Filmmaker Toshi Washizu and UCLA Professor Lane Hirabayashi during a Q&A session at the Japanese American National Museum. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)
Filmmaker Toshi Washizu and UCLA Professor Lane Hirabayashi during a Q&A session at the Japanese American National Museum. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

In 1984, San Francisco filmmaker Toshi Washizu made a documentary entitled “Issei: The First Generation,” based on a series of interviews with elderly Japanese immigrants. After being broadcast a couple of times in the Bay Area, the film dropped out of sight — until now.

Lane Hirabayashi, a professor in the Department of Asian American Studies at UCLA and holder of the George & Sakaye Aratani Chair in Japanese American Incarceration, Redress and Community, worked with Washizu to digitally restore the film, and screen it at venues in Northern and Southern California. “Issei” will also be available on DVD.

At a recent screening at the Japanese American National Museum, Hirabayashi explained that he had been showing a “bootleg” copy of the film to his students and managed to find Washizu after nearly 30 years. “A friend just accidentally copied it in 1984 on probably a not very new or very good VHS recorder. Also omitted about the first 10 or 15 seconds … I wanted to ask for a decent copy of his film so I could better show his interviews with Walnut Grove area Issei in my classes.”

Although Hirabayashi was told that Washizu had returned to his native Japan and would be difficult to locate, he turned out to be a member of a Bay Area poetry group. “That’s how I found him online. So Toshi complied with my request for a clean copy … As I learned more about how Toshi came to make ‘Issei,’ I came to appreciate this remarkable film even more than I had before.

“‘Issei’ features some of the oldest Issei then in or around Walnut Grove, Calif., telling their own stories in their own words. Some of their accounts, especially on the part of Issei women, are very frank.”

In one scene that draws laughter from audiences, an Issei woman confesses that she never liked her late husband, but stayed with him for the sake of the kids.

The interviewees included a centenarian, 102-year-old Kumajiro Murakami, who immigrated to Hawaii and worked on a sugar plantation, then became a pioneer of the strawberry industry in Watsonville; and Yasu Kawamura, 95, who ran a barbershop in Walnut Grove with her husband.

“In reflecting on Mr. Washizu’s preservation of Issei oral histories, I found confirmation of a point I have long believed – that we need history as a community in order to remember and honor the pioneers who paved the paths that we have been able to move forward on,” Hirabayashi added.

Washizu, who himself immigrated to the U.S. from Shizuoka in 1974, shared some memorable quotes from the interviewees:

• “Being a country bumpkin, I really didn’t know what America would be,” said Miki Adachi, who arrived in Walnut Grove in 1922 at the age of 20.

• Shigeno Nishimi recalled that when the war broke out and the evacuation notice came, “I said to myself that humans had good times after bad times.”

• Taka Washizu (no relation to the filmmaker), 84, remembered telling her husband, “I’d decided three years after I arrived in America that I would die here. I would stay here no matter what the results of the war.”

• Bunzo Aso, 87, who lived alone in Sacramento, said, “I believe in enjoying things as they are… to spend each day with a sense of gratitude. I don’t have much to complain about.”

• Masa Kobayashi, 91, summed up her life in this country: “My father was pressuring me to come home, but my kids were born here and their education… that’s when I decided not to come back home. I was raised in Japan until age 23. I was taught everything the Japanese way, and that’s influenced my life so much. After all, the soul I have deep inside is Japanese. So I try to take the good from both cultures… I never regretted living in America.”

Joking that he was “still young and beautiful, with a full head of long hair” when he made the film, Washizu recalled that he earned an MFA in film at San Francisco State University and got a job with Fuji TV in San Francisco. “In the summer of 1983, the Japanese-Speaking Society of Northern California approached us with a proposal to produce a documentary film about the Issei in California. The Issei, mostly in their 80s and 90s at the time, were a vanishing breed, and they wanted to keep a living record of their history.

“Although it was a shoestring production, I jumped at the opportunity. The Issei were my ancestors who spoke the language of my home country. They were like my own family. I wanted to hear their stories and learn about their lives … By the end of October 1983, I finished the first draft of the script. Soon the filming started and continued over a period of five months, on Angel Island, in Walnut Grove, Watsonville, Sacramento, Davis and San Francisco. With some 50 hours of raw footage, the editing and post-production took me five additional months beginning in February 1984 and the final audio mix was completed on July 7, 1984.

“Throughout my visits with those Issei, I was struck by how gracious and generous they all were. Everyone welcomed my crew into their modest homes with open arms as if we were family. After the filming, their families served tea and sweets to us like honored guests. In Walnut Grove, our visits became the town events. The mayor gathered a group of volunteers to help my two-man crew, as I could only afford one professional assistant.  The mayor insisted that we sleep in his house and the town’s women prepared a sumptuous meal after each day’s shoot.

“The Issei interviewees opened their hearts and talked to me candidly, with total lack of pretension or bitterness for the years of their hardships, stoic and resilient … I began to see many parallels between their stories and my own as a new Issei. Their journey became my journey of discovery. Listening to their intimate stories … I learned more about Japan and myself. It was as if being away from our homeland made us see ourselves more clearly … I discovered that the same Japanese soul was coursing through their blood and mine.”

With the restoration of the film, Washizu said, “it feels like my own family returning home after a 30-year absence. Thank you, Lane, for turning the light back on their faces and keeping their stories alive.”

One of Washizu’s regrets is that the hours of unused footage were lost. “Unfortunately, Fuji TV, where I edited all this footage, was bought by a new owner and during the transfer many things were lost and discarded. Unfortunately, this (film) is the only thing I have left.” He added, “This version was made from the original Japanese version, so it’s a generation down and the picture and audio quality is not as good as the original.”

Hirabayashi, who encourages his students to watch each documentary multiple times to catch different aspects of the craft, said of Washizu, “A lot of his artistic endeavors have turned to the form of poetry, and I’d like to think I can see in the cinematography in ‘Issei’ a kind of a poet’s eye in terms of how things are shot … There’s a connection somehow.”

Washizu said he hopes to show the film in Japan. “When I first came to this country, I hardly knew the history of the Issei. In Japanese textbooks there’s just maybe a line or two about internment … Unfortunately, especially the younger generation, I don’t think they know much about it, so I hope bringing this film to Japan will make them learn a little bit … In general, I think it’s very little known in Japan.”

Asked if he will continue to make films, Washizu admitted, “I’m getting old, I have a bad back, and filmmaking is very physically demanding work, so I think it’s a young man’s job, unless you have a lot of money and you can hire many people. When I made this, I couldn’t afford anybody, so I had to do everything myself. But nowsdays (we have) new digital technology and lightweight cameras, so maybe it’s easier. So if some opportunity arises, maybe.”

Distribution of the DVD is being coordinated with the Center for Asian American Media in San Francisco and, but a release date has not been set. Washizu can be reached at

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *