Lauren Tamaki: Her Art Illuminates and Protests the WWII Incarceration of Japanese Americans

By Linda Wing. Posted March 23, 2023.

In 1983, Miné Okubo testified before the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. She submitted a copy of her 1946 book entitled Citizen 13660 as eyewitness evidence of the daily injustices experienced by those imprisoned by the federal government. Okubo was among those incarcerated. The book features 206 of approximately 2,000 drawings she made to document the lives and struggles of the children, women, and men removed from their Bay Area homes and imprisoned first in horse stalls at the Tanforan race track south of San Francisco and then in the Topaz prison camp constructed in a Utah desert. The artist’s wry and witty words accompany the drawings. Her acute sense of irony is particularly reflected in the book’s title. Okubo was an American citizen by birth but was divested of her constitutional rights. The federal government stripped her of name as well, identifying her instead by a number: 13660. More than 75 years after the publication of Citizen 13660, Lauren Tamaki followed Okubo’s example by protesting the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans with art of her own, published in the 2022 book entitled Seen and Unseen. Elizabeth Partridge wrote most of the spare and straightforward text. Yet it is arguably Tamaki’s art that is the must-see by adults and youth age 12+ who believe in fairness and justice for all.

In Seen and Unseen, Tamaki’s illustrations add significant value to photographs of incarcerated Japanese Americans taken in the moment and on the spot by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams and Toyo Miyatake. First, they serve as connective tissue, visually linking the candid images taken by Lange during five months of 1942, the public relations pictures taken by Adams in the fall of 1943, and the surreptitious photographs taken by Miyatake over the course of his imprisonment at Manzanar from 1942 to 1945. Second, each Tamaki drawing stands on its own, with strong historical content and emotional insight. For example, in this illustration of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 to leave their homes and report for removal with only seven-to-ten days’ notice, Tamaki vividly depicts tension and displacement.

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki.

Third, what further distinguishes Tamaki’s contributions to Seen and Unseen are compositions of her drawings integrated with images taken by the photographers. The meaning of the photographs is increased exponentially as a result. This innovative amplification is displayed in the following layout of a Tamaki drawing of people making mattresses with straw for their Tanforan barracks, displayed in a photograph by Lange.

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki. Photograph by Dorothea Lange.

That Tamaki has enhanced the impact of photographs taken by Lange is no small feat. Lange’s images are considered truthful reflections of Japanese American lives under the duress of Executive Order 9066. They are ubiquitous in books, films, and exhibits dealing with incarceration. However, out of view are the U.S. Army’s constraints on Lange’s scope of work. She was not permitted to photograph barbed wire fences, watch towers with machine guns and spotlights, or armed soldiers. The War Relocation Authority, which commissioned Lange to take photographs, dismissed her after only five months and impounded her output. Tamaki’s artwork beautifully meets the demand for a fuller illuminating visualization of justice denied to 120,000 children, elders, women, and men.

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki: Families being removed from their homes under armed guard, wearing tags not with their names but their numbers, permitted to take only what they could carry.

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki: A woman behind barbed wire at Manzanar seems to mourn her lost freedom.

For Tamaki, elaborating on Ansel Adams’s photographs of incarceration was to disclose what he did not. Adams curated his photos to present a point of view.

An environmentalist known for his photographs of the High Sierras, particularly Yosemite Valley, Adams was asked by the director of Manzanar to take photographs that might be useful in conveying to the public that Japanese Americans, once released from imprisonment, would not be safety or security risks. Adams agreed and devised a modus operandi to do so. He excluded from his photographs individuals whom he considered unpatriotic, as demonstrated by their responses to the loyalty questionnaire administered by the federal government. Additionally, Adams posed his subjects to represent his belief that “the acrid splendor of the desert, ringed with towering mountains, has strengthened the spirit of the people of Manzanar.”

How did Tamaki address images thus created by Adams to show Manzanar prisoners smiling, (possibly to demonstrate to Adams that they were “good citizens”)? In the following layout, Adams’s photograph shows a beaming mother with two daughters standing in front of what looks like a real home. Tamaki straightforwardly draws the rest of the structure, revealing it to be a prison barrack.

Photo: Ansel Adams. Illustration: Lauren Tamaki.

Tamaki faced a different artistic challenge with respect to the photographs of Toyo Miyatake. Miyatake was incarcerated at Manzanar with his wife and four children from 1942 to 1945. An Issei, he was an award-winning photographer and a leading member of the Los Angeles arts community. Cameras were banned at Manzanar, but Miyatake felt it was his duty to make a photographic record of every element of life there so that the injustice would never be repeated. He smuggled in film, a camera lens, and darkroom chemicals and persuaded a friend who worked in the Manzanar carpentry shop to clandestinely make the body of the camera box, disguising it to look like a lunch box. Miyatake was on a mission: he took photographs in the early morning light, while others slept; and he used the cover of night to develop film and make prints.

