The First Generation’s History Revealed

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From left: Professor Lane Hirabayashi of UCLA, filmmaker Toshi Washizu and Professor Masao Suzuki of Skyline College discussed the documentary “Issei” and the 100th anniversary of the Alien Land Law last October at New People Cinema in San Francisco Japantown. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

From left: Professor Lane Hirabayashi of UCLA, filmmaker Toshi Washizu and Professor Masao Suzuki of Skyline College discussed the documentary “Issei” and the 100th anniversary of the Alien Land Law last October at New People Cinema in San Francisco Japantown. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

By KRISTY ISHII

On Saturday, Jan. 25, at 2 p.m., the Japanese American National Museum will feature a special screening of the film “Issei: The First Generation.”

Shown on Bay Area television only twice in 1984, this unique documentary has been restored, digitized, and reconfigured for a wide-screen format.

What began as a simple favor asked of film producer Toshi Washizu snowballed into a historical revealing of true sentiments etched in the fading memories of the ancestors of Japanese Americans. “Issei” illuminates compelling stories reiterated by the Issei, whose voices had been unheard for years.

The Issei who were interviewed in the film are no longer with us today, but their legacy lives on because of passionate filmmakers like Washizu.

The Documentary Restored

Between the 1970s and early1980s, Washizu discovered his passion for filmmaking at San Francisco State University. He created the original film in collaboration with Fuji TV and the Japanese Speaking Society of America. “Issei” was aired twice on public television during the year that it was produced (1984) on Fuji Television and once more on KQED-TV.

The remarkable Issei interviewed in this documentary were selected from the collection of previously recorded audiotapes under the Japanese Speaking Society of Northern California. The JSS presented Washizu with about 30 audio clips of conversations with people who were reaching their late 80s and early 100s. He chose the most coherent audiotapes and set out to meet with the Issei folks in person.

With a small film crew, Washizu elicited candid comments and sentiments from several Issei women and their husbands. With great patience and kindness, he concluded his interviews after recording over 50 hours of footage.

This compilation of honest dialogue with the first generation of Japanese citizens who immigrated to the United States coalesced into an unforgettable documentary film.

“Issei” highlights the unparalleled perspectives and candid thoughts of Japanese picture brides, while also recognizing the stereotypes of Asian women and how these images were formed. Additionally, viewers better understand how linguistic barriers emerge within immigrant families, and how it affects future generations.

Behind these stories and the legacy of the Issei, the truth that Japanese were not seen as the “model minority” in the U.S. shines through as well. Nonetheless, this documentary is a precious record beneficial to all viewers, not only the descendants of these Issei.

Washizu’s film reveals the truncated truths of the journey Issei endured after reaching the shores of the United States. Within the Japanese American community, generational gaps garner contrasting perspectives on the repercussions of Executive Order 9066, greatly due to the efforts made to create a community and home full of academics, sports, fine arts, and more, while living in the tar-papered barracks.

However, envisioning life through the eyes of the Issei generation helps others understand the lifelong emotional impact that the unjustifiable incarceration had on Japanese immigrants and their offspring.

With the generous help of Lane R. Hirabayashi, the film has been restored and preserved in digital format. Hirabayashi is a professor at UCLA who holds an endowed chair and is the George and Sakaye Aratani Professor of the Japanese American Incarceration, Redress, and Community.

For the past 30 years, Hirabayashi has introduced students in his Asian American studies classes to the heart-wrenching footage, ever so vital to the understanding and appreciation of the Issei generation.

The Issei gave the Japanese American youth the opportunity to rise above injustice and live without the hindrances of racism that once heavily plagued the JA community. This rare footage of the Issei exposes the honest struggles that Japanese immigrants faced upon arriving in America.

The 54-minute film, which is narrated by actress Amy Hill, is in Japanese with English subtitles and narration. Distribution is being arranged with the San Francisco-based Center for Asian American Media.

JANM is located at 100 N. Central Ave. (at First Street) in Little Tokyo. For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or visit www.janm.org.

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