FACEism: Celebrating 100 years of the Toyo Miyatake Studio and the history it has perfectly captured

The beauty of a photograph is that it speaks every language and Toyo Miyatake famously captured that beauty.

David Ono Image
Friday, May 26, 2023
FACEism: Celebrating 100 years of the Toyo Miyatake Studio
In this special edition of ABC7's FACEism titled "A Thousand Words," we continue to honor AAPI Heritage Month and zoom in on a small community with a giant legacy - and the man who helped document it all, one photo at a time.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Little Tokyo sits in the shadows of the giant skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles.

It has an amazing history of tragedy and triumph and one family has captured that history in the most beautiful way. It is teaching the world not only about Little Tokyo, but about America.

In this special edition of ABC7's FACEism titled "A Thousand Words," we continue to honor Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and zoom in on a small community with a giant legacy.

The beauty of a photograph is that it speaks every language. At times, it is a thousand words but other times, there are none.

Each moment captured can live forever. The older it gets, the more it has to say.

"In the early 1900s, my grandfather came with his family from Japan," said Alan Miyatake of his beloved grandfather and photographer Toyo Miyatake. "He studied photography and then he purchased a studio in 1923."

One hundred years ago, Toyo Miyatake Studio opened for business in Little Tokyo.

Toyo specialized in portraits, catering largely to the Japanese community. In 1932, he captured the Los Angeles Olympics, giving us remarkable images of a young Memorial Coliseum filled with excited spectators and the greatest athletes in the world.

His defining moment, however, came 10 years later.

During World War II, Toyo and his family were forced out of their Boyle Heights home and were incarcerated at the Manzanar internment camp.

It was where Toyo revealed to his son Archie - Alan's father - his secret plan.

"He took my father aside and said, 'Hey, I got to show you something,'" recalled Alan. "He pulled out a camera lens and a film holder and said, 'I'm going to build a camera.'"

With the pieces he smuggled in and a couple of wood scraps, he made a camera that captured iconic images.

They taught us so much about the injustice of those camps, from the barren geography to the guard towers to the barbed wire and the children trapped behind it. Even the young men willing to fight for the very country that locked them up.

There were so many moments, but how did Toyo get the film? Alan said his grandfather had an outside friend that smuggled it in.

"So he said, 'Okay, you know, when I get there, I'm going to hang my overcoat in the office with the films going to be in that pocket, so just take it.'"

After the war, the Toyo Miyatake Studio was back in business.

Toyo eventually handed the reins over to his son Archie, Alan's dad, and then finally to Alan.

"One of the main legacies, I think, the studio has is documenting Japanese-American life," said Alan.

Their collection is remarkable. From the earliest days of immigrants with their horse drawn carriages to a thriving community with restaurants, shops and businesses.

Through the decades, the studio documented every beautiful and sobering detail. Even that moment in World War II, when innocent families were ordered onto buses and taken away.

In the studio's backroom, Alan showed Eyewitness News what could very well be their crowning achievement, capturing a celebration that has been going on since 1934: Nisei Week.

In a photo from 1949, thousands of people are seen lining the streets, celebrating their culture and community. In the background, you can see the Toyo Miyatake Studio.

As proof, Alan showed photos of me.

Twenty-five years of serving as an emcee for the Nisei Week Queen coronation with actress Tamlyn Tomita, moments that are long gone but were suddenly brought back to life. The studio even has photos of Tamlyn when she was crowned Nisei Queen, including her official portrait and a photo with with her parents.

Weeks after that, she landed the starring role in "The Karate Kid Part II," launching the most prolific career for a Japanese-American actress in Hollywood history.

Tamlyn's story is one of the countless stories captured by the Miyatakes, showing us that beautiful evolution from one generation to the next.

Starting as immigrants whose families worked hard and sacrificed, sometimes even with their lives, for "the dream" this country stands for.

It's all right there, in that studio. A full 100 years of a proud American community.

The Toyo Miyatake Studio now resides in San Gabriel where it continues to serve Southern California. Alan's daughter Sydney - Toyo's great granddaughter - is now part of the business.