By J.K. Yamamoto
A new street, Toyo Miyatake Way, and a full-size bronze relief of Miyatake were dedicated Thursday at the Sakura Crossing apartments on San Pedro Street between Second and Third streets in Little Tokyo.
Toyo Miyatake (1895-1979) was an immigrant from Kagawa Prefecture who opened a photography studio in Little Tokyo in 1923. A friend of Edward Weston and other noted photographers, he was recognized at the 1926 London International Photography Exhibition and shot the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics for the Asahi Shimbun.
When he and his family were interned at Manzanar, cameras were prohibited. Miyatake smuggled in a lens and constructed a camera using materials at the camp. The relief includes a quote from Miyatake: “Smuggling a lens into Manzanar, this is my duty, to document camp life so this kind of injustice never happens again!”
After World War II, Miyatake reopened his studio and also worked as a freelance photographer for the Rafu Shimpo. His son, Archie, and grandsons have continued the family business, which now has locations in San Gabriel Valley and Gardena, but not in Little Tokyo.
Bill Watanabe, president of the Little Tokyo Historical Society and executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, showed the audience the photograph — of Miyatake with his trademark beret and camera bag — that the relief was based on.
“You see that Toyo was actually standing in front of the Manzanar sign, which is still there if you go to Manzanar, and you can see the camp barracks in the back,” Watanabe said. “I asked the family when was this picture taken and they think maybe right after the war ended.”
Watanabe noted that after Miyatake started taking pictures in the camp, “he got caught, and the camp administrator realized the great job he was doing taking these photographs and allowed him to continue to take pictures. But the rule was that he could not actually click the shutter, so he was assigned a non-Japanese assistant to actually push the shutter, so technically he wasn’t taking the pictures. But hundreds and hundreds of photos were allowed that way.”
Pointing to the sign reading “Toyo Miyatake Way,” Watanabe explained, “There will be a sign at the other end. This street goes all the way across from here to Los Angeles Street and will connect, we hope, the Budokan (sports center), once it’s built over there, with the rest of Little Tokyo.”
Parked under the sign was a white 1957 Thunderbird convertible that belonged to Miyatake and was restored by one of his grandsons, Mark Takahashi. “How many Issei men do you know driving around in a white Thunderbird convertible? Not that many,” said Watanabe. “But as most of you know who are aficionados of old cars, that is probably the most classic Thunderbird model ever, so I think it also reflects a sense of his taste.”
Greg Fisher, representing City Councilwoman Jan Perry, thanked The Related Companies, which built Sakura Crossing, for installing the relief and the sign. “Certainly Mr. Miyatake’s work, particularly at Manzanar, is very moving, very stark,” he commented. “It’s very well-composed. It’s fascinating to see because it captures the difficulty of the setting so well in the way that he managed to put these photographs together. And of course, the fact that he managed to put them together at all is nearly a miracle in and of itself.”
Amir Johnson spoke for Assemblymember Steven Bradford (D-Gardena). Presenting Archie Miyatake with a proclamation, he said, “I’m here to just say we appreciate you and all the work that your family does in the community, in the city of Gardena and all across this great state.”
Another proclamation was presented by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who said the naming of the street was a fitting way to remember “an honorable man … who gave so much for his country.”
William Witte, president of The Related Companies,” recalled, “When we started planning this development, the community was very vocal in asking us to consider ways that we could commemorate or keep alive the history of the Little Tokyo community … Bill Watanabe, who’s always been to us kind of like the conscience of the community, came to us and asked if we would consider naming the roadway after Mr. Miyatake.”
At the time, the name wasn’t familiar, but Witte’s wife, a Nisei, reminded him that they had taken their three children to the Miyatake studio in San Gabriel Valley 15 years earlier to have photos taken of them in kimono.
“I was pleased to meet Archie today to kind of close the loop,” Witte said. “This not only is a great statement for the community, but it resonates for me personally. We’re very happy to do it and I look forward to working with Bill and the community as the rest of the block gets built up to build on the Little Tokyo legacy that started here.”
The Miyatake project cost Related more than $10,000.
On behalf of the family, Alan Miyatake, one of Toyo’s grandsons, thanked LTHS, LTSC and Related “for honoring our father, grandfather and great-grandfather … We really didn’t expect this many people here, but thank you so much. It really means a lot to us.”
Noting that his grandfather is also remembered in a display at the nearby Japanese American National Museum, he added, “Our whole family’s going to have very fond memories of Little Tokyo for years and years to come.”
The family presented Witte with three framed photographs of Manzanar.
Archie Miyatake spoke about his family’s ties to Little Tokyo: “My grandfather came to Little Tokyo from San Francisco in 1916. He opened up his confectionery store at 333 E. First St., and then after he made enough money, he left the business to his oldest son and returned to Japan.
“In 1931, he became ill in Japan, so we had to go back to Japan. So my father closed the studio, which was located where the Parker Center is now … Unfortunately, we had to go by ship, so by the time we left Hawaii, my grandfather already had passed away …
“My father loved photography so much, so I was wondering what he was going to do in Japan. He only stayed one year and he came back over here. He didn’t start his business until the rest of the family came back to Los Angeles, which was two years later … and ever since then, my father had been running his studio in Little Tokyo, because this is the only place he wanted to do business in … He thought of Little Tokyo so much that he didn’t want to stay in Japan.”
Grandson Gary Miyatake, who led the toast, said, “When I was in my early 20s, which was about 40 years ago, (I was) able to work with my grandfather for five years and learn the techniques of photography, not knowing that it would be so useful for me now.”
He asked everyone in attendance to sign a large photograph that was on display “so our family can keep it as a memory of today’s event.”
The reception included manju donated by Mikawaya and champagne bottles with specially-made labels featuring Toyo Miyatake’s portrait.