As I sat in the Tateuchi Democracy Forum at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) listening to three generations of Japanese American women talk about the meaning of Mitsuye Yamada’s poetry for them, I was struck by the sticking power of Mitsuye’s words. That event, held in August 2019, was the book launch for Mitsuye’s third book of poetry, Full Circle. At the time, I was finishing my book manuscript on Mitsuye Yamada and her brother, Reverend Michael Yasutake. I had begun the project twenty years earlier, out of an interest in understanding my own radical Japanese American history. I had grown up as an Eastside Sansei in a community with many Japanese Americans and regularly traveled a few miles west to visit Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo. But as was the case for many of my generation, our community’s radical activist past was hidden from view. So I began a quest that, through research and activism, led me to the study of Japanese American radicalism and ‘60s figures such as Yuri Kochiyama, famously known for working with Malcolm X in Harlem; Richard Aoki, a rare Japanese American member of the Black Panther Party; and Mo Nishida, a Los Angeles Little Tokyo Leftist; and also to early Cold War activism. These were all people who, like my parents, were Nisei, the second-generation children of immigrants. (If they were not all literally the children of Japanese immigrants, they were of the same birth cohort as the Nisei).
Bill Hosokawa’s Nisei: The Quiet Americans had famously labeled the Nisei as politically passive, the most assimilationist of any generation. This was the generation that was sent, often as young adults, into the US concentration camps in World War II. They were taught to be 200% American in order to escape being seen as the enemy. In the postwar period, this generation of Japanese Americans received unprecedented and unexpected opportunities, including homeownership, jobs that matched their college educations, changed racial representations, and— for the first time—citizenship for Japanese immigrants. These changes were related to global geopolitics. As Christina Klein argues in Cold War Orientalism, the nation was invested in showing a diminishing of anti-Asian racism while promoting empire building in Asia. But as the next generation, the Sansei of the late 1960s’ Asian American Movement, developed more radical and unruly politics, they railed against what they saw as the accommodationism of their parents’ generation. “Why didn’t they protest being rounded up and locked up?,” the Asian American Movement activists accused. But I soon discovered that Japanese Americans did protest: they were draft resisters during the “Good War,” labor organizers in Hawaii, and much more.
My hunger to recover my own history of radicalism led to my research on Mitsuye Yamada and Michael Yasutake. I was already familiar with Mitsuye’s writings, years ago having read her two essays, “Invisibility Is an Unnatural Disaster” and “Asian Pacific Women and Feminism” in Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa’s groundbreaking anthology, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color (1981). Mitsuye’s writings spoke to the ways Asian American women were rendered invisible and silent, describing how a moment of anger on her part shocked her colleagues who didn’t know that Asian American women felt oppressed. Nearly forty years after Mitsuye penned those essays, they still resonated with younger Japanese American women at the JANM book event.
Reverend Michael Yasutake, an Episcopal priest, had for even longer than his sister lived a life of unruliness, contrary to the idea of Nisei accommodationism. During World War II he was a conscientious objector of sorts and was kicked out of the University of Cincinnati in 1944 for his defiance of conventions of wartime patriotism and masculinity. During the 1960s he counseled draft resisters and, as I discovered in my research, drove hundreds of miles out of his way to visit military stockades and US penitentiaries. Then, in the 1980s, when his colleague at the YMCA College in Chicago, Carmen Valentín, was arrested as a Puerto Rican revolutionary, he gave a revolutionary prayer for Carmen and her compañeras/os who unexpectedly found themselves arrested and in jail, and his politics moved increasingly to oppose US and Japanese imperialism. He had already been a fierce supporter of political prisoners (sometimes working with Yuri Kochiyama to support specific political prisoners), but now he combined trips to visit political prisoners throughout the United States with international travels to organize creative gatherings and people’s tribunals to explore the ongoing impacts of militarism in the aftermath of World War II. Yasutake, along with Ron Fujiyoshi and others, organized Tochi wa Inochi or “Land is life” as an international conference, held in Okinawa in 1996, to bear witness to the enduring impacts of war, nuclear testing, forced sex slavery, and incarceration.
Mitsuye Yamada herself had long supported political prisoners, notably though Amnesty International, where she served on the US board of directors. But at the persistent urgings of her brother she began to counter Amnesty International’s policy against members supporting political prisoners in their own country, which was intended as a partial protection against the political persecution of its members. Mitsuye was particularly drawn to women political prisoners, most especially Marilyn Buck, a fellow poet and White radical who was convicted for helping the iconic Black Panther Assata Shakur escape prison. Mitsuye is primarily known for her moving poetry and prose, but, as my book shows, she is also a long-standing activist-organizer.
My book, Nisei Radicals: The Feminist Poetics and Transformative Ministry of Mitsuye Yamada and Michael Yasutake (University of Washington Press, forthcoming December 2020), forms part of the scholarship that counters the racialization of the Nisei as quiet Americans and of Japanese Americans as model minorities. It shows the continuing and increasingly radical activism of Nisei like Mike and Mitsuye, who did much of their political work in the 1970s to 1990s, during an ostensibly dormant period of Asian American activism. It reveals the ways Nisei worked with younger generations of Asian Americans and across divides of race, class, nation, and political ideology. It uncovers a radical lineage of Japanese American activism. And it contests the accusations of Nisei passivity and helps to explain why Nisei like Mitsuye Yamada, now 97 years old, and the late Michael Yasutake remain relevant to people across generations.
Diane C. Fujino is professor of Asian American studies at University of California, Santa Barbara. Her books include Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama and Samurai among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance and a Paradoxical Life. Her book Nisei Radicals: The Feminist Poetics and Transformative Ministry of Mitsuye Yamada and Michael Yasutake is forthcoming.