Rediscovering History on Film – Rafu Shimpo

Ushizo Oyama was born in Fukuoka, Japan in 1884, at a time when photography was in its infancy. He immigrated to America in the 1920s, enrolling in a photography school in Illinois, learning the rudiments of a form that captivated him.

In the 1930s, he married a widow, Tsune, and opened a photographic studio in Sacramento, specializing in portraits. When war broke out in 1941, his family was forced into a succession of camps. The first of these was Wallerga, a detention camp; Lake Tule from 1942 to 1943; Jerome, Arkansas from 1943 to 1944. The last camp they entered was Amache, Colorado from 1944 to 1945.

Fortunately, the camp authorities did not confiscate his camera or photographic equipment. During those years, authorities allowed group photos, allocating him $18 a month to do so. Using his knowledge of photography and, most importantly, the equipment and skills needed to process film, he took pictures of internees seeking to register their organizations.

He had, indeed, preserved a part of American history.

The war ended in 1945 and for a brief period he went to Stillwater, Oklahoma to teach Japanese to ROTC students sent to Japan. This work ended after a year.

In the end, the decision was made to go to the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. The family stayed at the Evergreen Hostel, a temporary accommodation for Japanese Americans returning from the camps and funded by Union Church.

Unable to re-establish his photographic studio, he was employed by the Clifton Cafeteria as a pots and pans dishwasher, before retiring from that job.

He lived the rest of his life with his wife, Tsune, and their two children. A younger son died as a teenager in Oklahoma.

In his later years, the photographer of life among the internees developed Alzheimer’s disease, erasing memories of his own life but leaving behind a photographic legacy of those in internment camps.

Submitted by Sachi Oyama, Ushizo Oyama’s daughter-in-law.

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