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Discover The Pioneering Japanese-American Animation Artists of the Golden Age

Contrary to what most animation histories would lead one to believe, the creative workforce during the Golden Age of animation in the 1930s and 1940s was not comprised entirely of white males. There were also women who worked in creative capacities, as well as artists of different ethnicities, particularly Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese. Sadly their contributions have been obscured throughout the years and rarely acknowledged in any meaningful way by the art form’s historians.

The history of Japanese artists is particularly notable because most of them faced a huge hurdle to joining the animation industry: they were forced into interment camps during World War II. In one of the uglier moments of American history, the U.S. government forcibly and illegally removed tens of thousands of West Coast-based American citizens of Japanese descent from their homes and confined them in concentration camps, an action that the U.S. government later admitted was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Recently while browsing through this UC Library digital image archive, I stumbled across some rare photos that help to flesh out the story of Japanese-American animation artists. To start off, here’s a shot of Scooby-Doo character designer Iwao Takamoto taken June 2, 1945:

Iwao Takamoto

Iwao was too young to work in animation prior to the war. He was hired to work at Disney in 1945 at the age of 20. From the image caption: “Mr. Takamoto’s father, Chitoshi; mother, Akino; brother, Norito; and sister, Kimoko; are all at Manzanar [internment camp]. Iwao graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles in 1942. How did he get the job at Disney’s? He phoned for an appointment, brought samples of his work, and a week later was hired.”

In an interview I conducted with Iwao in 1999, he spoke in greater detail about his experience being interned and how he entered the animation industry afterwards. By the early-1950s, he had became one of the most trusted clean-up artists at Disney and worked closely with both Milt Kahl and Marc Davis before beginning his long and illustrious H-B career in 1961.

The next photo is Bennie Nobori, who had worked at Disney prior to being interned. I’ve never heard of him but examples of his work from an internment camp newspaper–here and here–reflect a strong Freddie Moore influence.

Bennie Nobori

Other Disney artists who were interned during WWII were veteran animator and writer Bob Kuwahara and Chris Ishii. According to Michael Barrier, Kuwahara was “the first Disney artist whose job was just to draw story sketches.” Kuwahara left Disney in 1937 to go to MGM, which is where he was working when he was taken away by the government. After the war, he moved to NY where, among other things, he created the theatrical cartoon character Hashimoto-san for Terrytoons. Read a short bio written by Kuwahara himself here.

I’ve previously written about about Ishii’s WWII experience on the Brew. In that earlier piece, there’s a photo of Ishii working on the camp’s newspaper comic. Below is another photo from December 12, 1942, the day he was inducted into the U.S. military. It has the following caption: “Chris Ishii two years ago worked as an artist for Walt Disney, he tried to join the army but was turned down for slightly flat feet, then his draft board classed him 1-A but before his hopes were realized he was evacuated from California and his new draft number said 4-C, undesirable alien. In the center Chris created, for center newspapers, a cartoon character “Little Neebo”, humorously depicting the trials and tribulations of a little Nisei boy in evacuation centers. Here Chris realizes his deepest ambition as he is finger printed by an army sergeant after having been sworn into the Army of the United States, to be sent to Camp Savage, Minnesota.”

Chris Ishii

After the war, Ishii became a top East Coast designer and eventually served as the creative director of UPA-NY in the late-1950s as well as co-owner of Focus Productions in the 1960s and 1970s. In the UC image archive, I found a photo of a wooden pin created by Chris Ishii featuring his character Lil’ Neebo.

Chris Ishii

Ishii, who had become an assistant to Ward Kimball in November 1940, went out on stike at Disney in 1941 along with the other Japanese-American artists who worked at the studio including Tom Okamoto, Masao Kawaguchi and James Tanaka. Below is a 1943 photo of James Tanaka working at Famous Studios in New York. The caption accompanying his photo says, “James worked for five years in the studios of Walt Disney and secured his present position [at Famous] while at the Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas.”

James Tanaka

The archive also has a photo of Tom Inada working at Famous. The photo caption says: “He had just finished a commercial art course at the Sacramento Junior College in California when all persons of Japanese ancestry were evacuated from the west coast. He lived for a year at the Tule Lake Relocation Center.”

Tom Inada

And here’s a pic of Tom Inada and James Tanaka working together at Famous.Tom Inada and James Tanaka

Below is a 1945 image of Michiko Kataoka (second from left), who had been interned at Manzanar and was attending UCLA at the time of this photo. Judging from her age in the photo and the uniqueness of the name, I’d harbor a guess that she is the artist who went by the name of Michi Kataoka and who worked at UPA as a background painter for a brief period in the early-1950s.

