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Part II—Prewar Cultural Arbiter

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Although Ken Nakazawa achieved a modicum of public fame in the 1920s from his plays and his writings, he achieved his greatest renown as a public figure in the following decade.

A watershed moment for Nakazawa was his selection as an essayist by the Boston-based Atlantic Monthly magazine. His first contribution, which appeared in the Atlantic’s February 1929 issue, was “The Spirit of Japanese Poetry.” Nakazawa provided an atmospheric, almost Lafcadio Hearnesque reading of Japanese poetry—one which would likely be dismissed today as orientalist.

Profile of Ken Nakazawa in Kashu Mainichi, May 29, 1932.

In one notable passage, he exclaimed: “The Japanese poem is the dewdrop that holds a rainbow in its heart…Japanese poetry is like the song of a wild bird. It is simple and short and seemingly artless; but behind it lies the mystic world where all our dreams come true.”

The essay was widely quoted and anthologized.

Nakazawa followed with two other contributions to the Atlantic. “Pampas Field” (December 1930), was a discussion of Japanese art built around a dialogue with a painter, and “When Buying Japanese Prints” (April 1931) was a humorous guide for collectors of Japanese woodblock prints.

Another essay, “Mystery Stories East and West,” appeared in the July 1932 issue of the journal Books Abroad. In the essay, Nakazawa mused on the differences between Asian and Western conceptions of the mystery tale and ghost story. At a time when detective novels and other popular fiction were generally scorned as rubbish by critics, Nakazawa revealed a sensitive understanding of genre fiction and a readiness to consider it on its own terms. 

According to contemporary reports, in summer 1935 Nakazawa published an article, “Angling for Mud Eels,” in the now-defunct magazine Courier. The story, the author explained, was excerpted from his novel-in-progress. “[It] is a relation of what the Japanese dance ‘Dojoj sukui’ symbolizes, except it is changed into a story in melodrama form.” Another notable Nakazawa article was “The Tea was my Wisdom,” which appeared in the July 1935 issue of Asia.

Perhaps Nakazawa’s most unique contribution was his article “Will Your Home go Japanese?” which appeared in the Los Angeles Times in June 1935. Nakazawa proposed incorporating Japanese architectural styles into Southern California homes, including open-sided buildings, paper doors, and Japanese gardens. “The garden in this country is a ‘still life,’ so to say, executed with trees and flowers on a canvas of lawn….The Japanese garden, on the contrary, is nature in miniature, a representation of some of nature’s aspects in symbolic manner.”

Nakazawa retained various ties with theater during these years. His short plays “Fallen Blossoms” and “The Persimmon Thief” received amateur performances. In 1934, the Monrovia Gold Hill Players invited Nakazawa to lecture, and mounted a production of “The Persimmon Thief.”

Meanwhile, he joined in scattered performances of Japanese plays. In 1928 he was invited by film star Charlie Chaplin and producer Sid Grauman to help interpret performances of Japanese plays at the Windsor Theatre by a visiting troupe from the Imperial Theatre of Tokyo. Ten years later, the Kabuki play Honcho Niju Shiko was performed at the Japanese Cultural Center of Southern California. Nakazawa explained the action to the audience.

In Spring 1937 Nakazawa took the lead in producing a giant musical fantasy called “Haru” at Griffith Park’s Greek Theater. Nakazawa produced the book and lyrics for the production, which boasted an original score by composer Louise Nishida. He directed the gigantic 12-act extravaganza, which featured performances by some 300 dancers, musicians, fencers and wrestlers, including dozens of local Nisei girls in kimonos performing colorful dances choreographed by Kimiyo Izutsuya. Other acts included kendo, judo, and Japanese acrobatics.

Nakazawa likewise worked in Hollywood. In 1931, at the dawn of talking pictures. he prepared a Japanese script for the film “The Man Who Came Back,” starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. Nakazawa found dubbing work difficult, as he had to match the actors’ lip movements with Japanese words. He was engaged as consultant for filming of the play, “The Darling of the Gods,” set in Japan, but no such film was ever released.

He made numerous radio broadcasts. In July 1933, while attending the “Century of Progress” World’s Fair in Chicago, he made a nationwide address over WJZ radio on behalf of the World Fellowship of Faiths. In October 1935 the “Japanese Cultural Broadcast” on Radio station KRKD featured Nakazawa speaking on “Duty of the Japanese Musicians.” In March 1940, he returned to the KRKD program, presenting his radio drama, “Ohanashi.”