Tamaki chose to make many drawings of Miyatake for inclusion in the book. She transformed him from an “unseen” prisoner to a “seen” photographer who took risks to document incarcerated life at Manzanar. In the following layout, Tamaki features a portrait of Miyatake secretly making prints. The drawing incorporates two of Miyatake’s photographs. They are shots of communal toilets and a watchtower — subjects that the U.S. Army had forbidden Lange to photograph.

Portrait of Toyo Miyatake: Lauren Tamaki. Photographs: Toyo Miyatake.

Miyatake believed that a complete documentation of Manzanar was essential to securing future redress. Yet his photographs, even when combined with those of Lange and Adams, understandably fall short. Absent is a visual record of the uprising of December 1942, when martial law was instituted and soldiers fired into a mass protest, killing two men. To render the uprising “seen,” Tamaki devoted herself braveheartedly to creating trustworthy, artful pictures.

According to Densho (, the roots of the Manzanar uprising pre-existed incarceration. Most of the imprisoned had lived in Los Angeles where the pro-FBI activities of some —intended to offset public sentiment against Japanese Americans — divided community members and sowed suspicion and distrust. At the time, the FBI was making almost daily arrests of Issei labelled “enemy aliens,” without bringing charges against them. At Manzanar, the condescending manner, misstatements, and suspected profiteering of camp administrators added a second line of fuel to feelings of animosity and resentment. An attack on the leader of one faction by members of another, and the jailing of a suspected attacker, flamed into a protest against everyone, everything, all at once.

Tamaki depicts the uprising and shootings in the following illustrations. They are dark, saturated with anger, chaos, and violence.

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki. Two-to-four thousand people protested. They faced 135 military police.

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki. 17-year-old James Ito was killed by gunfire. Nine others were shot but survived. 21-year-old Jim Kanagawa died days later from his wounds.

Toyo Miyatake and his family returned to Los Angeles when Manzanar closed in 1945. They had been incarcerated for three years. With affection and respect, Tamaki sends the family to freedom in the following illustrations. Whereas her portrait of the Miyatakes at Manzanar is in solemn black-and-white, she adds color and joy to their journey home.

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki: The Miyatake Family at Manzanar

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki: A time-lapse of the Miyatake family leaving Manzanar for Los Angeles.

Lauren Tamaki’s art in Seen and Unseen refreshes and enriches the photographic legacies left by Toyo Miyatake, Ansel Adams, and Dorothea Lange. Her work is no less the direct descendant of the incarceration drawings of the incomparable artist Miné Okubo.

Okubo’s incarceration art and protest spirit were recognized early on by the SF Chronicle and Fortune magazine. While Okubo was imprisoned, they published selections of her drawings in 1943 and 1944 respectively. Yet after Okubo published Citizen 13660 in 1946, her drawings fell into obscurity. Her artwork was rediscovered during the height of the Redress Movement in the early 1980s. A wide-format artist edition of Citizen 13660 was published in 1983 and the book won a 1984 American Book Award. It has ever since been considered an Asian American classic. Tamaki’s book, Seen and Unseen, published in 2022, was recognized early on as well. It has been named a best book by Kirkus, Booklist Editors’ Choice, the New York City Library, among others. The awards invariably mention the photographs, but not always the artwork created by Tamaki. Her illustrations seem to be obscured by photographs that have been published and exhibited many times before. Yet the illustrations by themselves are important and beautiful expressions of protest against the WWII imprisonment of Japanese Americans and the ever-precarious state of 14th Amendment rights in the US. When overlaid on the photographs, and when the photographs are overlaid on the drawings, Tamaki’s art recreates the photographs as unique, powerful, and contemporary statements about freedom of speech — that is, the lack thereof. For these reasons, Tamaki’s work deserves analysis, celebration, and remembrance.


Author’s Bio: A fifth-generation Chinese American, Linda Wing worked for 50 years to empower invisible, disenfranchised and underrepresented students by advancing equitable and excellent education at the PreK12 and postsecondary levels. She had the unique opportunity to pursue these goals in school systems and universities throughout the U.S. — the Bay Area, the Inland Empire, the South Side of Chicago, and Boston. Linda is glad to be back in the Bay where, as a beginning high school teacher, she joined Asian American parents to develop an Asian American Studies curriculum and gained their trust to teach their children Asian American History and Literature.

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