Ichiro Suzuki slaps one of his signature hits at Safeco Field to the wild cheers of Seattle Mariners fans. In the stands, an elderly Japanese-American...

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Ichiro Suzuki slaps one of his signature hits at Safeco Field to the wild cheers of Seattle Mariners fans.

In the stands, an elderly Japanese-American couple get their first taste of America’s pastime. They marvel at how someone from Japan could become a hero in a culture that demonized them in their youth.

“It’s hard to believe how they used to hate us,… ” one remarks.

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The opening scene of a groundbreaking TV drama in Japan, shot mainly in Seattle, tells the story of Japanese Americans over the past century through the lens of one family.

The drama is stirring conversations in Japan and the U.S., online and in local community centers, about a painful topic that older generations on both sides had put behind them and that younger ones hardly know.

The 10-hour miniseries, “99 Years of Love: Japanese Americans,” attracted 20 million viewers — nearly a fifth of the population — when it aired on the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) in Japan over five nights in November.

The series has been subtitled in English and made its U.S. debut Saturday before an audience of 250 at Nisei Veterans Hall in Seattle. Showings continue here and in Los Angeles this month.

The story follows generations of the fictional Hiramatsu family, immigrants who flee poverty in Japan and make a living as farmers in Washington state. They face discrimination and see their lives torn apart by World War II.

Their first U.S.-born child, named Ichiro, is incarcerated with other people of Japanese descent in detention camps after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. He later fights as a U.S. soldier in the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the segregated, all Japanese-American unit that became the most highly decorated in Army history.

The show’s popularity surprised even its producer, Tatsuya Juni, TBS vice president in charge of TV programming. Juni, who visited Seattle for the first U.S. showing, said he didn’t expect a large audience to embrace such a difficult, serious topic.

“There are people who experienced this era who are still alive,” he said. “These people typically don’t wish to talk about it.”

As a result, “many young people don’t even know such a war has existed,” he said.

Juni said he hopes to send a message to younger Japanese about the spirit and strength of those early immigrants, who overcame harsh conditions through perseverance and unity.

“The Japanese Americans are inheriting more of the traditional Japanese spirit,” he said. “Japanese today know about such concepts. It’s somewhere in them. But they might be lacking confidence.”

Juni worked with veteran writer Sugako Hashida, 85, to develop a series on the American experience for TBS’ 60th anniversary. Scenes filmed around Pioneer Square last May depicted life in early 20th-century Seattle, while other parts were filmed in Eastern Washington, Idaho and California.

For Hashida, the drama has a personal connection.

At age 20, she worked as an accountant for the Imperial Japanese navy near Osaka. As the war was drawing to a close, she was instructed to take poison to commit suicide if the U.S. military appeared, Juni said. That didn’t happen, but the wartime experience shaped her views.

“She thought Japanese didn’t care much about America and America didn’t care about Japan,” Juni said.

Decades later, Hashida saw Ichiro playing for the Mariners on television and was stunned to see many Americans cheering for him. To her, it symbolized how far Japanese in America and U.S.-Japan relations have come, and she wanted the series to reflect that.

For the script, TBS consulted with Seattle nonprofit Densho, which is compiling an archive of stories of Japanese Americans incarcerated during the war.

“For us it was a great opportunity, because the series encouraged people to learn more about Japanese Americans and their history,” said Densho Executive Director Tom Ikeda. Traffic to Densho’s website surged during the broadcast.

Ikeda said he hoped it might encourage Japan, a shrinking country with an aging population, to open its borders. “Look at how much Japanese immigrants have contributed to American society,” he said.

Local Japanese Americans have found bits of their own family stories in the drama, and say the lessons about anti-immigrant sentiment ring true today.

“If it’s one story, it’s a thousand stories,” said Janice Urano, who was born in a Colorado camp. As her father fought in the U.S. Army, her mother raised two kids in the camp. Urano said generations growing up without such hardships should understand the history better.

Seattle native Toshi Okamoto, a veteran of the 442nd Infantry, agreed. “This is such a traumatic time that others should know about. It makes for a better country.”

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

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