Mitsuye Yamada

Name Mitsuye Yamada
Born July 5 1923
Birth Location Fukuoka prefecture, Japan
Generational Identifier


Mitsuye May Yamada (1923–) is an acclaimed poet, feminist writer, and human rights activist. Much of Yamada's work draws on the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.

Early Life and Wartime Incarceration

Yamada was born in Fukuoka, Kyushu, Japan, during a visit there by her Issei mother, Hide Shiraki Yasutake, and was left there to spend the first 3-1/2 years of her life in Japan with a neighbor family. Her mother had to return to the U.S. to care for one of Mitsuye's brothers who was seriously ill and rejoined Mitsuye's father, Jack Kaichiro Yasutake, in Seattle. Mitsuye then returned to Seattle, traveling with her father's friends. Again, at age 9, Yamada was sent back to Kyushu for 18 months where she lived with her father's parents.

Together with her parents and three brothers, she spent her remaining childhood in Seattle and attended Cleveland High School on Beacon Hill, the Asian residential enclave south of the International District. As soon as World War II broke out, when Mitsuye was 19, the family members watched as their father was arrested and branded an enemy alien. The family was forcibly removed to "Camp Harmony," the temporary assembly center in Puyallup, Washington, then to Minidoka , the concentration camp located in Hunt, Idaho.

Although technically an Issei, born in Japan, Yamada calls herself a Nisei , since she had spent only a few years in Japan and was largely educated in American schools. But she also is like a Kibei, those born in the U.S. and raised in Japan, since she had almost five years of education in Japan. Thus she shows more of a grasp of Japanese language and culture in her writing than most Nisei, who were all-American and only schooled in the U.S.

Yamada says she does not know why her father, a Stanford educated engineer, lived in Seattle with his young family and ended up working in a gift shop in the International District. But when an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent walked in the door and said he wanted to hire a translator, it changed the family's future.

As a translator for the INS in the prewar years, Jack Kaichiro Yasutake was often out of town for work. He also was the head of the local Senryu (poetry) club. As a child, Yamada overheard the raucous Senryu poets' meetings, with their lively, bawdy, down-to-earth poems, as distinguished from the more ethereal, abstract and spiritual haiku poetry form. In her early years, Yamada eagerly listened to the stories of her father, a well-read and articulate bon vivant, socially active and quite the drinker. Her mother often complained of being left home with the children and housework. No doubt her anxieties were exacerbated exponentially when her husband was picked up immediately after Pearl Harbor was bombed, along with other Japanese leaders classified as enemy aliens and suspected of espionage with no proof of wrongdoing. With no explanation to his family, authorities arrested Jack Kaichiro and other Japanese-born leaders immediately, without specific charges, and sent them to prisons outside Seattle.

No doubt her father's interest in poetry and his storytelling influenced Yamada as a writer. As a high school student, she was interested in writing and authored romantic stories for the student magazine featuring blonde and blue-eyed heroines. Again, when interned at Minidoka beginning at the age of 19, she wrote copious notes and stories to fill her time, and recorded her observations of people and situations, which 30 years later were published as Camp Notes in 1976 and reprinted in 1998 (Shameless Hussy Press). Mitsuye later said that as a young woman just out of high school, she had little depth of knowledge of the outside political world.

Postwar Life and Teaching Career

After 18 months, Yamada was able to leave Minidoka. Some of her family members renounced Japan and swore allegiance to the United States of America in the infamous " loyalty questionnaire " administered to many Japanese and Japanese American in the camps. Yamada and her older brother journeyed to the University of Cincinnati, although her brother was waylaid by the fact that the military was conducting research on the campus and, on a technicality (possibly because his record showed pacifist views), he was asked to leave the college. Mitsuye later moved to New York City and earned her Bachelor of Arts degree at New York University in 1947 and her Master of Arts at University of Chicago in 1953.

She married Yoshikazu Yamada, a chemist, in 1950, and the young family, eventually with four children, largely lived in New York City until the 1960s when they moved to Los Angeles. Mitsuye Yamada became a naturalized citizen in 1955.

Yamada began teaching at Cypress Junior College, south of Los Angeles, in 1968, and retired after 21 years on the faculty. She continues her career teaching at other universities, as poetry artist in residence, visiting faculty, and writing consultant.

Writing and Activism

Yamada has said that art cannot be separated from its political context and vice versa. Following other women of color writers, she found resonance in a quote by Audre Lorde, the African American feminist writer: "My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you." Feeling strongly that Japanese and other Asian women's voices had not been recorded and heard, she began taking part in readings in the '70s and '80s. She discovered the need for an Asian women's writing group and then became a co-founder of Multicultural Women Writers of Orange Country.

