Behind the Camera

Jun Fujita was an American success story—but his many accomplishments couldn’t protect him from suspicion.

There’s a story about Jun Fujita’s departure from Japan that is too wonderful not to at least try to believe. As a high-school student in early-20th-century Tokyo, the story goes, he fell in love with one of his teachers. He was too shy even to speak to her, and she had no idea of his feelings for her. “My condition was so bad that eating and sleeping became impossible,” Fujita told an interviewer almost two decades later. “Night and day I dreamed of this woman.” Finally, he became desperate enough to write her a letter about his feelings, but disaster struck: somehow, the note became public. As gossip spread, Fujita fled the country, arriving in Canada heartsick, we imagine, and alone.

The truth, alas, is much more pedestrian. Fujita left Japan in 1906 on an assignment to photograph the salmon fishing industry in British Columbia; according to his family, the story about the teacher was an exaggeration of an episode of minor embarrassment. But where is the romance in that? Where is the mystery, the mood? It’s no wonder that Fujita himself encouraged the alternative narrative, puffing out a flimsy old crush into a tale of cross-continental heartbreak. Settling in Chicago in 1909, Fujita would go on to become a respected poet, a successful photojournalist, a man about town, and even a film actor. He has almost disappeared from historical memory, particularly as a poet. But his story, like many of his poems, is lively, gripping, and tinged with melancholy. 

Fujita was born in 1888 in a village near Hiroshima. His family was privileged, with the aristocratic lineage of samurai, according to the unpublished manuscript of a biography of Fujita by his great-nephew Graham Harrison Lee. (Lee’s fascinating, thoroughly researched manuscript was invaluable in reporting this profile.) Fujita wrote a poem published in English in the Japan Review in 1920 about his sister, who likely died of smallpox:

Across the meadow
The breeze is fragrant;
In a tree a bird
Disturbs the petals,
But these tombstones are still and cold.
It was a melodious afternoon; 
My sister
With a flying pig-tail
Chased a dragon fly
And laughed over nothing.
Twelve long years have gone,
Again the spring has come 
With tidings and gifts
I came home
To this cold tombstone.
The chirping of a bird from tree to tree 
Has died away.

Arriving in Vancouver in June 1906, Fujita found work as a train porter, a valet, and a domestic servant, among other jobs. As soon as he had saved enough money, he moved to Chicago. He was 21 and had heard that Americans worked just one hour a day (or so he later told one credulous interviewer) and that the cost of living in Chicago was lower than in any other American city. He got his high-school diploma from a public school on the city’s south side and decided to become a movie star. He never returned to Japan.

Fujita arrived in Canada speaking little English. (His exact fluency is a matter of some dispute.) But within a decade or so of arriving in Chicago and securing full-time work as a photojournalist, he was a published poet and critic. Chicago’s literary and journalistic circles were closely linked, and he had landed in the city at the dawn of the “Chicago Renaissance,” which nurtured writers and editors such as Ernest Hemingway, Ben Hecht, and Poetry’s Harriet Monroe in the 1910s and 1920s. Fujita was also the type of man who was game to try anything, from architecture to engineering to gourmet cooking. But even given the fertile combination of early-20th-century Chicago and Fujita’s polymathic personality, his success in poetry is remarkable for a non-native English speaker. As historian Greg Robinson points out, Fujita belongs to a very short list of writers, including Samuel Beckett and Joseph Conrad, who produced notable work in a second language. His first poems in Poetry were a series of eight short verses published in November 1919. He called them tanka, a Japanese form related to the haiku. Though tanka traditionally have five lines, most of Fujita’s have four:

Across the frozen marsh
The last bird has flown;
Save a few reeds
Nothing moves.

In the early 20th century, Chicago was home to a thriving film industry. Working for a local silent film company called Essanay Studios, Fujita had a lead role as the hero’s valet in the 1915 thriller Otherwise Bill Harrison, produced the same year that Essanay released Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp. When the studio followed the movie industry west to Hollywood, Fujita stayed put. The Chicago Evening Post had hired him as a staff photographer; his job, he later put it, was to “[record] human events photographically.”

