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Dave Tatsuno, 92; He Secretly Filmed Life in U.S. Internment Camp

Times Staff Writer

With the camera he had smuggled in, Dave Tatsuno filmed secret movies of the World War II internment camp where he was forced to spend three of his 92 years.

He wasn’t trying to spy with his Bell and Howell, he said decades later, but document everyday life in the early 1940s at the desolate Topaz Relocation Center in the Utah desert.

“To me, it was just a home movie,” Tatsuno told The Times in 1997. “But other people, they say, ‘Wow, this was taken 50 years ago behind barbed wire.’ ”

In 1996, his 48 minutes of silent footage called “Topaz” became the second home movie placed on the list of historically significant films kept by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. The first was Abraham Zapruder’s film of the John F. Kennedy assassination.

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Tatsuno died Jan. 26 of congestive heart failure at his home in San Jose, said his daughter, Arlene Damron.

“Dave showed us that history is recorded and made by everyday people,” said Karen Ishizuka, a filmmaker who met the gregarious Tatsuno when she was making “Something Strong Within,” a 1994 documentary compiled from home movies of internment camps.

His forlorn images -- including Japanese fish kites tied to the roof of a barrack and a young woman skating on a puddle of an ice rink -- became the coda of Ishizuka’s well-reviewed film.

Ishizuka made the movie to accompany an exhibit she curated on relocation camps at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, where Tatsuno’s original film is archived.

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Though other internees filmed their experiences at less restrictive relocation centers, Tatsuno’s footage “remains quite unusual,” Ishizuka said, because he had to conceal his 8-millimeter movie camera and sneak out the film to be developed while traveling in his job as a buyer for the camp’s cooperative store.

One day, Walter Honderick, his store supervisor, pulled out an 8-millimeter camera and began filming. Tatsuno often recalled telling Honderick, “I would give my right arm to have my camera.”

Forbidden from bringing the camera, he had left it with a friend for safekeeping. Honderick told Tatsuno to have it sent -- and to keep away from guard towers when using it. He kept the camera hidden in a baby’s shoebox.

“I mostly filmed the cooperative, the staff, really innocent things,” Tatsuno recalled in 1997. “Church on Sunday. A dust storm. The snow in the desert. Very peaceful scenes.”

The internees looked happy, but that was deceptive, Tatsuno said, because they hammed it up for the filmmaker.

“The camera shots, thus, do not fathom the emotions hidden within the evacuees -- the fear, the loneliness, the despair and the bitterness that we felt,” he wrote to the Library of Congress.

For the rest of his life, Tatsuno wanted to ensure that Honderick received credit for his role.

“No camera, no movie,” Tatsuno told The Times. “You see, it’s as simple as that.”

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He was born Masaharu Tatsuno in 1913 and claimed San Francisco as his birthplace, but photographs of his mother arriving from Japan showed her holding him as an infant.

At 8, he lived for a time in Japan and learned to keep a journal, a habit he retained for the rest of his life.

While running for class president in junior high, Tatsuno took Dave as his first name when a friend said “Masaharu” wouldn’t fit on a campaign poster. Dave M. Tatsuno won the election.

He traced his fascination with making home movies to the sudden death of his childhood best friend while Tatsuno was in college. Afterward, Tatsuno was awestruck when he saw footage of the pair together.

“He said, ‘This is absolutely fantastic. I can see my friend again. I have to have one of those cameras,’ ” his daughter said.

In 1936, Tatsuno graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in business and a minor in public speaking and went to work at Nichi Bei Bussan, the San Francisco department store his father established in 1902.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. It authorized the internment of Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants who lived on the West Coast. Eventually, more than 100,000 people would be held in 10 camps.

With his wife nine months pregnant, Tatsuno staged -- and filmed -- an evacuation sale before closing the business in 1942.

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At the detention center, Tatsuno captured a scene that seemed innocuous at the time. Later, he said, it illustrated the irony of what the U.S. government had done to Americans of Japanese ancestry.

“Here we are behind the barbed wire and my brother comes in wearing an American Army uniform with a guard to visit his family in a concentration camp,” Tatsuno said in 1997.

Upon his release in 1945, Tatsuno reopened his store but moved his family to San Jose in 1948 after his 7-year-old son died during a routine tonsillectomy. He opened another store that Damron now runs.

His wife, the former Alice Okada, whom he married in 1938, died last year. In addition to Damron, Tatsuno’s survivors include two other daughters, two sons, four grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and a sister.

Since 1956, Tatsuno had pursued underwater photography and scuba diving, which he continued until he was almost 90.

An upbeat man, Tatsuno embraced the Japanese concept of “shikata ga nai” -- a phrase that means “it cannot be helped” -- when recalling life among the guard towers.

A lasting message from Tatsuno can be seen in “Something Strong Within”: “I hope ... you see the spirit of the people trying to reconstruct a community despite overwhelming obstacles,” he wrote.

“This, I feel, is the essence of home movies.”


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