Photo/IllutrationKan Suzuki, grandson of a photographer who worked in New York a century ago, captures the special occasion April 22 at Laquan Studio in Kichijoji in western Tokyo. (Taeko Hiraoka)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

A sepia-toned photograph of a young man taken in New York almost a century ago was all Akira Sato had to go on, other than that the portrait was of his late grandfather.

Sato, 40, wanted to know more, and his quest eventually brought two Tokyo families together who otherwise would never have met.

Sato was going through his grandmother's possessions after her death when he came across the early photograph of his grandfather. The image shows a dapper young man in a suit and tie with well-groomed hair, sitting in a chair, one hand in his pocket and sporting just the hint of a smile.

Sato, a photographer who lives in Tokyo’s Nerima Ward, wondered when and where the portrait was taken.

He found a clue on the cardboard mount for the photo: “LAQVAN STVDIO. FIFTH AVE. NEW YORK.”

He knew that his grandfather, Tetsuzo Mizuno, left for the United States about a century ago to promote Buddhist teachings, had studied at a college in Colorado and worked in a business involved in foreign trade.

Although Sato did not understand what “LAQVAN STVDIO” meant, he assumed the portrait was taken while his grandfather was in the United States.

Sato went online to learn more, but did not find anything useful.

By chance, Ikuo Suzuki, 87, was updating the Facebook page of his photography business in Kichijoji, western Tokyo.

He added a detailed history of his photo studio founded by his late father, Seisaku Suzuki.

Seisaku went to New York in 1914 to study the latest techniques in photography. Seven years later, Seisaku opened a studio in Manhattan, at a prime location: 542 Fifth Avenue.

He named it “LAQUAN STUDIO.”

His business apparently took off. It was located a few blocks from the iconic Rockefeller Center and Grand Central Station.

Seisaku, who went by the name Rakan Suzuki, specialized in portrait photos. Among his many customers was famed bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi, according to the studio’s webpage.

Suzuki’s Facebook post caught Sato’s attention in March. Thrilled at the prospect of finally finding a clue to his inquiry, he left a comment on the page. “I may have found an old photo taken at your father’s New York studio.”

Sato and Suzuki got in contact, and quickly concluded that the letter “V” printed on the mounted cardboard of the old photo was actually “U.”

It emerged that the cardboard mounts were used during the first five or so years after Seisaku opened his studio on Fifth Avenue.

“My father named the studio after Gohyaku Rakan,” Suzuki told Sato, referring to the 500 disciples of Buddha who attained nirvana. “I think it was my father who photographed your grandfather, and it must have been around 1923.”

Thus, the key to the mystery that Sato had assumed must lie overseas was only about 7 kilometers away from where he lives.

Almost 100 years after their forebears met in New York, Sato and Suzuki came face-to-face at Laquan Studio in Kichijoji in April.

Sato brought 11 members of his family and relatives to the “reunion.”

The two families, looking at the old photo that unexpectedly connected them, were buzzing with questions about how the two men's paths crossed in New York all those decades ago.

“They must have been strong-willed,” said one of them. “If it weren't for a strong desire to learn, they would have never gone to the United States,” said another.

Sato asked to have his family portrait taken at the studio as a memento.

On this occasion, Seisaku’s 58-year-old grandson Kan, a photographer and president of the studio, stood behind the lens.

“It is rather wonderful that a photo that my grandfather took was found after almost a century,” Kan said. “Taking a picture is like creating a time capsule. Families were brought together by the power of one photograph.”

Kan clicked the shutter. A moment in time was captured, and everybody was smiling.

(This article was written by Taeko Hiraoka and Kengo Maeda.)