Telling the AJA Story through Video

Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada
Courtesy: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i

Editor’s note: This bimonthly series, “Honoring the Legacy,” represents a partnership between the Herald and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. It celebrates the achievements of men and women who live the values of earlier generations and continue their proud legacy. The writers are retired physician Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada, a professor emeritus at UH Manoa. They both volunteer with JCCH. Ryan Kawamoto’s complete interview is available at the JCCH Tokioka Heritage Resource Center. 

Ryan Kawamoto, a Yonsei, was born and raised on the Big Island where his parents Charles and Grace Kawamoto managed the family grocery store, Pahoa Cash and Carry. From his days at Pahoa Elementary, Kawamoto showed an interest in his Japanese American roots by participating in poster contests on Hawai‘i’s immigration and plantation life. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, Kawamoto recalled that the Pähoa community was largely Japanese and that his dad belonged to the local kenjin kai (prefectural organization). His father used to make home movies using Super 8 film; and in 1985, the members of the kenjin kai asked his dad to create a slideshow for the Kanyaku Imin (contract laborers) celebration to highlight a hundred years of Japanese life in Hawai‘i. His father captured the history of the Puna area including the Kïlauea eruption in 1960 that destroyed Kapoho. Kawamoto said that the success of his dad’s slideshow inspired his lifelong interest in filmmaking.

Ryan Kawamoto directs actor Duane Kiyota on the historical re-enactment set of “Voices Behind Barbed Wire: Stories of Hawai‘i.” (Photos courtesy of Ryan Kawamoto)

Early Influences

For Kawamoto, it was not just the thrill of working with video, but the power of story that motivated his desire to create narratives that touched people’s hearts and minds. Connecting to his AJA heritage through this medium excited Kawamoto. “I was always interested in my Japanese heritage. Both my mom and my grandmother would always impress upon me the importance of tradition, the importance of Japanese culture and values,” he said.

A pivotal experience for Kawamoto occurred at Waiäkea High School when he joined an experimental program being taught by John Morales, a videographer and journalist. This was his first exposure to working with the video format. He said, “Before this class, I thought about being an engineer or a dentist, but this experience completely changed my trajectory. I found I liked telling stories and making films.”

Film Experiences in College

After high school, Kawamoto decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in communication and television production at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. In the late 1990s, videography was still a fledgling industry. “Video was still analog. You didn’t do any editing on computers. Everything was still manual,” recalled Kawamoto. Combining his passion for film work with his interest in his heritage, Kawamoto wrote a two-part thesis for graduation that was an analysis of the Japanese American portrayal in American films and a screenplay of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

In 1998 while still a college student, he directed a fictional 30-minute film called “Paper Cranes.” He said, “We shot it on 16-millimeter movie film, and it was about a mother-daughter relationship. It was sort of our own version of Amy Tan’s “Joy Luck Club.” I took that film to the Los Angeles Asian American Film Festival. To have student films in the festivals in the 1990s was pretty rare.” It was also very expensive to do. He noted, “This was pre-digital, and we were shooting on movie film. The cost was the film stock. Back then, to process and develop it was very expensive. It’s still expensive.” They spent about $12,000 of their own money to make the film. 

Getting Started

Kawamoto’s ambition was always to be a film director. However, he also realized that he had to start at the bottom, freelancing to make ends meet. “I would do everything. I worked as a production assistant doing national commercials. I worked on local TV shows. I worked on national shows. I worked on movies.” He finally got a chance to direct a commercial. 

His break came from knowing people and joining a network based on word-of-mouth exchanges. Kawamoto befriended writers at several advertising agencies and one of them mentioned a public service announcement they needed done. He told Kawamoto, “You basically have to do it for free but maybe they’ll throw in something for expenses.” Kawamoto accepted the job. “It was for an organization called Sisters Offering Support and it had to do with stopping child prostitution. It was one of my first professional projects.” The success of this PSA led to directing a paid commercial. Folks were noticing his work and he started getting offers for small projects. 

