Wataridori: Birds of Passage

Year Released
Film Length(s)
37 mins
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This important tribute to the issei (first generation Japanese Americans) integrates the stories of three people who describe a collective history through their personal memories.

Featured review

Lyricism and visual beauty are evident in this film as three issei (first generation Japanese Americans) describe a collective history through their personal memories.
Third World Newsreel
Third World Newsreel


Three issei (first generation Japanese Americans) describe a collective history through personal memories. Miura, a fisherman and wanderer, came to America by ship as an apprentice steward to see the world. The director’s father, Harukichi, a gardener, remembers the little boys who taunted him as he bicycled from his job with a lawnmower tied to his back post World War II. Through Mrs. Sumi, we learn how issei farmers developed the prosperous Imperial Valley farmlands despite the Alien Land Law. In a moving scene, several issei talk about the World War II evacuation. And in one pilgrimage, three generations pay tribute to lives spent at Manzanar concentration camp.

Robert Nakamura’s WATARIDORI: BIRDS OF PASSAGE stands as one of the quintessential documentary portraits celebrating the legacy of the issei, or first-generation Japanese Americans. It had the distinction of being presented at The White House in 1976 as part of America’s Bicentennial festivities, and is still an unequalled study of early Asian American community-building.

Awards and Screenings

• First Place, Cultures in Focus Bicentennial Celebration Film Showcase Competition, 1976

Director Commentary

WATARIDORI: BIRDS OF PASSAGE was very personal because I wanted to do a piece on my father, but I felt that it didn't really represent the whole Japanese immigrant story. Not that one film could it , so I decided to use three people. (There was) my father, who grew up in a fishing village and ate rice once a year, and lived on sweet potatoes for the rest of the year, and how he came over. And then Mrs. Sumi, a widow, gave us a story of Japanese women immigrants, and then there was Mr. Miura who was a good example of an adventurer or an entrepreneur. He just wanted, to come and see the world and he settled here. So the big questions was, why did these people come over (with no plan) to stay here and make some money and go back (to Japan), but eventually (decided to) stay here and raised a family?

WATARIDORI really started out with wanting to do a film on my father's experience, because I always wondered how he could work nine hours a day and for six days a week at a very labor-intensive job. But when I interviewed him and really talked to him in depth, I realized where he came from and the economic situation he was in. So I wanted to capture all of that.

— Excerpted from an oral history conducted by Adam Hyman and Pauline Stakelon, May 23, 2009

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