The “Nacirema” Dream: The Story of an Asian American Studio

By Jonathan van HarmelenApril 25, 2024

The “Nacirema” Dream: The Story of an Asian American Studio
AS LONG AS there have been studios in Hollywood, there have been Asian Americans involved in filmmaking. Only now are scholars starting to rewrite these histories, recovering those lost stories of silent and studio era Hollywood and putting them in conversation with contemporary discussions around representation. One of the most revolutionary studies to contribute to the new scholarship on Asian American film history is Denise Khor’s Transpacific Convergences: Race, Migration, and Japanese American Film Culture Before World War II. Published in 2022, Khor’s book uncovers the entrepreneurial spirit of the first Japanese American immigrants who founded their own film production companies to combat the negative portrayal of Japanese Americans in film.

Khor’s book takes readers beyond the histories of Hollywood that have focused on Asian American actors. On-screen, such actors were usually typecast as villains or relegated to minor roles. Yet these roles could catapult them to stardom, as in the case of Sessue Hayakawa. By 1915, after starring in Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Cheat, Hayakawa had emerged as a sex symbol and the personification of the “forbidden lover.” Even though these roles paid, they offered few opportunities for real success. Even Hayakawa grew disgusted with being typecast and abandoned Hollywood in 1922.

By 1928, as she left Hollywood for Europe, actress Anna May Wong lamented the position she and other Asian American actors faced: “I was so tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so crude a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that.” It would not be for several decades that Hollywood studios relented to offering Asian American actors more diverse roles, as with Samuel Fuller’s 1959 picture The Crimson Kimono, which featured actor James Shigeta as the hero of the film.

Yet often left out of cinema history is the story of Asian Americans who worked behind the camera. During the early days of Hollywood, many Asian Americans followed careers working with major studios as craftsmen and producers. As Khor points out, over the course of two decades (1910–30), a group of Japanese businessmen in Los Angeles founded several small companies to produce films that catered to new Japanese immigrants across the West Coast and to the growing film markets in Japan. Ironically, Hayakawa’s appearance in The Cheat, where his character abuses a white woman on-screen, was a key moment that galvanized Japanese Americans to speak out about the demonization of their community. Some would go on to form their own studios and present more realistic portrayals of Japanese lives. Even Hayakawa started his own studio, Haworth Pictures Corporation, and oversaw the production of 19 films.

Khor’s study ends with the Great Depression, but the story does not end there. As the United States cut immigration from Japan and studios in Japan grew, the demand for Japanese American films declined, causing many small studios to disappear by 1930. Another factor contributing to the decreasing demand for Japanese-centered and Japanese-language films in the US was that many second-generation Japanese Americans (known as Nisei) only spoke English and consumed Hollywood films. Some talented individuals found jobs at the major studios: first-generation Japanese American (Issei) Kango Takamura worked as an illustrator for RKO Pictures on projects including King Kong (1933); alongside Issei animators like Bob Kuwahara, several Nisei artists, such as Chris Ishii and Gyo Fujikawa, worked for Walt Disney as illustrators during the Golden Age of Animation.

For many Nisei, film offered a means for personally documenting their stories. In 1934, brothers Sueo and Ikuo Serisawa produced a full-length documentary on Japanese Americans in Southern California. Titled Nisei Parade, the film premiered in January 1935 in Los Angeles and went on tour throughout California. Although critics offered lukewarm praise of the film, it was hailed as a major feat for the Nisei. In 1940, the Monterey branch of the Japanese American Citizens League produced their own picture, The Candid Parade. Aside from their artistic merits, both films offer a fascinating window into the prewar lives of Japanese Americans, which would collapse only a few months later.


After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, even Japanese Americans with studio connections could not escape incarceration. Takamura’s colleagues at RKO continued to work with him even as anti-Japanese sentiment grew in Hollywood, but the FBI eventually arrested him as a noncitizen and detained him for several years. Others, like Ishii, were sent to concentration camps and kept their art skills alive by working as cartoonists for camp newspapers.

