Blast from the Past: Issei Vote for First Time in 1942

November 9, 2010

One of my college friends works for the Foundation for the National Archives -- which, just by the way, is like the coolest job on earth, because she basically spends all day looking at pictures of history. Knowing my fascination with Asian American history and culture, my former suitemate will often send me images that she thinks I’d be interested in. This has been going on for several months, and it occurred to me that other people might be interested in them, too.

This image of Japanese Americans voting in San Bruno, California, really struck a chord with me as we wrap up last week's midterms elections. The full caption reads:

San Bruno, California. Entering Recreational Hall where election is being held for Councilmen. A general election for five members of the Tanforan Assembly center Advisory Council is being held on this day. The Issei [first-generation Japanese Americans] have never been able to vote before because of American naturalization laws, 06/16/1942

Traditionally, Asian Americans have the lowest voter turn-out rate of all ethnic groups in the US. An estimated seven million Asian Americans are eligible to vote but, according to the US Census Bureau 2008 survey, only about four million are registered. That puts Asian Americans at about 2.5 percent of the overall American voting block in 2008.

Now in 2010, the right to vote is something that many people take for granted. For me, this picture is a reminder as to just how recent it was that many groups of people were given that right. Between 1942 and 1976, many changes were made to immigration and naturalization laws to allow immigrants to obtain citizenship and to vote without racial prejudice. That’s definitely something I’ll be thinking about when I cast my vote in the 2012 elections, just 70 years after the first Issei cast their votes in 1942.

Further reading:

ACLU Voting Rights Act Timeline

Voice of America, Asian Americans Have Many of Same Election Day Concerns as Other Groups

Pew Research Center Publications, Dissecting the 2008 Electorate: Most Diverse in U.S. History

Photo Citation:

Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S), National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD, 20740-6001




this picture/story is woefully lacking in context ... the tanforan assembly center (aka tanforan horseracing track) was where JAs from San Francisco were warehoused for a few months while the internment camps were being built ... the issei pictured here are living in horse stalls and would end up most likely in tule lake or topaz ... true, they are voting but it's not a general public election ... this "election" basically equates to the guards allowing the inmates to set shower schedules - and of course all votes had to be approved by the "warden" ... issei weren't given the right to become US citizens (and vote) until the mid 1950s ... you have to remember that 99 percent of the photos in the national archives taken during the internment period are flat-out propaganda ... these photos were taken by the govt to show how it was treating the JA prisoners - you'll rarely see photos of armed guards or barbed wire, and all the JAs seem to be smiling ... frankly, this is the kind of BS crap that white media perpetuates - do better next time hyphen ...

Thanks for your comment, ekb! You're absolutely right, Japanese Americans weren't given the right to become citizens until 1952 when the McCarran-Walter Act was passed. I had been kind of confused by the timeline, but figured maybe San Bruno had different voting laws or something, and I'm glad you were able to clarify the situation. The immigration/naturalization processes are so muddy that sometimes it's hard to figure out what happened when, why and how. In that case, in 2012, I'll be thinking about how it was only 60 years ago that the Issei were allowed to vote as US citizens.

The purpose of this post was to bring attention to Asian Americans in history. Whether propaganda or not, I think these images bring value to our understanding of Asian American history for what they show -- or don't show. WWII internment camps are not something that I think about on a regular basis, but you can bet that, today, I'll be thinking about what they went through and the rights/freedoms that we enjoy today. Thanks again for your contribution.

victoria ... i know your heart is in the right place but your choice of words could be better - and. as we in journalism know, the selection of words is extremely important ... you wrote "Japanese Americans weren't given the right to become citiizens until 1952" ... This is incorrect; it should read *issei* ... this is a big distinction ... the nisei could vote before 1952 because they were born in the US and were supposedly guaranteed all the rights bestowed upon citizens under the constitution ... i say "supposedly" because their citizenship didn't seem to matter much when they lost their homes and were shipped off to the camps during WWII ... the photos in the national archive are extremely important to portray japanese american history but they must be provided with context of what's actually happening and not what a gov't caption writer wants you to believe ... if shown in a vacuum without context - as you presented this photo and caption - the reader will invariably come to the same false conclusion you made, thus perpetuating the propaganda ... photos and captions like this were used by JA internment revisionists like michelle malkin who popped up after 9/11 to justify their beliefs that it was OK to strip arab americans of their constitutional rights ...  i understand what you were trying to do with your piece - this just wasn't the best way to do it ... you're obviously intelligent, perceptive and compassionate - do better next time ... ekb  
I appreciate the call to vote but it's weird to celebrate people voting while on their way to prison camps.  This picture wasn't just taken "in San Bruno," but at one of the many so-called Assembly Centers set up to transport Japanese Americans to illegal incarceration where they would spend the next 3-5 years. 

So sorry, everyone (Victoria included).  We got caught up in the copyright questions of posting images from the National Archive -- and in the excitement overlooked a far more important detail:  the particular year and therefore very vexed historical context of this photograph. 1942 or 1946?  Big difference.

For the editorial fail, my apologies.  Though to Victoria's point, that complicating context makes their act of voting all the more powerful -- and our own voting all the more necessary.