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Way Down in Egypt Land: Tamio Wakayama, Civil Rights Photographer - Part 1

In the column I wrote some time ago on the Nisei photographer Yoichi Okamoto, who served as official photographer in the White House during the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, I spoke about how his photographs go beyond political propaganda and shine as both art and history. This is, if anything, even more true in the case of Tamio Wakayama, another Nikkei whose camera captured the history of 1960s America. Tamio Wakayama was not only a witness, who documented the events surrounding him in inspired fashion, but by his very presence he was touched by them.

Tamio Wakayama

Tamio Wakayama had an unusual life story. Born to a Japanese immigrant family in British Columbia in 1941, he was the youngest of six children (one of whom died in infancy). His parents hailed from Shida, a small fishing village in Kyushu. They had immigrated to Canada in 1921. After years of working in the logging industry, the senior Mr. Wakayama had bought a farmhouse near the sawmill town of Port Hammond, British Columbia, East of Vancouver. He opened a grocery store on the house’s main floor, where he also made tofu for sale.

Tamio was only a baby when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the Pacific War broke out. Like other Japanese Canadians, the Wakayama family was taken from their home and herded into long-term confinement in Eastern British Columbia, where they were housed in the newly-built camp of Tashme. While they were confined, they suffered the official confiscation of their family home, car, and other possessions by the Canadian government.

As the war drew to a close, confined Japanese Canadians were confronted with a stark choice: agree to leave camp and resettle eastward at their own expense, or be deported to Japan once the war was over. The Wakayama family made the difficult choice to risk moving East, and migrated to Southwestern Ontario, where they eventually settled in the small town of Chatham. The Wakayamas were able to find a house in the black ghetto (sold to them by a kindly Mormon neighbor) and Mr. Wakayama found work in a fertilizer factory and tannery.

Life for the Wakayamas, as for other Asian arrivals in the area, was difficult. Chatham had a rich history as a place of refuge for the Black Americans in the mid-19th century who fled slavery on the Underground Railroad (a history that is nicely documented today in the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society & Black Mecca Museum). However, even if the refugees found freedom in Canada, they were forced to fight poverty and discrimination there as well in the decades that followed. As Tamio later put it, “The squalor and abject poverty of our neighborhood was sorry proof that the descendants of those runaways had fared no better than their Afro-American brothers.”

By the time the Wakayamas arrived after World War II, Chatham was a town deeply segregated by race and class. For Tamio, mixed in with happy childhood memories was the trauma of racist insults and humiliations. He later said, “Much of my own life has been spent in coming to terms with the memory of growing up in Chatham. I remember the cries of ‘Jap go home’ and a judo teacher who warded off his tormentors with a perfectly executed series of hip and shoulder throws. I remember my own battles to and from school fought with little skill and even lesser glory. I remember the first day of classes and the ordeal of registration—sitting at my desk, the lone Asian waiting in agony for the moment when I would have to interrupt the litany of genteel white names and voice aloud the alien syllables of my father’s name.”

When Tamio was still only a teenager, his father died in a tragic road accident while on the way home from work, his bicycle hit by a drunk driver during his commute home. In the wake of his father’s death, Tamio was left without a major source of support. He managed to complete high school, then enrolled at University of Western Ontario in nearby London, Ontario.

During his third year of college, 1962-63, he fell deeply for a fellow student, a young woman of Russian ancestry, and suffered the pangs of first love. At the end of the school year, she broke off relations with him, which left the young man devastated. He returned home, as he put it, “to lick my wounds.” In the following weeks, even as he groped to put together the pieces of his life and his broken heart, he followed the news of the civil rights movement then reaching its peak in the Southern United States. After seeing reports of a lunch counter sit-in in Danville, Virginia, where peaceful protesters were pelted with eggs and liquids, he felt a stirring of empathy for the movement and a need to join.

Thus in early September, he jumped in his newly-bought Volkswagen Beetle and drove South. He arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 12, right after the terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four girls. In the following days, Tamio managed to meet John Lewis and Julian Bond, the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and drove them back to their Atlanta headquarters. Upon arriving in Atlanta, he was put to work for SNCC, successively as janitor and driver, and soon became a fledged paid staffer.