Shortly after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, the decree that imprisoned Japanese Americans in camps on the West Coast, a group of Japanese American intellectuals came up with the idea of filming the incarceration process. A collective of Nisei artists and writers, including famed sculptor Isamu Noguchi and journalist Larry Tajiri, along with USC film professor Frank Judson, traveled to the Owens Valley to film the first caravan of trucks carrying Japanese Americans to what would become Manzanar. The group received permission from the army to put together a full-length documentary on wartime removal to inform the community that the camps would be safe. One of the film’s producers, Shuji Fujii, was a communist intellectual who left the camp early and took a job with the Office of War Information (OWI) in New York City. A year later, similar shots of Manzanar and Santa Anita appeared on screens across the United States in the OWI’s propaganda film Japanese Relocation. Although the War Relocation Authority (WRA) dispatched their own camera crew to the West Coast in June 1942, one wonders if Fujii’s shots were incorporated into the film. Just as Fujii’s shots of Manzanar told Japanese Americans that camp would be safe, Japanese Relocation told white American viewers that the camps were wartime necessities and safe for the inhabitants, offering audiences a comfortable, sanitized explanation for their existence.

In the 10 WRA camps, staffers overwhelmingly concentrated on screening mainstream English-language films as part of their “Americanization” program for inmates. Pressure from inmates to accommodate non-English-speaking, first-generation Japanese immigrants led government officials to approve screening of Japanese-language silent films as free entertainment for the Issei. In keeping with the tradition of Japanese cinema, the authorities allowed benshi, or scene interpreters, to narrate the film scenes. Social documentarian Richard S. Nishimoto noted that several films were screened at Poston camp, such as Chichi Ariki (There Was a Father), a prewar film made by the Shochiku movie company. Another, Haha o Tazunete (“In Search of Mother”), about the 1923 Kanto Earthquake, was screened at several camps as well with great results.

Ironically, these camp cinemas served as some of the last vestiges of the prewar Japanese silent films that were common in Japantowns on the West Coast. After years of incarceration, many Japanese Americans eschewed their Japanese roots and tried to fit into American society. In the postwar years, Japanese Americans began to successfully challenge the existing racist laws that kept their immigrant parents from naturalization and made land ownership difficult. The Issei left camp as a lost generation, with many of their traditions, like silent films, extinct after they walked past the camp gates.


When Japanese Americans returned to West Coast cities like Los Angeles in 1945, most cinemas had been permanently closed, snatched by opportunistic real estate agents. Their neighborhoods had been transformed by the influx of war workers who moved to the cities, leaving very little housing available to those looking to start anew. In rural California, some returning families encountered violence from white supremacists, bitter that the government allowed Japanese Americans to return. As they reestablished themselves in West Coast cities, they opened new theaters that screened popular Japanese films by directors Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu and generated fresh interest in the chambara genre. (By the 1970s, these cinemas would attract a new clientele of cinephiles interested in the aesthetics of postwar Japanese films.)

Despite the hardships of the postwar years, several Japanese American entrepreneurs started a chain of successful companies. Building on business connections with Japan or enlisting community support, moguls such as George Aratani emerged out of the postwar misery as the founder of several companies—in Aratani’s case, Mikasa dinnerware and Kenwood Electronics, household brands that persist today. To Japanese American political leaders, the success of these individuals offered evidence that Japanese Americans had successfully integrated into American society and could fulfill their own American dream. Hollywood became a site of opportunity for Japanese Americans aspiring to succeed. Instead of marketing to Japanese audiences, the new Nisei filmmakers and actors marketed their work to American audiences.

Perhaps no other Nisei typified the postwar Japanese American dream as David Tsutomu Yokozeki did. In the 1950s, Yokozeki founded the film production company Nacirema Productions—“American” spelled backwards—whose story of Icarus-like ascent and descent offers a fascinating case study of Nisei entrepreneurship. Triumphed as the first “Nisei production company,” Nacirema Productions offered the jaded Japanese American community a rags-to-riches story of a Nisei who emerged from the camps as a movie mogul. Sadly, Yokozeki’s rise would later be dampened by several financial setbacks that resulted in his leaving the United States for Guam.

Yokozeki was the only child of a wealthy Japanese American family. Born in 1923 in San Pedro, California, he grew up in the Japanese American enclave on Terminal Island in the Port of Los Angeles. The island was well known as the center for fishing operations for Southern California, where Japanese American fishermen staffed many of the island’s fishing boats. His father, Hirosaburo Yokozeki, a longtime Terminal Islander and a Stanford University graduate, was a leader among the Japanese American fishermen on the island. As executive secretary of the Southern California Japanese Fishermen’s Association, he held considerable sway over his fellow fishermen, and often represented the community before the press. On several occasions, he lobbied the California State Legislature to remove restrictions facing them.

Like his father, David Yokozeki aspired to be successful. He was an ambitious student and graduated at the top of his class from San Pedro High School in 1940. The young Yokozeki enrolled at UCLA to study finance, but his time at UCLA was cut short when, a year later, the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor.

