Top 10 Iconic Japanese American Photos

Walt Disney once said, “Of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language.” Pictures tell a story that even the best writer’s words could never fully describe. That’s saying a lot coming from a writer.

I wanted to “tell” the story of Japanese Americans. Here are my top 10 iconic pictures that tell my story.

#10: Japanese American Baseball

African Americans weren’t the only group of people excluded from playing in organized sports. Most people of color couldn’t play on high school teams or professional leagues. The Japanese Americans were no different. They created semi-pro leagues of their own. Here is a picture of a bunch of Japanese American baseball players posing with Babe Ruth.

#9: Picture Brides

Number 5 on the fun list “Ways to Tell if You’re Japanese American”: One of your relatives was a “picture bride” Very true. Because of racist immigration laws, many of the early Japanese immigrants were men who married and met their wives through the mail. (A very early form of Internet dating.)

#8: Barracks with an American Flag

When I think of the American concentration camps (click here to see why I use the term concentration camp) I think of lonely places in the high deserts – which means really hot in the summer and really cold in the winter. (With the exception of the two camps in Arkansas, which were remote but located in swamps.) This picture represents what life was like in the “camps”: desolate. The flag is an ironic symbol of America at its worst.

#7: Santa Anita

When I think of Santa Anita, I don’t think of horse racing. I think of Japanese Americans having lost everything and many being forced to live in horse stalls for months.


#6: Go for Broke

The 442nd regimental combat team, made up almost exclusively of Japanese Americans, was the most highly decorated regiment in military history for its size, including 21 medal of honors – this despite the fact that many of those fighting had families back at home that were incarcerated in the concentration camps. These brave veterans wanted to prove their loyalty by fighting for their country.

#5: Resisters

Bravery wasn’t only found on the battlefield. These brave Japanese American men were willing to go to jail to fight for their equal rights in a court of law. Their story has often been excluded from the Japanese American historical narrative.

#4: Racist and Proud

This picture reminds me of what happens when people let their fear and prejudice get the best of them. I don’t believe everyone back then was like this woman but there were enough of them to allow the unjust incarceration of 120,000 people.

#3: Mother and Her Baby

To this day, some [ignorant] people still think that the Japanese Americans were sent to camps because they were spies and saboteurs. When they look at THIS picture, I wonder if they still think that. Notice the tags on their coats? Their names and prison numbers.

#2: Guard Tower

When outsiders (like Ansel Adams) visited the camps they were told not to take pictures of the guard tower. The reason? The government wanted to continue the illusion that they were not prisons. Luckily people took pictures of the guard towers and the truth about what kinds of places these were eventually came out.


#1: Barbed Wire

There is something about seeing children – American children – living behind barbed wire. It is both sad and haunting and reminds me why it is important to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Did I miss a picture? Share with me your iconic Japanese American photo.

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About Koji Steven Sakai

Writer/Producer Koji Steven Sakai is the founder of Little Nalu Pictures LLC and the CEO of CHOPSO (, the first Asian English streaming video service. He has written five feature films that have been produced, including the indie hit, The People I’ve Slept With. He also produced three feature films, a one hour comedy special currently on Netflix, and Comedy InvAsian, a live and filmed series featuring the nation’s top Asian American comedians. Koji’s debut novel, Romeo & Juliet Vs. Zombies, was released in paperback in 2015 and in audiobook in 2016 and his graphic novel, 442, was released in 2017. In addition, he is currently an adjunct professor in screenwriting at International Technological University in San Jose.
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