Extraordinary Upstander: Tadashi Nakamura | Not in Our Town

Extraordinary Upstander: Tadashi Nakamura

Grade Level: 
Middle School (6-8)
High School (9-12)


Tadashi Nakamura is a 30 year old, fourth-generation Japanese American and second-generation filmmaker. Besides carrying on his parents’ work—his mother is writer/producer Karen L. Ishizuka and his father is director Robert A. Nakamura—Nakamura seeks to tell his community’s history to a new generation.

The first film of the trilogy was Yellow Brotherhood (2003), a personal documentary focused on the meaning of friendship and community through the Yellow Brotherhood youth organization, which was formed in the 1960s to combat youth drug use.

With A Song for Ourselves, his third film, Nakamura depicts his homage to the important early Asian-American Movement and passes on its passion in the hopes of inspiring young people to continue to work—and sing—for social justice.

This lesson addresses the following Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) strategies. You can have students look for these issues and examine them in themselves

  • Self-awareness: Even though Tadashi felt he didn’t have any artistic abilities, he knew he cared about the purpose behind art. He searched himself and found the medium of art that he could participate in.
  • Self-Management: Tadashi stepped outside of his high school experiences to find a meaningful artistic pursuit. He  explored his own cultural history and connected with his grassroots to imbue social meaning into his films.
  • Relationship Skills: Tadashi used film as a way to serve his family, his ethnic group and larger community.
  • Social awareness: Tadashi’s films communicate themes of empowerment and community.
  • Responsible decision-making: Tadashi chose to utilize social filmmaking to pursue his own happiness

1.  Prior to showing the video, briefly explain the primary themes of the video. Use some or all of the following questions (include at least one writing prompt):

  • What do you think the role of art is in society?
  • Do you believe that people are born with creative and artistic talent or do they cultivate it? Explain your answer.
  • Have you been encouraged to explore your creative talents? If so, how?
  • Do you feel like society encourages kids to get involved in social change?

2.  After watching the video, engage students in a dialogue about the film using some or all of the following questions (include at least one writing prompt):

  • How can art be a form of activism? How can it be a catalyst for social change?
  • Tadashi says there’s a lot of pressure for artists to succeed. How does he describe the kind of standards of success that artists are held up against? What are some other ways people can be successful?
  • Why does Tadashi say that grassroots activism starts with understanding your cultural roots. Do you agree? Why or why not?

Extension Activities

  1. Have students research and write a report about the Japanese American internment during World War II. Why were Japanese Americans citizens put into camps? What was happening at that time historically? How do historical events affect the way people are treated? What was the impact on Japanese families? Provide examples.
  2. Watch Tadashi’s film “Yellow Brotherhood” (available on his site at 18 minutes). Use examples from the film to explain how a dedication to personal and political development can help individuals overcome personal problems. Have students write a reflection narrative about the themes of film.
  3. Explore the meaning of grassroots activism. Have students research the history of grassroots activism and compare it with other forms of activism. Have them write an essay summarizing their research findings and  describe the kind of activism that is most effective in achieving social change.
  4. Have the students research the contributions of Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals to this country and the world. Break them into teams to explore the following themes: arts, science, literature, technology. Have the teams create posters and share what they learned.  

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