On January 18, 1963, architect Minoru Yamasaki appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, his disembodied head floating amidst the neo-Gothic tracery, delicate tenting, and flower-shaped fountains of his own design.
The occasion was Yamasaki’s commission to plan the then-$270-million World Trade Center. The commission was made controversial, in the words of the TIME feature, by the contrast between the “dreadful flaws” critics found in the work of the “wiry, 132-lb. Nisei,” and the pleasure his work gave to the public with its “declaration of independence from the machine-made monotony of so much modern architecture.”
Yamasaki’s aim was to please the eye, avoiding both the ubiquitous glass box and the Corbusian concrete tower, TIME said, while assuring its readers that the “humble,” “courteous” architect had a core that was “all steel.”
The roots of Yamasaki’s toughness lay both in his stylistic battle for pleasure and delight—traced through details of his trips to India’s Taj Mahal, Europe’s Gothic cathedrals, and Kyoto’s Katsura Palace—and in a lifetime of discrimination.
Yamasaki grew up in a wooden tenement less than two miles from the Century 21 Exposition grounds in Seattle; moved to New York after receiving his architecture degree, having seen top Japanese-American graduates passed over for jobs; and sent for his parents after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor to save them from being interned.
Yamasaki, his new wife Teruko, his brother, and his parents all shared a three-room apartment in Yorkville for the duration of World War II.
Back in Seattle, Yamasaki’s father had been fired from his 30-year job at a shoe store after the bombing. The architect’s New York employer, Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, designers of the Empire State Building, took the opposite tack. TIME presents this as a bootstrap narrative for Yamasaki: “You are one of our best men,” the magazine quotes Richmond Shreve, “and I’m going to back you all the way.”
And yet Yamasaki still experienced discrimination. After the end of the war, he moved to Detroit, taking a job at Smith, Hinchman & Grylls. He looked for a house to rent or buy in the Detroit suburbs, but realtors told him that, because he was not white, he could not live near colleagues like designer Alexander Girard, in Grosse Pointe, or architect Eero Saarinen, in Bloomfield Hills. (He and Girard would later collaborate on a house in Grosse Pointe.)
Instead, Yamasaki bought an 1824 farmhouse in more rural Troy, Michigan, which he renovated to give a modern interior and “Japanese-style gardens.” Architectural Forum’s article on his house referred to him as “American Architect Yamasaki,” and the Detroit Free Press wrote, in 1959, “To Americans [he and Teruko] look Japanese but they’re not. They’re contemporary American.”
Whatever “serenity” Yamasaki found in the farmhouse, it was a choice made from necessity. An architect who defined American postwar style—as on the TIME cover in 1963—had been perceived as a threat just 20 years before. Despite a high level of recognition and success, he was still being forced to prove his all-American bona fides.
February 19, 2017, marks the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which gave the military the power to ban any citizen from a 50- to 60-mile zone along the West Coast and into Arizona, and to transport citizens first to temporary assembly centers and then to the 10 “relocation centers” established in rural Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming.
The executive order was primarily applied to Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans in the western states, relocating—in baldly euphemistic language—119,000 people. Sixty-two percent of the relocated were citizens, a third of them were children, and they were forced to move with as little as 48 hours to sell or store any possessions they could not carry. As Yamasaki told TIME, "Our people had to sell everything for 10¢ to 15¢ on the dollar. The people who bought their businesses and houses knew they had them over a barrel."
He was far from alone. Once you start to look at postwar American design through the lens of Japanese-American history, you realize that the two are inextricable. Japanese-American designers gave the country its Twin Towers and its first modern airport, as well as the magazine covers that featured the latest in architecture. They gave America its Corvette Stingray and its spaghetti-eating sequence in Lady and the Tramp and the look of jazz. They made the ads that sold Eames chairs and designed furniture themselves, of bentwood and butterfly fasteners and burl. They wove the California craft movement, populated cities with public art and pocket parks, and developed suburbs with sculptural landscapes.
