Celebrating Women’s History Month with Mitsuye Yamada and Wakako Yamauchi

In honor of Women’s History Month, we want to highlight the work of two pioneering Japanese American women.

Mitsuye Yamada is a poet, essayist, activist, and former professor of English. In 1942, when Mitsuye was 17, she and her family were sent to America’s concentration camps, where they were forced to stay for the duration of World War II. After the war, she received a BA from New York University, then an MA from the University of Chicago, and an honorary doctorate from Simmons College.

traci kato-kiriyma, curator for Discover Nikkei’s monthly poetry column, recently wrote about Mitsuye, who, at age 95, has a new book,  Full Circle, New and Selected Poems, being published in June 2019. Here’s an excerpt of Mitsuye’s thoughts on her new book:

“Many of these poems seem to focus on my relationships with my family. My parents had always taught my brothers and me to move forward in life, no matter what obstacles are placed before us, I continue to hear their admonitions and put them into writing. Each of us are keepers of our unique family histories. Writing them down in whatever form you choose is a way of keeping your family lore alive.

Also you might say I’m quite opinionated, and can’t help responding to whatever that is going on around me and tend to express these thoughts in poetry. At my present advanced age, I decided it is about time I published another book.”

You can read the full article and a few of Mitsuye’s poems here:  http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2019/2/21/nikkei-uncovered-27/

Wakako Yamauchi, who died in 2018 at the age of 93, was a Nisei playwright. Her most celebrated work, And the Soul Shall Dance, is a staple of the Japanese American theatrical repertoire. Ross Levine recently authored a multi-part exploration about her life. Here’s a brief excerpt from Part 1:

“Yamauchi, who was a personal friend of mine, achieved her greatest renown as a playwright, but when relating an incident or articulating her thoughts, she always seemed to be speaking in prose, searching for the mot juste as she gestured broadly with upturned palms.

She was a thin, energetic woman with an oval face, a wide smile and eyes that effortlessly toggled between a mischievous delight and an expression of deep empathy. She was born Wakako Nakamura in the small town of Westmoreland (now Westmorland), socked between Brawley and the Salton Sea in California’s Imperial Valley. There was little ’imperial‘ about life there, and the ’valley‘ was part of the vast Sonoran Desert, flat and barren, its soil encrusted with white alkali, amenable to agriculture only through relentless irrigation.

Yamauchi’s parents, Yasaku and Hama, were Issei—that is, immigrants from a truly imperial land, Japan. They had left their homeland lured by the promise of prosperity and the chance to escape the stifling traditions that defined all aspects of life in the Shizuoka Prefecture southeast of Tokyo. What awaited them in California was the Alien Land Law, first enacted in 1913 and aimed expressly at the Japanese. It prohibited ’aliens ineligible for citizenship‘ from owning agricultural land or leasing it long-term, thus relegating the Nakamuras to the peripatetic life of itinerant tenant farmers.”

You can read all of Part 1, and the rest of the series as well, at: http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2019/1/11/wakako-yamauchi-1/

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