The months that followed were difficult for the Yokozekis: US Army soldiers immediately locked up the harbor to prevent the Japanese fishermen from working. Because the fisheries on Terminal Island were situated near a naval base, officials called for the removal of the island’s Japanese population. On February 25, 1942, the Navy announced that all Japanese Americans had to evacuate Terminal Island within 48 hours. Like other Terminal Islanders, the Yokozekis left behind their homes and fishing boats and found temporary housing in a dilapidated apartment in South Central Los Angeles. For Japanese Americans families, the ensuing incarceration wreaked financial devastation. The Federal Reserve later estimated that the Japanese American community on the West Coast lost $400 million in assets resulting from the forced removal policy.

In April 1942, following the army’s decision to forcibly remove Japanese Americans from their homes in California, the Yokozekis were incarcerated at Santa Anita Assembly Center. Six months later, the army transferred the Yokozekis to the Amache concentration camp in Colorado. Although Yokozeki found ways to pass the time taking classes and attending dances, life in camp made him restless. When Yokozeki learned that he could transfer to universities outside of California, he applied for permission to leave Amache in 1943 and complete his bachelor’s degree at the University of Utah. After completing an army background check, Yokozeki traveled to Salt Lake City, where he completed his studies in 1944. Based on his good grades, he earned a scholarship in 1944 from the University of Minnesota to pursue graduate studies in economics.

After completing his studies at the University of Minnesota, Yokozeki enlisted in the United States Army to serve as a translator. He trained at Fort Snelling near Minneapolis, where he prepared to work for the US Army of Occupation. When the army sent him to Japan, Yokozeki’s language skills and business acumen impressed his superiors. He was soon promoted to chief of price and distribution controls for the Kanagawa Military Government in Yokohama—a lucrative position, as it included managing all goods that passed through the Port of Yokohama. His time in Japan gave him ample experience in business, new industry connections, and increased fluency in Japanese that aided him in future ventures.

Yokozeki left the army in 1948. He soon returned to his studies and earned an MBA and LLB from the University of Southern California’s law school—a rare accomplishment at the time. Always ahead of the curve, in 1952 he became one of the first Nisei to pass the California bar exam. He thereafter joined the distinguished firm of Aiso, Chuman, and McKibbin, one of the leading law practices that dealt with civil rights issues in California. The firm developed a reputation for accepting cases dealing with Asian American issues; one of Yokozeki’s first cases was the defense of several Japanese Peruvians who, initially interned in Texas, faced deportation for “illegal entry” after the war. Yokozeki developed a reputation for taking on immigrant clients, such as in the case of a Korean nurse, Young Bok Song, who petitioned for an immigrant visa in 1955. A few years later in the 1960s, in a publicized trial, he represented a Thai police officer facing extradition from the Thai government for murdering political prisoners.

During his time at USC, Yokozeki became friends with Marvin Segal, a fellow law student. After graduating law school, the two became colleagues at the same law practice. With Norman Herman, an accountant, the pair decided to strike out on their own in Hollywood and founded Nacirema Productions. Nacirema followed the lead of many small production studios that made slight profits off low-budget films, except that this studio planned to produce films on Japanese themes. Yokozeki declared that too many Japanese film companies focused on historical films that failed to appeal to the masses, and that his studio would create “commercially sound” movies.

Yokozeki looked to Japanese American communities for financial support, telling the Los Angeles Times that “most of us are war veterans, most have been through evacuation and relocation. Returning, these veterans were anxious to get into something new. In pictures we feel we are offering them a sound investment—in a business that has a fascination for everybody.” The L.A. Times highlighted Yokozeki’s fundraising skills: in one week, he raised $100,000 from Japanese American supporters, and he promised another $100,000 within weeks.

Dubbed “the first Nisei production company” by the L.A. Times, Nacirema garnered nearly a million dollars in seed funding from Japanese American business leaders such as Aratani. The story of Nacirema’s Japanese American founder was widely reprinted in newspapers across the United States. As evidence of their “readjustment” to American life, Yokozeki chose Nacirema’s first film to be a Western. After much anticipation, Nacirema Productions released their first film, Sierra Stranger, in 1956. A thrilling Western directed by Lee Sholem and starring Howard Duff, Gloria McGehee, and Dick Foran, Sierra Stranger established Nacirema as a reputable producer of low-budget films.

Building upon the success of Sierra Stranger, Nacirema Productions produced a string of films that targeted youth audiences. Their 1956 film, Hot Rod Girl, starring Lori Nelson as a hot rod driver opposite baseball player and Western star Chuck Connors, spotlighted drag racing culture. The movie garnered $600,000 at the box office and was declared a success. The film was one of several produced by Yokozeki that not only centered on 1950s car culture but also featured women protagonists—a rare feat for its time. Nacirema followed this up with several B-movie thrillers that appealed to teen audiences: Undersea Girl and Hot Rod Rumble in 1957 and The Young Captives in 1959.