During his time at the SNCC home office, he put together a flyer for an upcoming rally. Danny Lyon, a SNCC photographer, was impressed by the flyer and encouraged Tamio to take photographs. Tamio started bringing a camera to demonstrations and other events. He did not go out on assignments to take photos, partly because he believed that other photographers (especially African Americans) should have priority and partly because he was needed in Atlanta to operate the darkroom.

Finally, in fall 1964, in the wake of the Mississippi Freedom Summer, Tamio got his chance. Another photographer, tired out by repeated beatings and by destruction of his equipment, left the project. Tamio travelled to Mississippi, and was sent to Neshoba County (where three civil rights workers, James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, had been kidnapped and murdered earlier that year). He worked there over the next months, capturing images, witnessing events, and keeping out of trouble, so as to be able to leave with his body and photos intact. As he later put it, “in the terror and beauty of the Black Belt South, I learned to be a photographer.” His images of local people, of civil rights protests, and of the landscape all immortalized a time and place, rendering it uniquely tangible to future viewers.

After spending two years in the South, Tamio returned to Canada. He was inspired by the lessons of the Black freedom movement to document racial and ethnic oppression and to push for affirmation of minorities against racism and marginalization. He continued his photographic work, documenting life among Native communities of Saskatchewan and the Doukhobors (Russian sectarian Christians notable for pacifist beliefs) in eastern British Columbia (in the process, he returned to the region where his family had been confined during World War II). He also produced a book of art photographs, Signs of Life (1969).

In the 1970s, Tamio settled in Vancouver where he set up a photographic studio. In Vancouver, Tamio took the lead in a project marking the centennial of Japanese Canadians. The product was a traveling exhibition of photographs honoring the Issei in Canada and telling the story of Japanese in Canada. It was then transformed into a book, A Dream of Riches: Japanese Canadians, 1877–1977. The book was notable not only for its rich display of historic photographs, but also its trilingual (English-French-Japanese) text—until recent times it was the only published historical work on Japanese Canadians available in French. By dramatizing the injustice of mass removal, the work helped buttress the Japanese Canadian campaign for reparations that resulted in a redress settlement a decade later.

During this period, Tamio made two connections that would remain central for the rest of his life. One was with Mayumi Takasaki. Mayu had grown up in the Vancouver area, in the old Japanese Canadian fishing and cannery village of Steveston. The two would remain together for forty years. As Tamio put it archly, “Mayumi Takasaki [was] a sweet innocent Sansei from Steveston whom I seduced into my evil clutches or so everyone thought when we first got together. Our relationship has outlasted all those naysayers.”

In association with Mayu, Tamio became involved in the Powell Street Festival. The Festival, first held in 1977, symbolizes the homecoming by Japanese Canadians to Powell Street, the city’s historic Japantown that was destroyed by mass removal in 1942. It is an annual event that mixes visual and performance art, martial arts, food fairs, and Japanese community events such as historic walking tours. Tamio worked on documenting the festival. His 1992 book Kikyō – Coming Home to Powell Street combined photos from the first dozen years of the festival with oral histories by participants. In addition to his collaboration on the Powell St. Festival, Tamio provided photographs for The Bulletin, the newspaper of the Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association. He also served as editor of the English-language section.

In his final years, Tamio lived in semiretirement, and worked on a memoir of his civil rights days, which he called (with a nod to Eldridge Cleaver) “Soul on Rice.” Tamio participated in multiple commemorations and tributes to the Black freedom movement, and lectured about his experiences. His powerful photos of the civil rights movement were featured in an exhibition and in a powerful book, This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement. His photos were also featured in exhibitions at the Japanese American National Museum and the Japanese Cultural and Community Centre of Toronto, among others. By the time of his passing on March 23, 2018, the special quality of his work had begun to be recognized.

Read part 2 >>


© 2020 Greg Robinson

activists Black Freedom movement civil rights movement Freedom Rides japanese canadians photographer powell street festival SNCC Tamio Wakayama