Cultivating the Model Minority

“A smile is the chosen vehicle of all ambiguities.” –Herman Melville

Why we smile? We smile for different reasons, happiness, sarcasm, anger, hope, faith, in love, peace, gratitude and pure kindness. A smile is also a reflex, such as when we see a camera, we say “cheese”, when we greet someone for the first time with a handshake or a hug, we may smile. In sorrow, we may smile in hopes of feeling better, that it may help us find light in a dark place or peace in turmoil and hope in disparity. The internment camps uncultivated Japanese Americans, as Americans. The landscape photos are surely beautiful and depict the serenity and peaceful nature of not America, but the Japanese who were working diligently and peacefully in the fields; the model minority.

Executive Order 9066 of February 19,1942, stripped the rights of all people of Japanese descent, American citizens included, and ordered them to military areas, also known as  internment camps. This was in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor and World War II in efforts to protect the country from sabotage and espionage from their foreign enemy. While in these internment camps, people of Japanese descent worked hard tilling land and picking harvest. While they were working in these camps, many photographers decided to document the experience through photography, but all had different motives in mind. The War Relocation Authority authorized photography during this period. Photos captured by their employees sought to “reconcile loss of citizenship rights” by highlighting the fact that the internees were treated with what they thought to be humility (Phu, 2011). Despite being held captive at a facility with armed guards and barbed wired fences and working hard cultivating land, they were treated with humility and their work was to be seen as their contribution to the war effort.

“We committed a grave error . . . we were civilized. The photographs are our witness.”- Sylvia Danovitch

“Civility is expressed not just in the smiles of the internees or in the depictions of the persistence of normal life, however”

Three little boys bound by a barb wire fence; denied their basic rights of freedom as an American. It’s difficult to appreciate the beauty of the landscape, overlooking these imprisoned children. But their presence is not resisting, but tranquil as the mountains behind them, but surely, imprisonment is not a tranquil situation.

this one man working in the field alone in this still photo, no signs of wind, no signs of resistance, the obedient hard working Asian American, what the country once loved.

Although they smiled in their photographs, we have to remember that this is not a time of peace, there is strong anti- Japanese sentiment.

While the Asian Americans were imprisoned in these internment camps, they were swindled out of their land that was supposed to be protected while they were away. Most of their land was sold for less than their worth and were not transferred to their rightful owners all while in the internment camps, Asian Americans worked hard with no protest trying to prove their loyalty to their country, who had disowned them. Perhaps, that’s why they smiled, to prove their loyalty, although discontent, they wanted to show they were harmless, friendly, and eager to return to their normal lives as an American.

Toyo Miyatake, a forty-seven-year-old professional photographer from Los Angeles smuggled in his components of a camera and a friend helped him construct a camera to document their experiences which he thought was his duty to historic preservation. But his activities were discovered but the camp director Ralph Merritt allowed Miyatake to continue composing pictures, but only if a guard snapped the shot. The member of the dominant culture, like the WRA, wanted to control what could potentially be published to the public and taking agency from the Asian Americans to document their own experience from their point of view.

The internment camps are a huge part of Asian American history and popular culture. From this experience, there were many side effects that trickled down to later generations of Japanese Americans and ultimately reflects and determines their place within society and how they view themselves and construct their identity. The article discusses how the photographs first introduced Asian Americans into American visual culture through these internment camp photos. From an American perspective, we can see how the model minority myth plays out in this situation. We see Asian Americans not resisting or revolting against the guards or military officials but working hard and diligently as they were known to do. But there peaceful and docile nature as presented in the photos as not causing problems and going against the grain fits harmoniously with the beautiful harmonious aspects of nature and landscape within the photos in which they are captured.

1. Phu, Thy. Picturing Model Citizens: Civility in Asian American Visual Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.


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