Michi Kataoka

Another female Japanese artist of note, Gyo Fujikawa, who had worked in the advertising art department of Disney in the early-1940s, and was responsible for designing the elaborate Fantasia theater program that was given to audiences during its initial theatrical engagement.


Fujikawa escaped internment by staying on the East Coast, where Japanese people were not detained by the government, and enjoyed a long career as an illustrator. This excerpt from her L.A. Times obituary explains more about her story:

It was Disney who Fujikawa said changed the way she handled bigots during World War II. Unlike her parents and younger brother, she escaped internment because she was living in New York; only Japanese residing on the West Coast were sent to the camps. But Fujikawa traveled frequently, and when people became suspicious of her, she often told them she was really Anna May Wong, the Chinese American actress. According to her nephew, Fujikawa took secret delight in this masquerade.

But when she told Disney that she often lied about her heritage, he exploded. “Damn it! Why should you say that? You’re an American citizen,” he said.

“From that moment on,” Fujikawa recounted recently, “that’s exactly what I did tell them.”

Below are a couple newspaper articles about Gyo Fujikawa. One piece is from 1935, before she joined the Disney studio, and the other piece is from 1958, after she’d established a successful career as an illustrator in New York City:

Newspaper pieces about Gyo Fujikawa from 1935 (left) and 1958.
Newspaper pieces about Gyo Fujikawa from 1935 (left) and 1958.

San Jose, California-born Jimmy Murakami was eight years old when he was interned at Tule Lake in North California. “I was very, very bitter to be an American citizen treated this way,” he said in an interview many years later. “My older sister died in the camp and the rest of us came out pretty bad.”

In the 1950s, Murakami went to Chouinard art school and was hired at United Productions of America (UPA) where he worked on the groundbreaking Boing Boing Show. Afterwards, he globetrotted around the world, working at many different studios: Pintoff Productions in New York City, Toei Animation in Tokyo, TVC in London, and various studios in Italy, before he returned to Los Angeles to launch his own commercial studio, Murakami-Wolf, in 1965. He later worked on British classics like The Snowman and When the Wind Blows before settling down in Dublin.

Here’s a video of Murakami recounting the comical story of how he and his brother had to come up with American names when they started attending school and unintentionally used the same name:

The youngest artist of the bunch is Willie Ito, who was born in 1934. He was placed into a desert concentration camp in Topaz, Utah, at the age of seven. In time, Ito also attended Chouinard and was hired in July 1954 at Disney, where he worked as an inbetweener on Lady and the Tramp.

Ito spent much of the 1950s working at Warner Bros. in Chuck Jones’ unit, and later worked on Bob Clampett’s Beany & Cecil tv cartoons, before becoming a key artist at Hanna-Barbera throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

He’s pictured below with layouts artists Jerry Eisenberg (seated) and Dick Bickenbach from the filming of the 1963 Hanna-Barbera tv special TV special Here Comes A Star (photo via Yowp blog).


If anybody can add more details about these artists or other Golden Age Japanese artists, please share.

  • Amid, thanks for doing the research and posting the great photos and history.

  • Excellent piece, Amid. Thanks for doing it.

  • An absolutely excellent bit of research; great going Amid. Thank you.

  • Excellent post. So many interesting stories that one rarely gets to hear…

  • Chuck R.

    “In one of the stupider moments in American history, the US government decided to forcibly remove tens of thousands of Japanese-American citizens from their homes and confine them in internment camps, an action that the government later admittted was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

    Amid, I heartily agree with the “stupider” assessment.
    Something you fail to mention in your history lesson was that the internment government was FDR’s and the government that issued the apology was Ronald Reagan’s.
    Liberals conveniently and consistently fail to place the blame on Roosevelt’s shoulders where it belongs. It is customary for executive offices to extend their reach in times of war, but compare FDR’s internment of innocent US citizens to Bush’s internment of Taliban prisoners pulled from the battlefield. BTW, Lincoln also claimed extraordinary wartime executive privileges. He used them to emancipate black slaves.

    Other than this quibble, I commend you on a fine and informative post.

  • This is truly fascinating. My film partner, Leo Sullivan produced a documentary on the relocation camp, “Manzanar” some years ago.

    As African-Americans we were more than aware what “war hysteria” can do to a nation. We came awfully damn close with this last administration, didn’t we?. Thank God that’s almost over.

    I’ve had the pleasure of working with a number of Japanese American animation artists over the years. Thanks a lot for this important article.

  • eggman

    That is one of the coolest posts on Cartoon Brew in a long time! Thank you!! Looking forward to folks filling in any details.

