Robert A. Nakamura

Name Robert Nakamura
Born July 5 1936
Birth Location Venice, California
Generational Identifier


Filmmaker known as the "Godfather of Asian American Media," for pioneering the field of exploring, interpreting and presenting the experiences of Japanese Americans in film.

Early Life and Wartime Incarceration

Robert (Bob) Akira Nakamura was born on July 5, 1936, in Venice, California to an Issei father (George Harukichi Nakamura, who immigrated from Kagoshima, Japan) and Nisei mother (Mary Kimiko Nitao) and grew up in Atwater, California. His father followed his older brother, who had immigrated illegally through Mexico before settling in Los Angeles, to the United States. His older brother eventually earned enough to send money back to Kagoshima and bring Harukichi to the U.S. Harukichi worked as a gardener in the Los Angeles area until he married Mary Nitao, but once they were able to save enough money, the couple purchased a market in the Los Feliz Hills neighborhood which sold produce and other household goods.

Bob Nakamura was six years old in 1941 when World War II began, and he and his mother and father were forced from their home into an American concentration camp in Manzanar , California. Even at a young age, Nakamura remembers that the father of the Japanese family that lived behind their house was taken away by the FBI on December 8th. He also remembers that his own father, who was a judo teacher in addition to running the market, burned everything that connected the family to Japan, including photographs. Nakamura's younger brother, Norman Noboru Nakamura, was born in Manzanar and Nakamura attended first grade while in camp. After two-and-a-half years, the family was released, and moved briefly to Denver, Colorado , where they were reunited with Harukichi's older brother, who had moved to Colorado before the war began. After two years, Nakamura and his family returned to the Atwater neighborhood in Los Angeles, where his father resumed his work as a gardener, since the produce market had been lost in the aftermath of Executive Order 9066 .

Photographer, Filmmaker and Educator

Following the war, Nakamura struggled overall with blatant racism for being of Japanese descent. He nonetheless attended Washington Irving Junior High School and Marshall High School, where he was the editor of the high school newspaper. At Marshall, his journalism teacher encouraged him to pursue his talents in writing. While still in high school, he got a job as a copy boy at the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper, which helped him get a scholarship to Pepperdine University, although he never graduated from that program. He continued his work at the Examiner , where he developed an interest in photography, working in the darkroom with the news photographers. Inspired, he enrolled at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena (then called the Art Center School), and graduated with a B.F.A. in photojournalism. In 1959, Nakamura was drafted into the army and served two years stationed in Germany, where he taught photography through the Signal Corps Photo School, traveling from base to base in Europe. After he got out in 1961, Nakamura worked for designer Charles Eames as a photographer from 1961-63, freelanced as a magazine photographer, occasionally publishing his photos in publications such as Life , and McCall's , and other smaller magazines, and even opened his own commercial advertising photo studio, "Paxton and Nakamura," with George Paxton, a former high school classmate.

In 1969, the Los Angeles-based Asian American activist magazine Gidra published its first issue, which had a great influence on Nakamura, who immediately volunteered his services as a photographer. He became increasingly dedicated to supporting burgeoning political and cultural changes that were transforming America, attending the first Manzanar pilgrimage in 1969 and shooting early Asian American activist groups such as Yellow Brotherhood. The establishment of ethnic studies centers in 1969 at the University of California, Los Angeles, encouraged Nakamura to enter graduate school. He graduated from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television with an M.F.A. in 1975. In 1970, he became the founding director of Visual Communications , now the oldest Asian Pacific American community-based media arts center in the United States, where he continues to serve on the board of directors.

One of his first film projects was a documentary entitled Manzanar (1972), an eight-minute personal reflection of his childhood memories in a World War II American concentration camp. Considered one of the first films made on the subject of the concentration camps, it has since been selected for major retrospectives on the documentary form at the San Francisco Museum of Art and Film Forum, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. In 1975, he directed Wataridori: Birds of Passage , about three Issei immigrants, which was his thesis film for his MFA and received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 1980 he co-directed Hito Hata: Raise the Banner , considered to be one of the first Asian American feature films, produced by and about Asian Americans, many of whom were deeply engaged in similar arts and activist projects in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo. Other films he has written, directed and produced include Fool's Dance (1983); Conversations: Before the War/After the War (1985); Through Our Own Eyes (1992); Moving Memories (1992); Something Strong Within (1994); Looking Like the Enemy (1995); and Toyo Miyatake: Infinite Shades of Gray (2002).

In 1996 he founded the UCLA Center for EthnoCommunications where he served as director and professor; three years later he was named endowed chair in Japanese American studies at UCLA, where he taught Asian American studies and film and television. In 1997, the Smithsonian Institution presented a retrospective of his work. That same year, he created (with his wife and producing partner Karen L. Ishizuka) the Frank H. Watase Media Arts Center at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

Nakamura is the recipient of more than thirty national awards. He was the first to receive Visual Communications' Steve Tatsukawa Memorial Award in 1985 for leadership in Asian American media. In 1994 the Asian Pacific American Coalition in Cinema, Theatre & Television of UCLA instituted the "Robert A. Nakamura Award" to recognize outstanding contributions of other Asian Pacific American visual artists. In 1997, the Smithsonian Institute presented a retrospective of his work and in 1999, he was named to the UCLA Alumni and Friends of Japanese Ancestry Endowed Chair. He retired in 2012, after a 33-year career teaching Asian American studies and motion pictures/television at the university. In 2016, Nakamura and Ishizuka were awarded the Japanese American National Museum's inaugural Legacy Award for their lasting contribution to the museum's institutional legacy.

He lives in Culver City with his wife, writer and curator Karen L. Ishizuka. They have two children, Thai Binh and Tadashi, the latter of whom is also an award-winning filmmaker; and four grandchildren: Mina Loy Akira Checel, Gus Ishizuka Checel, Paulo Akira Sangalang Nakamura and Malaya Tomiko Sangalang Nakamura.

Authored by Patricia Wakida

For More Information

Robert Nakamura IMDb page:

" Tribute Reel to Robert Nakamura, Godfather of Asian American Media. " Center for Asian American Media website.

" Asian American Studies Professor Nakamura Retiring from UCLA. " Rafu Shimpo , January 27, 2012.

" Drawing the Line—Robert Nakamura. " Discover Nikkei, Jan. 20, 2012.

Oral Histories

Robert Nakamura oral history by Pauline Stakelon. Alternative Projections, May 23, 2009.

Robert A. Nakamura interview by Sharon Yamato, Los Angeles, November 30, 2011. Densho Digital Archive.

Robert Nakamura interview by Karen Ishizuka, Culver City, California, December 1, 2018 and March 8, 2019, Collective Memories Project, UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

Last updated April 11, 2024, 5:56 p.m..