pilgrimage he had made to Arkansas. Yes, George and his family were interned for a time at one of the two camps that were in Arkansas—perhaps the very one in the Pageant Photo. And he returned to the site in recent times as part of a personal crusade to bring attention to this hush-hush history.
George Hosato Takei ( April 20, 1937) is an American actor and author, best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise in the television series Star Trek. He also portrayed the character in six Star Trek feature films and in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager…Takei was born Hosato Takei in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, California to Japanese American parents…In 1942, the Takei family was forced to live in the horse stables of Santa Anita Park before being sent to the Rohwer War Relocation Center for internment in Rohwer, Arkansas. The family was later transferred to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California. [Wiki]
You can see George describe a bit of this experience from his childhood in this video.
Let’s put another famous face on this dark blot on America’s past:
Yes, “Arnold” also spent time as a child in one of the camps.
Noriyuki “Pat” Morita (June 28, 1932 – November 24, 2005) was an American film and television actor who was well known for playing the roles of Matsuo “Arnold” Takahashi on Happy Days and Kesuke Miyagi in the The Karate Kid movie series, for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1984….[Morita was] born in Isleton, California. He developed spinal tuberculosis at the age of two and spent the bulk of the next nine years in Northern Californian hospitals, including the Shriners Hospital in San Francisco. For long periods he was wrapped in a full-body cast and was told he would never walk. It was during his time at a sanitarium near Sacramento that he was given his stage name, “Pat”. Released from the hospital at age 11  after undergoing extensive spinal surgery and learning how to walk, Morita was transported from the hospital directly to the Gila River camp in Arizona to join his interned family. […later transferred to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California—where he may have been during the same time period as the slightly younger George Takei] [Wiki]
Morita also made a short video describing his camp experiences.
Takei and Morita were both children during WW2. Another famous face we can put on the Internment saga was a bit older, a young adult at the time of the forced “relocation.”
Yes, “Detective Yemana” was also a prisoner in one of the camps.
Jack Soo […best known for his role as Detective Nick Yemana on the television sitcom Barney Miller] was born Goro Suzuki on a ship traveling from Japan to the United States in 1917. He lived in Oakland, California, and was caught up in the Japanese American internment during World War II and sent to Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah. Fellow internees recalled him as a “camp favorite” entertainer, singing at dances and numerous events. [Wiki]
I find it painfully ironic that those young American citizens in the Pageant Photo were forced to deal with the cognitive dissonance between their own “lived experiences” of the time, and the hype from their teachers about the “Land of the Free” which no doubt accompanied their little patriotic pageant that year.