Chicago Shimpo
“Jun Fujita: Oblivion”
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 1923.
• 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 century.
• 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 Hiroshi.

• 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” to Lee.
• 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 friend.
• 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.”


From 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.