Growing up as a Japanese American in Los Angeles in the ’70s, I felt comfortable and safe, with not much, if any, experience of prejudice or racism. We lived in Monterey Park, had regular family get-togethers, trips to Central California, Hawaii, and occasionally Japan. I attended a public school and I thought of myself as any other “American kid” having a “normal life in the U.S.A.” I would spend summers in Visalia, California, where my uncles had a farm. There was a large group of Japanese Americans there, mostly farmers growing vegetables, and they all seemed to attend the local Buddhist church. This is where my Mom grew up, with her three brothers and two sisters… she had her own real life “Brady Bunch” (always thought that was funny). On my Dad’s side, the family was spread out between Maui and Oahu. He, at one point, had 13 brothers and sisters. Needless to say, I had many places to visit when I was in Hawaii.
We would also visit my aunt and uncle in Japan. My uncle was a colonel in the U.S. Army stationed at Camp Zama near Sagamihara, Japan. My parents would let me and the other “Army kids” ride bikes all over the city. We barely knew our way around, spoke almost no Japanese, and had American passports. We spoke English to all the locals saying we were from California, and felt quite safe and happy being in Japan. I took this freedom of being an American for granted.
In elementary school I thought all kids ate mac and cheese, chicken pot pie, tacos, and pot roast. In fact, the only “Japanese” thing we would eat occasionally would be what my mom called “Okazu.” I still don’t know what Okazu is exactly, but it was just a bunch of small dishes with meat and rice. It was nothing that I could order at the local Japanese restaurants. I did not care for it very much as many of the items had a pickled taste.
My parents never spoke Japanese to each other, and the only time I would hear my Mom speak Japanese was to Grandma. In general, my Mom was pretty reserved, never really wanted to make any “fuss” about anything. All she wanted was for me to go to school. However, in 5th grade, I remember when we were doing a project on Japan the teacher said we should abbreviate Japanese to “Jap.” So I did. Many, many times. When I proudly showed my paper to my Mom, she seemed irritated and immediately got on the phone calling her friends. She was angrily speaking to another parent. I had never seen her that upset. Did I not get a double gold star? Or a smiley face? I did not think I did that badly. I remember she called the school and asked for that teacher to not teach that class again. I was embarrassed for the teacher and for my mother to make such a big deal to the school, the parents, and my friends.
I asked my Mom, “Why are you so upset? What’s wrong with ‘Jap’?” She said “Jap” is a very, very bad word and you are never to use it. Nor should it be taught. “But why?” I asked. “‘Japanese’ is too long to spell.” “That’s what they used to call us when they took us to camp,” she replied. “Why is ‘Jap’ bad, Mom? It’s just an abbreviation!” Like most kids, the barrage kept coming. “Why Mom? Why is it bad? Why can’t I abbreviate it? Why can’t I say ‘Jap’? Jap! Jap! Jap!” Finally boiling upset, my Mom said, “It’s just bad! They took us away to camp!!” My thoughts changed and my eyes widened. “Camp?? What kind of camp? How come I haven’t been to camp??? How long did you get to go for??” She said four years. “Wow!!!! Four years…that’s great!!! When can I go to camp??!!”
Today, I understand why my parents never forced me to go to Japanese school (even though they wanted me to go). Why she was so angry at the word “Jap.” Why she never made Japanese food for me. Why my uncle always said, “Be a doctor or a lawyer…they can never take that away from you!!” Why we never really did or speak of many Japanese things…only being American.
It’s 1999. I have been working as a freelance photographer in my Los Angeles Arts District studio. Christine Yamazaki and Diane Tanaka saw my large portraits of ladies in a retirement home. They liked how I was able to show strength and dignity as well as personality in the confinements of a nursing home. It struck a cord with them and I was asked if I wanted to do a series of the Veterans. I had been working with the Vets for a few years already so I thought it was a great idea. They wanted to keep the unity of the “Go For Broke” Foundation in which they were all going to wear their white 442 club shirts. I decided on a black-and-white series in which the subject would stand out from what basically was a white-on-white background. What came next was a yearlong project of shooting Veterans from Los Angeles, Hawaii, and Seattle. I used a Pentax 6x7 medium-format camera and Tri X 400 film. I was trying to keep the images to one roll per Veteran, or 10 pictures each. Some I shot maybe a roll and a half if I wanted something extra or I felt I did not get it. I tried to bring out a little personality with each subject. Some were serious, some were playful, others somber and stoic.
After a few months of printing, we had a nice portrait series for publicity for the “Go For Broke” Foundation and the 442 Vets. At the time (circa 2001), it was the first of its kind. I continued to work with the Vets, shooting various events and at the annual “Evening of Aloha” fundraiser. I always wanted to continue shooting portraits of them, but I needed a new angle to keep things fresh. In 2007, I finally started to do a few test shots. I had two Vets: Toke Yoshitake and Toe Yoshino. I shot them in my studio wearing their own clothing. The portraits were nice, but I thought they did not do them justice. I showed the photos around and most reactions were like, “Oh, who are those seniors?” or “That’s cute.” I knew I had to try a different approach. I remembered how a few younger folks dressed up in full military outfits for shows and re-enactments. I thought that might be a good look for the Vets (a kind of then and now). I shot Toke and Toe again as a test that same year in 2007 and this time, when I showed the photos, I got an entirely different response. People could now equate these men, now in the twilight of their lives, to the soldiers who fought in WWII. Did they know who they were or what they did? Not a one. Hence the reason behind the second part of my series of the Vets.
Now I had even greater challenges. How was I going to find all the uniforms, especially since most were lost or were way too small now?! These guys averaged a trim 110 pounds per person during the war. Even more challenging was trying to convince many Vets to wear the uniforms, let alone take a portrait. Not surprisingly, some Vets had reservations to put on the uniform from a war they wanted to forget. They did not want the added extra effort just to take a photo. Only after seeing some of their buddies do it, and realizing it was for an important project, did most volunteer. I had to use the same uniforms over and over as I did not have many replicas let alone originals. Obviously, I wish I could have been “historically correct” by having the correct uniform for each of the Vets. But I realized the visual impact of the images outweighed the historical aspects. This was by far the hardest thing for me to accomplish. I hope that when others see the images, they can feel the Vets’ personas and realize that these now older men have a fantastic story we should all hear as Americans.
From 2007 to the present, I again traveled and shot in Los Angeles, Hawaii, and Seattle, sometimes shooting the same Vets again. I wanted to show to a future generation a strong vibrant color portrait of what these men did for America. Armed with my new Canon 5D digital cameras, portable lights, and Photoshop, I could shoot almost anywhere. I shot for many years, sometimes only getting a few at a time, not really knowing what I was going to do with the finished portraits. I just knew that this needed to be done. Working with the Vets has always fascinated me for two reasons. For one, being Japanese American myself, I felt proud of the honor these men brought for all Japanese Americans living in this country. And second, I was struck by their humility. While small in physical stature, the accomplishments of these men were powerful and moved an entire generation. This kept me going as it was difficult to convince them to take a portrait or to convince Veterans organizations to even allow me to try and take any portraits. They had to be convinced it was for a future generation to see and that I was an appropriate person for this. This camaraderie and strength are probably what gave them the courage to fight together for America against racism, and fight to prove that they belong. My troubles seem minor indeed when I think of these things, and I hope to continue to take these portraits as long as I am able.
In regards to the stories in this book, I wanted to keep them short. My goal here was a coffee-table photo book. I was hoping that the pictures would tell the story. It was never my intention to produce a written historical piece or a biography. It is impossible to tell the story of these men’s lives in just a few paragraphs. In fact I wanted to just “talk story,” but we felt we needed some historical background as well. When possible, I tried to share a unique experience that a Veteran had told. I wanted to keep the stories personal…like a father would be telling his son about grandpa. In many cases, I asked people close to the Vets to tell or write a story. Vets’ memories fade, stories become legend, and others are forgotten. I tried to keep the stories as close to how they told it, but please forgive me if things alter a bit.
Every day I am saddened by the fact that most Americans are innocently ignorant of what happened in America just 70 years ago. That my friends, even the Asian American ones, ask me, “Your parents did not go to camp, did they?” Or, “Did they take away all your family’s possessions?” When they ask, “Why don’t you speak Japanese” or “Why don’t your parents speak Japanese,” I must try to educate them of how my parents went to camp, faced racism, and tried to assimilate us to be “more American.” Speaking the “enemy’s language” was not accepted at the time for them.
The 442 has done more than its part in history for Japanese Americans and, really, all Asian Americans. They are too humble and too reserved to “make a fuss” and have their voices heard. This is where the next generation must come in and carry the torch so that these stories are not forgotten. I always wonder if I could fight for a country that took my constitutional freedom away. Could I fight while my family lived in an internment camp? Could I never talk badly about the government that did this? And as my Mom would say, “camp was okay”? Could I take the redress money for four years in prison and say, “Okay, let’s buy a car” (my Mom got a Toyota Camry…how ironic). I really don’t know if I could have done the same. This personal project of mine is something I can do for the Veterans of the 442nd/100th/MIS. I am thankful being both a “Buddhahead” and a ”Katonk” that I am given this opportunity to share these photos so that other Americans, especially Japanese Americans, can see them. I hope the portraits show a glimpse of what these men were like on a personal level, and that their pictures and stories make you think about what they did and be proud that they were American heroes.