If you are reading this site, you know at least some of these names: Minoru Yamasaki, Gyo Obata, Ray Komai, Larry Shinoda, Willie Ito, S. Neil Fujita, Tomoko Miho, George Nakashima, Kay Sekimachi, Ruth Asawa, Hideo Sasaki, Isamu Noguchi.
Most spent part of their teens and twenties in one of 10 War Relocation Centers, a fact I had failed to find, or failed to focus on, in many previous trips through design history. Modernist history credits the German emigrés for bringing Bauhaus ideas to Black Mountain, Cambridge, Chicago, and Los Angeles. It also credits Japanese design filtered through Western eyes like those of Bruno Taut and Frank Lloyd Wright, or translated for an American audience by House Beautiful’s influential editor Elizabeth Gordon. In 1960, the Japanese term shibui became the magazine’s “buzzword,” defined as, among other things, “craftsmanship, intelligence of design, understanding of materials, imagination.”
But the Japanese-American contribution is different. A number of these designers were educated in the Bauhaus tradition at American schools, or via trips to Europe. Some grew up speaking Japanese, practicing calligraphy and kendo, while others were first exposed to origami, painting, or weaving in the camps, where skilled artists and artisans made work to document and mentally survive incarceration.
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of Roosevelt’s executive order, several museums have organized exhibitions around the topic. The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles will open “Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066” on February 18. It has previously curated exhibitions on the art, craft, photography, and landscape created in the camps and by internees after the war.
The Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento will show “Two Views,” with photography of the camps by Ansel Adams and Leonard Frank. And the Noguchi Museum in New York has just opened an exhibit focusing on artist Isamu Noguchi’s unique self-internment at Poston in 1942, including works made before, during, and after his seven months in Arizona, as well as architectural drawings he made for the improvement of the camp. (Several of the camps are now national parks and historic sites; Carolina Miranda visited Tule Lake and Manzanar last fall for a story in the Los Angeles Times on civil rights sites in California.)
Recognizing the Japanese-American detention camp experience seems especially important at this moment: Last fall, when then-candidate Donald Trump floated the idea of a Muslim registry, many were quick to draw a line between that suggestion and the fact that the U.S. has racially profiled and imprisoned its own citizens before. Last week's executive order, halting immigration from seven foreign countries and arresting movements to and from the United States based on country of birth, makes "aliens" and potential terrorists out of thousands of refugees and immigrants—as did Executive Order 9066.
As the introductory text to “Self-Interned, 1942: Noguchi in Poston War Relocation Center” is careful to note, Noguchi’s wartime experience was unusual. Like Yamasaki, he was officially living in New York City when Roosevelt signed the executive order, though he had been working on the West Coast. After Pearl Harbor, he had joined the group Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy, trying to prevent incarceration; when that effort proved futile, he decided the best way to help Japanese-Americans would be to improve the camps.
In Washington, D.C. he met with John Collier, commissioner of what was then known as the Office of Indian Affairs, who had jurisdiction over the largest camp, at Poston, in Arizona Indian territory. They discussed making the camp into a model community, where the interned would have access to schools, recreation facilities, and classes in traditional Japanese arts and crafts.
The exhibition, which is divided into sections on Noguchi’s work before, during, and after his seven months in camp, includes a pair of measured architectural drawings. One is for a camp cemetery, intended to give the issei (Japanese immigrant) detainees a proper place to bury their dead. The other is for a linear dream city, with a laundry list of amenities including a zoo, a botanical garden, miniature golf, and a department store. A Japanese garden, drawn at the extreme end of the plan, includes the amoeboid paths and level changes he would later use in his UNESCO Garden of Peace in Paris.
The drawings are surrounded by letters Noguchi wrote from camp, tracing an arc from idealism to frustration to get-me-out despair. Initially enamored of the desert landscape—“I became the leader of forays into the desert to find ironwood roots for sculpting”—Noguchi soon found himself coping with the 100-plus-degree heat, the sickening food, and a lack of common understanding with the other internees, who tended to regard him as allied with their captors.
