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Sanae Kawaguchi

Name Sanae Kawaguchi
Born June 14 1931
Birth Location Southern California
Generational Identifier

Nisei

Sanae Kawaguchi [Moorehead] (June 14, 1931- ), a versatile Nisei performer and literary artist, made her mark in mainstream circles in New York during the postwar era.

Early Life and "Voluntary Relocation"

Sanae Kawaguchi was born in Southern California, the third of four children. Her father Sakujiro Kawaguchi, a native of Miho, Japan, had labored as a young man on the railroads in the U.S. West before taking up farming. Her mother Fuki Endow Kawaguchi, in addition to her farm work, was an avid Japanese-language poet and diarist. After Sanae's birth, her parents separated and her mother moved to Japan with the children. However, following the death of the youngest child, Fuki Kawaguchi decided to return to the United States and the family was reunited. Sanae Kawaguchi spent the balance of her childhood with her parents and two older sisters on a family farm near Compton in Los Angeles County, where they grew flowers commercially. She later credited her father with helping develop the growing of asters as a popular flower.

The Kawaguchi family's life was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. In the wake of Executive Order 9066 , they were forced to entrust their land to a white agent. Sakujiro Kawaguchi secured a promise of sponsorship from old railroading buddies outside of the excluded zone, and decided to move in March 1942. Fearing that if the family left alone, they would be shot, he organized an auto caravan with a few other families.

The migrants settled in Layton, Utah. Although by their so-called " voluntary evacuation " they escaped the trauma of mass confinement, she later recalled, getting work and sufficient food was difficult. Her family experienced hostility from local whites and tension with prewar Japanese residents, who feared the negative impact of the newcomers. Sakujiro worked in a cannery, and the entire family was forced to labor in the fields as itinerant farmhands during the summers. Because of difficulties finding affordable housing, they lived in a tent, then an abandoned log cabin, and ultimately a chicken coop, carrying water for washing from a well. Fuki Kawaguchi was often too ill to work, and was bedridden for an extended period. Kawaguchi later claimed that the rigors of wartime experience "made me stronger and enlarged and enriched my own world." [1]

Moving to New York

Following the lifting of exclusion, the Kawaguchis returned to Los Angeles, but Sakujiro's farm had been sold to new owners, and he was unable to resume operations. Instead, he was forced to start over and seek work as a gardener. The family moved to a black area in South Central Los Angeles. Sanae found life as a Nisei teenager in postwar California oppressive—beyond prejudice from whites, she felt ostracized by Japanese Americans as different because she had not been confined in camp. Also, she wished to be a dancer, a dream that her conservative father opposed. As a result, after finishing Dorsey High School, Kawaguchi left home and moved to New York City.

Once in New York, she swiftly made a new life for herself in the city's artistic circles. She was accepted as a student by the renowned modern dancer Martha Graham (she studied together with Nisei dancer Alice Uchida, while Yuriko Amemiya Kikuchi was one of her instructors). Kawaguchi remained with Graham's company for eight years, until she severed her Achilles tendon and was forced to give up dancing. She meanwhile worked as a performer and choreographer. In 1953, she performed with Fiorita Rupp's dance company at Hunter College. In 1956, she played a small role in John Patrick's play Teahouse of the August Moon , and then joined a company making a national tour of the play. She appeared in winter stock in Miami and in summer stock in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Back in New York, she staged a production of composer Marvin David Levy's Sotoba Komachi , a one-act opera based on Japanese Noh drama, which opened in July 1957.

Early Children's Books

In addition to her performing interests, Kawaguchi was attracted to art and literature, especially Japanese culture. She attended classes at the New School for Social Research, learned Japanese at the East Asia Institute, and modeled for photographer Elliott Erwitt. Two writer friends, Ronnie Solbert and Jean Merrill, suggested that she write a book for children. Kawaguchi was inspired to tell a story that would draw from Japanese folklore in order to give American children an understanding and appreciation for Japan, in a period still marked by wartime anti-Japanese sentiment. (The book's publicity made clear this viewpoint: "If an American boy were to play and live with a Japanese boy in Japan, here are the things they would do." [2] ) After Kawaguchi completed the manuscript, her friends referred her to their agent, who sold the book to Little, Brown. The work, entitled Taro's Festival Day , was published in summer 1957 (within weeks of the publication of Nisei writer John Okada's novel No-No Boy ). It centered on a Japanese boy's adventures during the Kodomo no hi [Children's Day] holiday, including his special meal and his catching of dragonflies. In addition to writing the story, Kawaguchi produced a cover design and a set of illustrations. Her drawings, which used a new technique called dinobase, were composed of pencil drawings on plastic that were then colored over using brush and ink. Like Miné Okubo 's book illustrations for Friendship Press during the same period, Kawaguchi's designs used modern American graphic styles to portray scenes of traditional Japanese village life.

