Yamada, Mitsuye (1923—)

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Yamada, Mitsuye (1923—)

Japanese-born American writer. Name variations: Mitsuye May Yamada; Mitsuye Yasutaka Yamada. Born in Fukouka, Japan, on July 5, 1923; came to the United States, 1926; naturalized citizen, 1955; daughter of Jack Kaichiro Yasutake (an interpreter) and Hide (Shiraki) Yasutake (a seamstress); New York University, B.A., 1947; University of Chicago, M.A., 1953; further graduate study at both the University of Chicago and University of California, Irvine; married Yoshikazu Yamada (a research chemist); children: Jeni, Stephen, Douglas, Hedi.

Selected works:

Camp Notes and Other Poems (1976); Lighthouse (1976); Desert Run: Poems and Stories (1989); Sowing Ti Leaves: Writings by Multicultural Women (co-editor, 1992).

Mitsuye Yamada's parents were U.S. residents making a brief visit to Japan when she was born there in 1923. She was raised in Seattle, Washington, from the age of three and became a naturalized citizen in 1955. Her father Jack Kaichiro Yasutake was the founding president of the Seattle division of the Senryu (Japanese poet) Society and also worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Immigration Service. He was suspected of spying after the Pearl Harbor attack during World War II, a claim that led to his arrest and the incarceration of his family. Beginning in 1942, Yamada and her family were held at the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. She and her brother were allowed to leave the camp two years later after renouncing their Japanese heritage and loyalty to the emperor. Their parents, however, refused to do so and were kept at the camp throughout the war.

In 1947, Yamada earned a bachelor's degree in English and art from New York University, and in 1953 a master's degree in literature from the University of Chicago. She continued graduate study at the University of California, Irvine, then began teaching in 1966 as an instructor at Cypress College in California. In 1970, she joined the faculty of Fullerton College as an instructor, becoming an associate professor in 1976. The focus of her teaching was ethnic and children's literature and creative writing. In 1975, Yamada also accepted the position of coordinator of the women's program at Fullerton College. In addition to teaching, she served as a writer-in-residence at Pitzer College and San Diego University. She organized lecturer workshops and women's conferences and also gave poetry readings in California.

The years Yamada spent at the Idaho camp with her family shaped her identity and became the focus of much of her life's work. In 1976, she published Camp Notes and Other Poems, which explores her individual identity despite the predominance of American racial prejudice. She intended the book to disclose the discrimination inherent in America during World War II and foster open discussion of the issue. Although she completed the book soon after the war ended, it was not published until 1976 because of American restrictions on Asian-American publishing. The book allowed Yamada not only to break with American prejudice, but to overcome the limitations Japanese society had placed on women.

As a community college professor, Yamada offered a course linking biology and poetry, an indication of her dedication to multicultural and multidisciplinary studies. The class involved field trips into the California wilderness for research. In her mid-60s, Yamada published Desert Run: Poems and Stories, thought to be inspired by her field trips, in which she returns to the Idaho concentration camp and reveals the inner being of a woman without a sense of security. For Yamada, feminism and ethnicity are fused. Her work has been anthologized in Poetry from Violence and The Japanese-American Anthology, both published in 1976. She has contributed to various literary magazines, including Velvet Wings, Willmore City, and Plexus.

In 1981, she and Nellie Wong collaborated on "Mitsuye and Nellie: Two Asian-American Women Poets," a biographical documentary made for public television. In this production, Yamada returns to her mother's experience and the harsh realities of the retention camp, worsened by her mother's refusal to renounce her Japanese identity. Although Yamada eschewed this identity and was left to forge her own, she was guided by her mother's hope for education, equality, and human rights in America.

Yamada had volunteered for Amnesty International in the early 1960s and eventually attained a position on the national board of Amnesty International USA. She participated in national committees to promote Asian-American awareness of human rights issues and encouraged participation in various movements. In this position, Yamada also represented the board on trips to Japan, South Korea, and other Asian countries.

She was a member of the board of directors and chair for the Pacific Asian-American Center.

In the late 1990s, Yamada was working on a novel and a theater project focusing on the Asian American women's experience. In addition to her academic and writing pursuits, she was a member of the International Women's Writing Guild, National Women's Political Caucus, Council of Interracial Institutions, American Civil Liberties Union, Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, Academy of American Poets, Poets and Writers, and the Pacific Asian-American Center. She also founded the Multi Cultural Women Writers of Orange County, which published an anthology, co-edited by Yamada, Sowing Ti Leaves: Writings by Multi-Cultural Women.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Contemporary Authors. Vols. 77–80. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1979.

Peck, David, ed. Identities and Issues in Literature. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1997.

Cyndia Zwahlen , editor and writer, Phoenix, Arizona