Documentary film on Japanese immigrants rediscovered after 30 years
UCLA Professor Lane Hirabayashi addresses the audience prior to the screening. (Photo: Cindy Suzuki/ UCLA.)

Documentary film on Japanese immigrants rediscovered after 30 years

A lost documentary on the Issei generation of Japanese immigrants to the United States was recovered in a joint effort by UCLA Professor Lane Hirabayashi and director Toshi Washizu.

by Catherine Schuknecht

International Institute, May 21, 2014 — The long-buried “Issei: The First Generation” [1984] was presented to a UCLA audience at a recent event cosponsored by the Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies and the Japan Foundation.

Directed by the Japanese poet Toshi Washizu, a resident of the United States, and narrated in English by the well-known actress Amy Hill, the film features 54 minutes of intimate oral history interviews with first-generation Japanese immigrants who arrived in Walnut Grove, California at the turn of the last century.

Mostly in their eighties and nineties in 1983 when Washizu filmed them, the Issei interviewees shared candid accounts of the hardships and discrimination they faced, offering viewers a unique glimpse into the origins of Japanese-American history in the United States.

“Toshi Washizu's ‘Issei’ is ultimately an invitation,” said UCLA Professor Lane Hirabayashi. “It invites us to look more deeply into the world, the labor and the lives of the first-generation Japanese immigrants to California and the West before, during and after World War II." A professor of Asian American Studies at UCLA, Hirabayashi is the inaugural George & Sakaye Aratani Chair in Japanese American Incarceration, Redress and Community.

Hirabayashi, who had used a bootlegged videotape of the documentary in his classes for years, contacted Washizu when his copy of the film was on its last legs to see if the director could provide him with a DVD version.

Shown only twice in 1984 on San Francisco television stations, the newly restored film is an important addition to Japanese-American history — accessible to both English- and Japanese-speaking viewers. The recent screening was part of this year’s Terasaki Center annual global forum, which focused on understanding Japan through the conceptual and historical framework of migration.

Parallel journeys

Toshi Washizu, who has also made five to six other films, left Japan for the United States as a young man and completed his MFA in film at San Francisco State University in 1979.

While working as a new filmmaker at Fuji Television, the network was approached by the Japanese Speaking Society of America with a proposal to produce a documentary about the Issei in California for archival purposes.

Toshi Washizu. (Photo: Cindy Suzuki/ UCLA.) Even though it was an extremely small-scale production, Washizu jumped at the opportunity to make a documentary about a quickly vanishing group of pioneers who shared his Japanese heritage and, like him, had found a home in the United States.

“The Issei were my ancestors who spoke the language of my home country; they were like my family,” said Washizu, “I wanted to hear their stories and learn of their lives.”

Although the director experienced immigration from Japan to California at a very different time in U.S. history than the Issei, he shared their initial feelings of displacement and unfamiliarity when he arrived on the West Coast.

“I was a stranger in a foreign land,” explained Washizu, who struggled to learn English when he came to San Francisco. “As I embarked on this film project, I began to see many parallels between their stories and my own, as a new Issei. Their journey became my journey of discovery.”

Washizu was struck by the generosity of the Issei, who welcomed him into their homes and spoke to him “candidly, with total lack of pretention or bitterness [about] the years of their hardship — [they were] stoic and resilient.”

In fact, the majority of the Issei whom he interviewed said they did not regret coming to America, despite the hardships and discrimination they faced. Most took pride in both their Japanese and American identities.

“The soul I have deep inside is Japanese,” said one interviewee, “So, I try to take the good from both cultures; I never regretted living in America.”

An educational tool for both sides of the Pacific

Hirabayashi has used "Issei: The First Generation" in his classes for the past 30 years because the documentary provides a unique, firsthand account of the early Japanese-American experience. “It is probably the best single documentary about the first generation’s experiences in rural Californian that I know of,” he noted, “because the Issei are able to tell their own story, in their own words.”

The film captures the many challenges that the Issei faced, including racial prejudice, exploitative sharecropping arrangements and, most famously, Executive Order 9066, which enabled the removal of over 110,000 Japanese Americans to American-style concentration camps in 1942. Hirabayashi added that the documentary is also uniquely suited for educational purposes because it has so much footage of Issei women talking about their lives in the San Joaquin Delta area, south of Sacramento.

In addition to its value as a window into the lives of Issei men and women, said Hirabayashi, the film can also be used to teach students how to critically assess documentaries.

Every documentary has inherent limitations, he said, noting that he encourages his students to critically assess a film’s chosen foci, historical accuracy and the ways in which visual and audio effects are utilized to produce specific audience reactions.

Because filmed interviews featuring Issei’s oral history accounts are so scarce, Hirabayashi and Washizu are now working to produce an all-Japanese-language version of the film that they hope will become a useful educational resource for Japanese-speaking audiences. Both hope to make the film more readily available to both Japanese- and English-speaking students and teachers as a valuable educational tool.

The two men are currently seeking funding to preserve the deteriorating original Japanese language as well as part-English language versions, at which time DVD copies of the documentary will be available for purchase.

Overall, Washizu is simply grateful that the stories of the Walnut Grove Issei will be preserved for future generations. “Today, when I look at those Issei,” said Washizu, “it feels like my old family returning home after a 30-year absence.”