Conducting research in USC College is exhilarating, rewarding and an essential component of the undergraduate experience according to art history major and senior Rachel Huichong Wen. She learned this first-hand after spending several weeks studying photographs and letters from the Japanese American relocation camps [government terminology] during WWII.
Approximately 10 War Relocation Authority Camps, 17 assembly centers and eight Department of Justice Detention Centers were built in the U.S. for more than 120,000 Japanese Americans following Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Approximately 64 percent of those incarcerated were American-born citizens.
Wen investigated photographs and letters from one of these camps. Located within USC's Doheny Library's History Collection section (at the USC Special Collections Library), these items are part of a repository consisting of a million photos donated to the library in the ’70s from the now defunct Los Angeles Examiner.
The neatly arranged files of photos residing inside a brown cardboard box represent a world of possibilities to Wen. "There is enough here for an entire class to study and research," she said enthusiastically. The photos are classified into three main categories: the relocation process, repatriation and "loyal Americans." The collection is categorized by relocation sites, which include Santa Anita, Tanforan, and Tule Lake in California; Poston in Arizona; and Payallup in Washington State.
"These photos and letters could be analyzed from multiple disciplines besides art history — sociology, international relations, psychology, to name a few," Wen said. "They can be interpreted from many different perspectives. I am only interpreting them through an art historian’s eye."
Within the Japanese American Relocation Collection, Wen found five images that were heavily manipulated. She focused her study on one of these photos and a second one from the Arizona-based Poston relocation camp, the Examiner’s report of November 30, 1943, and two 1943 memos from Parker, Arizona, which was located near the Poston camp. “These materials provide important accounts about the anti-Japanese American movement,” she said.
“One artifact is composed of images from different and unrelated photographs, which were cut and reassembled to create a different scene, as if by collage. The photograph shows a Japanese American behind the wheel of a U.S. army truck,” she said. “At first I thought they did not like the photo until I looked closer and saw the location where masking tape had been applied to the back to piece together the separate images of the man and of the truck.”
After these fabricated images were created, Wen explained, captions were written and then published in the Examiner. The caption of the first image read "Whose truck?" The Examiner’s reporter wrote in his article “This Jap, one of hundreds 'interned' at Poston who can leave the camp without guard, is driving a Civilian Conservation Corps truck that belongs to the War Department.”
Yoko Shirai, lecturer in the department of art history, believes that “This type of valuable physical evidence [masking tape] will in time disintegrate, and valuable physical evidence will be lost forever.”
The second photo studied by Wen was of a building with hand painted signs captioned “Japs Keep Out.” She explained that “This sign shows how citizens of Parker felt about the Japanese. Another caption appears in the image stating that the Japanese still ‘have the run of the countryside.’”
Wen examined two documents. The first is a three-page memo from reporter James E. Lewis to Jim Richardson, the Examiner’s city editor. In the memo, Lewis mentioned a riot in Poston as part of his trip to Parker as well as a petition from the Parker residents to the governor. Lewis wrote, “Townspeople in Parker have signs on their stores such as ‘Jap keep-out-you rat.” His description connects to the image of the anti-Japanese sign.
The second document is a two-page letter written by Governor Sidney P. Osborn of Arizona to J.M. Hill (and the petitioners) responding to the petition, which requested that all Japanese at the Poston Relocation Center not be allowed into the town of Parker. The letter addresses the Parker residents’ concern and promises action to keep the Poston internees out of town.
Enthusiastic about her research experience as an undergraduate, Wen plans to pursue a graduate degree in library sciences next fall.