Manzanar Committee Mourns Loss of ‘a Giant in Our Community’

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Archie Miyatake with his wife, Take, during a memorial service for the Manzanar Committee’s Sue Kunitomi Embrey in 2006. (Photo by Alisa Lynch)

The Manzanar Committee expresses its deepest sympathies to the family of former Manzanar incarceree and renowned community photographer Archie Miyatake, 92, who passed away on Dec. 20 in Los Angeles.

The Miyatake family is best known for being the Los Angeles Japanese American community’s photographers, operating Toyo Miyatake Studios since 1923, first in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo and later, in San Gabriel, starting in 1985.

Toyo Miyatake, Archie’s father, was one of more than 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated in American concentration camps, such as Manzanar, during World War II. He is famous for smuggling a lens and film holders into Manzanar, documenting what happened there, illicitly, at first, later sanctioned by the camp director.

Born on Nov. 6, 1924, in Little Tokyo, Archie was the oldest of three children. The family was living in Boyle Heights, just east of Little Tokyo, when World War II broke out.

“We left for Manzanar on May 9, 1942,” Archie said in an interview with Manzanar National Historic Site staff. “As soon as we got on the train, we were told to pull the shades down.”

“From Lone Pine, we were taken by bus to Manzanar,” Archie added. “I thought, ‘What a desolate place.’ Dust was blowing…There were seven of us in a room.”

One day, Archie’s father told him of the responsibility he felt to record what was happening to their community.

“One day, I was outside with my friends when my father called me in and said, ‘As a photographer, I have a responsibility to record camp life so that this kind of thing will never happen again. I snuck in a lens and some film holders and I’m gonna find a carpenter to make a box for me.’ He was going to build a secret camera, even though it was illegal for Japanese to take photos during the war.”

Toyo had to take photos secretly, at first. Eventually, the camp director allowed him to take photos and he became Manzanar’s camp photographer, shooting wedding, family and other photos.

After camp, Toyo Miyatake eventually reopened his Little Tokyo studio and resumed his role as the Los Angeles Japanese American community’s photographer. Archie eventually took over the family business, with the studio moving to San Gabriel in 1985.

After his father’s death in 1979, Archie took on the responsibility of continuing his father’s legacy, making sure that Toyo’s famous photos of Manzanar were not only protected and preserved, but also that they were available to serve as an educational tool.

“One thing that amazes me is that my father’s thinking was so far ahead of the rest of us,” he said. “When he was packing to go to camp, when everybody else was worried about what was going to happen to us, he was thinking beyond that, sneaking in the lens and film holder, knowing how important what he recorded was going to be in the future.”

“I’m trying to continue what my father started,” he added. “More than anything else, I try to keep his work alive.”

Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey said that the Japanese American community has lost another of its giants.

“We lost an amazing man this morning,” Embrey lamented. “More than an accomplished artist, businessman, photographer and community leader, Archie personified the best qualities of a man of valor. Someone who never forgot, like his father before him, his responsibility to chronicle what was taking place in our country and to work to ensure what happened to his family, and to our community, will never happen again, to anyone.

“His father’s photos, along with his own, of Japanese American life, during and after camp, are both invaluable and unparalleled. Memories fade, interpretations vary, but the Miyatake’s photos are treasures, enabling our community to see its past so we can understand our present and our future. They preserve the stories of our individual families, of our community and of our collective history.”

Embrey recalled Archie’s work with his mother, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, long-time leader of the Manzanar Committee and the driving force behind the creation of the Manzanar National Historic Site.

“Archie worked side-by-side with my mother, and so many in the community, to make sure Manzanar would be remembered,” said Embrey. “His father’s photos and Archie’s later photos provided the best historical record, the best vantage point of what life was really like behind barbed wire.

“It is safe to say the photos absolutely guaranteed our story would be told accurately and fully. The subtlety, the nuances missed by ‘official’ photographers, were captured so effortlessly and perfectly in their photos. Archie and his father’s vision, steadfastness, and courage must be held up as an example.

“We mourn the loss of a giant in our community. On behalf of the Manzanar Committee, I want to express our condolences and best wishes to his wife, Take, his sons, Alan and Gary, and the entire Miyatake family. Archie will be sorely missed.”

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