Mitsu Yashima


Name Mitsu Yashima
Born October 11 1908
Died December 7 1988
Birth Location Innoshima, Japan
Generational Identifier

Issei

Mitsu Yashima (1908-88) was an illustrator and watercolor and oil painter, best known for her collaborative work with husband Taro Yashima on the popular children's books, Plenty to Watch (1954) and Momo's Kitten (1961). She was born Tomoe Sasako on October 11, 1908, in Innoshima, Japan, as one of eight children. Her father was the chief designer and general manager of a shipyard, which allowed her to attend college. In 1926, she chose to study art at the Bunka Gakuin in Tokyo, where she met her future husband, Taro Yashima (born Jun Atsushi Iwamatsu), who was studying at the Ueno Imperial Art Academy. The couple were both heavily involved in student politics, and were members of the left-wing Proletarian Artists' Union, which protested against the growing militarism of the Japanese government. She and her husband would spend up to nine months in jail as a result of their political activity, and Yashima reportedly suffered many beatings in the six-foot square cell she shared with from five to fifteen other prisoners.[1]

Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Yashima and her husband decided to enter the United States on tourist visas, leaving behind their very young son Mako in the care of his grandmother. In New York, they studied at the Art Student League and were able to successfully obtain student visas that allowed them to stay in the U.S. On December 7, 1941, the Yashimas were still living in Manhattan as art students, but because they lived on the East Coast, they were able to avoid mass incarceration with other Japanese Americans who lived on the West Coast. Instead, they worked on a project for the Office of War Information, and Taro joined the Office of Strategic Services, where he remained until 1945. While he was on assignment in India, Yashima worked for six months in 1944-45, on a U.S. to Japan propaganda radio program called "Voice of the People," which required her to move to San Francisco. The anti-Japanese hostility she encountered in California forced her to return to New York by the end of the war. Concerns about their work with the U.S. government also convinced the couple to change their names, taking the surname Yashima (meaning "eight islands," a reference to Japan), which they kept for the rest of their lives.[2]

In 1949, they were finally able to arrange for their son Taro to join them in the United States and the family was granted permanent U.S. residency status. Their daughter, Momo, was born in 1948 in New York's Lower East Side. During this period, Yashima was the main breadwinner, earning money doing piecework such as painting designs on hand lotion dispensers sold in department stores.[3]

In the early 1950s, the Yashima family moved to Los Angeles, California, and opened the Yashima Art Institute and the East West Studio, where she occasionally taught classes, and was active with the Women's Strike for Peace Group. Throughout the 50s, she and her husband co-illustrated and wrote several successful children's books. In 1968, growing tensions forced her to leave her husband and move to San Francisco, once their daughter had graduated from college.

For the following decades, she lived in Bernal Heights, teaching art in the Japanese community at Kimochi and the Japantown Art and Media Workshop. She also gave lectures at the University of California, Berkeley, and contributed to numerous early Asian American newsletters and magazines, and became a mentor and inspiration for younger Asian American activists.

Throughout her life, she remained politically active and creating art, making portraits of friends and family, still lifes, landscapes and politically informed illustrations. She also made an appearance as the grandmother in John Korty's "Farewell to Manzanar," a two-hour film about the wartime mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, a film which also featured her daughter Momo and son Mako, who was now an established Hollywood actor. In 1980, a solo exhibition, Mitsu Yashima: An Exhibit of Artworks from the Past 40 Years, was mounted at the Japanese American Citizens League National Headquarters in San Francisco.

In 1983, Yashima returned to Los Angeles where she lived with her daughter for the last five years of her life.

She died on December 7, 1988, in Los Angeles, California.

Authored by Patricia Wakida

For More Information

Fong Suzin, Joyce Kawasaki, and Jeanne Quan. "The People's Artist: Mitsu Yashima." In Asian Women. Berkeley: Asian American Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 1971. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1975. [An interview of Yashima by young Asian American women activists.]

Mirikitani, Janice, ed. Ayumi: A Japanese American Anthology. San Francisco: Japanese American Anthology Committee, 1980.

Yashima, Mitsu. "Letter to Mako to Meet Again." Common Ground, Spring 1948. 41-46. http://www.unz.org/Pub/CommonGround-1949q1-00041.

———. "Momoko's Street." Glamour, February 1952.

Footnotes

  1. Judy Stone, "Mitsu Yashima — A U.S. Heroine," San Francisco Chronicle, December 4, 1975, accessed on Sept. 17, 2013 at http://www.criticjudystone.com/mitsu.html.
  2. Gordon H. Chang, Mark Dean Johnson, and Paul J. Karlstrom, editors, Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970'’ (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2008), 467.
  3. Asian American Art: A History, 467.