By John Sammon
Paul Kitagaki Jr. is pursuing a project that is filling in a blank piece of history, finding out the identities of Japanese American incarceration victims during World War II, who up until now have been merely faces in old fading photos, unknown, forgotten.
“I’m giving them a voice so they can tell their stories,” Kitagaki said. “It’s a personal and emotional project.”
Kitagaki has been studying photos taken of Japanese Americans in prison camps during World War II and asking the question, who are these (unknown) people? He has also been interviewing internment camp survivors to get their remembrances.
Trying to identify a person in a photo taken 80 years ago is like trying to fill a black void.
“It’s sort of a detective story,” Kitagaki said.
Kitagaki has a new book on the incarceration of Japanese Americans titled “Behind Barbed Wire” to be released by City Press Files in June or July.
His author book signing event will be held at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles (100 N. Central Ave.) on April 20 where Kitagaki has been displaying photos for an exhibit about the incarceration titled, “Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit.” The photo exhibit opened on Nov. 17, 2018 and will continue to April 28, 2019.
The exhibit includes historic photos of Japanese Americans whose identities were unknown until only recently.
An additional book signing by Kitagaki will take place on April 28 at the Presidio in San Francisco (100 Montgomery St.) as part of another ongoing exhibition on the incarceration titled, “Then They Came for Me.” Kitagaki also contributed photos for the Presidio exhibit.
He was born in Berkeley and raised in South San Francisco
“I’m a Sansei (third generation),” Kitagaki said. “My dad’s parents lived in Oakland where they ran a dry cleaning business on Piedmont Avenue. My mom’s family lived in San Jose, Campbell and Willow Glen. They were farmers.”
In 1942 Kitagaki’s grandparents and parents were imprisoned along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans living in California during World War II for nothing more than their ethnicity and sent to prison camps.
His father Kiyoshi and grandfather Suyematsu (65 years old), his grandmother Juki (53) and an aunt, a young girl named Kimiko, were first sent to a temporary holding pen at the Tanforan Race Track in San Bruno (today the site of a shopping center). Later they were moved to the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah.
His mother’s family members were sent to a temporary prison at the Santa Anita Assembly Center in Los Angeles (the site of a horse race track); then to Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona and finally Topaz Camp, including his mother Eiko and her father Eijiro Takahashi, his mother’s older brother Frank and his wife Dee.
Eijiro had been bed-ridden when the war started after suffering a stroke. He was transported and imprisoned regardless.
“My dad was 14 years old in the camp,” Kitagaki said. “My grandparents lost their dry cleaning business and after the war when they were released they came back and found work cleaning houses. My dad finished high school in 1945 and then went into the U.S. Army Air Force.”
Kiyoshi Kitagaki later became a teacher teaching at Polytechnic High School in San Francisco.
Paul Kitagaki went to high school in South San Francisco and attended San Francisco State University where he studied music.
“My instrument was the drums,” he said. “I was interested in jazz.”
An injury during college however caused Kitagaki to reassess his chances as a musician and instead he studied broadcasting for radio and television. Ironically one of his first jobs during college was working at a J.C. Penney store at Tanforan, a shopping center, the location of the former transit camp where his family had been held as prisoners.
“My family didn’t speak about their incarceration and I learned my dad’s family had once been imprisoned there (Tanforan),” Kitagaki said. “I learned about this from a history class. At that time (1970) there was a little plaque at the shopping center mentioning what the site had once been; that was if you could find it.”
Kitagaki began to work as a photo journalist for a number of newspapers, the San Francisco Progress, San Mateo Times, San Francisco Examiner, the San Jose Mercury News, the Portland Oregonian and Seattle Post Intelligencer.
He has been a senior news photographer for the Sacramento Bee for the past 16 years.
The project to find out the identities of nameless people in World War II internment camp photographs Kitagaki said began 14 years ago.
“In 1978 I learned from an uncle that Dorothea Lange the photographer had taken a photo of my imprisoned family,” he said.
Lange was a photographer whose poignant photos of Dust Bowl Oklahoma migrants during the Depression-era 1930’s and Japanese American internment prisoners during World War II made her famous.
“In 1984 I was in Washington D.C. covering the presidential campaign of Gary Hart,” Kitagaki said. “I went to the National Archives (preserves historic photos and records) and found a photo of my dad, grandparents and aunt preparing to board a bus on their way to prison.
I had published stories on the incarceration before and I wanted to do a major project on the subject,” he added.
Kitagaki returned to the National Archives. He acquired more photos of inmates.
“Every time I went I saw faces staring at me,” he said. “Most of them had not been identified. They were anonymous. I started tracking down people who might know who they were. I went to churches and asked if people there if they knew who the people in the photos were.”
Kitagaki kept asking. Slowly, painstakingly, he made progress. The anonymous prisoners were being identified, often by relatives, descendants or friends.
From 2005 to 2012 he recorded audio-taped interviews with camp survivors and photographed them.
The year 2012 marked the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, the order signed by then-President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942 authorizing the imprisonment of Japanese Americans. That year Kitagaki published his first story on the incarceration that displayed 12 pairs of historic and modern contemporary photos of former camp inmates.
The number of photos would soon increase to 30 pairs of photos.
The photos were featured in articles in the Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Chronicle.
A one-month exhibition of photos was staged at the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in San Bruno near the Shops at Tanforan shopping mall (1150 El Camino Real), the place where Kitagaki’s family had once been imprisoned 70 years before.
It has since been made into a permanent exhibit at the site sponsored by the Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee and the Contra Costa Japanese American Citizens League (JACL).
Kitagaki also made video recordings that will soon be added to the archive to become part of a “multi-media” presentation.
“For the contemporary modern photos of camp survivors I used an old-style four-by-five camera (similar to one from the 1940’s) using black and white film,” he said. “I wanted to match as close as possible the photo how they look today with how they looked during their imprisonment in World War II. I wanted to capture the same mood.”
Japanese Americans who were in the camps have reached the age where they are becoming fewer with each day and Kitagaki said since the interviews began 17 of his subjects have passed away.
“I went to Japanese bazaars and Japanese American festivals and events and showed people photos asking them who the people in the historic photos were,” he said. “I would put up poster boards asking. I would spot someone and ask them and sometimes they would know who this was in the picture.”
In 2015 Kitagaki displayed photos at the California Museum in Sacramento for his exhibition, “Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit.”
By November 2018 the exhibit featured 60 pairs of historic photos and contemporary portrait subjects and was featured at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. The exhibition moved around the country visiting 11 cities including Portland, Oregon, Tucson, Arizona, Saint Paul, Minnesota, Sacramento, Roseville, and a photo at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C .
The effort to identify people previously lost to history has no projected end date. Kitagaki said it will continue, identifying people in old photos who up until now have been mere shadows.
“I’m looking for more people to be identified,” he said. “I’m looking for more exhibitors, more venues to share the work of this important moment in history. The goal is to give people an identity so they won’t be forgotten to history.”
For more information go to www.janm.org/exhibits/gambatte
Kitagaki is accepting donations. His book will be up for ordering at his website by this May at www.kitagakiphoto.com
Kitagaki was featured in a film documentary on the work of photographer Dorothea Lange, “Grab a hunk of Lightening,” broadcast on the Public Broadcast Service (PBS) show American Masters. Information on the show can be viewed at www.grabahunkoflightning.com
He was also featured in a 2017 film documentary directed by Abby Ginzberg, “Then They Came for Us.”