A decorative miniature kimono hangs on the wall of Kenji Kawano’s home on the Navajo Nation. It’s a constant reminder of his Japanese heritage and of the home to which he never returned after leaving it nearly 40 years ago. Nearby are stacks and boxes of black-and-white photographs—thousands of them—of the Navajo Code Talkers, the U.S. Marines who helped create an unbreakable code during World War II. Kawano, 63, began photographing the Code Talkers in 1987, more than a decade before the American public was aware of them.
Kawano left his boyhood home of Tokyo when he was 24, after having worked as a graphic designer. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1973 with the idea that he would shoot portraits of Americans and then show his photos at galleries in Japan. But for months he struggled with the language and never found his niche. The owner of an antique shop on Hollywood Boulevard eventually suggested Kawano move to the Navajo Nation and take pictures of “how they live.” The young photographer got on a Greyhound bus for Gallup, New Mexico. “I couldn’t find ways to work in Los Angeles,” he recalls. “Days would go by and I was looking for a project, a photography project.” The Navajo Nation was the project he wanted, the project he needed.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” he says of his first impressions of the vast, 27,000-square-mile reservation. “There was so much open space and no homes. Tokyo is so crowded. Los Angeles is so crowded. I thought, Where do people live? That was the beginning of my life on Navajo.”
Thirty years after the end of World War II, Kawano set up home on the Navajo Nation, armed with a Pentax camera and little else—not even a strong grasp of the English language. “In the 1970s, all the Navajo people spoke Navajo,” Kawano says during an interview at his Window Rock, Arizona, home. “There was a huge language barrier. I had to use my fingers, point at things. Always I had a camera, and I am Oriental, so people looked at me. Bruce Lee movies were popular, and children were always asking me if I could do karate, if I could teach it to them.”
Kawano arrived on the reservation six years after the Navajo-based wartime code was declassified in 1968, which led to the long-overdue recognition and celebration of a group of more than 400 Navajo heroes. “We were not very much aware of the real significance of the Navajo language as a code,” recalls Peter MacDonald, 84, a Code Talker and president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association. “We didn’t know until much later the significance until it was declassified in 1968.
“The Japanese were a very smart, intelligent enemy,” says MacDonald, who later became the chairman of the Navajo tribe. “They were breaking every code out there except Navajo. It was the only code that was never broken… but we learned this only after it was declassified much later.”
Kawano worked as photographer for the tribe and took photos for the Navajo Times before he discovered the subject that would change his life. His introduction to the Code Talkers came as he was hitchhiking from Ganado, Arizona, to the Navajo Nation’s capital in Window Rock, Arizona, and Carl Gorman, one of the original 29 Code Talkers, offered him a ride.
“At that time, no one was taking photos of the Code Talkers,” Kawano says. “I started photographing them in 1987 for a book. In 1993, I had an exhibit in Tokyo, and people wanted to know more about the Code Talkers. I followed the Code Talkers to Washington, D.C., to San Diego, to ceremonies, fairs and other gatherings.”
Kawano’s name soon became synonymous with the Code Talkers, and his work was shown throughout the U.S. and Japan. His photos also helped the Code Talkers claim their place in national and military history, MacDonald says. “He’s probably the one who has spread the most word about the Code Talkers with his beautiful photographs. He’s a good person and he needs to be recognized for the role he played in publicizing the Code Talkers.”
In 2001, nearly 60 years after the Code Talkers served, they received the Congressional Gold Medal. By the
time that recognition came, however, about 300 of the Code Talkers had died. Kawano has photographs of about 125 of the men, he said.
His books and exhibits inspired others to learn more about the Code Talkers, especially the Japanese, who knew little about the Navajo-based code used during World War II.
The code, according to information from the Navajo Code Talkers Association, originated as about 200 terms and grew to about 600 terms by the end of the war. Marines could communicate in 20 seconds what took coding machines 30 minutes to do. The code consisted of Native terms associated with military terms. Words were spelled out using Navajo terms assigned to individual letters of the alphabet.
The Code Talkers unit was formed in 1942 when the first 29 Navajo Marines were recruited, and because many of the youths lacked birth certificates, recruits as young as 15—including MacDonald—were allowed to enlist. Those recruited to work with the code attended a special school.
For most of those young men, the military offered a first look at the world beyond the reservation, which covers portions of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. “It wasn’t scary because you were always with your group with eight or 10, sometimes 15 Navajos in the same unit,” MacDonald recalls. “There were 400 of us that served, 60 or 70 Code Talkers assigned to each division…. You pretty much felt you were home because these Navajos you served with were former classmates on the reservation.”
The Code Talkers changed the course of history at the Battle of Iwo Jima. The Code Talkers are credited with hastening the war’s end and saving countless lives.
During the first 48 hours of the Iwo Jima landing, more than 800 messages in Navajo code were submitted, MacDonald says. The code was used to report supplies, directions, casualties and enemy location. “Every three minutes, a Navajo code was going through the air. If it weren’t for Native Americans, the U.S. never would have taken Iwo Jima.”
Kawano, who works out of a darkroom in his home, a maroon apron wrapped around his waist and slippers on his feet, continues to shoot the Code Talkers, who now are in their 80s or 90s. His portfolio also includes thousands of portraits of Navajo in their daily lives. His latest exhibit, Faces of the Navajo, was in Tokyo during the summer.
“I was in the right place, with the right skills, at the right time,” he says. “Most Japanese people think I’m crazy. I have lived here for many years, taking pictures of one subject—the Navajo.
“Navajo people change. I change.… Now, the Navajo people see me and they know me. The Navajo people have cell phones and they take pictures of me.”