The Search for Jun Fujita
The following post was commissioned on the occasion of Jun Fujita: Oblivion Catalog Release Party, which will take place at the Japanese American Service Committee (JASC) this Friday, February 1 at 6:30pm. Dr. Nobuko Chikamatsu-Chandler wrote this essay after her first visit to Fujita's hometown of Onomichi, Hiroshima and has since visited a second time and returned with more information, which she will share at the release party. The author would like to express her gratitude to those who helped her in the City of Onomichi Cultural Affairs Office, Association of Onomichi Studies, Mukaishima Central Elementary School, Chugoku Shimbun, and Sanyo Nichinichi Shunbun. She would also like to thank Graham Lee for sharing information and belongings of his great-uncle Jun Fujita with the public and herself. The research was funded by DePaul University. For more on the life and times of Jun Fujita, please see Ruth Graham's essay, "Behind the Camera."
Mukaishima (向島) is one of 3000 islands floating in western Japan’s Inland Sea (Setonai-kai). It is on this small, seven square mile island that Fujita Junnosuke（藤田準之助) or “Jun Fujita” was born on December 13, 1888.
Fujita was an Issei (first generation) Japanese immigrant, who arrived in North America in 1906 at the age of 17. After spending several years in Canada, he moved to Chicago in 1909, where he worked as the head photographer for the Chicago Evening Post until the 1930s. His creative expression went beyond photography. For instance, he wrote and published short-verse English poems, called tanka, some of which were published in Poetry in the 1920s and as a collection in Tanka: Poems in Exile in 1923.
Despite his active creative work being published in newspapers and magazines, Fujita remained relatively unknown in Chicago’s Japanese American community during his more than 50 years of living in the area and after his death in 1963. However, his work began to gain recognition in the 2000s. In 2007, his English poetry collection, Jun Fujita: Tanka Pioneer, was published. Shortly thereafter, several newspapers ran articles on Fujita’s life in Chicago (Chicago Shimpo, October 2008 Chugoku Shimbun, October through December 2008). Yet, little mention was made of Fujita’s personal life in Japan or his early years in North America.
As a teacher of Japanese Language and Japanese American History in Chicago, I am fascinated by Japanese American poetry, in particular haiku and tanka written by Issei Japanese who immigrated to North America in late 19th to early 20th century. This poetry provides a beautiful connection between the two languages and cultures which I cannot find in modern Japanese language textbooks. I enjoy sharing such poems with my advanced Japanese-language college students, who also move back and forth between these two languages, cultures, and identities.
When I first encountered Fujita’s free-verse tanka poems more than 10 years ago, I almost forgot that I was reading them in English. The image painted in my mind by these poems reminded me of the nature I grew up with in Japan: the bright moon, illuminating lush mountains, reflecting soft clouds, shores, flowers, birds, and wind. I smelled the fresh breeze of nature in his tanka. That was the moment I began to wonder if Fujita had ever written tanka in Japanese. If he had, I wanted to find them.
Those ten years passed quickly without my acting on my curiosity about Fujita. It was not until this past spring, after visiting the Poetry Foundation’s exhibition, Jun Fujita: Oblivion, that my quest started in earnest. Communicating closely with Fujita’s great grandnephew, Graham Lee, I decided to visit Fujita’s birthplace to search for his Japanese poems and uncover the story of his life before he came to North America.
In July 2017, I arrived at Onomichi City Station, 50 miles east of Hiroshima City, and took the “world’s shortest cruise” for four minutes in a small ferry to Fujita’s birthplace, Mukaishima. With Lee’s help, I had identified several places that I wanted to visit on the island. My first stop was Mukaishima Central Elementary/Middle School to look for Fujita’s graduation record. When I arrived, the school’s principal greeted me and local journalists by noting: “Mr. Fujita called us together after so many years.” At the school, we found Fujita’s records and confirmed that Fujita graduated from the school on March 25, 1904 at the age of 15. Although the original school building is no longer standing, I was happy to find the school where Fujita first learned to write and read.
Next, I visited Fujita’s family house. After driving through a busy central area, a winding road in a forested mountain took us to the other side of the island. Fujita’s family residence no longer exists at the address listed in his Japanese passport, yet we could see the stone wall on which his house probably stood many years ago. The land is now used as a vegetable patch in the middle of a hill, surrounded by trees of emerald green. As I breathed in the island’s air, I imagined Fujita also enjoying the fresh fragrance of the ocean from his house. We chatted with an old neighbor next door and received a few more details of Fujita’s family history. Bright blue morning glory entwined and climbed up on the wooden wall of the neighbor’s old house. Flowers were Fujita’s favorite subject of tanka and photos.
Next, we drove up to the top of Mt. Takami (高見山), the highest peak on the island. Earlier, a local scholar had translated several letters written to Fujita in beautiful cursive old styled Japanese. Those letters are among Fujita’s few surviving belongings. While it is not clear who sent them, I believe that the two letters were written by Fujita’s younger sister, Chiyo, after Fujita moved to Chicago around 1910. The letters recount memories of times spent with Fujita, such as climbing Mt. Takami or visiting Senkoji Temple, and describes how much those experiences were deeply missed and cherished. As I stood in the observatory on top of the mountain, the panoramic view of the sky and ocean seemed to melt into a hazy, calm eternity, leaving me with somewhat confining feeling despite the wide expanse of ocean before me. I wondered if Fujita, when he beheld that view, longed to learn what lay beyond these islands.
My last stop was Senkoji Temple after another short ferry ride back to Onomichi City. The temple includes the Path of Literature (文学のこみち), which is a long walking path lined with 25 stones inscribed with literary works related to the city. Onomichi is known for a number of writers and poets who were inspired by the city’s scenery and prosperity. I wanted to understand how Mukaishima and Onomichi nurtured Fujita’s artistic expression during early years living there.
At the time when Fujita lived there, a major literary reform movement of tanka took place in Japan. As more Western literature started reaching Japan in the late 19th century, notable tanka poets led this reform movement to transcend tanka from its traditional restrictive outmoded form to more humanistic and docile expressions. Yosano Tekkan (1873–1935), a leader of the Modern Romantics, published his first book of poetry, Jiga no shi (Poetry of the self) in 1896, and founded a new poetry magazine, Myojo (The morning star) in 1900. Another young poet, Ishikawa Takuboku (1880–1912), published his first tanka at 15 in 1901, heavily influenced by Mojo. As I learned of these authors, I could not help imagining Fujita reading those magazines and becoming inspired to create his own tanka in Japanese. As I passed by the poems engraved on stones along the Temple’s path, embracing the tranquility of that place, I wondered if Fujita read these poems as an aspiring young scholar.
I never found poems written by Fujita in Japanese during the trip. Yet I found a sense of the life Fujita once had in Mukaishima, Onomichi, with its ocean breezes and tranquil scenery. My search continues, as I seek to uncover new clues of Fujita’s boyhood, family, and school life.