By the start of 1957, Yokozeki had achieved stardom. As a Nisei movie mogul, he entered the circles of Los Angeles elites and developed connections with politicians like Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty. Yorty offered Yokozeki a spot on the Los Angeles Arts Commission, and Yokozeki often campaigned for the Democratic Party at fundraising events in the city. Yokozeki built up his political connections with the Japanese consulate in Los Angeles and appeared often with Consul General Shigeru Nakamura. His name appeared alongside Nacirema Productions in the major Hollywood trade publications—Variety, Motion Picture Herald, Film Bulletin—and his impressive career even earned him the respect of the Japanese American Citizens League. In 1954, Yokozeki was named head of the JACL’s Los Angeles chapter, and in 1956 he was elected head of the Pacific Southwest Regional Council.

Among Japanese Americans, Yokozeki was the icon of success for a community still reeling from the economic impacts of wartime imprisonment. At the JACL’s 1956 convention in San Francisco, Yokozeki took out large advertisements for Nacirema Productions, offering attendees a chance to invest in a bona fide Hollywood studio. In the JACL’s national newspaper Pacific Citizen—the largest Asian American publication of its time—the editor ran a picture of Yokozeki handing the Yokohama Specie Bank a check of $100,000 to deposit for Nacirema Productions. This was the largest check the bank had ever received in its long history.

Looking to the future, Yokozeki decided that Nacirema needed to capitalize on the rising interest in Asia within the United States. During the postwar years, Hollywood studios released a wave of Japan-based films that fanned a craze for movies set in the Far East. Already, several Hollywood studios had released box office hits that centered on occupied Japan: Stuart Heisler’s 1949 picture Tokyo Joe with Humphrey Bogart, and Daniel Mann’s 1956 film The Teahouse of the August Moon starring Marlon Brando (in yellowface). In 1957, Joshua Logan’s Sayonara, starring Marlon Brando and Miiko Taka, received several Academy Award nominations.

Yokozeki believed he could make a better film about Japan that stood out among these other Hollywood productions. In 1956, Yokozeki made plans to produce a fish-out-of-water story about an American baseball player who accidentally signs with a Japanese baseball team. Titled “Joe-San the Great,” the film never entered into production but formed the basis for a future film on Japan. In 1958, as evidence of his business connections in Japan, Yokozeki served as an executive producer for Toei’s first color anime film, The White Snake Enchantress, titled Panda and the Magic Serpent in its American release (he likely served as part of the team that introduced the film to the US in 1961). In 1959, Yokozeki and Nacirema Productions produced Tokyo After Dark, a thriller set in occupied Japan and directed by the studio’s own Norman Herman. With Richard Long in the lead role of a military policeman accused of murder, the film depicted a romance between the characters portrayed by Long and actor Michi Kobi.

One of a few Hollywood films to cast Japanese Americans in principal roles, Tokyo After Dark starred not only Kobi but also Teru Shimada (who appeared in Tokyo Joe) and Dale Ishimoto (a television star who once appeared on The Twilight Zone). Although journalist Fred Taomae of Los Angeles–based newspaper Shin Nichi Bei gave Tokyo After Dark a lukewarm review, he told readers, “If you want to see Nisei actors and actresses, your friends and acquaintances perhaps, given a showcase to display their talents, this is the picture to see.” This was one of few films to boast a majority Asian American cast until the 1961 musical Flower Drum Song.

Tokyo After Dark represented the high-water mark of Nacirema Production’s success. Beginning in 1960, Nacirema Productions struggled to produce other films. As Hollywood studios began favoring large-scale productions over distributing small-budget films, companies like Nacirema Productions began to disappear. As Larry Tajiri had prophesied in his column for the Pacific Citizen, this shift signaled the end of Nacirema’s success. The 1960s were characterized by a slow decline overall in films centered on East Asia.