  • Great post, Amid. Thanks for the hard work.

  • George

    Amid, thank you so much for the research and the amazing post. I’ve got 1 word for you: Book.

  • Mark H.

    An often neglected part of American animation history. Dare I hope that Amid is planning a series of articles, or better yet a book, on this subject?

    It is said that truth is the first casualty of war, but trust as well as common sense cannot be far behind.

  • What a fascinating post!

    Just a few months ago, my wife found an old children’s book of hers that was illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa. I loved the drawings so much I posted some of them.

    Check it out here:

  • PorkyMill

    Chuck R.

    While I appreciate the extra insight of your post it could have done without the condescending and mightier than thou tone which permeates it and does no favors to the person you intend to educate.

  • Foobydar

    Nice post, sadly this chapter of history is just one of many America would like to think never happened, but there is much it can learn from them, instead of shoving them under the rug.

  • a reader

    “Nice post, sadly this chapter of history is just one of many America would like to think never happened, but there is much it can learn from them, instead of shoving them under the rug.

    Are you an adult American?
    I’ve never known this to be swept under the rug in my lifetime at all. From the book and TV film “Farewell to Manzanar”, many documentaries, and finally what’s described in this Wikipedia excerpt:

    In 1988, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed legislation which apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government. The legislation stated that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership”. About $1.6 billion in reparations were later disbursed by the U.S. government to surviving internees and their heirs.

    A formal statement from the US government of apology and over a billion and a half in reparations is NOT sweeping anything “under the rug”. It was after Pearl Harbor, it was War-and it was still, nevertheless, an un-american and shameful thing to do to US citizens. That’s what I grew up knowing.

  • Sarah Calogero was also a product of the WWII era in San Francisco.

    She’s largely responsible for the art production on “Windy Day” and other Hubley films as well as The Ink Tank’s great art production from the ’80s.

  • Thank you very much for this, Amid!

    Matt and I just came back from visiting my family in Hawaii–I’m 4th generation Japanese-American. Many of my grandmother’s siblings are gone or dying and their stories sadly are going with them. So this article comes with almost perfect timing…

    Japanese–even those who were born in America–don’t like to talk about the past in general. The things that should be celebrated disappear along with painful memories.

    I hope that we can convince our elders, Japanese or other, that their stories are important. And we need to be diligent about recording those stories for them for those who come after us.

  • matt Tamaru

    You kick so much ass Amid.

  • Thomas M.

    I was glad to read about Bob Kuwahara and his work on Hashimoto-San
    cartoons. I remember these charming cartoons and comic books about a mouse family that was friendly with a G.I. mouse. I knew they were from Terrytoons of New York, but I had no idea that their lack of an anti-Japan point of view was because their creator had the same ethnic background as Hashimoto.

  • Please don’t forget that I am reprinting the complete Bob Kuwahara comic strip: “Marvelous Mike” from 1956-57, over on my blog: http://www.itsthecat.com/blog/. I also posted about a new autobiography coming out next year on Iwao Takamoto, which I just finished proof-reading for the University of Mississippi Press. It’s very well-done, especially the chapters about Iwao’s childhood in Los Angeles and his Manzanar internment. He actually left and returned to the camp several times to pursue odd jobs up and down the coast. Look for the book when it comes out next year!

  • Pedro Nakama

    Cool! Thanks Amid!

  • I agree with George, this article could definitely be expanded into a book.

    Or maybe a documentary that includes the work of these artists!

    It’s time for you to get an Oscar, Amid ;-)

  • One of the best posts on cartoonbrew in a very long time! Thanks for digging up and compiling some invaluable information.

  • Great post! This helps create a broader and broader vision of the sort of artists and styles that really were at Disney in the Golden Age. Most of what I knew told me there were mostly white guys and a few token women. These old photos, which have never been included in any of the popular animation books artists collect tell a story that’s been left out for decades. We’ve got loads of info on the “nine old men”…let’s get more on the rest of the artists.

  • Professor Widebottom

    As with most things in my life, the stupider moments come into relief in hindsight (or widebottom-sight). I wasn’t there to absorb the prevailing mentality of America was during WWII right after Pearl Harbor, but in hindsight we know everything worked out so we can afford easy judgments. War is war, so it goes without saying that conditions which put the prevailing order on the brink of chaos provoke governments to desperate measures. War effects civilian and innocent people, that’s why it’s so ugly. Again, that’s why it’s called WAR. That has to sink in, because we just don’t know how bad it can get. So, while putting any group of Americans into contained environments seems primitive and horrid, with or without context, you also have to see that we’re filtering it through the context of OUR politics and ethics. It’s not really very objective. I just think that, while we have the right idea about this, there’s a strain of superiority in our hindsight that drives me batty and it seems glaringly myopic and naive. There was also a buttload of nobility and huge sacrifice during WWII which testified, at least to me, that without America around during that time, the world would have gone way into the shit can.

