Two Worlds: The Life and Photography of Wakaji Matsumoto

This series delves into Wakaji Matsumoto’s life as a farmer turned photographer in Los Angeles and Hiroshima before World War II. His rare photographs captured Japanese American tenant farmers in the Los Angeles area, events in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo, and urban life in Hiroshima prior to the 1945 atomic bombing of the city. The photographs incorporate both artistic and documentary styles, and include a series of panoramic photos from both cities.

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The two essays by curator Dennis Reed and Wakaji’s granddaughter, Karen Matsumoto, are presented in conjunction with the Japanese American National Museum’s online exhibition, Wakaji Matsumoto—An Artist in Two Worlds: Los Angeles and Hiroshima, 1917–1944. Dennis’s essay will be published in three parts. 

View the online exhibition at janm.org/wakaji-matsumoto.

*All photos by Wakaji Matsumoto (copyright Matsumoto Family)

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Part 3—Wakaji's Legacy

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Reportage or Art?

Wakaji produced countless individual portraits, documented civic activities like parades and cultural events, and recorded private celebrations such as weddings, club ceremonies, and graduations. He did a considerable amount of advertising photography too, and he was hired by the military to document their endeavors.

Examples of his varied photographic activity abound. In 1929, for instance, Wakaji photographed the cheering citizens of Hiroshima as they welcomed home the Hiroshima Commercial High School baseball team after they won the Japanese national tournament. He extensively documented, in 1936, a trade fair at the Hiroshima Prefectural …

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Part 2—Wakaji’s Photography

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While Tei managed the farm, Wakaji pursued his gifts. He first studied photography through a correspondence course. According to family legend, he moved to San Diego for a period to study photography in more depth. He may have been a student of Masashi Shimotsusa, a photographer who studied in London and Paris before opening a studio in San Diego in 1919, and later a photography school.1 Wakaji may have learned how to make panoramas from Shimotsusa, who was accomplished in the technique (Fig. 3). Whatever his exact path may have been, by 1922, Wakaji was …

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Wakaji Matsumoto: An Artist in Two Worlds

My grandfather, Wakaji Matsumoto, traveled across the Pacific Ocean to help his father in a foreign land, but he returned to his native Japan as an artist. He was a Japanese photographer who lived in two worlds—Los Angeles, California, and Hiroshima, Japan. His images captured the lives of Japanese immigrant farmers living in rural Los Angeles in the early 1900s, and also events and the everyday lives of people in Hiroshima. 

While living in Los Angeles as a farmer, Wakaji studied photography and became an active member of a Japanese camera club in Los Angeles, and a pioneer in the Pictorialist …

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Part 1—Wakaji’s Beginnings

Wakaji Matsumoto was like many of the young men, mostly teenagers, who came by transport ships from Japan to Hawai‘i, and then on to the western shores of Canada and the United States. He was seventeen when he first arrived in Vancouver in 1906, before making his way to Los Angeles by train to reunite with his father, whom he hardly knew.

When Wakaji was a toddler, he was left with relatives in Japan while his father and mother, Wakamatsu and Haru, immigrated to Hawai‘i prior to 1892. Though Wakamatsu was primarily a fisherman by trade, he had also farmed …

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1920s 1930s art artist atomic bomb atomic bombing community family family history farming Hawaii Hiroshima houseboy immigrant Issei Japanese American National Museum Little Tokyo Los Angeles migration photograph photographer photography picture bride postwar pre-war