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Focus : Closing Her Circle : DAUGHTER FINDS A FATHER LOST DURING THE '40S INTERNMENT

June 20, 1993|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Somehow I always felt safe dealing with my life's problems through a camera. I could rearrange it and have control over it.

--Janice Tanaka

Japanese-American filmmaker Janice Tanaka was 3 when she last saw her father, Jack Koto Tanaka. The two reunited in 1989, after more than 40 years; Tanaka found her father living in a halfway house for the mentally ill on Los Angeles' Skid Row.

"Who's Going to Pay for These Donuts, Anyway?," premiering Tuesday on the PBS series "P.O.V.," is Tanaka's account of her search for her father and how she came to terms with having him back in her life. The title stems from her father's former job with a bakery company.

The Tanaka family had been interned in the Manzanar camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Jack Koto, then 22, protested the internment. He even wrote a letter to the White House, which led to his being questioned by the FBI. After the war, he was institutionalized and received shock therapy and drug treatments for what was diagnosed as schizophrenia. His wife, Lily, divorced him during World War II and moved with her two children, Janice and Jack Jr., to a Polish-Lithuanian neighborhood in Chicago. She cut off all ties with her past.

Tanaka, a visiting professor at UCLA in computer graphics animation and video, had tried to find her father 14 years ago during a visit to Los Angeles, when her mother was still alive."On a subconscious level that created a kind of censorship on my part," Tanaka says. "I didn't think I was ready for it. But when my mother died (in 1988), I actually did a search for him where I contacted various social agencies."

Simultaneously, her father's new social worker had begun a search for his relatives. "My father told him he had two children by the name of Janice and Jack," Tanaka says. "He started calling every J. Tanaka in the phone book." By chance, he found a cousin with the initials J. Tanaka, who contacted Togo Tanaka, her father's estranged older brother. A successful businessman, he informed his niece--then teaching at the University of Colorado--that her father had been located.

"I immediately flew out here, and after seeing him for the first time it was too much," Tanaka says, her voice welling with emotion. "I started to cry and didn't stop for three days. They had him in a dining hall; I was in a hallway looking through a window."

Though she hadn't seen him for decades, she knew it was her father. "There's a kind of bonding, I think," Tanaka says. "You know who is a family member."

But it took Tanaka a year to gather the strength to meet him. "After the second or third time I visited him, I brought a camera," she recalls. "I realized it was too soon. It frightened him and it frightened me. So we developed a relationship over a period of time. I gave him a camera and let him do the shooting."

When Tanaka's son and daughter came home for the summer, they all began working on the documentary, which cost $143,000 and was financed through various sources. They would question Jack Koto about his past life. His answers were alternately lucid and confused. But he always managed to exude an intelligence and sense of humor.

Though her father, who now resides in a convalescent home, suffers from longterm effects of his treatments, Tanaka doesn't believe he is schizophrenic. When "Donuts" was screened recently at UCLA, Togo Tanaka told the audience he never felt his brother had a mental problem.

"He said my father was definitely an outsider," Tanaka says. "He had a very independent way of thinking about things, but no way was he crazy."

Her father, she says, couldn't handle the fact that Japanese-Americans were forced into camps. "He had strong feelings," Tanaka says. "I was told he was extremely intelligent. Because he was so young, he was very impatient and frustrated. Of course, people would say, 'Something is wrong with this person.' I don't think people had bad intentions. I think we get a label and to try to undo the label is really hard. The more you try to undo it, the more resistance there is from the outside."

Lily Tanaka's response to the internment was to forgot about it. "It was only when I entered my teens and became a lot more rebellious that I asked my mother a few questions," Tanaka says. "But it hurt her so badly I would just back off."

Subconsciously, Tanaka says, she always believed that if she found her father everything would be made right in her life. "I found my father and it wasn't all right," she says. "I would have to be his parent. It freaked me out big-time. Oddly, finding my father did make everything all right. If you look at him as a human being, in spite of all the things he had to encounter, he was able to survive. And I was able to find him."

"P.O.V.: Who's Going to Pay for These Donuts, Anyway?" airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on KPBS and 10 p.m. on KCET .

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