OCHAZUKE: Kaz Arai, the Photo Guy


(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on Oct. 5, 2011. Updated Oct. 21, 2011.)


The former staff members of the Hokubei Mainichi have all gone their separate ways, many having left long before the newspaper folded in 2009. But some sad news recently brought some of us back together via email and Facebook.

Kazuyoshi Arai, who was our staff photographer in the late 1980s and early 1990s, died on Sept. 4 in Tomakomai, Hokkaido. He would have turned 56 on Oct. 20. He is survived by his wife, Eriko, and daughter, Haruna.

In addition to shooting photos for both the Japanese and English sections, Arai-san had the thankless task of developing film, making contact sheets, prints and then half-tones, which we then cut and pasted onto boards during layout. He was also responsible for shooting negatives of all the pages and making plates that were then attached to the printing press downstairs.

The children’s book “Konnichiwa! I Am a Japanese American Girl” features photos by Arai-san.

In those pre-digital days, photographers spent much of their time in darkrooms, working with all kinds of chemicals — something that is hard to imagine today. (I don’t know if that was a factor in his illness; his predecessor and those who followed him are alive and well.)

One of Arai-san’s most dramatic assignments was covering the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. He captured unforgettable images of collapsed buildings and a huge fire in the Marina District, and the damaged Bay Bridge.

All of us shot our own photos as needed, but if it was something important we would leave it to Arai-san, so he was the Hokubei’s equivalent of the Rafu’s Mario Reyes. Some of his work can be found in a children’s book by Tricia Brown, “Konnichiwa! I Am a Japanese American Girl” (1995), which is about Lauren Kamiya and her family preparing for San Francisco’s Cherry Blossom Festival.

After returning to Japan, Arai-san worked for various sports magazines and often returned to the Bay Area. I bumped into him last year while covering a San Francisco event celebrating the 150th anniversary of U.S.-Japan relations.

It was after one of those visits that he was hospitalized and diagnosed with stomach cancer, which subsequently spread to his lungs and finally his brain. Services were held three days after his death.

The news of Arai-san’s untimely passing came in a roundabout way. Masao Fujita of Fujita World Travel in San Francisco contacted the Nichi Bei Weekly and asked the staff to pass the message to former Hokubei employees.

Kazuyoshi Arai at Lefty O’Doul’s in Union Square.

“He was such a great guy to be with and I am very shocked with a deep sorrow,” Fujita-san told me. “We would play baseball together in the same baseball team, the Hokubei Mainichi Tigers (one of the teams in Northern California Japanese Nanshiki Baseball League), and he devoted his own time … taking all the pictures of the games for all the teams and covered our baseball game actions every week for our Japanese community, almost 20 years ago.”

Chris Hirano, formerly of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, remembered Arai-san’s involvement in the Nisei Baseball Research Project, which honors members of the prewar, wartime and postwar Japanese American community leagues, and called him “truly a fan and historian of the game.”

Kerry Yo Nakagawa of the Fresno-based NBRP expressed surprise, having spoken with Arai-san after this year’s earthquake and tsunami.

“Kaz supported every significant event with NBRP starting with the tribute to the 49 Nisei pioneers and the S.F. Giants in 1996 to traveling with us to cover museum openings at Cooperstown (N.Y.), the Japan Hall of Fame exhibit, Sacramento State Capitol, Arizona Hall of Fame and the many tributes to the Nisei ballplayers with the S.F. Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks,” Kerry said.

“Kaz and I watched Daisuke Matsuzaka throw 17 innings in one game and then throw a no-hitter in the championship at Koshien in 1999. He also traveled with me to haka-mairi (visit the graves of) my grandparents in Hiroshima. He provided images for our book, documentary and exhibit.

“I will cherish our catch-ball together in my backyard and will always regard him as my ‘soul brother’ from Hokkaido. His laugh and charm were magnificent … I take comfort knowing Kaz is with his family that went before him and is reuniting with all the Nisei baseball pioneers that he was close with.”

