Honoring the Legacy – RYAN KAWAMOTO


Tell the story of AJA in video

Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada
Courtesy: Japanese Culture Central Hawaii

Editor’s Note: This bimonthly series, “Honoring the Legacy,” represents a partnership between the Herald and the Japanese Cultural Center in Hawaii. It celebrates the achievements of men and women who live the values ​​of previous generations and carry on their proud heritage. The authors are retired physician Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada, professor emeritus at UH Manoa. They are both volunteers with JCCH. The full interview with Ryan Kawamoto 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 ran the family grocery store, Pahoa Cash and Carry. From his days at Pahoa Elementary, Kawamoto has shown an interest in his Japanese American roots by participating in poster competitions on immigration and plantation life in Hawaii.

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

Ryan Kawamoto directs actor Duane Kiyota on the “Voices Behind Barbed Wire: Stories of Hawai’i” pageant set. (Photos courtesy of Ryan Kawamoto)

Early influences

For Kawamoto, it wasn’t just the fun of working with video, but the power of story that motivated his desire to create stories that touch people’s hearts and minds. Connecting to his AJA heritage through this medium has excited Kawamoto. “I have always been interested in my Japanese heritage. My mother and grandmother always made me understand 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 taught by John Morales, videographer and journalist. This was his first exhibition to work with the video format. He said: “Before this course, I thought I would become an engineer or a dentist, but this experience completely changed my trajectory. I discovered that I liked telling stories and making movies.

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 in Mänoa. In the late 1990s, videography was still an emerging industry. “The video was always analog. You didn’t do any editing on the computer. Everything was still manual, ”recalls Kawamoto. Combining his passion for filmmaking with his interest in his heritage, Kawamoto wrote a two-part graduation thesis that was an analysis of the Japanese portrayal of Americans in American films and a script of the 442sd Regimental combat team.

In 1998, while still a student, he made a 30 minute fictional film called “Paper Cranes”. He said, “We shot it on 16mm 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 this film to the Los Angeles Asian American Film Festival. Having student films at festivals in the 1990s was pretty rare. It was also very expensive to do. He noted: “It was pre-digital, and we were shooting on a film. The cost was the film stock. At the time, it was very expensive to process and develop it. It’s still expensive. They spent about $ 12,000 of their own money to make the movie.

To start

Kawamoto’s ambition has always been to be a director. However, he also realized he had to start from the bottom, freelance to make ends meet. ” I will do everything. I worked as a production assistant for national advertisements. I worked on local TV shows. I worked on national shows. I worked on films. He finally had the chance to make an advertisement.

His breakup came from knowing people and joining a word-of-mouth network. Kawamoto befriended editors from several advertising companies and one of them mentioned a PSA they needed. He told Kawamoto, “You have to do it for free, but maybe they’ll add something for the expense.” Kawamoto accepted the post. “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 the completion of a paid advertisement. People were taking notice of his work and he began to receive offers for small projects.

Connection with the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i

A milestone in Kawamoto’s career has been his long-term alliance with the Japanese Cultural Center in Hawai’i. In 2005, he was a director at Kinetic Productions where he was working on projects 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 remembers seeing Kawamoto’s work for the Hawaiian chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. JCCH hired Kawamoto to create two-minute video profiles of the eight winners of the gala. The videos were very well received and Kawamoto has been filming each of the gala dinners since 2007.

Voices Behind Barbed Wire: Stories of Hawai’i, Hawai’i International Film Festival, 2018. Left to right: 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 get involved in the educational goals of the organization. He became familiar 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 documents that had not been shared with the public.

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

In 2010, the opportunity to tell this story arose when JCCH received funding from the Japanese American Containment 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 Hawai’i internment experience through the eyes of several internees and their families. These included Sam Nishimura, a tailor from Hale’iwa; Otokichi Ozaki and Bob Nishioka, Japanese teachers; Harry Urata, a Kibei-Nisei – born outside Japan but educated in Japan; Paul Osumi, a Christian minister; and Yasutaro Soga and Jack Tasaka, both journalists. Bringing the film to public attention was the next challenge. Carole Hayashino, who headed JCCH, provided community screenings on all the major islands and on the mainland. Kawamoto marveled, “I never imagined it would become so popular, so many eyeballs on it. It totally opened my eyes. As part of the JACS grant, copies of the video were also shown. distributed to all public secondary schools in the state, along with other educational resources developed by the JCCH.

Voices behind barbed wire

After doing “The Untold Story,” Kawamoto realized that there was still a lot to tell about the Hawai’i internment experience. Besides Honouliuli (the largest prisoner of war and internment camp in the state), other detention centers on different islands have been discovered by archaeologists Jeff Burton and Mary Farrell. Kawamoto has been on 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 set of “Voices Behind Barbed Wire: Stories of Hawai’i”.

He wrote and directed a second film, “The Voices Behind Barbed Wire,” which debuted in 2018. In 2020, the film received an Award of Excellence in Performing Media from the Historic Hawai’i Foundation . He documented the personal accounts of Hawaii’s war internees from their arrest and initial imprisonment on the islands to their incarceration in concentration camps on the mainland. The film also explored the internment sites in Hawai’i as well as the grassroots efforts of JCCH volunteers to have Honouliuli designated as a National Historic Site in 2015. Poignant vignettes of the Kishida, Hoshida and Kochi families formed the emotional core of the documentary. Kawamoto said, “If someone says it doesn’t affect you, they’re not telling the truth. It affects you a lot. 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 present and future generations. One of his most recent projects was to create a virtual tour of Honouliuli. As physical visits are not always possible, the JCCH has created a series of video clips as an online introduction to the site. Kawamoto admits he felt the mighty mana (spiritual energy) of the site during his visits to Honouliuli. “I don’t really talk much about it. It happens to me sometimes. It can be very emotional. I can feel certain things.

What future projects await Kawamoto? He said: “I would really like to go with some families to the sites on the continent where their great-grandfathers were taken. Just to take this trip; ask them to learn their story through their eyes, as we can no longer really interview the survivors firsthand. Kawamoto is an artist with a vision and a storyteller with a heart. His cinematographic journey continues.


About Monty S. Maynard

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