Nobuko Miyamoto


Name
Born November 14 1939
Birth Location Los Angeles
Generational Identifier

Nisei

Nobuko JoAnne Miyamoto (1939- ) is a dancer and musician who found her political and artistic voice in the Asian American movement. She was born on November 14, 1939, in Los Angeles, California, to a mixed-race Nisei father and a Kibei mother. Her family largely escaped the wartime incarceration, spending the war years in Idaho and Utah doing farm labor, before returning to Los Angeles after the war.

She studied dance as a child and won a role at a court dance while a teenager in the film version of The King and I (1955) as well as in Les Girls (1956). She went on to dance on Broadway in Flower Drum Song (1958) and in the film version of West Side Story (1961). Later in the decade, she was a regular in the short-lived ABC series Arrest & Trial, starring Ben Gazzara and Chuck Connors, and later performed as a lounge singer in Seattle. Through out this early phase of her career, she performed under the name "Joanne Miya."

She also became politicized. As she wrote in an autobiographical essay, "After eight months of singing in the nightclub [the Colony Club in Seattle] every night, I began to wonder what I was doing...." She returned to Los Angeles and worked with director Antonello Branca on "Seize the Time," a film about the Black Panthers. In New York, she met Yuri Kochiyama, who took her to a meeting of Asian Americans for Action, where she met musician Chris Iijima. At the 1970 JACL convention, they began to sing and write together, and, after the murder of a young convention goer, were inspired to do a memorial fundraiser. They ended up traveling the country as "Chris and Jo" playing folk inspired protest music that reflected on the Asian American experience, including songs that touched on the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans. In 1973, in collaboration with Iijima and Charlie Chin, she wrote, performed, and recorded A Grain of Sand, the first album of Asian American music. She released a solo album in the 1980s, Best of Both Worlds, and another in 1997 titled To All Relations.

She eventually settled in Los Angeles and continued to perform music with Benny Yee in a group called Warriors of the Rainbow. In the late 1970s, Miyamoto and Yee collaborated on the first Asian American musical called "Chop Suey," which followed the story of a Chinese American girl's struggle to find her voice. This was the first project of Miyamoto's multi-ethnic performing arts organization Great Leap, which was founded to promote Asian American performing arts. Miyamoto has been artistic director of Great Leap since she founded it in 1978, with the goal of addressing the lack of creative productions that addressed Asian American culture. Some of the work they have produced and performed include musicals Talk Story, and Joanne is My Middle Name, the short films Gaman and A Gathering of Joy, and A Slice of Rice, Frijoles and Greens, a touring multicultural theater production.

Miyamoto currently gives lectures, teaches workshops across the country, and lives and works in Los Angeles, California.

Authored by Patricia Wakida

For More Information

Lee, Esther Kim. A History of Asian American Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

KCET Local Heroes: Nobuko Miyamoto.

Ling, Amy, ed. Yellow Light: The Flowering of Asian American Arts. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.

Muromoto, Wayne. "Nobuko Miyamoto: Expressing Culture Through Dance." Hawaii Herald, Sept. 19, 1986, 9.

Yamamoto, J.K. "Still One of the Sharks: Nobuko Miyamoto Looks Back at 'West Side Story' 50 Years Later." Rafu Shimpo, Dec. 14, 2011.