|March 31 1913
|January 26 2006
Businessman, community leader, and amateur movie maker. Dave Masaharu Tatsuno's (1913–2006) home movies of concentration camp life at the Topaz , Utah, camp constitute one of the most important visual records of the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.
Growing Up Fast
Masaharu Tatsuno was born in 1913.  His father, Shojiro Tatsuno, had come to America in around 1890 from Nagano, Japan, and worked as a houseboy and at other jobs before saving enough money to establish a dry goods store in San Francisco in 1902. He returned to Japan to marry a woman seventeen years his junior. Masaharu's mother started a sewing school in San Francisco and returned to Japan in the 1920s to open a larger school, essentially abandoning her family. Shojiro was also frequently in Japan, leaving Masaharu alone for long periods of time in which he had to fend for himself from age ten. The Japanese YMCA eventually ended up filling the parental void in his life, and its director, Fred Koba, even took him in and allowed him to eat with his family.
He went to Hamilton Junior High school, where he took the name "Dave" while running for school office. He went on to Lowell High School, graduating in December 1931. Unable to afford college initially, he worked at the family store for a year before commencing studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Though he harbored thoughts of becoming a diplomat or minister, he ended up majoring in business administration, anticipating taking over the family business as the eldest son. He commuted to school by ferry, witnessing the Bay Bridge go up in his college years. After graduating in December 1936, he did take over management of the store. While in college, he became active in the Young People's Christian Conference movement, organizing events in the Bay Area. At one event, he met Alice Okada, and the couple married in 1938. Their first son, Sheldon, was born in 1940. He also became the president of the San Francisco chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League .
In 1936, he bought his first movie camera, an 8 mm Eastman Kodak model shortly after such cameras became available to hobbyists. He took to movie making quickly, documenting his life in the Bay Area including the university, his YMCA activities, his church related activities, and such events as the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition and the 1940 JACL convention.
Along with all other Japanese Americans on the West Coast, Tatsuno and his family were forcibly removed for their home in the spring of 1942. He did his best to sell off the store merchandise and shuttered the store, renting his home to strangers. Along with Alice—who was nine months pregnant—Sheldon, and Shojiro, he entered the Tanforan Assembly Center , where his second son Rod was born. In the fall, the family moved on to Topaz, Utah. At Topaz, Tatsuno kept busy, teaching Sunday school and public speaking, organizing a YMCA, and managing the co-op dry goods store. Given his retail experience, he was tasked with purchasing goods for the store and allowed to travel widely outside the camp to do so. He estimates that he drove some 20,000 miles to buy merchandise from Salt Lake City to New York.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans had been required to turn in such contraband items as shortwave radios, guns, and cameras. In order to avoid having to do so, Tatsuno gave his movie camera and equipment to a friend. At Topaz, it turned out that his co-op supervisor, Walter Honderich, was a fellow home movie buff. When Tatsuno expressed a desire to have his camera, Honderich told him to have his friend send it to him (Honderich) so as to avoid having it confiscated. When it arrived, Honderich passed it on to Tatsuno, cautioning him to avoid filming the barbed wire or guard towers. Tatsuno was able to purchase color film on his outside buying trips and began to document his family's life in camp. In order to process the film, he sent it out to Salt Lake City and had the finished movies sent to his brother, Masateru, who had left camp to attend the University of Utah. (Masateru, known as "Tut," was on the University of Utah's NCAA championship basketball team in 1944 alongside another Nisei, future New York Knickerbocker Wataru "Wat" Misaka.)
Businessman and Hobbyist
Tatsuno appealed to government officials to be allowed to return to the West Coast in the fall of 1944 and was one of a handful given clearance to go back. But it was, as he called it, "a short lived triumph," since he received permission on December 15, just two days days before Public Proclamation 21 revoked the exclusion orders, opening the doors for a general return to the West Coast.  In 1945, Tatsuno and his family—another child, daughter Arlene, had been born in Topaz—left camp to return to San Francisco. His first months back home were spent running a hostel for returnees for the Church of Christ and being paid by the Presbyterian and Reform Churches to assist with resettlement. He eventually reopened the store at a different location in the summer of 1946. Tragedy struck a year later when Sheldon died during a routine tonsillectomy. Grief stricken, the family moved to San Jose and opened a branch store in July 1948, with brother Tut taking over the San Francisco Store. Named "N.B. Department Store," the San Jose store sold Western dry goods.
The Tatsunos had three more children, one of whom, Sheridan, was named after Sheldon. Dave continued to shoot home movies, accumulating some 33,000 feet of 8 mm film by the time he switched to video in 1986. He also redoubled his work for the YMCA, and became an avid scuba diver. In 1973, the store was remodeled and expanded and turned its focus to Japanese goods in reaction to competition from malls, returning to its original name of Nichi Bei Bussan. The store remains in San Jose, run by daughter Arlene. The San Francisco store shut down in 1997 after Tut's passing.
Tatsuno donated his Topaz movie and other footage to the Japanese American National Museum in 1991. When Topaz was inducted in the National Film Registry in 1996, he gained national fame. He passed away at age 92, preceded by Alice a year earlier.
For More Information
Damron, Alex. "Nichi Bei Bussan's History." Nichi Bei Bussan website. https://www.nbstore.com/history-japantown-sanjose-california-stores-gift-shops .
Dave Tatsuno Collection (91.74.1–8) on Discover Nikkei website. http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/nikkeialbum/albums/270/ .
Fox, Margalit. "Dave Tatsuno, 92, Whose Home Movies Captured History, Dies." New York Times , Feb. 13, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/13/national/13tatsuno.html .
Hoge, Patrick. "Dave Tatsuno—Films Used in 'Topaz.'" San Francisco Chronicle , Feb. 14, 2006. http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Dave-Tatsuno-films-used-in-Topaz-2541600.php .
Interview with Dave Tatsuno by Addie Idemoto. January 20, 2005. Densho Digital Repository, Japanese American Museum of San Jose Collection. http://ddr.densho.org/interviews/ddr-jamsj-2-6-1/ .
Ishizuka, Karen. L., and Patricia R. Zimmermann. "The Home Movie and the National Film Registry: The Story of Topaz ." In Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories . Edited by Karen L. Ishizuka and Patricia R. Zimmermann. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 126-41.
Nelson, Valerie J. "Dave Tatsuno, 92; He Secretly Filmed Life in U.S. Internment Camp." Los Angeles Times , Feb. 16, 2006. http://articles.latimes.com/2006/feb/16/local/me-tatsuno16 .
- There is some dispute about when and where he was born.
- Audrie Girdner, and Anne Loftis, The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of the Japanese-Americans during World War II (London: Macmillan, 1969), 381.
Last updated Jan. 4, 2024, 6:31 p.m..