Yoshiko Uchida


Name Yoshiko Uchida
Born November 24 1921
Died June 21 1992
Birth Location Alameda, CA
Generational Identifier

Nisei

Yoshiko Uchida (1921–92) was an award-winning writer of children's books, all of which are based on aspects of Japanese and Japanese American history and culture. A series of books, starting with Journey to Topaz (1971) take place against the backdrop of the mass removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. She also authored an adult memoir centering on her and her family's wartime incarceration (Desert Exile, 1982), a young adult version her life story (Invisible Thread, 1991), and a novel centering on a Japanese American family (Picture Bride, 1987).

Early Life

Yoshiko Uchida was born on November 24, 1921, to Issei parents Dwight Takashi Uchida (1884–1971) and Iku Umegaki Uchida (1893–1966). Both were Christian and graduates of Doshisha University. Takashi migrated to Hawai'i in around 1903, where he taught Japanese, and came to California three years later. He eventually worked for Seattle Issei business magnate Masajiro Furuya, eventually managing the Portland, Oregon, branch of the M. Furuya store. In 1917, he left to join the San Francisco branch of Mitsui and Company. That same year, teachers at Doshisha helped to arrange a marriage between Takashi and Iku, a 1914 graduate who was nine years younger.

Yoshiko and her older sister Keiko (1918–2008) enjoyed a relatively privileged upbringing. The family lived in a rented home in an area of Berkeley that had been previously restricted to whites. The girls took piano lessons and the family went to concerts and museums, while also taking memorable vacations to the East Coast and to Japan. Unlike most Nisei, the girls did not have to go to Japanese language school, though they did speak Japanese at home even though both parents spoke and read English well. They attended Sunday school regularly at the Japanese Independent Congregational Church of Oakland. As leaders in the Bay Area Japanese community, their parents often hosted visitors from Japan, whether Doshisha related: "I felt as though our house was the unofficial alumni headquarters for Doshisha and I one of its most reluctant members," she wrote in her memoirs) or related to Takashi's business.

Though sickly as a child, Yoshiko nonetheless graduated from high school in 2-1/2 years and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, at age 16, majoring in English, history and philosophy. Excluded from many university institutions on account of her race, her friends and dates were almost exclusively other Nisei students there. Meanwhile, Keiko went to Mills College, graduating in 1940 with a degree in child development. But like many other accomplished Nisei, she was not able to find commensurate job until years later.[1]

War and Forced Removal

World War II brought dramatic changes for the Uchida family. As a community leader who often hosted Japanese visitors, Takashi was immediately suspect in the eyes of authorities and was arrested on Pearl Harbor day, held first in the Immigration Detention Quarters in San Francisco, then moved to the Missoula, Montana, internment camp. The rest of the family was forced out by an exclusion order on April 21, 1942. The family left some of their possessions with friendly white neighbors and with families tied to the First Congregational Church of Berkeley and in commercial storage. Their beloved dog went to a boy who responded to Yoshiko's ad in the school paper; however the dog died a few weeks later. A senior at Berkeley, Yoshiko attended school for as long as she was able.

The family was sent initially to the Tanforan Assembly Center, where they lived in a former horse stall. About a week into their stay, they learned that Takashi has been "paroled," and he joined them shortly thereafter. After helping her sister establish a nursery school in camp, she became a second grade teacher. Finding that she enjoyed teaching, she decided to seek a teaching credential, having received her Berkeley diploma through the mail. She also took first aid and art classes and joined the church choir.

After five months, the family moved on to Topaz, where they lived in Block 7, in the northeast corner of the camp. Yoshiko first worked as a secretary to the block manager before getting another teaching job. But she was distressed to find that the school barracks were incomplete and unusable. After a false start, school didn't begin until December of 1942. In the meantime, her father became the board chairman of the camp co-op.

In her camp memoir Desert Exile, she succinctly summarized her incarceration experience:

I worked hard to be a good teacher; I went to meetings, wrote long letters to my friends, knitted sweaters and socks, devoured any books I could find, listened to the radio, went to art school and to church and to lectures by outside visitors. I spent time socializing with friends and I saw an occasional movie at the Coop. I also had a wisdom tooth removed at the hospital and suffered a swollen face for three days. I caught one cold after another; I fell on the unpaved roads; I lost my voice from the dust; I got homesick and angry and despondent. And sometimes I cried.

As a recent college graduate, she had had an opportunity while at Tanforan to attend Smith College, a women's college in central Massachusetts, but had turned it down hoping to contribute to community life in the camp. When she later tried to reapply while at Topaz, she found that the window had closed. But finally, in May of 1943, she received word of acceptance at Smith with a full scholarship. At the same time, Keiko received a job offer at nearly Mt. Holyoke College, and the sisters left camp on the same day in June. A few months later, their parents left camp to resettle in Salt Lake City, due in part to threats Takashi had received because his position with the co-op.[2]

Writing Career

Uchida graduated with an M.Ed. from Smith in 1944, first taking a teaching job at the Frankford Friends' School in Philadelphia. Finding that the demands of teaching made it difficult to pursue her interest in writing—and having contracted mononucleosis—she moved to New York where Keiko had settled and took a job as a secretary, first for the Institute of Pacific Relations (1946–47), then for the United Student Christian Council (1947–52). In her off hours, she wrote short stories, submitting them to publications like the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly and generating piles of rejection slips. After taking a class on writing for children at Columbia University, her instructor encouraged her to submit to a publisher a manuscript she had written of Japanese folk tales she had learned from her mother adapted for American audiences. The Dancing Kettle, and Other Japanese Folk Tales was published by Harcourt, Brace in 1949 to great acclaim, setting Uchida on the road to a successful career as a writer of children's books. Her second book, New Friends for Susan (1951), illustrated by Issei artist Henry Sugimoto, was her first with Japanese American characters and was set in prewar Berkeley.[3]

That same year, Uchida received a two-year Ford Foundation fellowship to study in Japan. She spent one year in Kyoto and the other in Tokyo, studying folk tales and folk arts. Upon her return, she settled in Oakland where her parents—now in failing health—had moved.[4] She continued to write children's books while working as a secretary for the UC Berkeley Nobel laureate chemist Glenn Seaborg. She finally quit to focus on writing full time in 1962, after she published ten books. After her father's death in 1971 (her mother had passed away five years earlier), she moved to a Berkeley apartment where she lived alone for the rest of her life.[5]

All of Uchida's books are either set in Japan or feature Japanese American characters. As she told Catherine E. Studier Chang, "I wanted to write stories about human beings, not the stereotypic Asian. There weren't any books like that in the early '50s when I started writing for children." Her study of folk tales led to two further collections (The Magic Listening Cap: More Folk Tales from Japan [1955], her only self-illustrated book and The Sea of Gold and Other Tales from Japan [1965]), as well as three late career books for Margaret K. McElderry Books. Several of books set in contemporary rural Japan feature a young protagonist named Sumi, while others are set in prewar California.[6]

She is perhaps best known for her books on the concentration camp experience, the first such books for children written by a Japanese American author. The changes in American society in the 1960s, along with questions raised by the Sansei about their parents' experiences, led her to write Journey to Topaz: A Story of the Japanese-American Evacuation (1971). While its protagonist, Yuki Sakane, was a decade younger than Uchida when incarcerated, she drew on her own family's experiences in writing it. She followed it up with Journey Home (1978), which follows the same characters upon leaving the camps. A picture book for younger children also set partially in Tanforan, The Bracelet, was published posthumously in 1993. She also wrote a camp memoir for children, The Invisible Thread (1991).[7]

Uchida also wrote a number of books for adults. Her adult camp memoir, Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family was published by the University of Washington Press in 1982 and is one of the most quoted of any such memoir. She told journalist Bill Hosokawa that she had written it in in the late 1960s, but that it had been turned down by over twenty publishers until the redress movement caused a spike of interest by the general public in the incarceration story. Five years later, she published her only adult novel, Picture Bride.[8]

As her acclaim grew—her books won numerous awards, including Commonwealth Club of California Medals in 1972 for Samurai of Gold Hill and 1982 for A Jar of Dreams and a Child Study Association of America Children's Book of the Year citation in 1985 for The Happiest Ending—she continued to write into her last years. Described by Hosokawa as "a tiny woman barely five feet tall with an elfin smile," she mixed her work with visits to theaters and museums, visits with friends with Keiko and her family in Connecticut and frequent speaking engagements to school children. She told Hosokawa that she wrote first drafts of her books in pen on the backs of junk mail ("I have inherited frugal Issei habits") before producing later drafts on a typewriter.[9]

Slowed in her last years by health problems, including chronic fatigue syndrome, she passed away at the age of seventy on June 21, 1992.

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information

Chang, Catherine E. Studier. "Profile: Yoshiko Uchida." Language Arts 61.2 (Feb. 1984): 189–94.

Davis, Rocio G. "Ethnic Autobiography as Children's Literature: Laurence Yep's The Lost Garden and Yoshiko Uchida's The Invisible Thread." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 28.2 (2003): 90–97.

Finding aids to Yoshiko Uchida collection at Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, http://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf0c600134/ (papers) and http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/ft6k4007pc/ (photographs). [Many items in these collections are digitized and available online at these links, includes parts of Uchida's camp diary and scrapbooks, her drawings and paintings of camp, and many family photographs.]

Harada, Violet H. "Caught Between Two Worlds: Themes of Family, Community, and Ethnic Identity in Yoshiko Uchida's Works for Children." Children’s Literature in Education 29.1 (Mar. 1998): 19–30.

McDiffett, Danton. "Prejudice and Pride: Japanese Americans in the Young Adult Novels of Yoshiko Uchida." English Journal 90.3 (2001): 60–65.

Teorey, Matthew. "Untangling Barbed Wire Attitudes: Internment Literature for Young Adults." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 33.3 (Fall 2008): 227–45.

Uchida, Yoshiko. "Topaz, City of Dust." Utah Historical Quarterly 48.3 (Summer 1980): 234-43.

———. Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982.

———. Picture Bride. Flagstaff, Arizona: Northland Press, 1987. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.

Books for Children and Young Adults by Yoshiko Uchida

The Dancing Kettle and Other Japanese Folk Tales (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949)

New Friends for Susan (New York: Scribner, 1951)

The Magic Listening Cap: More Folk Tales from Japan (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1955)

The Full Circle (New York: Friendship Press, 1957)

Takao and Grandfather's Sword (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958)

The Promised Year (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959)

Mik and the Prowler (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960)

Rokubei and the Thousand Rice Bowls (New York: Scribner, 1962)

The Forever Christmas Tree (New York: Scribner, 1963)

Sumi's Prize (New York: Scribner, 1964)

The Sea of Gold and Other Tales from Japan (New York: Scribner, 1965)

Sumi's Special Happening (New York: Scribner, 1966)

In-Between Miya (New York: Scribner, 1967)

Hisako's Mysteries (New York: Scribner, 1969)

Sumi & the Goat & the Tokyo Express (New York: Scribner, 1969)

Makoto, the Smallest Boy: A Story of Japan (New York: Crowell, 1970)

Journey to Topaz: A Story of the Japanese-American Evacuation (New York: Scribner, 1971)

Samurai of Gold Hill (New York: Scribner, 1972)

The Birthday Visitor (New York: Scribner, 1975)

The Rooster Who Understood Japanese (New York: Scribner, 1976)

The Bracelet (New York: Putnam & Grosset, 1976)

Journey Home (New York: Atheneum, 1978)

A Jar of Dreams (New York: Atheneum, 1981)

The Best Bad Thing (New York: Atheneum, 1983)

The Happiest Ending (New York: Atheneum, 1985)

The Two Foolish Cats: Suggested by a Japanese Folktale (New York: M.K. McElderry Books, 1987)

The Terrible Leak (Mankato, Minn.: Creative Education, 1990)

The Invisible Thread (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Julian Messner–Silver Burdett Press, 1991)

The Magic Purse (New York: M.K. McElderry Books, 1993)

The Wise Old Woman (New York: M.K. McElderry Books, 1994)

Footnotes

  1. Prewar biographical information from Uchida's Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982); quote from page 11.
  2. Uchida, Desert Exile; long quote from page 130.
  3. Anne Commire, Something About the Author: Facts and Pictures about Contemporary Authors and Illustrators of Books for Young People, Volume 1 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1971): 219–20; biography of Uchida from finding aid to the Yoshiko Uchida Collection at UC Berkeley, accessed on March 18, 2016 at http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf0c600134/entire_text/; "Yoshiko Uchida," Contemporary Authors Online (Detroit: Gale, 2007).
  4. Keiko remained back east, where she married Shizuo Kakutani, a Japanese mathematician who joined the faculty of Yale in 1949. The couple's daughter, Michiko, became a Pulitzer Prize winning literary critic for the New York Times.
  5. Bill Hosokawa, "Yoshiko Uchida, Children's Story-Teller," Manuscript for Reader's Digest (Japan), Bill Hosokawa Papers, 1860–2012, Denver Public Library.
  6. Quote from Catherine E. Studier Chang, "Profile: Yoshiko Uchida," Language Arts 61.2 (Feb. 1984), 192.
  7. Chang, "Profile: Yoshiko Uchida," 193.
  8. Hosokawa, "Yoshiko Uchida, Children's Story-Teller."
  9. "Yoshiko Uchida," Contemporary Authors Online; Hosokawa, "Yoshiko Uchida, Children's Story-Teller."