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Advertising alumnus Bob Matsumoto (BFA 63) in his home
Advertising alumnus Bob Matsumoto (BFA 63) in his home in 2020. Photo by Juan Posada.

profile / alumni / advertising
February 17, 2020
By: Solvej Schou

Advertising alum Bob Matsumoto’s journey from Manzanar to ArtCenter and a thriving career

The first thing you see when entering Advertising alumnus Bob Matsumoto’s (BFA 1963) red brick house in Burbank is an enormous American flag pinned to an archway on the front porch.

The flag was given to the longtime creative director, graphic designer and filmmaker and his wife Linda by U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, and it flaps forcefully in the wind. For Matsumoto, who was incarcerated as a little boy in California’s Manzanar War Relocation Center—one of 10 internment camps in the U.S. where more than 120,000 Japanese American people were imprisoned during World War II—the visual statement is purposeful and personal.

“It shows the patriotic part of me,” says Matsumoto, seated in his living room. Photos of his wife, children and grandchildren—an American life and legacy—hang alongside reminders of an American history steeped in racism. On one wall is a long black-and-white group portrait, signed “Manzanar 1943 Block 30.” In the photo, a 4-year-old Matsumoto wears a tiny button-down sweater, his hands clasped, surrounded by his family. On another wall is Matsumoto’s poster Remembrance, which he created in 2017 to honor the Japanese American families forcibly removed from their homes and imprisoned following Executive Order 9066 in 1942. The poster, he says, is “a reminder that this happened, and that we can’t let it happen again.”

Bob Matsumoto as a 4-year-old boy incarcerated in California
Bob Matsumoto as a 4-year-old boy incarcerated in California's Manzanar War Relocation Center, 1943, during World War II. Photo courtesy of Matsumoto.
Bob Matsumoto
Bob Matsumoto's Remembrance poster and shirt, which he designed and created in 2017 to honor the Japanese American families forcibly removed from their homes and imprisoned following Executive Order 9066 in 1942. Image courtesy of Matsumoto.

Matsumoto’s journey from Manzanar to ArtCenter to a career of advertising campaigns for clients such as Volkswagen, American Airlines and Honda is one of survival, hard work and endurance. Born in Oakland, Matsumoto lived with his family in the farming area of Elk Grove before moving to Sacramento just before World War II. His father, the oldest of nine children, grew strawberries, and eventually owned a market. Soon after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, his father and other Japanese American business owners placed an ad in a local newspaper declaring “YES We Are Americans.”

A few months later, Matsumoto, his brother, parents, aunts and uncles were all shuttled into trains, detained in Arcadia and then interned at Manzanar.

1943 group portrait that includes Bob Matsumoto and his family when he was 4 ye
A 1943 group portrait that includes Bob Matsumoto and his family when he was 4 years old, all incarcerated in Block 30 of California’s Manzanar War Relocation Center, one of 10 internment camps in the U.S. where more than 120,000 Japanese American people were imprisoned during World War II. Photo courtesy of Matsumoto.

“I remember playing outside with other kids, and guards were there with machine guns,” he says. “Adults around me would ask, ‘Why are we here with guns pointed at us, as Americans, while there is freedom beyond these barbed wires?’ This was the darkest period of our lives.”

When the war ended and Manzanar was closed in 1945, Matsumoto and his family moved to Chicago, where his dad was offered a factory job, and then moved back to Sacramento. In high school, a teacher told Matsumoto, “Bob, you have artistic talent.” So he created posters as the advertising director for his student government. He first learned about ArtCenter from his Sacramento Junior College teacher, artist Wayne Thiebaud.

After serving in the U.S. Navy, Matsumoto landed an apprenticeship in the art department of KCRA, the Sacramento TV station whose owner, Bob Kelly, “changed my life forever,” Matsumoto says. Kelly offered to finance Matsumoto’s ArtCenter education with two caveats: that he pay him back without any obligation to return to KCRA, and that he promise to one day help others. A year later, with a packed portfolio, Matsumoto applied and was accepted into the Advertising program.

Right after graduating from ArtCenter, Matsumoto joined the advertising firm Doyle Dane Bernbach, where he worked for 13 years. The first Japanese American employee in its New York City office, he became a senior art director there, and then in DDB’s Los Angeles office. “I learned that you can use humor in advertising, but make your statements simple and powerful,” Matsumoto says. He received a gold medal award from the Art Directors Club for his 1970 ad for Volkswagen featuring three vehicles and the tagline “Mini. Midi. Maxi.” It was inspired by mini skirts and fashion popular at the time. His 1969 commercial for General Telephone extension phones is part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. He later became a vice president and creative director at Della Femina Travisano, and then founded the firm Matsumoto/Herzog with Bob Herzog in 1980, beating out bigger firms to create campaigns for clients like Tandem Computers and the Southern California Gas Company.

Alumnus Bob Matsumoto speaking to students
Alumnus Bob Matsumoto speaking to students in the Summer 2019 Humanities and Sciences course Human Rights Movements in the U.S., taught by Associate Professor Michelle Katz. Photo by Luis Silva.

Matsumoto not only paid Kelly back for his loan, but he also stayed true to Kelly’s request to use his work and education to help others. In the ‘70s, Matsumoto taught advertising concepts at ArtCenter, and showed students’ portfolios to agencies, jumpstarting the careers of many a creative director. But it’s his short documentary Voices Long Silent, about the devastating experience of interned Japanese Americans, that has had the broadest societal impact. The film was screened during hearings in the early ‘80s for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, whose investigation into the camps led to the recommendation that survivors receive reparations.

Bob Matsumoto
Bob Matsumoto's Remembrance poster, which he designed and created in 2017 to honor the Japanese American families forcibly removed from their homes and imprisoned following Executive Order 9066 in 1942. Image courtesy of Matsumoto.

On a recent day at ArtCenter’s 1111 building, Matsumoto stands in front of students in the Humanities and Sciences course Human Rights Movements in the U.S., taught by Associate Professor Michelle Katz. He talks about Manzanar and screens Voices Long Silent. Later, he passes around his poster Remembrance, which features red, white and blue barbed wire set against a black background.

“That poster means more to me than any work I’ve done in advertising,” he tells the students, while comparing what he experienced to the separation and detainment of migrant children under President Donald Trump’s administration. “Use your talent, change society. Speak up.”