Manzanar Sign Follow-Up

Akio Matsumoto, commercial artist

Akio Matsumoto, commercial artist. Photo by Ansel Adams.

After I posted my article about the Manzanar War Relocation Center’s entrance sign, I received this email:


I ran across your Dec 24 entry regarding the Manzanar relocation sign. My father, who was interned there, painted the sign.  He passed away four years ago but was a graphic artist who did a lot calligraphic work (even before being relocated).  Ansel Adams took several pictures of him (see this link).

He had many books containing various fonts. I donated many of them to the Cerritos Library when he passed away.  However, I don’t think that the font he used for the Manzanar sign was in them since he wasn’t able to take much with him to the relocation center.

FYI:  Another person who worked in the Manzanar sign shop was Jack Hirose (see this link).


So this information, frankly, changes a lot about what I had originally hypothesized. For one, unless Mr. Matsumoto was told to use a specific lettering style, it was probably his choice to use the blackletter face. And if so, it’s more likely that it was an effort towards beautification, rather than propaganda. Many of those who were forced to live at Manzanar had created gardens, murals, and other creative works to improve the look and feel of what was otherwise a barren and austere place. I suppose then that the “Alpine Resort” feel could have been closer to what the artist was going for, not for propaganda, but in a “making-the-best-of-it” sort of way.

Thanks very much to Mark Matsumoto for sharing his father’s story.

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4 Responses to “Manzanar Sign Follow-Up”

  1. Jenn Z. January 5, 2010 at 5:04 pm #

    Fascinating find Josh. It’s great that you were able to find out more about the sign’s history. Thank you Mark, as well.

    One note on the use of blackletter in German-language print/signage: until 1945 it was standard for most official print material to appear in blackletter, a type known as Fraktur in German. You start to see more sans serif fonts appear in German-speaking countries around WWI, but it was the exception rather than the rule. After 1945 the Germans (East and West now) switched to a roman script in their print and official correspondence.

    This was the case for Americans learning German, as well. When my grandmother learned German in Ohio in the 30s, she learned it in Fraktur. After I started my PhD in German at Berkeley, she gave me her old materials; it was a trip to see that everything she read was in Fraktur (which arguably is the bane of many who study this language today). Any American at the time having experience of the German language would have immediately associated Fraktur with “Germanness.” And German was an extremely popular language to teach back then.

    With that in mind, it’s still not far-fetched to imagine that Mr. Matsumoto decided to employ a modified blackletter style as a subtle way of protesting his (and many others’) internment.

  2. Khadija Anderson August 19, 2010 at 5:49 pm #

    Hi- While doing research for a poem about a painting of Manzanar, I found a large picture of the sign from google (Ansel Adam’s). I was immediately struck by the similarity of the font to what I have in my mind as Nazi era materials. I googled Nazi fonts and found your blog. I don’t think it is far off to consider that the artist used this font purposely. I also wanted to say that what I have read on Manzanar, Eisenhower did originally call these “concentration camps”. There is much on the net about that, I found the link through the wikipedia article on Manzanar.

  3. Josh Korwin August 19, 2010 at 6:22 pm #

    Interesting thoughts!

    It’s still an unresolved question, in my mind. I wish I would have had the opportunity to talk directly with the designer who made the sign, since I haven’t found any parallels in place in photographs from other similar internment facilities from the era. I’ve done some further research, though, and in reading Paul Renner: The Art of Typography, I’ve found some very interesting information, quoted starting from page 149 in my edition:

    The gothic types of the Nazi era
    In the 1930s a new kind of gothic typeface arose, in which traditional forms were simplified to give a brute impression. Such typefaces were deliberately marketed by the typefoundries to capitalize on nationalistic feeling, bearing names like Großdeutsch, National, Deutschland, Tannenberg and Element. Most calligraphic elements were eliminated from the letterforms; in some cases they were reduced almost to a kind of gothic-sanserif form. Gothic capital letters were simplified so that they became more roman in form; in this sense, the Third-Reich gothics went some way towards modernizing gothic type. Max Bittrof, in his typeface Element, pared down gothic forms to their lineal basics, and consequently produced a typeface that was a perfect accompaniment to the swastika.
    Of course, one cannot assume that the designers of gothic typefaces during the Third Reich were ardent Nazi-supporters (some of the types must have been produced by many anonymous workers at the typefoundries). Although the words of well-known gothic supporters like Rudolph Koch and F.H. Ehmcke often conveyed an epic sense of nationalism similar to that of most Nazi propaganda, tehse men were romantic nationalists, concerned with asbract ideas of culture. Neither of them belonged to the Nazi Party.

    Burke uses the word “gothic” for blackletter, not in the American sense meaning sans-serif (“grotesk” in German).


  1. What’s in a Font—The Manzanar War Relocation Center Sign | three steps ahead — perspectives - January 5, 2010

    […] Update (January 5, 2010): After posting this article, I received an email from Mark Matsumoto, whose father, Akio Matsumoto, was a commercial artist interned at Manzanar during the War. According to Mark, Akio Matsumoto was the person who painted the sign. Needless to say, this information drastically affects my original theories about the sign’s lettering! I’ve posted a follow-up with more information. […]

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