Throughout these years, Nakazawa maintained an office at the Japanese consulate. As part of his duties, he joined actively in the work of Southern California Japanese social and cultural organizations. His duties extended in various directions. In March 1931, he was named liaison attache for Japan at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic games.

Working on behalf of the Japan branch of the Amateur Athletic Union, he negotiated with Olympic officials the participation of some 100 Japanese athletes, including swimmers, runners and fencers. Once the games started, he moved headquarters to the Olympic village, where he greeted and supervised the athletes and other Japanese visitors, and served as master of ceremonies at welcoming events. He took the opportunity to champion the ideals of world peace.

“There are many reasons why Japan and the United States should ever be firm friends but two outstanding ones,” he said. “The first of these is the Tenth Olympiad to be held in Los Angeles. The second is that Japan has ever admired and respected the United States and has followed her lead in the industrial world.”

In January 1939, working through the Japanese Foreign Office. Nakazawa negotiated the donation to USC by the Nippon International Cultural Society in Tokyo of 1,500 volumes relating the history of the Ching dynasty in China. It seems plausible that the volumes were looted by Japanese forces during their occupation of China.

In addition, Nakazawa served as the consulate’s educational coordinator. It is uncertain just how far his mandate in this area extended. According to later government investigators, Nakazawa directed the operations of the majority of Japanese language schools in the southern California area. He was named president of Nichibei Commercial College, a business college founded in 1935 and housed at Chuo Gakuen that offered evening classes in both Japanese and English. In addition to supervising the college’s operations, Nakazawa led Japanese-English and English-Japanese translation classes.

Through his work. Nakazawa made frequent contacts with young Nisei, especially college students. He wrote several articles for the Nisei press, spoke before various JACL chapters, and was faculty advisor to the Japanese student organization at USC, the Japanese Trojan Club.In Spring 1937 he invited club members to his house for joint discussions with USC Chinese and Korean students on “The Vocational Problems of Oriental College Graduates in America.”

He also worked with Nisei women. In May 1935, he spoke at a Guild Girl Convention at the First Baptist Church on ‘‘Problems of the Japanese in California.” In April 1938, he wrote and directed a playlet, “The Spirit of Mother’s Day,” performed by a cast of five girls from Manual Arts High School.

In a letter to the Japanese American Courier in 1939, he expressed sympathy for the Nisei’s plight:

The Nisei is a two-ship man, so to say, chained down to one ship he was born in one hand, and to the ship to which his parents belong on the other. Consequently, he has to worry about many things; for, if unruly wind or tide should cause the ships to drift further apart, he must either fall in the middle or go r-r-rip. Not that the ships are really going to drift apart... [but] because some of them talk as if the break has already come, the Nisei must worry and suffer.

Even more than previously, Nakazawa’s main occupation was as a public intellectual, teaching and lecturing on a dizzying variety of subjects on which he claimed expertise. In January 1929, he spoke on  “Japanese overpopulation” at the Pacific Southwest Academy of Political and Social Science. Nakazawa explained that Japanese emigrated not so much because of overcrowding at home but to seek better opportunities to live and work elsewhere.

In September 1929 he gave a set of twelve lectures over KEJK, USC’s radio station. The first six were devoted to Japanese art, with sessions on Japanese prints, lacquer ware, design, and architecture. The second series was devoted to Japanese literature.

In 1931, Nakazawa inaugurated a series of public talks on Japanese art at The Museum of History, Science, and Art (ancestor of today’s LACMA). So successful were the lectures that Nakazawa gave lecture series in the years that followed. He championed the Museum’s acquisition of Japanese art and opening of Asian art galleries. Not all of his work with the museum concerned Japanese art. In 1939, he provided captions for the Museum’s exhibition on modern dance.

Even an incomplete list of public appearances reveals Nakazawa’s wide-ranging interests: 

  • In May 1929 Nakzawa spoke at the Pacific Coast conference of the Fellowship of Reconciliation on Japan and international friendship.

  • In May 1929, he lectured on “Democratic Tendencies in Modern Japanese Literature,” for USC Comparative literature program.

  • In February 1931, he spoke to the Los Angeles Civic League on “The Race Problem in America, With Relation to the Japanese.”

