Nisei photo exhibit displayed in Wailuku

WAILUKU – Looking through old plantation photographs of Japanese immigrants, Brian Y. Sato wanted to shine a light on and learn more about the dark and anonymous faces pictured in the sugar cane fields.

The Wahiawa resident thought it would be interesting to learn about those issei, or first-generation Japanese immigrants in Hawaii.

But “too late for anybody to do anything about that,” Sato remembers saying to himself, knowing that the first-generation immigrants to Hawaii, including those from his family in Lahaina, have already died. So, there were no more opportunities to take photos and talk story.

“It flashed upon me, (the) nisei (or second generation), they are kind of old, getting up on age. I couldn’t think of anyone doing a project like this with the nisei,” Sato said of his initial thoughts back in 2002 to take photographs of nisei.

“If somebody doesn’t do it right away, it’s going to be too late. I kind of jumped into it, not thinking what was involved.”

More than 10 years later, Sato has shot and collected more than than 100 photographs of nisei in Hawaii and photographs of old buildings and places nisei worked or lived. In the photos are faces wrinkled and tanned. Some nisei stand in front of their old plantation-style houses with corrugated metal roofs while others are pictured during their daily routines, whether its drinking a beer outside or grabbing a fruit from the garden.

Those photos include Maui residents, the late jockey Akira Ishikawa photographed with a Churchill Downs horse shirt and a horse in Ulupalakua, and in another photo is Matsue Fujii, the late owner of Olowalu Store sweeping leaves off a porch.

Sato’s award-winning project “Gokurosama Hawaii Nikkei Nisei” an exhibit of more than 50 black-and-white photos of nisei in Hawaii opened at the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center’s Education Building on Lower Main Street on Monday. The exhibit runs until Dec. 6.

“Gokurosama” is an expression of gratitude to someone who has worked hard or made a sacrifice on one’s behalf. The nisei men in Hawaii entered the U.S. military service to make a better name and pave a better way for Japanese Americans. The men became part of the most decorated military units in U.S. history.

Through his work, Sato was able to hear stories from around 140 nisei, which included military men as well as everyday men and women, he said Monday before his exhibit opened.

“If I didn’t do the project, I realize 140 people of this generation I never would have met. Meeting them and hearing from their stories, to me, that was important.”

Most of the people he has photographed have since died, he said.

One of the stories touching to Sato is meeting the late Toshio Miyamoto of Honokowai.

“He has a sad story,” Sato said.

Sato said Miyamoto was born on Maui, went back to Japan and came back to Hawaii in his teens where he had to learn English from Catholic nuns rather than going back to grammar school.

Then when Miyamoto was probably in his 20s, he entered the U.S. Army and was with the famed 100th Battalion where he suffered “a lot of injuries.”

“Ever since then, he said he cannot hear well. He has ringing in his ears,” Sato recalled Miyamoto telling him.

Relatives told Sato that Miyamoto suffered many shrapnel wounds from the war and was hospitalized for two years and lived with pain throughout his life.

“That was a sad story. The expression is what struck me,” Sato said while looking at his photo of Miyamoto’s face that is flanked by an American flag on the left and a Japanese flag on the right, to note his ties to both nations.

“He’s not really smiling. He’s not really frowning.”

Sato began finding his subjects by looking back to his father Hajime Sato’s roots in Lahaina and by word of mouth. He also looked to Japanese churches.

Sato, a yonsei, or fourth-generation in Hawaii, was preceded by his grandfather, Toraji Sato, and great-grandfather, Chojiro Sato.

Hajime Sato was a 1941 graduate of Lahainaluna High School. He was part of the Military Intelligence Service after Word War II and was stationed in Osaka as an interrogator and translator. He married a Japanese woman.

The family eventually settled in Wahiawa where Hajime Sato was stationed at Schofield Barracks.

Sato said he also got a boost to do the project when his late sister, Charlene J. Sato, encouraged him to do something more with his work than just take photographs.

Charlene Sato was a faculty member at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she was a supporter of pidgin English and a researcher of pidgin/creole studies.

Brian Sato has no formal training as a photographer, but he spent 15 years as a professional printer. And he was a commercial photographer’s assistant, learning technique and lighting.

The exhibition has been presented at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii in Honolulu, the Lyman Museum in Hilo, the Kauai Museum, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles and several cities in Japan, including Tokyo, Osaka and Hiroshima, and in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Last December, Sato became the 37th recipient – the only American – of the Ina Nobuo Award for best exhibition at the Nikon Salon in Tokyo.

Sato is working on compiling a book of the photographs and stories. He also wants to take his exhibit to other places in the United States, including Chicago and Washington state.

The exhibit at the Nisei Veterans Center is free and open to the public. Its viewing times are noon to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at