Yamada is noted for working with other Asian American feminists, specifically Chinese American Nellie Wong and Korean American Merle Woo, both members of the Freedom Socialist Party. She is featured in the well-received 1981 documentary Mitsuye and Nellie: Asian American Poets , featured on PBS. Through the years, she also has joined cultural forces with renowned Asian American progressive artists such as singer and choreographer Nobuko Miyamoto .

Yamada's involvement with Amnesty International began in the 1960s and continues to this day. She has served on the national board of directors and made several international trips with the human rights agency, and consistently has spoken publicly on behalf of rights of Asian women. She was one of the first and most vocal of Asian American women poets, especially of her generation, to creatively express the effects of domestic violence and sexual infidelity on wives and mothers, such as in her famous poem, "The Club," in which the husband uses a carved wooden Japanese doll to beat his wife. The poem appears in her acclaimed book Desert Run: Poems and Others Stories (Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1988).

In more recent years she has been working on the story of her parents' lives before and during their 34-year marriage. Her father Jack Yasutake died in 1953, not long after his release from camp, and her mother then lived for 44 years as a widow, not far from her grown children. Yamada is preparing the manuscript as a legacy for her children.

Mitsuye Yamada encourages her young students to be aware of the world and be politically active. As she made clear in an interview in Contemporary Women’s Writing (Oxford University Press), "The worst kind of thing is passivity... you should not be invisible. You should stand up and be counted."

Authored by Mayumi Tsutakawa , Independent writer and editor

For More Information

Yamada, Mitsuye. ' Camp Notes' and Other Poems . Berkeley: Shameless Hussy Press, 1976.

———. Desert Run: Poems and Stories . Latham, N.Y.: Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, 1988.

———. "Camp Notes and Other Writings . New Brunswick, N.J.: Rugers University Press, 1998.

———, and Sarie Sachie Hylkema, eds. Sowing Ti Leaves: Writings by Multicultural Women . Irvine, Calif.: MCWW Press, 1991.

———, Merle Woo and Nellie Wong. Three Asian American Writers Speak Out on Feminism . Seattle: Radical Women Press, 2003.

Barker, Jamie D. "Learning to Listen: An Examination of Trauma in 20th Century Multicultural American Poetry." PhD. dissertation, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 2012.

Dickerson, James L. Inside America's Concentration Camps: Two Centuries of Internment and Torture . Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2010.

Eubank, Christine E. "'I Was Mad as Hell!: Liberal Women's Political and Social Activism in Orange County, California, 1960s Through 1970s. M.A. thesis, California State University, Fullerton, 2005.

" Guide to the Mitsuye Yamada Papers MS.R.071. " University of California, Irvine, Special Collections.

Hong, Caroline Kyungah, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, and Sharon Tang-Quan. " 'You should not be invisible': An Interview with Mitsuye Yamada. " Contemporary Women's Writing 8.1 (2013): 1–16.

Jaskowski, Helen. "A MELUS Interview: Mitsuye Yamada." MELUS 15 (1988): 97-108.

Light, Allie, and Irving Saraf. Mitsuye and Nellie: Asian American Poets . San Francisco: Light-Saraf Films. New York: Women Make Movies, 1981. 58 minutes. [Documentary film featuring Yamada and Chinese American poet Nellie Wong.]

" Mitsuye Yamada ." Poetry Foundation: Poems & Poets.

" Mitsuye Yamada-American. " Charter for Compassions website.

" Mitsuye Yamada Biography. " eNotes.

Nakamura, Rika. "Attending the Languages of the Other: Recuperating 'Asia,' Abject, Other in Asian North American Literature." Ph.D dissertation, Rutgers University, 2009.

Omori, Chizu. "Mitsuye Yamada: Poetry of Survival and Strength. Ms. Magazine , March-April 1993, p. 65.

Patterson, Anita Haya. "Resistance to Images of the Internment: Mitsuye Yamada's Camp Notes ." MELUS 23.3 (Fall 1998): 103–27.

Schweik, Susan M. "A Word No Man Can Say For Us: American Women Writers and the Second World War." Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1984.

Woolley, Lisa. "Racial and Ethnic Semiosis in Mitsuye Yamada's 'Mrs. Higashi Is Dead.'" MELUS 24.4 (1999): 77–91.

Yamamoto, Traise. Masking Selves, Making Subjects: Japanese American Women, Identity and the Body . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Yamada, Mitsuye May. Interview by Alice Ito, October 9 and 10, 2002, Seattle. Densho Digital Repository. . [Interview that starts with the end of World War II and goes to the present.]

Yamada, Mitsuye May, Joe Yasutake, and Tosh Yasutake. Interview by Alice Ito and Jeni Yamada, October 8 and 9, 2002, Seattle. Densho Digital Repository. . [Group interview with Yamada and two of her brothers that covers the years until the end of World War II.]

Last updated Dec. 15, 2023, 6:11 a.m..