Meanwhile, Fujita’s career in photography thrived. He had an outsize reputation for a staff photographer at a newspaper, an exhausting job that rarely led to attention—or even credit in the paper. His race had at least something to do with his fame. His colleagues nicknamed him “Togo,” and few profiles written about him in his day could resist dabbling in stereotypes. But if Fujita’s “exotic” name boosted his career, it also subjected him to suspicion. As early as 1915, agents from the Department of Justice trailed him after he took photographs near an army post. “The Jap came out at 11:00 a.m. and took two pictures of an automobile,” one dispatch read. The investigation never came to anything. 

His peers took his work seriously. An admiring 1929 profile in a Post humor column said Fujita was “as ubiquitous as a rabbit,” and indeed, he was a kind of Zelig of early-20th-century Chicago. He was present at the 1915 sinking of the S.S. Eastland, a tour boat that capsized in the Chicago River, killing 844. On the river that day, he captured crowds gathered on the docks, the temporary floating morgue set up by the coroner’s office, and the slumped body of a young girl pulled from the boat’s interior, sopping wet in lace and ruffles. When race riots erupted in the city a few summers later, he was on the scene as a white mob chased a black man down an alley and then beat him to death with bricks and stones. Fujita was the first photographer to capture the aftermath of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre and covered the circus-like trial of the teen murderers Leopold and Loeb. 

Over time, he became well known locally for taking portraits too. “Nearly every celebrity, American and foreign, who has been in Chicago during the past 15 years, has posed [for] Togo,” a 1930 article in the American Press announced, using his nickname. Fujita shot Carl Sandburg, Frank Lloyd Wright, Albert Einstein, and four U.S. presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt. Family lore had it that Al Capone offered Fujita a job after he saw his samurai-level skills with a knife. (Fujita declined.) In a recent book on Japanese Americans, Robinson calls him “perhaps the most famous Japanese American in Chicago in the first half of the twentieth century.” 

Fujita took photos throughout his life, as a newspaperman and later as the proprietor of a commercial studio and an artist drawn to the outdoors. (A 1957 series of color nature photographs was acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago.) In the mid-1930s, the Public Works Administration hired him to take photographs of engineering projects, including the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state. But he was often dismissive of photography’s powers. “Photography is not a medium, or at the best, a very poor medium for artistic expression,” he told an interviewer in 1923. “Never can a camera be inspired. If the plate catches and perpetuates a truly artistic thing, it is a mere accident.” More than 30 years later, he reiterated the belief that photography fails at capturing moods. “I go out on a winter morning, when snow covers the ground and the stillness is so great that a falling leaf is heard. ... Can I take a photograph of this?”

Poetry, which he wrote on and off throughout his career as a photographer, was the truer art, Fujita seemed to believe. In 1923, the local Chicago imprint Covici-McGee published his collection Tanka: Poems in Exile. Designed by typographer and graphic designer Will Ransom in an edition of 365, the book is a beautiful object: printed on a letterpress with deckle-edged paper and gold on the spine. It is organized into sections named for the four seasons, with a section of longer work at the end of the book. Recurring images of the moon, rain, birds, sand dunes, and tombs give the book a somber mood. But other poems suggest the author’s sexual hunger and liveliness:

The night is still,
So, you,
Panting secretly, relaxed on the grass,
With languorous eyes half closed.
You smile
As the cool breeze flows—
Flows over your dishevelled [sic] hair.

By this time, Fujita had met sometime-journalist Florence Carr, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago, at a meeting of the Chicago Poetry Society. By the early 1920s, they were living together in an apartment in Hyde Park, in a building originally built for the 1893 World’s Fair and then populated by young bohemians. Fujita was a poker player, an accomplished cook, and a classical music connoisseur. A dedicated outboard racing buff, he competed in a race in the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 and covered it for Motor Boating magazine. “When Mr. Fujita’s luck is in, nobody else present has a Chinaman’s chance of beating him,” the Post profile bragged of his skills at the poker table. “When his luck is not in, he is somewhere else talking to a couple of girls.” By all accounts, he was sexy and charismatic—the kind of man who women remembered. At Fujita and Carr’s dinner parties, a homicide cop might sit next to New Yorker humorist S.J. Perelman over thick steaks or fish head soup. The artists and writers the couple favored would gather at the Dil [sic] Pickle, a raucous cabaret with an alley entrance, and a teashop on East 57th Street. 