Former Hokubei staffer Atsuko Saito tells me that one of Arai-san’s favorite hangouts was Lefty O’Doul’s, a bar/restaurant in Union Square that has ties to baseball and Japan. O’Doul was manager and coach of the San Francisco Seals and a friend and teammate to players like Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth. He was instrumental in establishing professional baseball in postwar Japan, and there is a sign welcoming visitors in Japanese at the bar’s entrance.

I noticed on Arai-san’s website (http://blogs.yahoo.co.jp/kzsports00) that in addition to covering Super Bowls and World Series games, he also visited the final resting places of people like DiMaggio and his ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe.

Arai-san’s Bay Area friends will hold a remembrance dinner on Wednesday, Oct. 19, from 5 p.m. at Toraya Restaurant, 1734 Post St. in San Francisco Japantown. Anyone interested in attending is asked to contact Atsuko at [email protected]

I’m reminded of Gina Hotta, who was well known in the Bay Area Asian American community as a radio producer and musician. In 2009, I saw her at a church bazaar and then heard that she had died at the age of 56 from heart failure about a week after that. So like our parents (to a lesser degree, of course), we baby boomers have to realize that every time we see one of our contemporaries, it may be for the last time.

•     •     •

Helen Utsumi

I also must belatedly acknowledge Helen Utsumi of San Francisco, who passed away on May 21, a month before her 90th birthday, also due to cancer. She was the wife of long-time Hokubei columnist Takeo “Babe” Utsumi and often helped him by typing the column and faxing it to us (they didn’t use email). She would call to confirm receipt and to let me know about any last-minute changes.

Babe wrote a weekly column called “Random Thoughts” and wasn’t shy about expressing his opinion, so he was sort of our George Yoshinaga or our Herb Caen, for those who remember the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist. When the Hokubei folded, I told him he could still write for the website (which continued for another year), but he declined.

Helen also sent me information on Nikkei & Retirement, originally called Nisei & Retirement, which presents programs of interest to aging Japanese Americans. I continued to see the Utsumis at various community events.

Patty Wada, who worked at the Hokubei before becoming JACL’s Northern California regional director, remembered Helen as “the sweetest lady ever.”

A native of Stockton, Helen attended Heald Business College and worked at Samuel’s Jewelers, both in San Francisco. During the war, she was interned at Topaz, Utah. She and her husband of 56 years owned and operated Hokamp’s Bakery on Polk Street for 22 years. After retirement, she was an active member of the S.F. Buddhist Women’s Association and Kimochi, a senior service agency in Japantown.

For her 30 years of service to Nikkei & Retirement, she was honored last April at the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival’s annual Senior Appreciation Brunch. I’m glad she received some public recognition while she was still with us. In addition to her husband, survivors include their daughter Jane of Daly City and son Michael of Dublin (Alameda County).

Through Babe’s column, many readers felt that they knew the Utsumis even if they had never met them, and I’m sure that her passing was like a death in the family for our former subscribers.

For what it’s worth, occasions like these do give the former Hokubei staff and contributors a chance to reconnect with each other and remember what we accomplished before the paper ended its run two years ago.


J.K. Yamamoto is a staff writer at Rafu Shimpo. Ochazuke is a staff-written column. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.




  1. Great tributes, JK. Usually, those who toil in the ethnic press just fade from our memories like dust in the wind. I always look for your byline. Thanks.

  2. Michael Utsumi on

    Hi J.K.

    Thank you for the mention of my mother, Helen Utsumi, in your article. She was diagnosed with liver cancer in April, 2011 and she perished one month later. As you stated in your article, she was attached at the hip to her husband Takeo for 56 years. They conducted a successful bakery business in San Francisco for many years and raised two children.

    Her passing has left a tremendous void in both our family and within the SF community. Helen was a “silent warrior” and she worked tirelessly in every endeavor. I dearly miss my mother. Thank you for sharing her story with others and for reminding us all of how any act of kindness is mirrored multiple times.

    Best Regards, Michael

    Michael Utsumi
    [email protected]

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