|October 24 1924
Wakako Yamauchi (1924– ) is a distinguished playwright, short-story writer, poet and painter. Through her creative work, Yamauchi draws portraits of people who struggle with their dreams and passions, while facing the psychological trauma of prejudice, economic depression, and the concentration camps of World War II. As a young child and adult, she witnessed the overt racism and harsh labor conditions her parents endured and later built these and other personal memories into the details of her work.
She was born Wakako Nakamura on October 24, 1924, in Westmorland, California to immigrant parents who farmed in the Imperial Valley, near the Mexican border. Yamauchi's mother assisted her husband in the fields, but also taught Japanese on Sundays at the Buddhist church. When Yamauchi was seventeen years old, she and her family were incarcerated at Poston concentration camp in Arizona (in barrack apartment 12-1-A—the title of a play she would later write). In Poston, she met young Nisei writer Hisaye Yamamoto , a few years her senior and already established in the Japanese American press. Both women worked on the camp newspaper, the Poston Chronicle , as layout artist and contributing writer, and shared an interest in art and literature. The two maintained a close, life-long friendship of inspiration and artistic support. After a year and a half at Poston, Yamauchi relocated to Utah and then to Chicago , where she worked in a candy factory and began attending plays, marking the beginning of her love for theater.
In 1948, she married Chester Yamauchi and bore a daughter named Joy. Although the couple divorced, she continued to write and publish under her married name. Returning to Los Angeles after the war, she studied painting at the Otis Art Center and later took a correspondence course in short story writing. Although she was better known as an artist, in 1960 she was asked by the Los Angeles Japanese American newspaper, the Rafu Shimpo , to contribute to their annual holiday edition and from that year on, Yamauchi regularly contributed a short story or essay to the newspaper's special edition.
In the 1970s, a group of Asian American writers organized a landmark anthology entitled Aiiieeeee! , which published Yamauchi’s short story, "And the Soul Shall Dance" after Hisaye Yamamoto suggested it for inclusion. East West Players’ artistic director Mako read the story and convinced Yamauchi to turn it into the script for a play. The play was first performed in 1974 at the East West Players theater in Los Angeles, winning the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for best new play of 1977. It was later produced as a television drama for the PBS station KCET in Los Angeles. Yamauchi continued her career as a playwright, writing several other scripts including "The Music Lesson," "The Memento," "12-1-A," and "The Chairman's Wife." In 1994, a seminal collection of Yamauchi's plays and stories was published under the title Songs My Mother Taught Me .
Some of her best literary works explore how the experiences and aspirations of her generation, seen through a distinct Japanese American woman's perspective, collide with obstacles of race and class discrimination. Yamauchi deftly draws from her life experiences and observations—of her immigrant parents and the tension between the two generations, the trauma of World War II, post-war resettlement and assimilation, and the process of aging—to create her art. Many of her stories depict Issei and Nisei women who grapple with the barriers of gender and ethnicity, while simultaneously resisting the patriarchal norms and the consequences of their self-expression and desire for independence.  She has since received numerous awards and fellowships, including several Rockefeller grants, the Brody Art Fund Fellowship, and the American Theater Critics Regional Award for Outstanding Play. She lives in Gardena, California, and enjoys spending her free time playing blackjack at the Japanese Cultural Institute in Gardena.
For More Information
Cheung, King-kok, and Stan Yogi. Asian American Literature: An Annotated Bibliography . New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1988.
Houston, Velina Hasu, ed. The Politics of Life: Four Plays by Asian American Women . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.
McDonald, Dorothy Ritsuko, and Katherine Newman. "Relocation and Dislocation: The Writings of Hisaye Yamamoto and Wakako Yamauchi." MELUS 7.3 (fall 1980).
Osborn, William P., and Sylvia Watanabe. "A Conversation with Wakako Yamauchi." In Into the Fire: Asian American Prose . Edited by Sylvia Watanabe and Carol Bruchac. New York: Greenfield Review Press, 1996, 163–73.
Words, Weavings & Songs . Documentary video produced and directed by John Esaki. Frank H. Watase Media Arts Center, Japanese American National Museum, 2002. 34 min.
Yamauchi, Wakako. Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays and Memoir . New York: Feminist Press at CUNY, 1994.
———. Rosebud and Other Stories . Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011.
- Stan Yogi, "Wakako Yamauchi," in The Politics of Life: Four Plays by Asian American Women , ed. Velina Hasu Houston (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993): 39-40.
Last updated Oct. 16, 2020, 3:49 p.m..