Issei brothers and cousins work on the railroad in Utah in 1907. From left: Umekichi Miyagishima, Tamekichi Miyagishima, Nakaemon Miyagishima, and Eihichi Miyagishima.

At one point in Japanese American history, there were 29 newspapers serving communities outside of Japan. Today, just six remain.

The saga of why news publications continue to play an important role the Japanese American communities across America is explored in a new documentary set to premiere next month. 

Cole Koyanagi and Brett Kodama co-directed the Zentoku Foundation project. It will have its first public showing on Saturday, Oct. 16, in the Tateuchi Democracy Forum, Japanese American National Museum, First and Central in Little Tokyo, with screenings at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. followed by a panel discussion. Seating is limited.

Using rarely seen footage and photographs, “Paper Chase: Japanese American History Through the Lens of Vernacular Newspapers” will transport viewers through 150 years of diaspora while looking back over the people and events that were deemed important at key points in history.

In footage discovered from 1981, the late Sen. Spark Matsunaga and attorney Min Yasui deliver emotional testimony in support of redress. Researchers also uncovered film from daily life among the Issei in Hawaii in 1906, movie star Charlie Chaplin attending the 1935 Nisei Week Festival, and more.

Nisei Wally Yonamine, playing for the Yomiuri Giants, slides into home during Game 1 of the Japan Series in Osaka, 1951.

Early immigrants went in many different directions when they arrived in the United States. Some worked in farming, others were hired to build the railroads, and still others opened small businesses. As immigrants settled in Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, California, New York, Canada, and South America, newspapers cropped up in nearly every region. 

The first newspaper to serve the newly arrived Japanese immigrants was Yamato Shimbun, founded in Hawaii in 1895. Others soon followed. In 1899, the Nichi Bei Shimbun was established in Northern California, and Hokubei Jiji, a precursor of today’s North American Post, began publishing in 1902.

The Rafu Shimpo made its first appearance in 1903 and remains the oldest and largest daily Japanese American community newspaper.

Featured among the documentary interviews are: Michael Komai, Rafu Shimpo publisher; Gwen Muranaka, senior editor, Rafu Shimpo; Kenji Taguma, publisher and editor of Nichi Bei Weekly; Rob Buscher, Pacific Citizen board member and University of Philadelphia adjunct professor; Chris Komai, consultant and former Rafu Shimpo editor; George Johnston, Pacific Citizen senior editor, digital and social media; Tato Takahama, veteran Japanese journalist and executive director of the Pacific Research Institute; and Mark Nakakihara, Zentoku Foundation president.

Chris Komai discusses his days as a Rafu Shimpo editor.

Presented in partnership with JANM, the documentary was produced by Stacey Yoshinaga, written by Ellen Endo, and narrated by Helen Ota. Financial support was provided by the Aratani CARE Award program, UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

Admission is free, but reservations are required. Email

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