Little Tokyo U.S.A. (film)

Title Little Tokyo U.S.A.
Date 1942
Director Otto Brower
Producer Bryan Foy
Screenplay George Bricker
Starring Preston Foster (Michael Steele); Brenda Joyce (Maris Hanover); Harold Huber (Ito Takimura); Don Douglas (Hendricks); June Duprez (Teru); George E. Stone (Kingoro); Abner Biberman (Satsuma); Charles Tannen (Marsten); Frank Orth (Jerry); Edward Soo Hoo (Suma); Beal Wong (Shadow); Daisy Lee (Mrs. Satsuma); Leonard Strong (Fujiyama); J. Farrell MacDonald (Captain Wade); Richard Loo (Oshima); Sen Yung (Okano); Melie Chang (Mrs. Okano)
Music Emil Newman
Cinematography Joseph MacDonald
Editing Harry Reynolds
Budget $300,000
IMDB Little Tokyo U.S.A.

Notorious 1942 Hollywood movie that depicts Japanese American leaders in Los Angeles as being part of a Japanese spy ring and that actively advocates the expulsion and incarceration of Japanese Americans using actual documentary footage.

A B-movie made quickly and cheaply (a $300,000 budget) by Twentieth-Century Fox and producer Jason Joy with the intention of exploiting the mass incarceration of West Coast Japanese Americans, Little Tokyo, U.S.A. was filmed in Los Angeles from May 11 to early June 1942. Ironically, director Otto Brower ended up shooting outdoor scenes in Chinatown, since the real Little Tokyo was largely vacant by the time of the filming. Publicity material for the film claimed that it was factual, and the studio and stars framed their participation in the movie as contributing to the war effort. Harold Huber, who played the lead Japanese American character, claimed that the movie performed a "civil service" since it worked "to show their [Japanese Americans'] activities against our country." [1] After the completion of the filming, the studio quickly scored and edited the movie so as "to get the picture before the public before the evacuation of Japanese fades from the front pages." [2] It was released on August 14, 1942.

After a prologue attesting to "Japanese mass espionage... in the United States" by Japanese Americans, the film begins by introducing Ito Takimura (Harold Huber), a Little Tokyo based Nisei businessman, who is also the head of a Japanese/German spy ring in Los Angeles. As the group gathers information on defense installations in California, police detective Michael Steele (Preston Foster) becomes suspicious and quizzes his old friend, Oshima, for information. Steele's efforts are derided by colleagues and by his girlfriend, news reporter Maris Hanover (Brenda Joyce). When Oshima turns up dead, Steele redoubles his efforts, but is seemingly outsmarted when the ring first manages to get him transferred to a different beat, then set him up with Teru, a beautiful Nisei woman (June Duprez), whom they then kill, framing Steele for her murder. He languishes in jail as the group celebrates the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Steele subsequently escapes and tricks the ring into revealing their plot to the police, resulting in their apprehension. The breaking up of the ring leads directly to scenes of newspaper headlines extolling the forced removal of Japanese Americans ("Last Japs Leave L.A. Area Today!"; "Santa Anita Race Track Is Evacuation Station for Japs") intercut with actual footage of Japanese Americans being rounded up and the now deserted Little Tokyo. The film ends with the now chastened Maris reporting approvingly on the expulsion of Japanese Americans, then turning to face camera and exhorting viewers to "Be vigilant, America!"

Most of the Japanese American characters in the film were played by white actors in heavy make up. Star Huber's make up reportedly took two hours to apply. Other Japanese American characters were played by Chinese American actors including Richard Loo, a Hawai'i native who played "Japanese" roles in a number of other movies.

According to an American Film Institute study, reviewers "dismissed the film as a routine spy melodrama." The New York Times review stated that "the film as a whole is so larded with hackneyed plot devices and stock Nipponese characters that it smacks more of the conventional spy story than anything else" The Hollywood Reporter praised the acting of "occidentals who play amazingly realistic Orientals." [3]

Reviewers for the Office of War Information (OWI) found the movie highly problematic. Newly formed in June 1942 to consolidate government propaganda efforts, one of the OWI's charges was to monitor Hollywood films and to encourage story lines that would aid the war effort. OWI reviewers objected to broad depiction of the Japanese American community in Little Tokyo, U.S.A. as "a single, united body which works together at all times for itself and against America," to the disregard for civil rights demonstrated by the Steele ("Did somebody mention that we are presumably fighting for the preservation of the Bill of Rights?" one reviewer asked), and to the wanton violence and numerous racial slurs. With an eye to the post incarceration fate of Japanese Americans, the OWI and the War Relocation Authority (WRA) worried that the film "can open the floodgates of prejudice... and can render the post-war re-absorption of Japanese-Americans an almost insuperable problem." OWI officials met with producer Joy to request changes. However, since the film had already been completed—meaning any changes would be costly—and since the OWI had no actual power to censor films, Joy largely ignored the requests. This early experience led the OWI to change their tactics with future movies, and the agency subsequently sought to review scripts before movies were made and used the threat of withholding international distribution (which would severely cut into studios' bottom line) to shape movies more to their liking. [4]

As the only Hollywood movie to actively support the mass incarceration, Little Tokyo, U.S.A. remained notorious long after its initial run. It was among movies that the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and other organizations sought to keep from being shown on television and community protests greeting other attempts to screen it. [5] As such, it became very difficult to see the movie for many years. With the film's continued notoriety and uniqueness, it has been screened more frequently in recent decades in film and ethnic studies classes.

Authored by Brian Niiya

For More Information

Dick, Bernard F. The Star-Spangled Screen: The American World War II Film . Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985.

"Little Tokyo, U.S.A." In American Film Institute Catalog: Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911–1960 . Edited by Alan Gevinson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Koppes, Clayton R., and Gregory D. Black. Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies . New York: The Free Press, 1987.

Tajiri, Larry. "Nisei USA." Pacific Citizen , Nov. 12, 1942, pp. 4, 6.

Trailer for Little Tokyo, U.S.A. .

Wang, Xiaofei. "Constructing Japaneseness: War, Race, and American Cinema, 1924–1992." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southern California, 2009.


  1. Wang Xiaofei, "Constructing Japaneseness: War, Race, and American Cinema, 1924–1992" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southern California, 2009), 198.
  2. Hollywood Reporter , Jun 5, 1942, cited in "Little Tokyo, U.S.A," in American Film Institute Catalog: Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911–1960 , edited by Alan Gevinson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
  3. American Film Institute Catalog .
  4. Clayton R. Koppes, and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (New York: The Free Press, 1987), 72–77.
  5. See, for instance, Pacific Citizen , May 10, 1952, pp. 1, 4, accessed on Jan. 12, 2018 at . Wang Xiaofei describes a successful protest that prevented the movie from being shown at the International Museum of Photography in 1980, and the JACL protested a planned screening as part of a film series in Rochester, New York. "Constructing Japaneseness," 176; Pacific Citizen , Sept. 26, 1980, 1.

Last updated Jan. 12, 2018, 6:06 p.m..