OWI/WRA documentaries


During World War II, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) and the Office of War Information (OWI) made a series of documentary films—Japanese Relocation, A Challenge to Democracy, Go for Broke, and The Way Ahead—about the wartime removal and confinement of Japanese Americans. These documentaries, designed to shape public understandings of Japanese American incarceration, presented a number of quickly shifting perspectives (as filmmakers struggled to keep up with rapidly changing government policies) and failed to present a balanced view of their subject.  

The Wartime Context

The government produced its documentary films in a rabidly anti-Japanese wartime environment that produced a wide range of racist and dehumanized depictions of Japanese (and often, either by implication or outright assertion, Japanese Americans). Portraying the enemy as subhuman and repulsive, popular culture frequently compared the allegedly inscrutable Japanese to animals, reptiles, and insects. Hollywood films like Purple Heart and Little Tokyo, U.S.A. connected such qualities as well as Japanese treachery to Japanese Americans. Newsreels reinforced the paranoia about fifth columns encouraged by Hollywood, presenting the Japanese as "evil incarnate" and arguing that biology and culture made Japanese Americans simply Japanese and thus untrustworthy.[1] Cartoons shown in theaters drove the point home, too, with Superman's battle against a treasonous "Japoteur" pitting the Man of Steel against a traitorous "little man" bent on stealing a new American super-bomber.[2]

Japanese Relocation

The first government documentary on removal and confinement, Japanese Relocation, evaded inconvenient facts and relied on implied guilt in building an argument for the necessity of mass incarceration. Produced by the OWI and authoritatively narrated by the WRA's first director, Milton S. Eisenhower, Japanese Relocation described the West Coast as a potential war zone after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but did not present any clear evidence in support of its assertion, typically relying on implied threats. The film then presented a heavily sanitized version of removal and confinement, describing how these policies were accomplished in a "democratic manner" and on a "planned and protected basis." Although the filmmakers occasionally noted the hardships involved for Japanese Americans, they more often emphasized cheerful cooperation and careful planning.  

The film included footage of the concentration camps, but these shots were typically taken from high, overhead angles and emphasized sweeping frontier panoramas, suggesting a sense of order while at the same time distancing viewers from the actual people living in the camps. Camp life was further whitewashed by the narrator, who highlighted "curious" new arrivals and a camp system that supported education and health care. The film's conclusion, supported by a final panoramic shot, envisioned a better future for Japanese Americans—with their freedom pointedly possible only after the disloyal had left the country "for good"—and the filmmakers closed by expressing the hope that the U.S.'s "democratic" handling of Japanese Americans would convince Axis leaders to treat "Americans who fall into their hands" in similar ways.

Other Government Documentaries

The WRA, in conjunction at different times with the OWI, the Office of Strategic Services, and the War Department, produced a number of films after Japanese Relocation, all of which were eventually compiled as part of A Challenge to Democracy. This film reflected the changing priorities of government policy, focusing less on the reasons for incarceration and more on the necessity of resettling inmates from the camps to the Midwest and East Coast. Drawing on footage from Go for Broke, a film documenting Nisei military service, and The Way Ahead, which encouraged Japanese Americans to resettle, A Challenge to Democracy struggled to negotiate the tensions "between a national urge for security and a wholesale breach of civil rights."[3]

After beginning by noting that incarceration did not mean that all Japanese Americans were disloyal, the filmmakers described government policy as simply a precaution against possible hazards should Japan invade the U.S. Making no further attempt to reconcile these two positions, the filmmakers, while more sympathetic to the inmates—described as "unwounded casualties" of war—allowed ambiguity to remain on this foundational issue. Instead, the film focused on explaining the process of removal and confinement, highlighting how a "typical" community, complete with self-government, education, sports, the arts, and churches, had been recreated in the camps. The filmmakers also emphasized—likely in response to charges that the inmates were coddled—the work habits and skills of Japanese Americans that had transformed desert land to produce food for the camps, even on the very low wages offered by the government. A Challenge to Democracy then urged resettlement, noting that this would cut government costs while returning Japanese Americans to American life. Borrowing from The Way Ahead, the film presented Japanese Americans as individuals who, while facing problems in scarce housing and food rationing (but ignoring racism), should be accepted. The film also incorporated Go for Broke, which depicted, to swelling patriotic music, Japanese Americans in the 442nd who were fighting for their country, democracy, and equal opportunity. As the film noted, "in a gas mask, all American soldiers look alike."

