Yasuo Sasaki


Name Yasuo Sasaki
Born October 31 1911
Died May 2 2008
Birth Location Salt Lake City
Generational Identifier

Nisei

A pioneering Nisei poet and intellectual, Yasuo Sasaki (1911–2008) was also a physician and defendant in a landmark civil rights case.

Born in Idaho in 1911, Yasuo Sasaki was the first of seven children of Shuichi Sasaki, a Japanese immigrant poet and journalist who wrote under the name of Sasabune Sasaki. (Among the elder Sasaki's works is the 1950 memoir Yokuryujo Seikatsuki [Life in Camp], on his experience as an enemy alien interned at Missoula, Montana). Yasuo Sasaki grew up in Salt Lake City, where he distinguished himself in both science and literature. He enrolled at University of Utah at the end of the 1920s as a science major, with the goal of studying for a career as a doctor (the profession of multiple generations of his father's family). He meanwhile became absorbed in literature. Sasaki wrote for the University Pen, a student literary magazine, won university prizes for his poetry, and was selected to write the class poem. Meanwhile, he became founding editor of the review Reimei, the first-ever Nisei literary magazine. His goal was to encourage Japanese Americans to take pride in their Japanese ancestry and to draw from their cultural heritage in their self-expression. The journal, first published in 1931, featured contributions from local Nisei (plus "Hoshima Airan," a white friend who wrote under a Japanese pseudonym). Four issues were produced before the journal folded in 1933. Sasaki likewise contributed pieces to West Coast Nisei newspapers. In 1932 his short story, "Young Atheists," appeared in the first Sunday literary page of Kashu Mainichi. Editor Larry Tajiri later pronounced it one of "the highpoints" of prewar Nisei writing.[1]

In 1933, following his graduation from University of Utah, Sasaki enrolled in the graduate program in biochemistry at University of Cincinnati, where he served as an instructor. He received his Ph.D. there in 1936, authoring a doctoral thesis on vitamin deficiency diseases. During his graduate school years, he spent a large amount of time in Los Angeles, where his family had settled. He worked as an editor for the San Francisco-based newspaper Shin Sekai, contributed poems and stories to the West Coast press, and joined the Nisei Writers Group, a circle of West Coast literary Nisei. Sasaki coedited their mimeographed magazine, Leaves. (At least three issues of Leaves were produced, but only one exists in public archives). Through the Writers Group, he met Lily (Lillie) Oyama. The two were married in 1937. In the years after 1936, Sasaki continued his biochemistry studies. As a medical researcher on a team led by Dr. Thomas Spies, Sasaki spent six months in Birmingham, Alabama, doing fieldwork. The team won renown for proving that pellagra, a disease that had long plagued the South, could be cured by niacin (vitamin B3). Throughout this period, he continued to contribute stories and essays to the West Coast Nisei press. In 1939, he helped organize another literary group, the Nisei League of Writers and Artists, and helped put together its mimeographed publication, The Letter.

At some point during the late 1930s, Sasaki enrolled at University of Cincinnati Medical School, where he was awarded his M.D. in 1941. The Sasakis separated geographically, as Lily and daughter Mimi resided with the Sasaki family in Los Angeles. In 1942, following Executive Order 9066, the West Coast family members were confined at the Amache camp. Yasuo remained in Cincinnati, outside the excluded zone. He opened a medical practice in Covington, Kentucky, where his wife and daughter joined him upon their release from camp. There, Sasaki practiced for some 40 years, during which time he also published two volumes of poetry.

In 1969 Sasaki was arrested under Kentucky law for performing an abortion, then illegal except when the mother's life was in danger. After being convicted in November 1970, he was sentenced to a year in prison, and also faced the loss of his medical license. Sasaki appealed on the grounds that abortion was a fundamental right. After his appeal was rejected by the Kentucky Supreme Court, he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In January 1973, a few days after the Court delivered its landmark opinion in Roe v. Wade striking down state laws against abortion, the justices reversed Sasaki's conviction in Sasaki v. Kentucky (410 U.S. 951). As an unusual case of a physician arrested for performing an abortion (rather than the woman undergoing one), Sasaki played an important role in ensuring protection of abortion rights.

In the 1980s, Sasaki retired to the San Francisco Bay Area. In his last years, he participated in conferences on Japanese American history and edited volumes of Nisei poetry and fiction.

Authored by Greg Robinson, Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Okimoto, Paul M. Oh Poston! Why Don’t You Cry for Me? And Other Stops Along the Way. Bloomington, Ind.: Xlibris, 2011.

Robinson, Greg. "The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great: Pioneering Nisei Writer and Physician, Yasuo Sasaki Fought for Reproductive Freedom." Nichi Bei Weekly, Oct. 18 and Nov. 1, 2012.

Sasaki, Yasuo. Village Scene, Village Herd: Poems of Vintage 1968 and Sequel. Cincinnati and Berkeley: Balconet Press, 1986.

Footnotes

  1. Larry Tajiri, "A Nisei Writer, '41," Nichi Bei, Jan. 1, 1941.