Walnut Grove community, 1925

Walnut Grove community in 1925

Japanese immigrants who arrived in the United States in the early 1900s faced discrimination on multiple levels.

Laws prohibited them from becoming naturalized citizens or landowners. In some rural areas like Walnut Grove, their children had to attend racially segregated schools. During World War II, Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes and were detained in special camps by the U.S. government.

Despite all that, Issei, or first-generation Japanese immigrants, concentrated on getting by day to day and what they did to survive, focusing little on the discrimination they faced, according to a little-known documentary, "Issei: The First Generation (1984)."

Shown only twice in 1984 on San Francisco television stations before falling into obscurity, the documentary recently resurfaced thanks to the efforts of Lane Hirabayashi, a UCLA professor of Asian-American studies, who tracked down the film’s director.

“It is probably the best single documentary about the first generation’s experiences in rural California that I know of because the Issei are able to tell their own story, in their own words,” said Hirabayashi, who is also the George & Sakaye Aratani Chair in Japanese American Incarceration, Redress and Community.

Despite the difficulties they faced, he said, “This generation said, ‘I’m not regretful I came to the U.S. They endured, they persevered, and they survived.”

Directed by the Japanese poet Toshi Washizu, a resident of the United States, and narrated in English by actress Amy Hill, the film features 54 minutes of intimate oral history interviews with Issei who arrived in and around Walnut Grove, California, at the turn of the last century.

Issei settled in Walnut Grove, which is in the San Joaquin Delta south of Sacramento, because of its proximity to San Francisco and to fertile fields. They picked asparagus, apples, pears, celery, lettuce and other products.

Mostly in their 80s and 90s in 1983 when Washizu filmed them, the interviewees shared candid accounts of their daily lives, offering viewers a unique glimpse into the origins of Japanese American history in the United States. The newly restored film is an important addition to Japanese American history — accessible to both English- and Japanese-speaking viewers.

It provides a unique, firsthand account of the early Japanese American experience. It also features rare interviews with Issei wives, who worked in the fields alongside their husbands.

The film’s narrator captures the many challenges that the Issei faced, including racial prejudice, exploitative sharecropping arrangements and, most famously, Executive Order 9066, which enabled the removal of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans to American-style concentration camps in 1942.

“Toshi Washizu's ‘Issei’ is ultimately an invitation,” Hirabayashi said at a recent screening by the Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies and the Japan Foundation. “It invites us to look more deeply into the world, the labor and the lives of the first-generation Japanese immigrants to California and the West before, during and after World War II."

Hirabayashi, who had used a bootlegged videotape of the documentary in his classes for the past 30 years, contacted Washizu when his copy of the film was on its last legs to see if the director could provide him with a DVD version. Now the film has found new audiences at UCLA and at community screenings in southern and northern California. Crowds, for example, packed a showing hosted by the Buddhist Temple in Walnut Grove, the site of the first public screening of the newly restored film in October 2012.

Parallel journeys

Washizu, who has also made five to six other films, left Japan for the United States as a young man and completed his M.F.A. in film at San Francisco State University in 1979.

While he was working as a new filmmaker at Fuji Television, the network was approached by the Japanese Speaking Society of America with a proposal to produce a documentary about the Issei in California for archival purposes.

Even though it was an extremely small-scale production, Washizu jumped at the opportunity to make a documentary about a quickly vanishing group of pioneers who shared his Japanese heritage and who, like him, had found a home in the United States.

“The Issei were my ancestors who spoke the language of my home country; they were like my family,” said Washizu, “I wanted to hear their stories and learn of their lives.”

Although the director experienced immigration from Japan to California at a very different time in U.S. history than the Issei, he shared their initial feelings of displacement and unfamiliarity when he arrived on the West Coast.

“I was a stranger in a foreign land,” explained Washizu, who struggled to learn English when he came to San Francisco. “As I embarked on this film project, I began to see many parallels between their stories and my own as a new Issei. Their journey became my journey of discovery.”

Washizu was struck by the generosity of the Issei, who welcomed him into their homes and spoke to him “candidly, with total lack of pretention or bitterness [about] the years of their hardship — [they were] stoic and resilient.”

One interviewee said:  “The soul I have deep inside is Japanese. So, I try to take the good from both cultures; I never regretted living in America.”

An educational tool for both sides of the Pacific

Because filmed interviews featuring Issei’s oral history accounts are so scarce, Hirabayashi and Washizu are now working to produce an all-Japanese-language version of the film that they hope will become a useful educational resource for Japanese-speaking audiences. Both hope to make the film more readily available to both Japanese- and English-speaking students and teachers as a valuable educational tool.

The two men are currently seeking funding to preserve the deteriorating original Japanese-language version as well as part-English language versions, at which time DVD copies of the documentary will be available for purchase.

Overall, Washizu is simply grateful that the stories of the Walnut Grove Issei will be preserved for future generations.

“Today, when I look at those Issei,” said Washizu, “it feels like my old family returning home after a 30-year absence.”

This story was adapted from one posted on the International Institute website.