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Historic photos showing Sebastopol's Japanese American community finding new life on Instagram

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A treasure trove of old photos depicting the thriving Japanese American community that resided in Sonoma County before World War II is finding new life on Instagram, turning a growing legion of followers into detectives searching for clues into their past.

The response has surprised Matt Sugawara, a videographer based in the Washington, D.C., area who discovered more than 200 photographs shot by his grandfather that captured the lives of family and friends in the 1930s and 1940s.

Sugawara created the Instagram account, JapaneseAmericanVintage, in late May to share the images with the Japanese American community.

“I thought it would only be of interest to the Japanese American community. I was surprised by how many people from the Northern California community were interested too,” he said.

The aging, black-and-white photographs taken by his grandfather, Hisashi Sugawara, show the life of a typical Japanese American teenager just before World War II began, when many would be moved to relocation camps and their fates would change forever.

Images show friends sitting on the lawn of Analy High School, rowing in the Russian River and a team baseball game. One shows Hisashi posed in formal wear next to a female friend dressed in a kimono. They are standing in front of the school and seem to be celebrating an event — a graduation or prom.

The photographs survived an epic journey from California to Colorado and on, before landing in the back of a closet. They were carefully brought back to life by Matt Sugawara, who has been carefully scanning and uploading the images to Instagram in hopes of identifying the individuals in the photos by sharing his family history.

Hisashi Sugawara was born in Idaho in 1921 and moved to Sebastopol at the age of 2. The Sugawara family owned an apple farm in the area and resided there until World War II, when they were forced to move to the Amache Relocation Camp in Granada, Colorado.

The family sold their possessions, packed what they could and moved to the camp, located in southeast Colorado. Hisashi carefully guarded these photos during his time in the internment camp.

For his grandson, the tenderness and care that went into preserving these photos makes them feel priceless.

“Part of the reason I love these photos, I didn’t think about this until after really looking at them, but I realized that when people went to the camps, they only took what they could carry,” Matt Sugawara said. “These photos were one of the few things he took with him to the camp.”

After the war, the family moved to Cincinnati and then dispersed from there, each son moving his own way in life.

Before World War II, a flourishing Japanese American community lived in Sonoma County, where many of the residents worked in apple orchards and farming. The photos display places like Nippon Hall, once a community gathering space, and the Sakura baseball team, a Japanese baseball team that played in the area.

“I find these photos special because they are so candid,” Matt Sugawara said. “It’s really cool to see my grandfather as a teenager, see his life and friends.”

Looking at photos of Hisashi and his friends on the front lawn of Analy High School, one can imagine them there, sitting under the bright sun, waiting to go to class. They are striking to see, knowing the fate of these teenagers, how soon they would be moved to internment camps and their lives would be forever altered.

Other photos were taken in the San Francisco Bay Area and Hawaii during the same period of time.

Matt Sugawara said his family no longer has ties to Sonoma County and has never visited the area. It has only gotten to know Sebastopol through the eyes of its patriarch, decades after he picked up a camera and began documenting his life.

Sugawara hopes followers of his Instagram account will recognize family members and share the images with them. He also wants to honor those in the photos by memorializing their history.

“These generations are dying off. Not too many of the older folk who grew up before the war are around, and I hope to preserve those communities and memories from that generation,” he said.

You can reach La Prensa Sonoma intern Mayra Lopez at mayra.lopez@pressdemocrat.com.

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