Photographer from Japan lives in land of Navajos

March 13, 1995|By The Arizona Republic

FORT DEFIANCE, Ariz. -- Now that Kenji Kawano's photos of aging Navajo code talkers have been exhibited in his native Japan, a growing number of young Japanese are knocking on his door here on the reservation.

For almost 20 years, Mr. Kawa- no's work in the land of the Navajos was ignored by his countrymen. But the story of his long obsession with his nation's former enemies -- employed by the U.S. Marine Corps as a kind of secret weapon during World War II -- has been appearing on Tokyo television and in Japanese magazines, making him better known.

His Japanese visitors want to know how they, too, can live among the camera-shy Navajos and do similar work.

"I used to help them," said Mr. Kawano, 45. "I thought it was a good opportunity for Japanese people to know Native Americans. But these young people are very selfish. They want everything, and they want it now. It's very sad.

"When I was 20, I had to do everything for myself, and I knew gaining the confidence of the Navajo people would take years."

Mr. Kawano said friends in Japan thought he was crazy for giving up a good job at a Japanese magazine and going off to a strange land to document the code talkers. And for marrying a Navajo woman.

Now that prestigious Tokyo galleries are showing his work, Mr. Kawano's friends wonder why he continues to live in one of the most isolated communities in America to work on a new project. This involves photographing Navajo fathers and sons, sheepherders, bronco busters, range riders.

Mr. Kawano, whose father was being prepared for a suicide mission when World War II ended, first heard about the Navajos shortly after he arrived in the United States at the age of 24.

Japanese units battling Americans in the Pacific were able to monitor Marine Corps radio transmissions but were never able to break the code devised from the Navajo language.

"I used to go to antique stores on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, and the owner of one of these stores told me about Indians," Mr. Kawano said. "I got on [a] Greyhound bus and came out here."

To learn English he pumped gas at a Navajo-owned service station in Ganado and sold butane and candy. To learn Navajo, he began to thumb rides with Navajo families.

One of the Navajos who picked him up was Carl Gorman, a former code talker who began introducing him to the closely knit code group.

"Finally, they accepted the fact that I wanted to tell their story in photographs. They were very proud of their wartime contribution, and they were happy that they would get recognition this way," Mr. Kawano said.

The code talkers "are heroes of the Navajo nation," Mr. Kawano said.

"They are heroes to all the American nation. Many young Navajos can now look at their grandfathers as heroes."

Mr. Kawano's work became less obscure in 1990, after Northland Press in Flagstaff, Ariz., published Mr. Kawano's book, "Warriors," containing 75 code-talker portraits.

Exhibitions followed in 1993 in Tokyo and 1994 in other parts of Japan.

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