‘Our Mr. Matsura’ Seattle Filming
By David Yamaguchi
The North American Post
On September 11 – 12, the film crew for the “Our Mr. Matsura” documentary was in Seattle doing what they could to “connect the dots” on noted Issei photographer Frank Matsura’s brief stays in Seattle (1901 – 1903; 1904). The filmmakers were in quest of answers to two key mysteries about Matsura’s enigmatic life: (1) Why didn’t he settle here, where there was already an incipient Japanese community? (2) Why did he instead choose to remain in rural Okanogan County, northeast Washington, until his early death by tuberculosis, in 1913?
A related third question: Where did Matsura develop a sufficient mastery of English to enable him to venture alone into what was terra incognita for Issei?
In his decade in Okanogan County, Matsura would become its best-known historical photographer. At the county historical society website, entering Matsura’s name in the photo search box generates a list of 2637 surviving images on file!
The film crew was guided in their quest by the photos Matsura made in the Seattle vicinity. Some, like the Penfield monument in Lakeview Cemetery, can be easily revisited today (left). Others can be understood only more generally. For example, photos taken in immigrant hotel-rooms were probably captured in now-vanishing working-class hotels south of Yesler Street (e.g., “Haikara,” napost.com, July 2023). But in which specific hotels they were taken is hard to discern.
▲Frank Matsura Seattle-area photos. The first two are likely Bellevue farms, where the second might border Lake Sammamish (1901-1904). The lower image, split here to show the entire photo clearly with different amounts of contrast, may lie north of Seattle (text). NAP welcomes reader input on these images. Photos: OCHS
Similarly, the outdoor landscapes on which Matsura photographed fellow young Issei merit review by locals familiar with the terrain. For example, one waterfront photo may be north of Seattle, as is suggested by its visible bedrock at the surface. In this respect, the scene contrasts with most of Seattle, where actual rock lies 300 feet belowground.
If the latter photo was taken near Bellingham, it opens the possibility that Matsura spent some time at the Japanese baptist church there. That church provided dormitory housing for newly arrived Japanese “school boys,” helped them find day jobs and taught them English at night.
The above is my own theory, based on the experience of my paternal grandfather, whose English learned there helped him across the rest of his life. Matsura may also have had an affiliation with the Seattle Japanese Baptist Church, based on his photo of the original church at Maynard and Jackson.
Other interpretations of Matsura’s life offered by Seattle-area film volunteers included the opportunities that Okanogan County offered to photograph the vanishing American frontier — lost in urbanizing 1903 Seattle — and Matsura’s dwindling health. The latter may have motivated him to leave a lasting record.
The film crew’s schedule includes continuing the shoot in Okanogan County (Oct.) and in Japan (spring 2024). The premier is scheduled for early 2025. In the meantime, the trailer is here:
A remaining reader question at this point might be “Who was Penfield, whose pro-minent family monument appears at the top of this column?”
Norman K. Penfield (1831 – 1911) was the “founding grandpa” of the local family.
Born in Connecticut, he migrated west with wife Frances (maiden name Parsons, 1832 – 1923). As the internet lists Penfield as “Acting Master, US Navy (USS Supply), 1861 – 1865,” he was a US Civil War veteran. The Penfields were accompanied by Frances’ younger brother, Edgar B. Parsons (1841 – 1911). The Penfields had five children, buried around the monument, of whom two died in childhood.
To find the Penfields, walk north along the ridge crest from the well-known Bruce Lee gravesite (“Lake View Cemetery,” napost.com, July 2016) to the tall, white granite angel visible from there (below). The Penfield monument stands just west of the angel. It fronts a staircase descending from the east-west road there to a mausoleum.
To locate the Penfield monument for the film crew, Eric Peng, JCCCW museum
co-curator, used Google Maps!
Photo notes. The Penfield monument may become a Nikkei photo destination, as the two page-1 images will appear in the “Our Mr. Matsura” film. To replicate them, consider bringing a small stepladder to stand on, to lower the mausoleum stairwell bannister out of the frame.