From there, Yokozeki’s career took a turn for the worse. In 1962, Yokozeki took on the case of Dr. Chang Ha Kim, who was facing a malpractice suit that exposed him to personal liability charges beyond insurance coverage. To pay Yokozeki without exposing his assets, Kim offered a $2,000 retainer fee and agreed to transfer other assets, including an apartment complex, to a company named To-Yo (connected to Nacirema Productions), which belonged to Yokozeki. To make the transaction appear official, Yokozeki sold Kim the rights to films that they both acknowledged had no value. Yokozeki used the loans to cover bills for Nacirema, which was struggling. In November 1963, he announced his resignation from the Los Angeles Arts Commission. A few months later, when Kim found out that the Bank of Tokyo threatened to foreclose on properties due to Yokozeki taking out loans based on his apartments, he countersued. The lawsuit embroiled Yokozeki in several legal battles that tarnished his reputation. He closed his law practice and moved temporarily to Japan before restarting his law career in Guam. On April 25, 1969, the Los Angeles Times reported that Norman Herman had officially liquidated Nacirema Production’s remaining assets.

Even after leaving Los Angeles behind, Yokozeki was able to transform himself into a successful businessman in Guam. He started his own law practice on the island and, using his business connections, enticed Japanese construction companies to develop the island into a tourism hot spot. Several hotels and a golf course built around the island’s center of Tamuning all bore evidence of Yokozeki’s handiwork. Yet even in his new home, Yokozeki remained marred by legal troubles. In 1982, the Guam Bar Association suspended Yokozeki from practicing law on the island for five years based on his previous conviction from the Kim case. In 1985, a judge lifted the suspension. In March 1986, the District Court of Guam convicted Yokozeki to a three-year prison sentence for falsifying legal documents for a Taiwanese Mennonite clergyman, Chen Shun-Ching. The court ruled that Yokozeki forged a nonimmigrant visa for Shun-Ching to serve as an investor in a company where Yokozeki worked. Yokozeki argued that he was a victim of circumstances; US attorney Paul Vernier argued that Yokozeki committed “moral turpitude and fraud.” After his conviction, Yokozeki returned to work in business. In 2009, shortly before Yokozeki moved to Hawaii, the Legislature of Guam passed a resolution thanking Yokozeki for his role in the island’s rapid growth during the 1980s and 1990s. Yokozeki died on February 20, 2013, at age 90. Like his studio, Yokozeki fell into obscurity. Aside from occasional mentions on sites such as IMDb and MUBI, only a few shards of evidence attest to his time in Hollywood.


The story of Yokozeki’s Nacirema Productions offers an interesting Rorschach test of the Japanese American experience. At first glance, Yokozeki can be seen as a shrewd businessman who came from nothing and whose wild ambitions to make it big led to his demise. He had a gift of gab for enticing others into his circle and an eye for seeing the potential in a film project. He even foresaw the rising popularity of monster films like Godzilla (1954) in the United States and, had his company survived, might have produced one. In a mere 10 years, he lived the Hollywood dream.

To those jaded with Hollywood and all the ways it failed its Asian American creatives, Yokozeki’s story illustrates how one Japanese American found ways to challenge the system and prove that Asian Americans could become movers and shakers in a mostly white industry. For enterprising individuals like Yokozeki, who wanted to demonstrate the community’s ability to rise from the ashes, a film company offered a dream of success to many destitute Japanese Americans who, having almost given up on the American dream, had another chance to invest in it through his films. Even Yokozeki’s investors spoke to the discrimination he faced in the industry; had Yokozeki been white, they said, he could have drawn from a wider investment pool. In the words of the JACL’s motto, Yokozeki aspired to be “a better American in a greater America” by becoming a success story in one of the United States’ most beloved institutions. Around the time Yokozeki left the US in 1969, the Asian American Movement had inspired many actors in Hollywood to take action. Several companies emerged in Los Angeles to address the lack of Asian American representation in entertainment. East West Players, a theater organization founded in 1965, became a site for Asian American writers and actors to produce and star in plays about their experiences. Since then, East West Players has been the training grounds for generations of actors who have pursued successful careers in Hollywood. In 1970, Visual Communications was formed as a nonprofit dedicated to sponsoring Asian American filmmakers and productions that captured the Asian American experience.

So what does Yokozeki’s story mean for Hollywood today? As the major studios continue to offer greater opportunities for Asian American actors to succeed, there is also the need for Asian American–run studios to sponsor films about the Asian American experience. Even though the representation of Asian characters in Hollywood films has risen from three percent to 16 percent between 2007 and 2022, only a small number of films center Asian American narratives. The history of Nacirema Productions is a reminder that the studio, just like the actors, is an equally important part of the story.


Sections of this essay were expanded from an earlier piece published by The Rafu Shimpo.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan van Harmelen is a PhD candidate in history at UC Santa Cruz. A columnist for the Japanese American National Museum’s blog Discover Nikkei, he frequently writes about Japanese American history and culture. His dissertation is a study of the role of Congress in the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.


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