The administrators of the camp, by contrast, treated him as just another Japanese-American, except that he was given a solo space in a barrack. He applied for the materials to create a carpentry and woodcarving shop, kilns for a ceramics studio, equipment to make adobe brick to build an art center, none of which were forthcoming. After a couple of months, in frustration, he turned his efforts to getting out, shifting his artistic focus back to making his own sculpture out of ironwood and away from fellow internees.
Noguchi was given a furlough on November 12, 1942, among many school- and work-age internees who, with the support of aid organizations, schools, sponsors, and employers, were able to free themselves from incarceration by going east—in his case, back to New York.
Had Noguchi been better able to connect with the younger, hybrid generations at Poston, he might have found kindred spirits. In the 1992 catalog for the exhibit “The View from Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942-1945,” playwright Wakako Yamauchi writes of her family’s internment at Poston:
There were lines for everything: for mail, shots, at the pharmacy and clinic, at the mess halls. There were lines for toilets, showers, and laundry tubs. Everything was communal. No secret was safe…
But in the spirit of shikataganai or “making the best of it,” we bounced back. We formed softball teams and played intramural games. We produced talent shows. We set up libraries, beauty shops, cooperatives, flower and sewing classes, art and drama departments, dug swimming holes and so on, and boy scouts continued to march with Old Glory fluttering high.
This is not to suggest that there was no protest over the camps. The week of the first exclusion order in March 1942, three protesters presented themselves at a police station in Portland, OR, in order to test the constitutionality of the detention of American citizens. One protester, Fred Korematsu, pursued a case that would go all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled 6-3 that protecting the nation from espionage was more pressing than individual rights. There were strikes at Poston and Manzanar in 1942 and unrest at Tule Lake and Heart Mountain during the four years most of the camps were open.
Making the best of it also included altering the very landscape of the camps. In his oral history at the Cultural Landscape Foundation, landscape architect Joseph Yamada notes that the internees made bonsai and vegetables flower in the desert.
You know, we’re out in the middle of the desert with nothing. They would dump you out there and they’d say, “OK, do your own thing.” They [the Japanese] helped the government install irrigation because they wanted to grow a lot of their own vegetables. They grew the best watermelons, cantaloupes, and vegetables.
The government would deliver greens to the mess hall for their quota. And the Japanese cooks would look at that stuff, [and call it] garbage, because their lettuce, celery, and bell peppers, and everything that they grew in the camp was so far superior to what was being given to us by the government.
Gardening was a profession open to many recent immigrants from farming backgrounds, and one could argue that Japanese aesthetics may first have become mainstream in the U.S. via landscape architecture. In the postwar era, modern landscape architecture was led by men like Hideo Sasaki, Joseph Yamada, and Satoru Nishita, all of whom were interned. Yamada reports on internees’ successful efforts to build a school and a swimming pool, to green the desert and make their own adobe bricks. Noguchi was not the only one seeking ironwood in the harsh climate and turning it into sculpture.
Sasaki was an architecture student at Berkeley in 1942, and his studies were interrupted by the war, to be resumed later at the University of Illinois and then Harvard. Anticipating a need, and understanding how his architecture skills might be useful, he set up a sign shop in the camp and brought in others with even better lettering skills. Later, to escape detention, he volunteered to top sugar beets in Colorado, drawing from childhood experience on his parents’ truck farm. Though he spoke little about the experience, Melanie Simo’s history of the Sasaki offices notes that “the significance of those years was not in the content of the work, but in the resourcefulness, the organizational and management skills, the determination to better his condition, and the acceptance of hard work, nearly continuous work from morning until night, both on the job and, whenever possible, at school as well.”
