Dave Tatsuno: Film at Topaz Internment Camp

Dave Tatsuno was one of 11,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans that were held in Topaz Internment Camp in Delta, Utah. His experience was unique in that he recorded some of his family’s experiences through a motion picture camera that he smuggled into camp. While never intended to be a documentary, his compiled film has since been added to the Library of Congress and further brings to light the conditions experienced by the Japanese in Topaz. 

Born Masaharu Tatsuno in Japan in 1913, Tatsuno immigrated to the United States with his parents when he was only a few months old. Upon arrival in the Bay Area, and due to a clerical error that not even his family understands, he was given a U.S. birth certificate. At a young age, his mother abandoned his family and returned to Japan, leading him to become heavily involved in the YMCA. He decided to adopt the name “Dave” while in junior high. He married Alice Okada in 1938, and their first son, Sheldon, was born in 1940. Amateur filmmaking became a passionate hobby of his after the death of a close friend, when he realized that film had the potential to metaphorically “bring someone back to life.” 

Due to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 (in addition to other Japanese imperialist activities) and racist attitudes towards the Japanese, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in February 1942. This order divided the West Coast into military zones and gave the army authority to relocate civilians further inland. The Japanese were the main group affected by the order. Prior to evacuation and internment, Tatsuno helped his father, Shojiro, operate a dry goods store in the Bay area called “Nichi Bei Bussan.” In order to prepare to move, “Nichi Bei Bussan” had an evacuation day sale, where they were forced to sell their goods at incredibly low prices in order to get rid of inventory quickly. 

Tatsuno and his family were first held at Tanforan Racetrack and later relocated to Topaz in 1942. Tatsuno, who was familiar with running a business, became one of the managers of the co-op store in camp. While working, he met Walter Honderick, a War Relocation Authority official who owned a camera himself. Honderick encouraged Tatsuno to send for his camera under Honderick’s name. Tatsuno, while on a trip for supplies for the co-op, purchased film for the camera in Chicago. With camera and film, Tatsuno was able to participate in his old hobby again.

In interviews, Tatsuno was adamant that his film in Topaz was never meant to be a documentary. Its focus was specifically on his family and friends. Despite that, the film does contain significant and telling scenes. One scene depicts several Japanese men digging a trench outside one of the barracks. Tatsuno’s narration (which was added to the film much later) relates that the men were repairing a broken pipe. This scene depicts the labor that the Japanese were expected to contribute in order to keep the camp running. Another scene, perhaps one of the most significant, shows Tatsuno’s brother, Masateru (or “Tut”) visiting the camp as an American soldier on his way to Germany. In later interviews, Tatsuno described that he found great irony and injustice in the fact that his brother, especially with his position as a U.S. soldier, had to visit his family behind barbed wire. 

Tatsuno and his family returned to the Bay Area in 1945, where they reopened “Nichi Bei Bussan” and sought to help other Japanese returning from internment camps transition back to everyday life. Tatsuno continued to serve as part of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and the YMCA throughout the rest of his life. His film Topaz was added to the Library of Congress in 1996. Tatsuno passed away in 2006, but his legacy of recording his experience at Topaz remains. 

Images

Dave Tatsuno and his father, merchants of Japanese ancestry in San Francisco prior to evacuation
Dave Tatsuno and his father, merchants of Japanese ancestry in San Francisco prior to evacuation Source: War Relocation Authority. San Francisco, California. Dave Tatsuno and his father, merchants of Japanese ancestry in San Francisco prior to evacuation. Photograph. National Archives and Records Administration. 1942. https://text-message.blogs.archives.gov/2017/07/25/documents-of-loss-dave-tatsunos-records-in-the-san-francisco-branch-evacuee-property-files/#_ednref7
A panorama view of the Central Utah Relocation Center, taken from the water tower
A panorama view of the Central Utah Relocation Center, taken from the water tower Source: Stewart, Francis. Topaz, Utah. A panorama view of the Central Utah Relocation Center, taken from the water tower. Photograph. National Archives and Records Administration. March 14, 1943. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Topaz,_Utah._A_panorama_view_of_the_Central_Utah_Relocation_Center,_taken_from_the_water_tower._-_NARA_-_536975.jpg
Dave Tatsuno, president of the Japanese-American Citizens League of San Francisco, and his family packing for evacuation
Dave Tatsuno, president of the Japanese-American Citizens League of San Francisco, and his family packing for evacuation Source:

Lange, Dorothea. San Francisco, Calif. Apr. Dave Tatsuno, president of the Japanese-American Citizens League of San Francisco, and his family packing for evacuation. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry will be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration. Tatsuno was born in this country and was graduated from the University of California in 1936. Photograph. Library of Congress. April 13, 1942. https://www.loc.gov/item/2021653179/

Location

Metadata

Sara Davis, Brigham Young University, “Dave Tatsuno: Film at Topaz Internment Camp,” Intermountain Histories, accessed July 24, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/775.