Outside The Frame: Bill Manbo’s Color Photographs in Context

The following is an excerpt from Eric L. Muller’s Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II (with photographs by Bill Manbo) . This book is one of five titles from a reading list we created celebrating Asian/Pacific American Heritage Monthview the entire reading list here.

The photos in this book help us appreciate what the singer-songwriter Paul Simon meant about Kodachrome: its “nice bright colors” really can “make you think all the world’s a sunny day.” But what if the subject isn’t so sunny? That is the problem presented by Bill Manbo’s Kodachrome photos of life behind the barbed wire of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center. 

The images he made are beautiful. The camp comes alive in the bright white light of midday and the salmon hues of sunset. The subjects are vibrant in their fancy portrait clothing and their scouting uniforms and kimonos. So seductive is the beauty of Bill Manbo’s work that we can almost forget we are looking at a site of suffering and injustice. These are photographs of life in a kind of prison camp. However broad their smiles, the people in these pictures were living interrupted lives, or shattered ones. The music of their bright dances and parades masked a hum of dissent and discontent. 

The other essays in this book perceptively examine what Bill Manbo’s photos reveal about Japanese American culture and community and about the uses of photography in documenting camp life. 

This introduction is more concerned with what the photos conceal than what they reveal. A man made these images—a man with a family—and the photos capture seconds in the arc of that man’s, and that family’s, story. Yet the photographer him- self and his family’s story stand mostly outside the frame. Only one of the family members pictured in the photos survives: the little boy who was Bill Manbo’s favorite subject, his son, also named Bill but called “Billy” within the family. Now in his early seventies, the photographer’s son was too young at Heart Mountain to retain any memories of his family’s life there, and as was common among Japanese Americans after the war, his family said very little to him about their camp experiences. 

However, documents in the family members’ “Evacuee Case Files,”1 discovered in the National Archives, allow us to reconstruct at least some of the narrative. These documents help us understand who Bill Manbo and his family were, what their lives were like before Pearl Harbor, and how they experienced their uprooting and confinement. They help us see how the photographer’s and his family’s wartime lives reflected larger patterns in the Japanese American experience of dislocation and broader trends in the documented history of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center. They add more somber shades to Bill Manbo’s brilliant photographic studies of the colors of confinement. 

Three generations of people of Japanese ancestry were confined at Heart Mountain. The oldest group was the “Issei,” a Japanese term for “first generation.” These were Japanese who had come to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Typically it was the men who came first, seeking economic opportunity, avoidance of mandatory military service, or escape from other social and economic problems roiling Japan as it came through the intense period of modernization called the Meiji Restoration. Women tended to arrive in the United States a bit later, sometimes as “picture brides” in arranged marriages. 

Many Issei envisioned an eventual return to Japan, while some intended to make the United States their permanent home. Whatever their plans and intentions, one thing was certain: they could not become citizens. American law forbade this. Only whites and people of “African nativity” or “African descent” could naturalize. The most a Japanese immigrant could expect was status as a resident alien. And even this limited American welcome narrowed in 1924, when nativist forces in Congress secured passage of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, which barred all further immigration by most Asians. 

Junzo and Riyo Itaya, the father- and mother-in- law of photographer Bill Manbo pictured on page 10, were of this Issei generation. Junzo, the son of a university professor, was born in 1881 in Tokyo and came to the United States in 1904 with a university degree in mechanical drafting. Riyo was born in 1889 in the northern prefecture of Hokkaido and came to the United States in 1912. Junzo was able to speak, read, and write both English and Japa- nese; Riyo, however, never acquired much English. They were Christians. Junzo worked a variety of jobs after arriving in the United States, including stints as a dairy farm laborer, a telephone company draftsman, a retail salesman, and owner of both a noodle company and a battery manufacturing company. In 1929, he took up vegetable farming in Norwalk, California, southeast of Los Angeles, and continued farming there right up until he and his family were forced from their home in 1942. His specialty crop was rhubarb; at the time he and his family were forced away, they had ten acres of rhubarb plants in cultivation.

Eric L. Muller is Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor in Jurisprudence and Ethics at the University of North Carolina School of Law and director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Faculty Excellence. He is author of American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II and Free to Die for Their Country: The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II