Resourcefulness didn’t extend only to architecture and earthworks. Automotive designer Larry Shinoda was always car-obsessed, sketching them on paper as a child and drag racing as a teenager. When his family was interned at Manzanar, one of the few possessions he packed was a sketchbook. On their first day in the minimally furnished barracks, he spotted wooden crates behind the latrines. From them, he fashioned reclining chairs for his mother and grandmother ideally (and ergonomically) suited to their small stature.
After he was released, he briefly attended ArtCenter College of Design, then decamped for Detroit, where he was known for drafting skills and his ability to make cars look “fast”—among them the Corvette Stingray. His citation for the Corvette Hall of Fame reads: “The Sting Ray literally set the world on its ear. Few American cars were so instantly recognizable, so clean, and so pure.”
Designer and woodworker George Nakashima, interned with his wife and six-month-old daughter at Minidoka, in Idaho, used the time to study traditional Japanese craftsmanship with master carpenter Gentaro Hikogawa, an internee who had immigrated from Shikoku to Tacoma. He went further than Shinoda, designing a model apartment in the simple barracks out of scrap lumber, the walls covered with wallpaper fashioned out of recycled blueprints.
Eventually, the architect Antonin Raymond and others petitioned the WRA to free Nakashima from Minidoka, and he relocated to New Hope, Pennsylvania. Nakashima and others resettled before the end of the war had to “secure an outside sponsor, furnish proof of employment or education, and submit themselves to FBI background checks.” They were allowed to move to the Midwestern or Eastern United States to live in a white community—in this case, rural New Hope, where the Raymonds had property.
Cold War propaganda hastened (as we saw in the Yamasaki features) to reabsorb Japanese-American talent into an assimilated, just-American narrative, and Japanese-American cultural norms, which focused on not complaining and looking ahead, contributed to the glossing over of internees’ experiences. Tomoko Miho, who, while working for George Nelson for 12 years, designed graphics and advertising for Herman Miller, said of her time at the camp in Gila River, Arizona, “In order to recover, we had to excel. The experience forced many Japanese-Americans to seek new horizons.”
In her 2015 essay, “‘Successful’ Nisei: Politics of Representation and the Cold War American Way of Life,” Sanae Nakatani writes, “The image of the Japanese Americans being successful in the white-dominated American art and architectural fields—the fields that were often associated with the freedom of expression and democracy—served the U.S. greatly to create the self-image of a racially tolerant and culturally plural society.” Nakatani looks specifically at the way the home lives of Yamasaki, Noguchi, and Nakashima were portrayed in the popular press, accounts that stressed their assimilation and presented the designers as part of “typical” American families.
She notes that the WRA photos show the Nakashima family as a model of assimilated domesticity, with photographs taken in 1945 of the family and friends sitting by a stone fireplace using a suite of furniture made by George. Nakashima “has set up a workshop and is designing and making furniture for Hans Knoll, Associates, a wholesale furniture firm in New York City, and making pieces for individual customers and for his own use.”
Ray Komai, a graphic designer best known for his one-piece molded plywood side chair, which won a Museum of Modern Art “Good Design” Award in 1950, was just a few years out of Manzanar when he created the chair, as well as the striking “Masks” fabric for Laverne Originals. War Relocation Authority photographs of Komai, taken in 1944, present his resettlement in the most chipper terms, as if no disruption had occurred. He works for a “leading New York advertising agency,” while his wife works in a cosmetics shop; “while in Manzanar [he] worked as a designer in the industrial division.”
An image of the couple playing bridge with friends at home notes that Kikuyo Masuda is “of Los Angeles and Granada” and Joe Imai is “of Portland, Oregon, and Tule Lake,” tying their biographies to the camps where they were interned, but without specifying the reason for their move. Komai was an associate art director at Architectural Forum from 1953 to 1961, and designed many covers, including an oft-reproduced one from May 1960 showing Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Lafayette Park in Detroit, a symbol of postwar integrated housing.
Nakashima, sponsored by Raymond and offered work in New Hope, spent only a year in internment. Other postwar designers, teenagers when they arrived, spent longer in camp, receiving an education first from other internees and then via scholarships to universities willing to accept Japanese-Americans.
