Rediscovering Chicago’s 1st Japanese American Photojournalist
• Jun Fujita (1888-1963) was the first Japanese American
photojournalist in Chicago, who documented some of the city’s most infamous
moments such as the S.S. Eastland disaster (1915), the Chicago race riot
(1919) and the St. Valentine’s Day massacre (1929).
• He was also an accomplished poet, regularly publishing his Japanese-inspired,
English-language “tanka” poems in the Poetry magazine during the 1920s.
• Yet, his name and his works had been buried in the history of Chicago
until relatively recently, when efforts began to rediscover the works
of Fujita and shine a light on their poetic beauty that touches anyone
who sees them.
• From January to May 2017, the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation ran an
exhibition, “Jun Fujita: Oblivion,” to present photographs as well as
“ephemera” from Fujita. DePaul University Associate Professor Nobuko Chikamatsu
has been researching Fujita’s personal and literary background in Japan.
In 2018, his hometown in Japan held the first exhibition about Fujita.
• In an extension of the 2017 exhibition, the Poetry
Foundation has recently completed the exhibition catalog, and a release
party was held on February 1 at the Japanese American Service Committee
in Chicago to share what is known about Fujita and what is being done
to rediscover his work and life.
• The party featured a panel discussion by Chikamatsu,
historical researcher Takako Day, Fujita’s grandnephew Graham Lee, Nadine
Nakanishi who designed the catalog, the Poetry Foundation curator Katherine
Litwin, and the Fortune Magazine Art Director Fred Sasaki.
• The party guests were given the freshly-printed catalog for free.
• The catalog includes photographs by Fujita, primarily his lesser-known
landscapes of Indiana Dunes, accompanied by his English-language tanka
poems to match the photo. Many of the panelists at the party have contributed
to the catalog, writing about the effort to preserve Fujita’s legacy,
history of research on Fujita, and the exhibition’s behind-the-scene stories.
Life of Jun Fujita: What We Know
• Born on a small island of Mukaishima, part of the city
of Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, Fujita left home as a teenager and
immigrated to Canada. By 1915, he was in Chicago, where he worked as a
photojournalist for the Chicago Evening Post until 1929. In addition to
the events mentioned earlier, he photographed many people, both famous
and infamous, such as Albert Einstein, Al Capone, and U.S. presidents.
• He was commissioned to photograph some of the federal works between
the wars, while publishing a book of poems “Tanka: Poems in Exile” in
• Fujita co-owned a cabin on a remote island in Minnesota, where he spent
a lot of time painting and writing poetry (mostly haiku and tanka in English).
The cabin today is preserved in Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota.
• He was buried near his beloved sand dunes in northern Indiana. Decades
after his death, much of his personal history still remains mystery, including
why he left home for North America in the first place, what his childhood
was like in Japan, and what inspired him to write tanka poems.
Discoveries by Chikamatsu
• As a Japanese Linguistics scholar, Chikamatsu has been
drawn to tanka and haiku poems written by the first-generation Japanese
Americans during the period from the late 19th century to the early 20th
• She thinks that those poems provide a “beautiful connection” between
Japanese and English, something that can’t be taught by a textbook.
• Chikamatsu encountered Fujita’s poems 10 years ago, and she has been
fascinated by them ever since, feeling that they remind her of nature
in Japan. If her students (of advanced level) have a chance to learn Fujita’s
tanka, she hoped, they may also learn to write poetry in Japanese, going
“back and forth” between the two languages and cultures.
• This brought Chikamatsu to Fujita’s home town in the summer of 2017
to search for more about him.
• Her on-location research revealed that he was born
Junnosuke Fujita on Mukaishima Island and headed for North America in
1904, and arrived in Chicago in 1906 at the age of 19. In 1909, his tanka
was published in the Verse magazine.
• Chikamatsu visited the elementary school (Mukaishima Elementary School)
from which Fujita graduated in 1904. She also visited the current Fujita
family to view Fujita’s personal documents, letters and old passport.
• A letter from his sister Chiyo to Fujita in Chicago, written around
1910, reveals that Fujita had visited some of the scenic locations near
his island. From this, Chikamatsu said she came to understand that Fujita’s
artistic expression may have originated from the panorama of the sea and
skies of the Setouchi inland sea.
• There was also a new movement in Japanese literature in late 19th century
and onward, which aspired for a creation of modern form of tanka, as represented
by the literary magazine Myojo. Onomichi had a fair share of modern poets.
Young Fujita may have been inspired by such contemporary literary trends.
• Chikamatsu’s 2017 visit bore fruit in inspiring the
imagination of the local media and community. The Chugoku Shimbun newspaper
covered her visit and research. As the majority of the people there had
no idea who Fujita was, local scholars, educators and journalists started
working together to raise awareness of Fujita. In the summer and winter
of 2018, a panel exhibition was held at the Onomichi City Hall and the
Mukaishima Community Center.
