Japanese American artist, Henry Sugimoto, depicted life in the Arkansas internment camps into which he and his entire family (including wife and child) and many others of Japanese descent were forced, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Sugimoto's life and his painting were profoundly influenced by his incarceration experience during World War II. During and after this period his subject changed from landscapes to scenes of camp life and the Japanese emigration/immigration experience; these works often had social and political purpose.

Dominating this picture are five brown-skinned, black-haired babies clad only in diapers, who are sitting or standing on a white sheet. Remarkably, the babies are featureless, although one appears to be crying. Another is standing, waving a tiny American flag. Looming in the lower left of the picture is an MP (military police), also brown-skinned, but with Caucasian features. He stands guard, not facing the children, and prominently holding a rifle to which a bayonet is attached.

Separating the babies from the MP is the barbed wire fence that stretches along the painting's foreground. In the background is the watch tower often depicted in Sugimoto's paintings, more barbed wire fences that enclose the children, and a menacing dark brown sky.


Children were born during internment, life went on. Second generation Japanese (Nisei) who were U.S. citizens by law were nevertheless incarcerated along with their parents. Most were patriotic Americans, but flag waving did not prevent them from being interned --unless, that is, they signed a loyalty oath and joined the American Armed Forces, where they fought and even lost their lives.

Why are the children in this picture faceless? Perhaps because Americans were treating people of Japanese descent as one deindividualized and dehumanized entity, to be viewed with suspicion and distrust. The injustice of U.S. policy toward Japanese Americans is emphasized in this painting, in its ironic juxtaposition of helpless infants with military might and barbed wire. Note also that Sugimoto uses the term, "concentration camp" in labeling the painting, while the U.S. government called them "relocation camps" (people were relocated from the West Coast to the U.S. interior).

See also the Online Archive of California Database ( where a fascinating and informative exhibit on Henry Sugimoto and his work has been made available by the Japanese American National Museum. The museum archive ( provides biographical material and background information for many of Sugimoto's paintings, sometimes quoting from his personal papers, and from "redress" testimony that he gave in 1981 when the U.S. government revisited the shameful internment episode.


Painted ca. 1943