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A man who fought against the California Alien Land Law: The story of Sei Fujii “Lil Tokyo Reporter” - Interviews with the production team and cast members - Part 1

A man who fought against the California Alien Land Law: The story of Sei Fujii “Lil Tokyo Reporter” - Interviews with the production team and cast members - Part 1
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Executive producer: Fumiko Carole Fujita
Director and scriptwriter: Jeffrey Gee Chin

As a “new” Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrant), my life in America is all-too-peaceful, without any encounter with discrimination or inconvenience. Perhaps the only thing is my lack of English vocabulary, since English is not my native language. Aside from the well-known fact about the experience of Japanese-Americans during the World War II, the fact that they were deprived of all property and imprisoned in internment camps, the first-generation immigrants (or Issei) did not even have the right to purchase or own land. Sei Fujii, a first-generation Japanese-American from Yamaguchi Prefecture, fought in court to abolish such exclusion of Japanese immigrants. We owe much of our safety and peace today to the dedication and commitment of pioneers like him, who devoted their life to bringing a better future for next generations.

“Lil Tokyo Reporter,” a short film that depicts the battle of one such pioneer, Sei Fujii, has received more than 18 awards in many places across the country such as Los Angeles, Oregon and New York. The film was first viewed at the premiere in 2012 and since then the production team has been working to get more screenings – which along the way helped them to gain support and eventually led to winning awards. As one member of the audience and also as a new Issei with strong hopes to have more people watch the film, I decided to conduct interviews with people involved in its production.

The one who came up with the idea of making a film of Sei Fujii was a retired pharmacist and third-generation Japanese-American by the name of Fumiko Carole Fujita.

“Due to the nature of my work, I had interests in the medical system that was available for Japanese immigrants in the old days. My paternal grandparents, who were living in Hawaii, both passed away at a young age. In those days when the first Issei were present, Japanese people could not get proper medical treatment. They were not even allowed to see a doctor. Then five doctors stood up to make a hospital for the Japanese, to help the Japanese immigrants who were placed under such discrimination. Sei Fujii was the one who gave them the support that they needed. He came to America to study with an aim to become a lawyer, but apparently he couldn’t even take the bar exam because he didn’t have the US citizenship. That’s how I found out about Fujii and I began to learn more deeply about his life.”

Not only did he open a hospital for the Japanese but he also started the California Daily News, a bilingual paper in Japanese and English, ran a radio station and finally helped bring the California Alien Land Law to an end. As she got to know more about his great accomplishments, Carole wanted more people to know about him. In April, 2010, two years after she started her research on Sei Fujii, Carole met a young scriptwriter at an event in San Francisco that was hosted by the Japanese American National Museum. It was Jeffrey Gee Chin who would later join the production of “Lil Tokyo Reporter” as a scriptwriter and director.

A team of two: retired pharmacist and fledgling scriptwriter

“I’m a third-generation Chinese-American. I heard that my grandfather, who moved to America from Guangdong, also worked for Chinese immigrants in Chinatown in New York during the 1930s. As an Asian-American, I found myself drawn to the life of Sei Fujii with strong empathy. I immediately said yes, and told her that I wanted to make his life into a movie.”

However, at that time Jeffrey was still in college. Even though he had a strong desire to become a scriptwriter, he barely had any work experience. Still, Carole believed in his passion and potential. “A retired pharmacist and a young scriptwriter just starting to build a career – what an interesting couple, don’t you think?” said Carole, who seemed pleased with her partnership with Jeffrey.

In this film, Momotaro (or Peach Boy), a Japanese folk story is used as a simple analogy for the plot. During the 1930s, Sei Fujii confronted the violent and evil force that was ruling the Tokyo Club (social club) and dominating Little Tokyo. He was even attacked by the group and almost lost his life. Momotaro in the film is a story of a brave hero who takes on a journey to chastise ogres. In other words, Sei Fujii is the Momotaro and the gang in Little Tokyo are the ogres.

In fact, Jeffrey was the one who came up with this brilliant idea. “I’d loved Japanese folk stories since I was in elementary school. I loved them so much that there was even a time when I kept a book from a library for a year. I might have been searching for my roots by reading stories about Asia, including Japanese folk stories. For Westerners, ‘King Arthur’ is the most familiar reference, but I decided that Momotaro would best represent Sei Fujii.”

They began working on the script and started to raise funding for film production at the same time. A wide range of organizations and people, from the California State Library, Union Bank, the UCLA Terasaki Center, the George and Sakaye Aratani Foundation to some residents in Palos Verdes where Carole resides, showed support for the project that would present the pioneers of Nikkei communities and offered funds, though they differed in amounts. “I met Fujii’s family (descendants) in the city of Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, his hometown, and they were happy to hear about the film production and gave us a donation of 500 dollars,” Carole recalled.

The film was made possible by financial support from many people. Next, we interviewed Chris Tashima, who played the protagonist of the film, Sei Fujii. Chris is a third-generation Japanese-American who directed and played the lead in “Visas and Virtue,” a film adaptation of the story of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who saved lives of thousands of Jewish people during the war. The film won the Academy Award for Live Action Short Film. His involvement in “Lil Tokyo Reporter” brought some drastic effects to the production.

Part 2 >> 

 

* DVDs available for purchase on the official site of Lil Tokyo Reporter

 

Message from Executive Producer:

"Lil Tokyo Reporter” continues to be screened nation-wide and internationally. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation payable to the Little Tokyo Historical Society to support ongoing promotions. Your much appreciated support will help us share the forgotten civil rights journey of Issei Pioneer Sei Fujii.

Mail to: Lil Tokyo Reporter Film, PO Box 3552, Rolling Hills Estates, CA 90274

F. Carole Fujita
Executive Producer
Lil Tokyo Reporter

 

© 2014 Keiko Fukuda

fumiko carole fujita Jeffrey Gee Chin little tokyo Little Tokyo Reporter Sei Fujii