April 22, 2011

Toyo Miyatake's presence grows in L.A.'s Little Tokyo


On my recent trip to Los Angeles, I met with three people who are making a difference in the L.A Nikkei community, Bill Watanabe, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center and president of the Little Tokyo Historical Society, and Vicky Murakami-Tsuda and Yoko Nishimura of the Japanese American National Museum.

Little Tokyo is no longer the sleepy enclave of Nisei-run stores and restaurants that I remember, its whiff of modern-day Japan emanating from the New Otani Hotel. There are fewer Japanese residents now, a burgeoning Korean population, and an active night-life scene animated by hipsters of all nationalities. The wildly popular Kogi BBQ-to-go truck, which makes regular stops in Little Tokyo to dispense Korean-Mexican hybrid comfort food (kimchee quesadillas!), is emblematic of the new Little Tokyo.   

En route from Curry House in Weller Court to LTSC’s offices on East Third Street, Watanabe showed me another change, one that harks back to the even earlier time of the pre-War Little Tokyo Issei. A newly named street, Toyo Miyatake Way, and a full-scale bronze relief of the pioneering Issei photographer now draw the viewer's eye in front of the Sakura Crossing luxury apartment complex on San Pedro Street between East Second and Third Streets. Watanabe, whose passion is preserving Little Tokyo History, convinced Sakura Crossing’s developer, Related, that the street and relief would be an ideal way to give back to the community, and the new landmarks were inaugurated in February before a crowd that included Watanabe, city dignitaries, proud Miyatake family members and Related representatives.

Miyatake is most famous for smuggling camera parts into Manzanar, the World War II concentration camp where he and his family were imprisoned in April 1942. First surreptitiously (cameras were forbidden in all 10 concentration camps), then, as rules loosened and he gained the trust of the prison director, openly, Miyatake took 1,500 photographs of Manzanar. The relief, which is modeled on a photograph of Miyatake believed to have been taken right after the war, bears this quotation: “Smuggling a lens into Manzanar, this is my duty, to document camp life so this kind of injustice never happens again.”

Miyatake and his family could have relocated to Salt Lake City, Chicago, or New York, as some Japanese did to avoid evacuation and imprisonment amid the rabid anti-Japanese fervor that swept the West Coast after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Instead, the fine art and Japanese society portrait photographer, then 47, chose to stay. He was forced to shutter his Little Tokyo photographic studio, but requested that his family be evacuated and imprisoned with the Little Tokyo residents that he felt most kinship with, rather than his East Los Angeles neighbors. It was in Little Tokyo's effervescent cultural and arts scene of the 1920s where he first made his name, and became the go-to photographer to record births, graduations, weddings—any event of note in the personal and civic lives of L.A. Japantown's residents.

As his reputation grew, Miyatake and his wife Hiroko became tireless hosts to a stream of Japanese dignitaries from film stars to athletes. Before and after the war, a trip to Los Angeles by a celebrated Japanese national almost inevitably involved a visit to the Toyo Miyatake Studio to pose for a portrait. “The portrait file in his studio is in itself a history of cultural exchange between the United States and Japan,” wrote the Japanese photographer and editor Eikoh Hosoe; Miyatake played the role of a “private consular representative, taking care of the Japanese who visited the United States.” Miyatake also landed jobs as personal photographer to Thomas Mann and John Barrymore, and became a disciple of Edward Weston, whose work he tirelessly promoted.

Where Miyatake’s career would have gone had he not been imprisoned during World War II is unknowable, but his contribution to the documentation of the unjust and unconstitutional prison camp experience is clear cut. Happily, there seems to be a growing appreciation of Miyatake. Little Tokyo’s first tribute to him, sculptor Nobuho Nagasawa's  bronze replica of his hand-made camera, is on view in front of the Japanese American National Museum on East First Street. An exhibit of Miyatake’s photographs is showing, for a short time longer, at the Tolerance Education Center in Rancho Mirage, CA. I’m glad to see the addition of Toyo Miyatake Way and the bronze relief—further assurance that one of our cultural heroes will not soon be forgotten.