Barriers and Passes

A final documentary made by the Presbyterian Board of National Missions during WWII, Barriers and Passes, presented an important counterpoint to the government's documentaries. Although this silent film often used clips borrowed from the government's documentaries, its filmmakers presented a very different perspective, even as they urged church members to support the government's policy of resettlement. The film diverged from government efforts immediately by implying that mass incarceration of the "peaceable and hardworking" Japanese Americans had not been necessary. The film praised the Issei for their loyalty, even when American law barred them from citizenship. Furthermore, the filmmakers more honestly addressed the camps, which had been built on "wastelands in isolated places." Eschewing the high angle, panoramic shots preferred in government documentaries, Barriers and Passes depicted children playing in mud and wondering when they could return home, dust storms and muddy potholes, and real people presented as individuals struggling with trying circumstances (who get, in this film, to speak for themselves). While praising the community life that had developed in the camps, the filmmakers argued that camp living could never be normal in such circumstances; thus, Japanese Americans needed to resettle outside the camps as quickly as possible. Barriers and Passes thus serves as an important rejoinder to the government's films, helping to round out a more complete picture of the wartime Japanese American experience.

Authored by Allan W. Austin, Misericordia University

For More Information

Austin, Allan W. "Superman Goes to War: Teaching Japanese American Exile and Incarceration with Film." Journal of American Ethnic History 30:4 (2011): 51-56.

———. "Projecting Japanese American Exile and Incarceration: Ethnicity, the Enemy, and Mass Incarceration in Film during World War II," 2004-2005 Film and History CD-ROM Annual, Cleveland, Oklahoma: Film and History Center, 2006.

Barriers and Passes. Presbyterian Board of National Missions with the cooperation of the War Relocation Authority, nd. Record Group 210: Records of the War Relocation Authority, National Archives at College Park. (33:31). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZyDeKIMr38.

A Challenge to Democracy. War Relocation Authority with the Office of War Information and the Office of Strategic Services, nd. Record Group 210: Records of the War Relocation Authority, National Archives at College Park. (18:04). http://www.archive.org/details/Challeng1944.

Donald, Ralph R. "Awakening a Sleeping Giant: The Pearl Harbor Attack in Film." Film and History 27 (1997): 41-46.

Garrett, Greg. "It's Everybody's War: Racism and World War II Documentary." Journal of Popular Film 22 (1994): 70-78.

Go For Broke. War Relocation Authority with the cooperation of the War Department and the Office of Strategic Services, nd. Record Group 210: Records of the War Relocation Authority, National Archives at College Park. (11:05).

Higashi, Sumiko. "Melodrama, Realism, and Race: World War II Newsreels and Propaganda Film." Cinema Journal 37 (1998): 38-61.

Japanese Relocation. Office of War Information—Bureau of Motion Pictures, 1943. Record Group 208: Records of the Office of War Information, National Archives at College Park. (9:28). http://www.archive.org/details/Japanese1943.

Koppes, Clayton R. and Gregory D. Black. Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped World War II. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

MacCann, Richard Dyer. The People's Films: A Political History of U.S. Government Motion Pictures. New York: Hastings House, 1973.

The Way Ahead. War Relocation Authority with the cooperation of the Office of Strategic Services, ca. 1943. Record Group 210: Records of the War Relocation Authority, National Archives at College Park. (14:01).

Footnotes

  1. Sumiko Higashi, "Melodrama, Realism, and Race: World War II Newsreels and Propaganda Film," Cinema Journal 37 (1998): 38-61 39, 43, 49.
  2. Allan W. Austin, "Superman Goes to War: Teaching Japanese American Exile and Incarceration with Film," Journal of American Ethnic History 30:4 (2011): 52.
  3. Greg Garrett, "It's Everybody’s War: Racism and World War II Documentary," Journal of Popular Film 22(1994): 75.