  • From 1931-1934 he lectured on Japanese cherry blossom dancing at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Beaumont.

  • In June 1932 he spoke on “Oriental Art and Literature” in the auditorium of the famous Barker Bros. building.

  • In 1934 he spoke at a “Japan Day” festival at the San Diego World’s Fair.

  • In February 1935 he lectured at the Van Nuys club on “Philosophical Interpretation of Japanese Gardens,” and at Pasadena First Baptist church on “Japanese in the United States”

  • In March 1935 he appeared at the Ebell Club and gave a travelogue with motion pictures entitled “Four Season in Japan” and "Festivals in Japan.”

  • In April 1937 he spoke on “Japanese Art” at an Upland Women’s Club luncheon.

  • In October 1937 he spoke in Hollywood on “Cultural Relations Between India and Japan”.

  • May 1938 he addressed the San Fernando Valley Branch of American Association of University Women on customs of the Orient.

In November 1935, Kashu Mainichi provided a list for a typical week’s program for Nakazawa:

  • Monday, November 11:  program for California Art Club, luncheon for the League of Western Painters. He will speak on “Fundamentals of Japanese Art.”

  • Tuesday, November 12: Japan Day at the Huntington Park High school. He will address the afternoon assembly on “Philosophical Backgrounds of Japanese Culture.”

  • Wednesday, November 13: Los Angeles Public School teachers’ conference: he will talk on “Aesthetic and Philosophical Foundations of Japanese Literature.” Round table discussion follows-more than 3,000 persons expected. 

  • Thursday, November 14, Japan Day at Eagle Rock High’s “Philosophy of Life school,” lecture on Japanese Culture.

Later that same month, he lectured on “Japanese literary and World Civilization” at USC Graduate School’s 25th Anniversary, then spoke on “Japanese Civilization Through Literature” at the Women’s Athletic Club. On Nov. 23rd, he presented an address, “Philosophic Thoughts on Japanese Drama,” to the Santa Barbara Japanese American Society and American Drama League.

During the 1930s, Nakazawa devoted less time to classroom teaching, though in Spring 1935 he presented an evening lecture series at USC on Japanese Art and Architecture. In July 1938 Nakazawa delivered a weeklong course of lectures in the summer session at the University of Colorado College of Education. In the mornings he gave talks on Japanese culture: poetry, drama, religion, and Arts and Crafts.” In the afternoons, he conducted a symposium on "Japan's Aims and Ambitions in the Far East.” Some 450 people attended.

In Spring 1939 he announced an “Oriental Basic Studies” course at USC for the coming fall semester. He intended to organize an integrated study of religion, art, literature, social and cultural thought. It is unclear whether the course was ever given.

To be continued ... >>


© 2024 Greg Robinson

1920s biographies California generations immigrants immigration Issei Japan Ken Nakazawa migration United States
About this series

This series recovers the life and writings of Ken Nakazawa, a multi talented Issei playwright, essayist, and critic who taught at USC in the prewar era. Nakawaza was one of the first ethnic Japanese to hold a position as professor at a major American university. He also was an employee of the Los Angeles Japanese consulate and a public defender of Tokyo’s foreign policy during the 1930s. His prewar popularity career reveals the space open to outstanding talents, even on the West Coast, but also the price of identifying with the Japanese “enemy.”

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About the Author

Greg Robinson, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at l'Université du Québec À Montréal, a French-language institution in Montreal, Canada. He is the author of the books By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Harvard University Press, 2001), A Tragedy of Democracy; Japanese Confinement in North America (Columbia University Press, 2009), After Camp: Portraits in Postwar Japanese Life and Politics (University of California Press, 2012), Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era (University of Illinois Press, 2012), and The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches (University Press of Colorado, 2016), as well as coeditor of the anthology Miné Okubo: Following Her Own Road (University of Washington Press, 2008). Robinson is also coeditor of the volume John Okada - The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy (University of Washington Press, 2018).

His historical column “The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great,” is a well-known feature of the Nichi Bei Weekly newspaper. Robinson’s latest book is an anthology of his Nichi Bei columns and stories published on Discover Nikkei, The Unsung Great: Portraits of Extraordinary Japanese Americans (University of Washington Press, 2020). It was recognized with an Association for Asian American Studies Book Award for Outstanding Achievement in History Honorable Mention in 2022. He can be reached at

Updated March 2022

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