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Issei: The First Generation (film)

DVD cover. Courtesy of the Center for Asian American Media
View in the Densho Encyclopedia

Documentary film featuring interviews with Issei who speak in Japanese about their lives. Filmed in 1983 and shown on television in the San Francisco Bay area in 1984, the film remained largely unseen for the next thirty years until it was restored and reissued in 2013. It remains one of the only films to feature Issei voices on the wartime removal and incarceration and on Japanese American history in general.

Issei was made by Toshi Washizu, a native of Japan who was studying film at San Francisco State University and who also worked at Fuji TV, a local Japanese language television station. The origins of the film came from a set of audiotapes made by the Japanese Speaking Society of Northern California, which approached Washizu about making a movie. He listened to thirty tapes, then went out to interview and film the best subjects in 1983, most of whom were located in and around Walnut Grove, California. He eventually shot around fifty hours of footage. Washizu interviewed the various Issei, who ranged in age from 80 to over 100, in Japanese.

The film aired on Fuji TV in a Japanese language version in 1984. An English language version added narration by actor Amy Hill and subtitles for the interviews. It was later shown in the Northern California public television station KQED.

The 54-minute film consists largely of the various Issei subjects talking about their lives, moving more or less chronologically through Japanese American history to cover migration, early life in America, work, discrimination, and community life. Most of the subjects are women—Washizu found the women more interesting and, given the typical age difference between Issei man and women, more women then men were alive at that the time of the filming—several of whom were picture brides . About thirty minutes into the film, the film addresses the wartime forced removal and incarceration, including Issei-centered views of whether or not to return to Japan, Issei who claimed Japan was winning the war, and sons inducted into the U.S. armed forces. The film also covers the cold reception that greeted many upon returning to California after the war. The interview clips are augmented by family photos as well as archival photos and moving images and contemporary images of Walnut Grove. Hill's narration adds historical context. The interview subjects are not identified on screen, though they are profiled by Hill over the course of the film.

Though largely forgotten in the years since it was made, Lane Ryo Hirabayashi used an old bootleg VHS copy of the film in teaching Asian American Studies classes at San Francisco State, then later at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of California at Riverside, and at UCLA, where he became the first George & Sakaye Aratani Chair in Japanese American Incarceration, Redress, and Community. In 2013 he managed to track down Washizu, who had settled in San Francisco and arranged to have the film restored and for a series of screenings throughout California in 2013–14. It has since been made available for distribution through the Center for Asian American Media.

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

Might also like Wataridori: Birds of Passage (1974); Hito Hata: Raise the Banner (1980); A Time Remembered: The Terminal Island Story (1995)

Media Details
Release Date 1984
Runtime 54 minutes
Director Toshi Washizu
Producer Christopher Hirose
Writer Toshi Washizu
Narrator Amy Hill
Starring Yasu Kawamura (interviewee), Taka Washizu (interviewee), Miki Adachi (interviewee), Masa Kobayashi (interviewee), Shigeno Nishimi (interviewee), Kumajiro Murakami (interviewee), Junichi Hikido (interviewee), Bunzo Aso (interviewee)
Music James Kibben
Cinematography Toshi Washizu
Editing Toshi Washizu
Distributor Center for Asian American Media
For More Information

For More Information

Center for Asian American Media page: .

Kanopy Streaming link: .

Video of the discussion at a screening of the film at the New People Cinema, San Francisco, Oct. 27, 2013, featuring Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, Masao Suzuki, and Toshi Washizu.

Hirabayashi, Lane. "Review of Issei: The First Generation ." Journal of American Ethnic History 35.3 (Spring 2016): 120–22.

Ishii, Kristy. " History Revealed Through the Lens ," Just a Flicker in Eternity blog, May 20, 2013.

———. " The First Generation's History Revealed ." Rafu Shimpo , Jan. 18, 2014.