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Isago Isao Tanaka: Chronicler of the Japanese-American experience

Isago Isao Tanaka at work in the 1970s. Michael Dean/San Matean, CSM Library

In 1964, College of San Mateo’s (CMS) librarian hired Isago Tanaka as a jack-of-all trades photographer for the new College Heights campus. Tanaka soon distinguished himself as a sensitive chronicler of campus life. His work documents CSM’s ambition in the days of America’s “Great Society,” as led by college President Julio Bortolazzo, to lift its community through education.

At the same time, Tanaka’s images offer a counternarrative to Bortolazzo’s story. They depict young people and communities of color demanding change from the grassroots up, reshaping society in ways leaders like Bortolazzo could not foresee.

Tanaka’s vision was shaped by his own life as an activist, an outsider and a self-described “troublemaker”—including his teenage confinement in America’s World War II camps for Japanese-Americans.

Isago Isao Tanaka (1926-2019) was born in Santa Maria to Japanese-born parents. As a child, he sustained an ankle injury that would not heal. Orthopedists in Los Angeles wanted to amputate. The elder Tanaka contacted Fukuoka University, near his birthplace in Japan’s Hiroshima prefecture, and moved the whole family to Japan for two years for Isago’s successful treatment.

The experience saved Isago Tanaka’s foot and changed his life in other ways. He was mocked for his un-posh and American accent in Japanese schools, then for his Japanese accent back in California. He grew up with one leg shorter than the other due to the earlier failed treatments.  And while in Japan, he developed lifelong ties with its culture and with his relatives there.

When America declared war on Japan in December 1941 and forced West Coast Japanese-Americans into camps, it also sought ways to sort “loyal” internees from those who might prove troublesome or “disloyal.”

Isago Tanaka, and later his mother, were among 12,000 of 78,000 internees who failed to give an unqualified “yes” to questions 27 and 28 of a long loyalty questionnaire: “Will you serve in combat wherever you are sent?” and “Will you pledge allegiance to the United States and renounce any allegiance to foreign governments including the Emperor of Japan?”

They became two of the so-called “no-no boys,” reviled as troublemakers by the U.S. government and, until recently, by much of the Japanese-American community.  Isago, then 16, and his mother were separated from their family and sent to the Tule Lake Segregation Center, one of the harshest camps and one with a special stockade for troublemakers. Authorities held Isago in custody at Tule Lake until March 1946, months after the end of the war.

The “no-no boys” are often confused with draft resisters, but this is false. For one thing, the loyalty questionnaires went out before most draft notices did. For another, many people who answered “no-no,” including Tanaka and his mother, were draft-ineligible women and children.

In a 2017 interview, Tanaka said the reason he said “no” was very simple: “How come you’re asking me about loyalty when you put me in camp?

Tanaka’s nephew Mikio said his uncle didn’t talk much about those days or about his political beliefs. He was often sardonic, and it was tough to sort out how much was sarcasm and how much heartfelt.

“The feeling that I got was that there was some anger in there,” Mikio Tanaka said.

What’s clear is that Tanaka believed he never would have been given the breaks he got in life had he been more vocal about his past.

“We were outcast after we came out, even among our same race,” he said. “They’d say, ‘He’s one of those guys.’ I help out in the San Francisco Buddhist temple as a Sunday school teacher, and I was surprised they let me. If they knew my background they wouldn’t have.”

After earning a photography degree at San Francisco City College, Tanaka eventually landed a job at a San Francisco ad agency. There, he befriended a Japanese-American photographer, a World War II 442nd veteran, who schooled him in darkroom work.

“Once you take a photograph, the work starts then, in the darkroom,” Tanaka said.

At College of San Mateo, he made slide decks for professors’ lectures, created titles for KCSM’s instructional TV programs and duplicated prints and posters for displays—all tasks done by film photographers in the days before digital media. He shot campus life to illustrate college publications and developed a clean, empathetic visual style in which the warmth of human connection plays off the formalism of CSM’s architectural program.

To cope with his workload, Tanaka worked seven days a week and set up his darkroom at 5:30 or 6:00 each morning. This, plus his talents, commended him to Bortolazzo, also an early riser.

“Julio called me up at 6 one morning and said, ‘Isago, I want to give you a $25 raise. Are you happy?’” Tanaka told Gus Petropolous and Bill Rundberg, two emeritus faculty who strive to preserve CSM history, in 2017.

Some of Tanaka’s best work at CSM depicts the College Readiness Program, a holistic support experience founded in 1966 originally for African-American learners. His calm and respectful portraits of Black and Latinx students claiming their right to education stand out among the visual relics of an often-tense era.

Tanaka with CSM librarian Lynn Cortopassi in the 1960s. SMCCD Historical Photograph Collection

Eventually, tensions exacerbated by Bortolazzo’s successor led to a 1968 uprising. Tanaka shot this as well. Uncredited pictures of Black people calmly occupying CSM’s administrative offices may well be his, though Tanaka said the tension made him “chicken.”

“If you got involved, the students would ask, ‘What are you doing with this picture?’” he explained. “The instructors, too.

“There were police there, too. You had to answer to four or five different groups. I made myself scarce during that time so they wouldn’t notice my appearance.”

Off hours, Tanaka photographed events in the Japanese-American community, where he is best known. He went with a Japanese-American delegation to the Native American occupation of Alcatraz in 1970, bringing supplies to support the occupiers. Scholar Catherine Fung calls this “a coalitional moment” among communities of color seeking self-determination.

In the mid-1970s, Tanaka documented activists’ long fight to save San Francisco’s International Hotel, a single-room-occupancy residence that housed poor and elderly Asian-Americans.

Tanaka’s orthopedic issues began to weigh on him, and he retired from the college district in 1993. He continued to photograph as long as he was physically able.

He said pushing through discomfort was key to making excellent work. A favorite photo in his home was of a Japanese cousin working on his farm. He said, “When I got to my mother’s original home and met my grandmother and cousins, I wasn’t feeling so good any more. My uncle put me under a lot of heavy antibiotics. I got up the next morning and ... in spite of the fact I was feeling really down, I walked a mile to my brother’s place. And then I saw my cousin, just as you see him in the picture.”

“Pictures like that, they are the most memorable.”

When Tanaka died in 2019, fellow photographer Richard Wada called him “a brilliant and insightful documentary photographer who captured the life of the community. As a teacher and mentor he influenced a generation of photographers.”

Tanaka’s CSM photo files were nearly lost during a 1990s library remodeling. Petropolous and Rundberg retrieved many of them, along with other historic materials, and obtained district funds to archive and digitize them.

Today, the San Mateo Community College District Historical Photograph Collection is an important online resource for Tanaka’s images and for scenes of college life from the 1920s onward. Other collections of Tanaka’s work are held by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.


*This article was originally published in “Celebrating 100 Years of Academic Excellence,” College of San Mateo, in 2022.


© 2022 Barbara Wilcox

Isago Isao Tanaka Nisei photographer