    Having said that, I loved this article and the research that went into it. It’s a period in our history that resonates so many things on so many levels, right before America became self-conscious and sometimes annoyingly post-modern.

  • V. Blame

    I forwarded this article to my friend John Nobori. Turns out Bennie Nobori was his grandfather. John wasn’t aware that Bennie had ever worked at Disney, only that he’d always had an interest in cartooning. He seemed pretty excited to learn more and to see his granddad’s face online.

  • antoine lopez

    Maybe you already know about it, but Steven Okasaki made an excellent documentary about the life of a white-American woman and her Japan-American husband. This short film, titled Days of waiting (1989 – 28 minutes), won the Grand Prix at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in France in 1991. This woman, Estelle Peck Ishigo, followed her husband when he was, with others, confined in interment camps. During this period she made drawings and took photos. There is nothing about animation but it is very interesting about this chapter of your history.

  • bob fuchigami

    Thanks Amid for your fine research. Tom Okamoto was my algebra teacher in the Amache concentration camp otherwise known as the Granada Relocation Center. We knew he was a cartoonist for Disney along with Chris Ishii and remember him teaching us how to draw a
    cartoon character. We loved the cartoon strip that Chris drew for the
    Granada Pioneer – our camp newspaper. After he left for the Army,
    the strip was continued by talented cartoonist named Jack Ito.

    The comment by Antoine Lopez mentioned Estelle Peck Ishigo. She was in the camp in Wyoming named Heart Mountain. Readers might
    want to read about her in the book Lone Heart Mountain. Another book highly recommended is one by Mine Okubo titled Citizen 13660.

    Finally, it should be noted that while FDR signed Executive Order 9066 that put us into the camps, the architect, advocate, and first
    administrator of the exclusion and incarceration was a military man
    named Karl Bendetsen. Read about him in Wikipedia. Better yet,
    read the book by Klancy Clark de Nevers: The Colonel and the Pacifist. A real eyeopener.

  • Greg

    Today is Thursday, 27May10!! My wife and I went out for a leisurely drive to beaches here in Delaware. On the way home, I had this notion to stop in at the local Salvation Army, to take a look around. This a hobby of my wife and I. While strolling around the SA, I saw a nice print of a group of jazz musicians. I walked over to take a closer look. The print (Stompin’ At The Savoy”) was nicely framed and was in excellent condition. It also has TANAKA (at the bottom. The letter A’s are black triangles.) Without even looking for the artist’s name, I wanted that print. Well, I committed a cardinal sin of “looking around”, I walked away from the print. Knowing full well, I wanted it!! In the meantime, I lost track of my wife. You see, she has MS and using a little scooter to get around on, when we’re out and about. Thus, she’s literally out of sight. After a few minutes, I saw her! She was looking at the same print!!! I met her there and told her I was looking at the print as well. We both loved it!! I took from the wall, and that’s when I got a closer look at the name of the artist, J Tanaka!! Above the J Tanaka, was the signature J Tanaka!! I have to admit, I never heard of J Tanaka, but my instincts told me I had a real treasure!! I took out my trusty IPhone and google J Tanaka. What I found and what I read, blew me away! I thought, WOW! I told me wife, and she was just as excited. I then thought, how sad that someone just gave this print away. Nothing against the Salvation Army, but this print belonged to someone who knew or knew of Jim Tanaka, enough so to have him sign it. Now my curiosity was peaked! I wanted to know all I could about Mr. Tanaka. I was saddened to see that he passed away 2008! The print, as I said is in a nice frame, which it shall remain, and displayed with dignity upon the wall in my home office! What a find! Not only as a collector of art, but also a big fan of jazz music! I also learned something more about the Japanese-American experience in America. I’m an African-American, and I can recall the stories my parents and grand parents told us of how things “used to be”. I even had my own “experience” or two. I grew up in South Carolina and Florida, in the Sixties! That in itself makes this find even more special.

  • John Newhagen

    Has anyone ever heard of Disney using his influence to get key Asian animators released from detention centers during the war to work for him? Gary Powers posits the notion in his novel “Prisoner’s Dilemma” and it sounds plausible.

    • Donald Mrkacek

      Disney had a family to support, that’s what he said.