Mitsuye May Yamada was born in Fukuoka, Kyushu, Japan, the third child and only daughter of Jack Yasutake and Hide Yasutake. She was brought to the United States at age three. At the age of nine, she went to Japan to live with her father’s family for eighteen months. She lived with her parents and three brothers in Seattle until she was nineteen. Her high school education was curtailed in 1941 when her father, a translator for the United States Immigration Service, was imprisoned as an enemy alien. Mitsuye, her mother, and her brothers were later removed to internment camps in Puyallup, Washington, and Minidoka, Idaho. She spent eighteen months in the camps, finally leaving to work and study at the University of Cincinnati. She completed her bachelor’s degree at New York University and a master of arts degree in English literature at the University of Chicago.
She was able to become a naturalized American citizen following passage of the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act and received citizenship in 1955. In 1950, she married chemist Yoshikazu Yamada (becoming Mitsuye Yasutake Yamada). They lived in New York, where their four children were born, until the early 1960’s, when the family moved to Southern California. In 1966, she began teaching in community colleges and was professor of English at Cypress Community College from 1968 until her retirement in 1989. Following publication of Camp Notes, and Other Poems, she held many university appointments as visiting professor, artist-in-residence, and consultant.
A lifelong commitment to human rights emerged as Yamada’s response to her incarceration, and she has related her sense of urgency on the subject to years of living with a diagnosis of incurable emphysema when her children were very young. She was an early member of Amnesty International and has served on the executive board and national committees in that organization. Her poetry was published by feminist presses; she organized a multicultural women writers group and has participated in numerous projects addressed to the concerns of women, ethnic groups, and environmental awareness.