Textile artist Kay Sekimachi and her mother and sister were taken by bus to Tanforan Assembly Center. In an oral history at the Archives of American Art, she recalls,
And then, we were assigned rooms in a barrack, and there were cots and we had straw mattresses, and it was just bare other than the cot. And somehow, we managed for—I think it was about three months that we were in Tanforan. But I must say, the first few days, I thought, when we had to stand in line at the mess hall for meals, and I really thought, gosh, are we going to survive, because nothing was organized …
Well, the older Niseis, who were, like, in Cal by that time, they started a school. And then Professor Obata from Cal was in our camp, and he started an art school. And so, that's where my younger sister and I went to. So every day we drew and painted.
Chiura Obata set up art schools first at Tanforan, and later at Topaz, in Utah, while simultaneously documenting life in the camps through his own paintings. One of Obata’s four children, Gyo Obata, was spared incarceration by transferring from Berkeley, where he was enrolled, to Washington University in St. Louis, the only architecture school willing to accept Japanese-American students. He ended up as part of a class of 30 Japanese-American students who enrolled in the fall of 1942. As several alumni recalled in a 2009 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, this placed them in a bizarre position.
[Richard] Henmi, who visited his parents at a camp in Jerome, Ark., recalled the surreal situation of having to pay for meals there as a “visitor” while his family received them for free. Obata, who also stayed with his family in the camps, recalls a similar experience.
“It was just crazy,” he said. “I was a free person, and they were like prisoners.”
Sculptor Ruth Asawa, who was 16 in 1942, had grown up attending a Saturday school for Japanese language and culture. In the weeks after Pearl Harbor, her father Umakichi Asawa “dug a big hole to bury the Kendo gear, and burned the hakama, beautiful Japanese books on flower arrangement and tea ceremony, Japanese dolls, and Japanese badminton paddles.” In February 1942, FBI agents arrested Umakichi, searching the house for suspicious material. While Asawa, her mother, and six siblings were taken first to a temporary holding center at the Santa Anita racetrack, and then to the camp in Rohwer, Arkansas, her father was held separately. The family was not reunited for six years.
Curator Karin Higa writes in an essay on Asawa’s work,
Thus, in a pattern that would repeat in other instances during World War II, the negative consequences of her Japanese ancestry turned into an unprecedented opportunity. A section of the racetrack grandstand, adjacent to a section where internees were used to weave camouflage nets for the war effort, became a de facto art studio. Painter Benji Okubo had been the director of the Arts Students League of Los Angeles, a position once occupied by his teacher Stanton Macdonald-Wright. In Santa Anita, he and painter Hideo Date, a League associate whom he had first met at Otis Art Institute, carried on the activities of the Arts Students League in the grandstand. They were joined by Tom Okamoto and Chris Ishii, who had attended Chouinard Art Institute.
Okamoto, Ishii, and James Tanaka were all employed as animators by Disney Studios. Growing up, Asawa had always copied cartoons, and now she had access to some of the most influential practitioners in the field. “How lucky could a sixteen-year-old be,” Asawa has said. She also did her first weaving in camp, volunteering to make Army camouflage nets (a process documented by photographer Dorothea Lange at Manzanar), though her breakthrough would come later, after viewing Mexican fishermen weaving wire, a technique she would transform into hanging, weightless, anemone-like sculpture.
Asawa used education as a means out of the camp. The American Friends Service Committee worked from the earliest days of the executive order to get people out, first by finding colleges and universities in the East and Midwest who would accept Japanese-American students, and then by setting up hostels for internees seeking jobs in the same cities. Asawa attended Milwaukee State Teachers College on a scholarship. In her fourth year, which would have consisted of student teaching, she was told that no school in the state would hire her. She dropped out, enrolling instead at Black Mountain College, which set her on the path to becoming an artist.