The appearance of Taro's Festival Day prompted a spurt of media attention, centered on the author's youth and the fact that she produced her own illustrations. Journalist Lee Mortimer promoted the book in his syndicated "New York Confidential" column. Critic Siddie Joe Johnson praised the book in Library Journal as "Full of Child Appeal and Artistic Soundness." Bob Phillips added, "The story is interesting and the drawings, done in the oriental fashion, are wonderful." [3] The book's sales led Little, Brown to commission a new children's book from Kawaguchi.

Kawaguchi's second book, The Insect Concert , appeared with Little, Brown in mid-1958. The plot concerned a boy and girl, Yuki and Yoko, who find a golden cricket and put him in a cage so that he can play with the insect musicians. They care for him and feed him, but they learn that the cricket is unhappy in his cage, and feel obliged to release him. However, on the night of the full moon, when the insects come together to play in the temple garden, the golden cricket returns, and fills the audience with joy by his beautiful song. As with Taro's Festival Day , Kawaguchi produced illustrations based on Japanese themes. Although The Insect Concert did not enjoy the same popular success as Taro's Festival Day , it was well received by critics for its gentle lyricism. Lee Adams lauded the book for its muted charm, whose tone he compared to "the grace and simple dignity of the traditional Japanese bow," and for the "delicacy and clarity" of its drawings. [4]

Later Life and Work

During the years after the publication of The Insect Concert , Sanae Kawaguchi focused her attention on caring for her husband John Moorehead (who had been the stage manager for Teahouse of the August Moon ) and raising the couple's two children, Kathy and Ooty. Starting in the late 1960s, working under the name Sanae Moorehead, she wrote and illustrated educational materials for such companies as Doubleday Multimedia, Random House, and Walt Disney Educational. For example, in 1974 she produced a filmstrip entitled Tales from Silver Lands , adapted from the children's book by Charles Finger, and another based on Laurence Yep's Dragonwings . She also worked as an author on the Math Mystery Theater series.

In the early 1970s Kawaguchi relocated to California and settled in Van Nuys. She put on performances through the federally-funded arts program "Project Reach," using puppetry, film, song and dance to bring Japanese culture to young people. She also taught modern dance classes in Encino. After several years in Southern California, she returned to New York.

After an almost thirty-year absence, Kawaguchi returned to publishing in the new century. In 2004, she translated and coedited a section from her mother's diaries in the annual American culture revue Prospects . In 2007, she self-published the young adult novel A Time of Innocence , a fictionalized version of her family's wartime exile from the West Coast and life in Utah. The novel was notable for dramatizing the largely unknown story of the thousands of Japanese Americans who had left the West Coast during the brief period of so-called "voluntary evacuation." Another significant feature of the novel was its portrayal of the family's two Nisei children, Alice and Kimiko, and their interaction. Kawaguchi designed her characters as archetypes of the Nisei generation, with the older sister being "101% American," perfectionist, and self-controlled, while her younger sister was "Japanesy," free-spirited and independent-minded. In 2013, she self-published her first adult novel, the romance The Secret of the Zen Garden . Set in postwar Japan, it tells the story of an older woman's awakening to life through an unexpected, forbidden love.

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Kawaguchi, Sanae. Taro's Festival Day . Boston: Little, Brown, 1957.

———. The Insect Concert . Boston: Little, Brown, 1958.

———. A Time of Innocence . Xlibris, 2007.

Robinson, Greg. The Unsung Great: Stories of Extraordinary Japanese Americans . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020.

Footnotes

  1. Sanae Moorehead, cited in Jack Edward Cohen, "Transpacific Internments: Constructing 'Little America' and Dismantling 'Little Tokyo'" (Ph.D. Dissertation, College of William and Mary, 2011),68.
  2. "Little, Brown Books for Boys and Girls," Advertisement, This World , May 12, 1957.
  3. Bob Phillips, "Literature for Small Fry Features, Tails, Shoes, Sick Cats, Orientals," Abilene News Reporter , June 23, 1957.
  4. Lee Adams, "Fanciful Tales for Children—One with Oriental Setting," San Rafael Independent-Journal , Nov. 29, 1958, M10.

Last updated Sept. 4, 2020, 2:46 a.m..