I had perfect attendance from the time I was in fifth grade until I graduation high school. (Yes, I was that person.) I rarely bail out of work mainly because I do a specific job that requires someone to fill in for me if I'm not there. Freelancers in the TV industry book jobs months in advance, so if I decide I don't want to work a date on my schedule, I need to give as much notice as possible. Another reason I don't like to give up dates is if I don't work, I don't get paid. Lastly, I feel an obligation of fulfill my responsibility to the people who hire me. I don't recollect calling in sick in my fourteen years of freelancing – although I probably should have as recently as three weeks ago, when I was infecting the entire crew with my horrible cold – and the only times I've asked to be replaced have been due to family emergencies or for amazing opportunities such as working out of the country. So, I surprised myself on a recent Monday when, with less than a week's notice, I asked to be replaced on that Friday's Yankees game. To see a movie.
It wasn't just any movie. It was Toyo's Camera, a documentary by Japanese director Junichi Suzuki. The Toyo of Toyo's Camera is Toyo Miyatake, an issei (first-generation Japanese American) who ran a successful photography business in the Little Tokyo district of LA. Miyatake became one of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were round up and placed into internment camps by the US government after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor during World War II.
This topic wasn't part of my history classes when I was in high school or college in the 1980s. It wasn't discussed by any of my teachers. I was a 21-year-old college senior in 1986 when I first learned about the internment camps, and that was only after buying a book by Ansel Adams.
The book was Manzanar, and it contained stark pictures of the camp in the California desert. Manzanar was also where Toyo Miyatake and his family were interned. The camp had a strict rule of no cameras. This didn't sit well with Miyatake, so the lifelong photographer managed to smuggle in a lens into his family's barracks, and with the help of crafty friends, fashioned a makeshift camera in a wooden box. The no-camera rule was worth breaking. Miyatake was quoted as saying, "It's my duty to record the facts, as a photographer, so that this kind of thing should never happen again."
Seeing the trailer and reading about the documentary gave me the impression that Toyo's Camera was going to be filled with disturbing photos of the harsh desert and Japanese American camp internees huddled together in filthy conditions. I was actually surprised that the pictures showed how active and involved and happy the internees were. They played baseball, football, and basketball; weaved, carved furniture, and did other crafts; had schools for the children, social events for the adults, and lots of singing and dancing for everyone. Toyo's Camera was touching and heartfelt, but I expected it to be sadder.
One person who shared my feelings was George Takei, who was a special guest at the Japan Society that night. Best known as Mr. Sulu of Star Trek fame, Takei was a young child when his family was sent to a camp in Arkansas. His appearance in Toyo's Camera is certainly the most intense of the entire documentary; he speaks passionately about his disdain for the US government's decision to lock up Japanese Americans and then ask them later to fight for the US in the war effort.
Yet during the Q&A session after the screening, Takei said he thought the documentary was too romanticized. Referring to a couple of men interviewed on camera, Takei took offense to comments that were made that compared internment to "a vacation." "It was not a vacation," Takei said sternly. "We were imprisoned."
To be fair, director Junichi Suzuki did show the bad stuff at the film's beginning: The racist headlines in US newspapers, thousands of Japanese Americans being herded like cattle onto trains and buses and into cramped barracks. He also wanted to show that despite the hastily built living quarters, community bathrooms with no partitions between the toilets, and the barbed wire surrounding them, the Japanese Americans showed resilience and made the best of a deplorable situation. Unfortunately, there was no interpreter for Suzuki at the Japan Society. Although he speaks English fairly well, I think the subject matter was important enough to have someone there to help him articulate his thoughts. He almost had to defend himself for making a film that showed that some Americans were actually sympathetic to the internees (Ralph Merritt, Manzanar's project director, realized Miyatake was taking pictures, but allowed it to continue.) and that some Japanese Americans could still laugh and dance and get married and be happy in the camp setting.
"Shikata ga nai," a Japanese phrase that means "It can't be helped," or "Nothing can be done about it," was uttered by many of the Japanese Americans interviewed for the documentary. Accepting their situation, the interned tried to make their lives as normal as possible. And Toyo's camera was there to capture the moments.
Some of the film's most poignant parts were of Archie Miyatake, Toyo's son, while he described his father. Archie had a gleam in his eye when he talked about Toyo's love of photography and people. The film also evoked personal feelings for me. My mother, a native of Okinawa, Japan, turned eleven on the day the US invaded and the Battle of Okinawa began (April 1, 1945). She doesn't speak of that time of her childhood – much in the way Toyo's Camera said many internees never spoke of their experiences in the camps – but I know she and her family wandered the jungle of northern Okinawa, not knowing what would become of themselves.
Like the other Okinawans who survived World War II and the Japanese Americans who survived the internment camps, my mother persevered. Unlike many of those people, George Takei talks about that experience. In fact, he's going to sing about it. Perhaps on Broadway. He's developing a musical about the internment camps called Allegiance.
Toyo must have taken thousands of pictures during their time at Manzanar. When the war ended, the Miyatakes returned to Little Tokyo in LA, and Toyo continued his photography business. Toyo Miyatake Studio lives on today, although it's been based in San Gabiel since 1985.
A few days before playing hooky from work and seeing the screening of Toyo's Camera, I e-mailed the Miyatakes. I told them that I was looking forward to the documentary because it's important to educate everyone about what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II. The following week I received a response from Alan Miyatake, Toyo's grandson. He asked how I like the film and said that my "kind words meant a lot to the family." Perhaps I'm short a day's wages because I ditched work to see a movie. Shikata ga nai. Experiencing Toyo's Camera and Alan's e-mail mean much more to me than a paycheck.