December 30, 2020

Mary Koga

“My lens is attracted to people and their inner strengths and support systems.”
—Mary Koga

Mary Koga was a photographer and social worker, known for her work documenting first-generation Japanese immigrants and working to promote cultural exchange between Japanese and US communities in Chicago and beyond.


Figure 1: An undated photograph of Mary Koga. Courtesy of the Japan America Society of Chicago


Koga was born Hisako Ishii in Sacramento, California, on August 10, 1920. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in 1942, she was incarcerated at the Tule Lake Segregation Center in Tulelake, California. Tule Lake was the largest of ten internment camps operated by the War Relocation Authority during WWII and the last to close, remaining in operation until May 5, 1946. This experience affected Koga’s work throughout her life, including her interest in communal living and her strong sense of duty to others.


Scanned pages of Tule Lake Dispatch with list of internees names

Figure 2: Koga is listed as “Ishii, Hisako Mary” in this group of “enlistees” being issued new identification at the Tule Lake internment camp, The Tulean Dispatch, 1942. Library of Congress, sn84025953


Following her release, Koga relocated to Chicago where she pursued a career in social work. In 1947, she completed her master’s degree in social work from the University of Chicago and worked in the field for twenty years before earning her photography MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

As a social worker in the 1950s and ’60s, Koga did casework at the Family Service Bureau, United Charities of Chicago; Northwestern University Medical School; and the Institute for Juvenile Research. She was also an assistant professor for field work at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration from 1960 to 1969.

Koga received her first camera as a child and remained fascinated by photography throughout her life. She did much of her photographic work in the late 1960s and ’70s, including a one-woman show at the Chicago Public Library’s Rogers Park Branch in 1968. During her career as a professional photographer, Koga was also a professor of photography at Columbia College Chicago.

Koga’s photography ranged from floral forms to portraits of Hutterites, a communal branch of Anabaptists living primarily in Western Canada and the upper Great Plains of the US. In the 1980s, Koga documented the Issei, or first-generation Japanese immigrant community (see slideshow below). In one series of photos, Koga captured approximately 100 individuals with an average age of 76 at the Adult Day Care and Senior Citizens Work Center at the Japanese American Service Committee in Chicago.

Koga’s close connection to the Japanese American community in Chicago was apparent through her work in reviving the Japan America Society of Chicago (JASC) in the 1950s. Today, the JASC is still actively fostering communication and cooperation between the US and Japan and supporting numerous business and cultural programs, as well as offering Japanese language courses.

When Koga died in 2001, her legacy continued with the Mary Koga Memorial Fund and the JASC’s Mary Koga Award.


Further Reading

For Educators: Student Reading and Response Guide


  • Internment Camp: a prison camp where Japanese Americans were unjustly held during World War II by the United States government
  • War Relocation Authority: a United States government agency established to handle the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in Internment camps during World War II
  • Communal living: a community of people sharing spaces, interests, values, beliefs, and often property and possessions in common
  • Hutterites: an Anabaptist Christian group who practice a communal way of life
  • Anabaptist: a branch of Christianity dating from the sixteenth century

Text Questions

  • The author of the blog states that Mary Koga’s time in the Tule Lake Internment Camp affected her throughout her life, from her interest in communal living, to her strong sense of duty to others. What evidence can you find in the blog of choices Mary made or activities she engaged in that back up this claim?
  • Mary received her first camera as a child and was fascinated with photography throughout her life. What interests did you develop as a young child that still shape you today? How do you envision the impact they will have on you as an adult?
  • During the late 1950s, Mary worked to revive the Japan America Society of Chicago (JASC). What work does the JASC engage in today?
  • After learning about Mary Koga’s life and achievements, what do you think she meant when she said: “My lens is attracted to people and their inner strengths and support systems.”

Journal Prompt

  • Under Further Reading, click on the link “Mary Koga at the Museum of Contemporary Photography” Choose one of Mary Koga’s photographs and respond to these prompts:
  • What details do you notice in this photograph?
  • Why did you choose it?
  • Write your own title for the image
  • Why do you think Mary Koga took this photograph?
  • Optional: create your own work inspired by this photograph. Write a song, poem, or make a visual image using any medium.