Connecting with the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i

A major milestone in Kawamoto’s career has been his long-term alliance with the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. In 2005, he was a director with Kinetic Productions where he worked on a per-project basis when William “Bill” Kaneko, who was on the JCCH fundraising committee, approached him. Kaneko was looking for someone to create a video for the annual JCCH gala and he recalled seeing Kawamoto’s work for the Hawai‘i Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. The JCCH hired Kawamoto to create two-minute video profiles of the eight honorees at the gala. The videos were very well received, and Kawamoto has been filming each of the gala dinners since 2007.

Hawai‘i International Film Festival premiere of “Voices Behind Barbed Wire: Stories of Hawai‘i,” 2018.  From left: Marilyn Higashide, Jane Kurahara, Ryan Kawamoto, Sandra Chang, Betsy Young and Carole Hayashino.

The Untold Story

As he continued to work with the JCCH, Kawamoto wanted to be involved in the educational goals of the organization. He became acquainted with the wealth of resources available through the JCCH Tokioka Heritage Resource Center. Kawamoto studied countless oral histories and photos in the collection and realized that there was a powerful story embedded in these materials that had not been shared with the public.

Kawamoto with some of the cast and crew on the historical re-enactment set of “Voices Behind Barbed Wire: Stories of Maui County.”

In 2010, the opportunity to tell that story presented itself when the JCCH received funding from the Japanese American Confinement Sites grant program. Kawamoto credits Brian Niiya, then director of the resource center, with the idea for a film. The result in 2012 was a video documentary, “The Untold Story: Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i.” The film captured the poorly documented internment experience in Hawai‘i through the eyes of several internees and their families. These included Sam Nishimura, a tailor from Hale‘iwa; Otokichi Ozaki and Bob Nishioka, Japanese-language teachers; Harry Urata, a Kibei-Nisei – born outside of Japan but educated in Japan; Paul Osumi, a Christian minister; and Yasutaro Soga and Jack Tasaka, both journalists. Bringing the film to the public’s attention was the next challenge. Carole Hayashino, who was heading the JCCH, secured community screenings on all the major islands and on the mainland. Kawamoto marveled, “I never imagined that it would get that much popularity, that many eyeballs on it. That totally opened my eyes.” As part of the JACS grant, copies of the video were also distributed to all public high schools in the state along with other curriculum resources that the JCCH had developed.

Voices Behind Barbed Wire

After doing “The Untold Story,” Kawamoto realized there was still so much of the Hawai‘i-related internment experience left to tell. Along with Honouliuli (the largest POW and internment camp in the state), more detention centers on different islands had been discovered by archaeologists Jeff Burton and Mary Farrell. Kawamoto participated in forays to find some of the sites like the Kaläheo Stockade on Kaua‘i and the Ha‘ikü Camp on Maui.

A behind-the-scenes look at the filming of “Voices Behind Barbed Wire: Stories of Hawai‘i.”

He wrote and directed a second film, “The Voices Behind Barbed Wire,” that debuted in 2018. In 2020, the film received an Achievement in Interpretive Media Award from the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation. It documented personal accounts of Hawai‘i’s wartime internees from their initial arrest and imprisonment in the islands to their incarceration in mainland concentration camps. The film also explored internment sites in Hawai‘i as well as the grassroots effort of the JCCH volunteers to have Honouliuli designated as a national historic site in 2015. Poignant vignettes from the Kishida, Hoshida and Kochi families formed the emotional core of the documentary. Kawamoto said, “If anyone says it doesn’t affect you, they’re not being truthful. It very much affects you. I realized how disruptive war can be and how cruel we can be when we jump to conclusions about people’s loyalty based on race.”

Moving Forward

Kawamoto’s goal is to continue bringing stories of Japanese immigrants and their descendants to current and future generations. One of his more recent projects was creating a virtual tour of Honouliuli. Since physical tours are not always possible, the JCCH created a series of video clips as an online introduction to the site. Kawamoto confesses that he has felt the powerful mana (spiritual energy) of the site on his visits to Honouliuli. “I don’t really talk about it a lot. It gets to me sometimes. It can be very emotional. I can feel certain things.”

What future projects lie in store for Kawamoto? He said, “I’d like to actually go with some families to the mainland sites where their great grandfathers were taken. Just to take that journey; have them learn about their history through their eyes because we can’t really interview the first hand survivors anymore.” Kawamoto is an artist with a vision and a storyteller with a heart. His filmic journey continues.


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