“I hold no hostilities for what happened; I blame no one,” Asawa told an interviewer in 1994. “Sometimes good comes through adversity. I would not be who I am today had it not been for the internment, and I like who I am.” Asawa pulled no punches when asked to design the Japanese American Internment Memorial in San Jose in 1994. The memorial, which, like much of her later work, is public art and figurative, depicts the camps in a large, bronze bas-relief, complete with guard towers and guns. Vignettes show FBI agents forcing a Japanese-American man to leave, which is what happened to Asawa’s father, as well as scenes of camp life, like two families sharing a room, separated by only a curtain.
Marilyn Chase, who is writing a biography of Asawa, considers it an important visual reminder of what she and others suffered. She told me:
When it was completed, the memorial resonated with crowds, shown in photographs of the dedication day in March 1994, standing up to twelve deep to view and touch the bronze reliefs. Like her other representational pieces, it enjoyed great popular success.
In my research, I'm interested in how Asawa's public statements about camp life and experience expanded and evolved over the decades, from quiet stoicism to a more explicit discussion of the privation she and others endured. Yet she rejected the mantle of victimhood, letting her hands speak most eloquently for her in the bronze panels.
The other way out of camp was the military. In February 1943, the Army created the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Nisei (first generation Japanese-American), segregated unit. Ten thousand Japanese-Americans from Hawaii, who had not been interned, volunteered, along with 1,200 from the camps. Among them was S. Neil Fujita, in camp at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. Before the war, he had started his artistic training at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, to which he would return, funded by the G.I. Bill, in 1947. But first he became a soldier, fighting in Italy and France as part of the most highly decorated unit in World War II. After combat ended in Europe, he was sent to the Pacific to serve as a translator.
After graduating from Chouinard, where he took a few graphic design classes in his final year, Fujita moved to Philadelphia, first receiving notice for an award-winning ad for the Container Corporation of America. Columbia Records hired him away, and he created his best-known work in the 1950s, designing abstract, brightly colored record covers for Dave Brubeck and Charles Mingus, among others. Later he moved on to books, creating bold, memorable typographic covers for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the puppeteer’s “G” for Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. In his 2010 obituary in the Guardian, Milton Glaser is quoted saying Fujita “distinguished himself by having a rigorous design objective. It was a kind of synthesis of Bauhaus principles and Japanese sensibility.”
The names in this piece are the successes, and many of them, on the cusp of adulthood in 1942, learned skills that changed the course of their lives. Others, older, with interrupted careers, or dependents, or no access to an arts career, simply had to work to live. “What’s most heartbreaking to me is that they never went back to it,” says Delphine Hirasuna, curator of the 2010 Smithsonian exhibition, “The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946.” She took her exhibition’s title from the Buddhist term Gaman, which means “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.”
“They had to feed themselves and their family. People left the camps, they didn’t know where they were going to live, they didn’t know how they were going to live, and these things”—the camp-made objects in her exhibition—“got left behind.” The need to excel that Miho described, and these designers embody, doesn’t excuse the racism and terror of Executive Order 9066, but may explain its oblique, one-line presence in the histories of postwar architecture, design, and craft.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, offering a national apology and $20,000 in compensation to each camp survivor.
Gyo Obata, whose father’s art classes meant so much to those interned at Tanforan and Topaz, designed the building for the Japanese American National Museum dedicated the same year.
Sasaki and Yamada were on the landscape committee for the creation of the Manzanar National Historic Site in 1992, the 50th anniversary of Executive Order 9066.
Architect Alan Oshima, who had been interned at Tule Lake, designed the basalt and concrete California State Historic Site marker for the camp that was placed along State Highway 139 in 1979.
Architect Alan Taniguchi designed a monument placed at the now-vanished camp in Crystal City, Texas, where his family was incarcerated.
It’s fitting that these Japanese-Americans should be able, like Asawa was with her San Jose memorial, to use the design abilities that allowed them to survive with dignity to make this history more present for all Americans.