Nobuko Miyamoto

Name Nobuko Miyamoto
Born November 14 1939
Birth Location Los Angeles
Generational Identifier


Nobuko JoAnne Miyamoto (1939- ) is a songwriter, dance and theater artist, author, and Artistic Director of Great Leap, 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. While her family was incarcerated at the Santa Anita detention center, her father volunteered to harvest sugar beets, so the family was transferred along with 187 male internees to a farm in Glasgow, Montana. After a season, they were released to join Miyamoto's grandfather, Tokumatsu "Harry" Miyamoto, who had a house in Parker, Idaho. An Issei who once worked on the railroads, he married a white Mormon woman named Lucy Harrison, despite anti-miscegenation laws. [1] The family again moved to Ogden, Utah, where Miyamoto's father worked as a trucker and remained there until the end of the war before returning to Los Angeles.

Nobuko trained as a dancer, and in her teens, worked in the films The King and I (1955) and Les Girls (1956). She went on to perform 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. After West Side Story she often performed under the name "Joanne Miya."

In the late sixties, during the height of the anti-war movement, while singing at the Colony Club in Seattle she was becoming more politicized. She wrote in an autobiographical essay, "After eight months at the club, 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 Japanese American Citizens League convention, they began to sing and write together. The murder of a young activist at the convention inspired them 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, where Reverend Masao Kodani of Senshin Buddhist Temple offered her the temple's social hall to teach dance and rehearse. She continued performing 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 told 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 in 1978 with the goal of putting the Asian American story on stage. Some of the work they have produced include musicals Talk Story , Joanne is My Middle Name , A Slice of Rice, Frijoles and Greens , and more recently EcoVids , a series of environmental music videos.

Being at Senshin Temple helped deepen her understanding of Japanese culture, and at the request of Reverend Kodani, she began writing original English language songs for their annual obon odori dance festival. Songs, such as "Mottainai," which encourages environmental sustainability, have become regulars at numerous obon festivals and other cultural gatherings. In 2012, Miyamoto collaborated with Los Angeles band Quetzal to write an obon song in English and Spanish titled "Bambutsu - no Tsunagari." This song birthed FandangObon, a music and dance festival that builds community through the participatory arts of Japanese, Mexican, West African and Sufi Muslim traditions.

In 2021, Miyamoto released the double album 120,000 Stories with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and published her memoir, Not Yo’ Butterfly: My Long Song of Relocation, Race, Love, and Revolution with the University of California Press. She currently does performance/lectures, facilitates 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.

Miyamoto, Nobuko. Edited by Deborah Wong. Not Yo' Butterfly: My Long Song of Relocation, Race, Love, and Revolution . Oakland: University of California Press, 2021.

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.

  1. Yosuke Kitazawa, "We Are All Part of Many Worlds: Nobuko Miyamoto's Barrier-Breaking Art and Activism," accessed June 15, 2021, at .

Last updated April 16, 2024, 3:36 a.m..