Hungarian-American photographer Tom Haar, 71, who spent several years of his childhood in wartime Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, says he wants to help promote the resort area once again “as an international cultural community.”
Haar returned to Karuizawa this summer and is holding an exhibition featuring his own photographic impression of the town and pictures taken by his late father of life there before and during World War II.
Karuizawa was a hub for cultural exchanges between Japanese and foreigners — mostly Americans and Europeans — before the war, said Haar, who was born in Tokyo and lived in Japan for nearly two decades before his family moved to Hawaii in 1959.
“Karuizawa was like a cultural meeting place. There were people from all over the world,” he said. Renowned artists who lived in the area included French woodblock print artist Paul Jacoulet, who was based in Karuizawa from 1940 to 1960.
Haar’s parents were friends with such people as architect Junzo Sakakura, known as one of the pioneers of modern architecture in Japan, and Isaku Nishimura, one of the founders of Bunka Gakuin in Tokyo. Before the war, his parents often visited Karuizawa with them during the summer, Haar said.
“Karuizawa is very well known in Japan as a summer resort for the rich and famous, but it is hardly known overseas,” he said, adding that it’s “not very international” today.
“It’s geared more toward Japanese tourists or rich people who want to go skiing or play golf or go to onsen (hot springs). I want to help make Karuizawa a cultural town instead of just a commercial place, where people go for shopping in the outlet mall,” he said.
Haar remembers little about his life in Karuizawa. But he took an interest in the resort town when in 2001 he edited a book compiling the works of his father — also a photographer — which had some descriptions of his family’s life in Karuizawa.
After the book was published, Haar said many Americans told him they had never heard of Karuizawa and asked him questions about its location and why his family was there.
Since then, Karuizawa has been sitting in the back of his mind, and he always wanted to do something — “maybe a photographic essay on it,” he said.
In 2008, Haar visited Karuizawa for the first time in 50 years — staying there for three months on a Fulbright grant to do research on the history of the town. He also took photos — mainly of trees — and created “dreamlike images” of what he remembered of Karuizawa during his summer stays there as a very small child.
After his grant ended, he returned to Hawaii and developed the color photos in the dark room, ending up with negative black-and-white photos in which the dark and bright images were reversed.
“Everything you see in white is actually black,” he said of his works.
Haar said that during the 2008 visit, he was happy to see some things in Karuizawa that were directly related to his parents.
One incident happened while taking a walk near the area where his family lived during the war.
“I accidentally came upon a bunch of watercress there, which was very close to a water spring that came from Mount Asama. I remembered my mother talking about watercress,” he said.
“My mother found watercress by the stream near our house, and used it in many ways — in soup, sauteed, or raw as a salad. During the war, Japanese didn’t eat watercress — it was more European. It became an important food source for us.”
Wrapping up his research, he held a photo exhibition in Hawaii at the beginning of this year and is holding the exhibitions in Japan this summer — in Karuizawa and Yokohama.
His parents, who had lived in Paris before coming to Tokyo, were invited to come to Japan in 1940 by the then International Cultural Society of Japan. His father was asked to teach modern photography and Hungarian culture in Japan. Haar was born in Tokyo the following year.
After the war broke out, the family evacuated to Karuizawa when Haar was 2. They were there for three years, surviving the cold winters and meager rations toward the end of the war.
According to the account of his late father, Francis Haar, in the 2001 book, all foreigners “were ordered to leave Tokyo” a few years into World War II.
“Nationals belonging to the Allies had to leave Japan or be interned in a prison camp near Kobe. Those from Nazi Germany and fascist Italy were sent to a place near Mount Fuji. Because Hungary was not considered an enemy nation, (the family) was sent to the resort town of Karuizawa along with citizens of other neutral nations, including Swiss, Turks, and South Americans,” his father wrote.
At one point, the foreign population of Karuizawa “swelled to over 3,000,” said Haar.
After the Pacific War started, the Japanese government in 1943 designated Karuizawa as one of the evacuation areas for foreigners who lived in major cities including Tokyo, and a number of diplomatic missions were relocated there, including the Embassy of the Soviet Union, which was relocated to the Mampei Hotel in 1943.
Although Haar was a small child when the family was in Karuizawa, he could trace back what wartime life there must have been like through the memoirs and photos of his parents.
“They were very trying times,” he said, giving an example of his father having to barter his camera for a sack of potatoes, because “money had no value anymore.”
“We had to cover the windows with black paper to prevent leakage of light as protection against the bombing raids,” he said.
Because food was scarce, he said his mother planted a vegetable garden and had two milking goats to feed his sister and him.
When the war was over, the family moved to Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, where his father opened a photo studio. He later moved the studio to Tokyo, where his mother ran a popular Hungarian restaurant. Haar himself attended the now-defunct St. Joseph International School in Yokohama.
The whole family emigrated to the United States in 1959, settling in Hawaii, where Haar lives today.
After graduating from a university in San Francisco with an art degree, he went on to do postgraduate studies in visual design at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.
“I learned photography from my father,” he said, adding that he worked as a freelance photographer in New York for 15 years. Haar then taught at universities in South Korea, Japan and Hawaii, while holding more than 15 solo photo exhibitions.
“I want people to understand that Karuizawa is a very special place — with an international flavor to it. Some 19th century European architecture like the Mampei Hotel still remains,” he said.
The origin of Karuizawa as a resort goes back to 1886 when Canadian missionary Alexander Croft Shaw visited the town in the summer to ease his asthmatic condition, and became intrigued by the beauty of the location.
He built the first summer villa in the town in 1888, which was followed by construction of many European-style summer villas, hotels, restaurants and churches in the 1890s.
Haar says his dream is to work with local residents to build several museums in Karuizawa.
“I want to transform French painter Jacoulet’s house into a museum, and also establish a World War II museum,” he said.
“I want to help make Karuizawa an ‘art community.’ I also want to establish a museum that has a permanent collection of artistic images — not magazine images of Karuizawa, but something more personal. Personal remembrances and personal impressions of Karuizawa.”
The photo exhibition “Karuizawa Dreamscape” will run from Tuesday until Aug. 26 at Karuizawa Tourist Information Center, 2F (0267-42-5538), and from Aug. 31 to Sept. 28 at Gallery Past Rays in Yokohama (045-661-1060).