Fujita contributed reviews and poems to Poetry over the course of the 1920s, and he was quick with opinions. “Poe was an extremely bad poet,” Fujita said. “There are some marvelous things in Keats,” he conceded, although at another time he boasted that could rewrite Keats’s entire body of work in eight lines. Amy Lowell’s haikus, he griped, lacked the “essential quality” of the form. He tutored young family friends and relatives in writing, instructing one that a poem needed to have two layered meanings. He sometimes spent six months working on a single poem, often tinkering with poems even after they were published. Lee reports that Fujita sometimes breezed through The New Yorker and crossed out the poems he considered “unworthy.”

Just a few hundred Japanese people lived in Chicago when Fujita moved there. According to Takako Day, an independent scholar who is working on a book about the pre-war Japanese population in Chicago, Japanese immigrants at the time most commonly found work as private servants or in retail. For Fujita to have found work as a photographer and writer, respected by a wide circle of professionals and bohemians alike, was remarkable. 

His social and professional accomplishments, however, couldn’t protect him from suspicion. Fujita and Carr were “radical cosmopolitan types who didn’t believe in marriage,” according to a family friend quoted by Lee. But marry they did, in 1940, perhaps to protect Fujita from rising anti-Japanese sentiment. They were right to worry. Race-based immigration laws had prevented Fujita from becoming naturalized, and when the U.S. declared war against Japan, his status was changed to “enemy alien,” and his assets were frozen. “I feel all this so unreal, almost like a bad dream,” he wrote to a friend at the Department of the Interior. “My future is utterly unpredictable.” Even as Japanese Americans on the West Coast were being held in internment camps by the federal government, he vowed to do anything he could to help the American war effort and sent documents and letters asserting his loyalty to his adopted homeland. “I left Japan in 1906, disliking her civil and social ideology,” he wrote. “Today, it is very difficult for me to think in terms of myself as an enemy alien; I cannot feel that I am one.” Eventually, he was allowed to reopen his business and carry on with life. He was finally granted citizenship in 1954, through a special act of Congress. 

For a man who moved purposefully to the city and who seemed to thrive there both professionally and socially, Fujita also took great measures to escape. In 1928, he and Carr bought a small island between Minnesota and Canada in what is now Voyageurs National Park, and he built a cabin there. The land was purchased in Carr’s name, probably to get around state laws restricting land ownership by Asian aliens. As hostility toward Japanese people escalated in the late 1930s, he stopped making the long journey; Fujita didn’t drive and Carr didn’t use the cabin, so the trip often involved solitary stretches on trains and buses through the rural Midwest. Eventually, he sold the cabin, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. For a while after he owned it, locals referred to his land as “Jap Island.” 

But Fujita found other ways to escape the city. Around the time he stopped traveling to Minnesota, he purchased a six-acre plot in the dunes of northern Indiana, about a mile from Lake Michigan. The area was popular with artists, and Fujita and Carr hosted Sandburg and Pearl S. Buck. They ate big meals with friends on the beach, and Fujita sketched and took photographs of wildflowers. An architect friend designed a diamond-shaped house they called “the Kite.” It was later razed as part of the expansion of the dunes lakeshore area, which eventually became a national park.

The various parts of Fujita’s life can be hard to reconcile. He was a big-city photographer who had a knack for capturing scenes of mayhem and violence and a poet who fled the city whenever he could. He worked within a traditional Japanese literary form and collected Japanese art but also seemed to have neither relationships with other Japanese people nor any urge to return to the country of his birth. He was a prolific photographer who dismissed photography as an art form and a poet who wrote throughout his life but published only one early collection.

In 1961, Fujita was diagnosed with brain cancer. He died two years later, at age 74, Carr by his side. He had lived a charmed American life full of adventure, travel, rewarding work, and glamorous and brilliant friends. But that bounty was hard won: over the years, he was followed by government agents, denied the right to buy property, declared an “enemy” by his adopted country, and condescended to even by those who admired him. Fujita and Carr never had children; according to Lee’s account, they feared life would be too hard for a multiracial child. Perhaps those insults and losses explain something about the persistently melancholic tone of his poetry, despite the exuberance of his life. Before his death, Fujita had been working on another poetry project, a book of photographs and poetry titled Tanka: Poems at the Edge. Earlier, he had drafted a collection of poems and fable-like short stories focused on the dunes—also never published but circulated among his friends. “Today, beyond that door, in a home,” a draft of one poem read, 

there are faces with stunned look—
tight lips quiver;
vacant stares are fixed on nothing.
Some are praying, others laughing.
They too echo here.
Originally Published: January 10th, 2017

Ruth Graham is a journalist in New Hampshire.