Lettering at Manzanar

Just what constitutes “Nazi type” is interesting not least because it affects how we see all sorts of other typography.

Back in 2010, designer Josh Korwin noticed that the entrance sign at the Japanese-American internment camp at Manzanar seemed to use a modernized version of a blackletter typeface for its lettering. This struck Korwin as ironic, given that blackletter is now often associated with the Nazis and, well, concentration camps.

To be fair, Korwin also noted that the typeface on the Manzanar sign isn’t really a true blackletter, and its not used properly for if it was. Instead, it’s more of a bold-ish Gothic lettering (despite being so German-sounding, Gothic is just an early American term for sans-serif).

Stunningly, that blog post drew a response from Mark Matsuomoto, who was able to tell him that Mark’s father Akio Matsumoto did the lettering for the sign while he was interned at Manzanar. That fact certainly changes the potential meaning of the choice, since instead of clueless American officials making an ironic design decision it was one of the internees who decided on the blackletter-like lettering. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get us any closer to the actual thought-process involved, though Korwin’s conclusion seems plausible:

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.

The other thing that’s important, though, is to remember that our postwar impressions of blackletter-as-Nazi weren’t necessarily as clear or as relevant during the war itself. After all, for Japanese-American internees, it was the question of their Japanese-ness that was utmost in everyone’s minds, not connotations connected to a theatre of war on the other side of the world.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s