• Chikamatsu discovered that Fujita’s extended family
included his brother Giichi, six years his senior. Giichi had six children,
one of whom was Keiichi. Fujita’s nephew, Keiichi graduated from the prestigious
Tokyo University and went on to become an ear, nose and throat doctor,
whose academic paper was discovered by Chikamatsu. She also succeeded
in locating Giichi’s granddaughter Yoriko (Fujita’s grandniece), as well
as Fujita’s grandnephew Yusuke, great grandniece Kaori and great grandnephew
• Yoriko told Chikamatsu that her mother had said that
Fujita visited his home town in the 1950s and hiked a nearby mountain
with a nephew and a niece. Her mother reportedly told Yoriko that she
remembered a “kind of weird uncle from America” came to visit. On the
contrary, Graham Lee, Fujita’s grandnephew, argues against Fujita’s visit
to Japan – he couldn’t have done that because there are no records, photographic
or documentary, to indicate the event.
Reflections by Takako Day
• Day shared her views on the Japanese community in Chicago
during the early 20th century, based on the book “The Japanese Invasion”
published in Chicago in 1917.
• Back then, the Japanese community was small – with only about 300 people
– and prejudice against them was minimal; but that didn’t mean that they
were openly welcomed as a member of the society. Reading the book, it’s
not hard for her to imagine what it was like. “The Japanese people in
Chicago back then were made feel that they were not part of the social
functions of the city,” according to Day.
• “With so many achievements and contributions, Fujita should have been
recognized much more, but it’s been nothing until recently,” she said.
“In today’s situation, it’s like micro aggression [he was facing]; nobody
cared about his life. That’s why he was not found until after 2000.”
• Unlike the West Coast, employers in Chicago were willing to hire Japanese,
and Fujita was presenting a new type of immigrant, which was possible
only in Chicago. Fujita independently chose to assimilate to the local
white society to survive, and was successful. And the Japanese residents,
in turn, “ignored him,” too.
• Even though jobs were available for Japanese residents in Chicago, there
did exist discrimination against them in wages, benefits and so on, but
they were not in a position to protest. They were not truly accepted by
the society – it was the same as being ignored. And they are still being
ignored today in a sense, Day said.
• “Fujita had established his world of photography and poetry, his own
aesthetics how to survive in Chicago. That’s why he could work professionally
without selling himself cheap to the white society,” Day said. “I admire
him for that – he is my hero.”
Graham Lee: Fujita’s Legacies
• Lee was born two years after Fujita passed away.
• A grandson of Fujita’s nephew, Lee grew up hearing about Fujita from
his grandfather and always felt as if Fujita was someone pretty much alive.
• Lee remembers that when he was a boy, he thought Fujita was a “cool
guy.” For one thing, he studied electrical engineering and was into silent
films. When he realized the small market potential of the industry, he
became a photographer and worked for a newspaper as a photojournalist.
• He seemed “so cool” in Lee’s imagination as he dressed in a red velvet-lined
cape and a top hat to the Chicago Symphony or taking his nephew to the
movies in his fedora. He counted such icons like Carl Sandburg and Ernest
Hemingway as friends. He could photograph Al Capone and President Eisenhower
in the morning and Jean Harlow at night. He even showed up first on the
scene to capture the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. He was a “celebrity”
• Following the Pearl Harbor attack, Fujita’s and Lee’s grandfather’s
assets were frozen and put under observation by the federal government.
Then the editor in chief at the Chicago Evening Post, who had some connections
with the Interior Department, offered to “protect” him. It shows the degree
of confidence Fujita had among the people around him.
• Before his death, Fujita handed to Lee’s grandfather two drawers full
of photo negatives, poetry books and documents. Lee’s grandfather, an
engineer, meticulously preserved them, which had been handed down to Lee.
Lee then took time to carefully reproduce pictures using those negatives.
• There were more Fujita-related materials elsewhere.
Architectural photographer Orlando Cabanban knew Fujita, and had kept
“many of Fujita’s last effects.” Some of them were passed on to Lee, and
the rest were donated to the Poetry Foundation by Cabanban.
• In the Catalog, Fred Sasaki writes that one day, Cabanban “walked into
the temporary offices of the newly-created Poetry Foundation to donate
a typescript of poems by Jun Fujita, as well as Fujita’s book, Tanka.”
• Cabanban, Sasaki continues, lived in Oak Park around 1965 when a neighbor,
Howard Reesman, asked him to give him a ride to Chicago to visit a photographer
• The photographer friend was a very ill Fujita. Then Fujita’s wife Florence
entrusted Cabanban to preserve Fujita’s “photographs of nature scenes”
taken in the Indiana Dunes, as well as Fujita’s poetry, drafts, printed
materials and letters.
• Years passed, and Cabanban decided to donate Fujita’s artifacts to the
Poetry Foundation as his wife was employed with the University of Illinois
English Department, where the foundation was housed at that time.
• Some years later, as the foundation came to realize the value of the
remarkable collection, an exhibition materialized in 2017, and a connection
has been established between the foundation and Lee.
• Lee says in the catalog: “[Fujita’s] story opens a
window onto turmoil of political, social, and cultural struggles of the
country at that time. It’s not only a captivating visual narrative of
Chicago, but an immigrant’s story unique to the mid-century Midwest.”
left: Nadine Nakanishi, Takako Day, Graham Lee, Fred Sasaki, Katherine
Litwin, and Nobuko Chicakatsu
Cover of the exhibition
catalog of "Jun Fujita: Oblivion". The kanji characters
show "Oblivion" in Japanese bou-kyaku.
The audience listens
to the discussion about Jun Fujita.