Isao Tanaka, photographer and ‘No-no,’ dies

Isao Tanaka, a so-called “No-no” who resisted the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans and took countless community photographs that were featured in various media, passed away peacefully at his San Francisco home on Oct. 27, 2019. He was 93.

He was born the eldest of four children of Satsumi and Sasaichi Tanaka in Santa Maria, Calif. and they lived in the nearby town of Guadalupe, relocating with his siblings and mother for two years to the Tanaka hometown of Jigozen, Japan before coming back.

After his father died in 1938, the family was forcibly relocated to the Tulare Assembly Center in California and then to the Gila River, Arizona concentration camp during World War II. Because he and then his mother answered “No, No” to the so-called “loyalty questionnaire,” the family was relocated to the Tule Lake Segregation Center.

After the war, the family relocated to San Francisco, and he attended art and photography classes at the City College of San Francisco. In 1964, he started work as a district photographer for a group of colleges that included the College of San Mateo and Cañada College, retiring in 1993.

An auto accident affected his neck, but despite this, he went on to photograph event after event, including protests and marches such as the American Indian Movement occupation of Alcatraz Island. He would share photos with his subjects, and some were also featured in community newspapers, and eventually books and exhibits.

Unable to carry his camera and equipment, he eventually gave up his photography, and underwent surgery to relieve pressure on his spinal cord in 2008.

“Isao was a brilliant and insightful documentary photographer who captured the life of the community,” said fellow photographer Richard Wada. “As a teacher and mentor he influenced a generation of photographers.”

“Until the end, he loved his books, his movies and his friends and family,” wrote niece Nanayo Silver. “Until the end, he was kind, gentle and generous.”

A memorial service will be held Saturday, Nov. 9, 4 p.m., at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco,1881 Pine St.

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