James Masao Mitsui is a second-generation Japanese American (Nisei) poet born in 1940 in Skykomish, Washington, to Minoru Mitsui, a sawmill and railroad laborer, and Shime Nakayama Mitsui. After war broke out between Japan and the United States in December, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, by which approximately 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were removed from their homes on the West Coast to internment camps in the interior of the country. Thus, when Mitsui was barely a year old, he and his family were relocated to the Tule Lake Relocation Center in northern California. Mitsui’s recollection of this experience is limited by his young age at the time, but the internment serves as the subject of some of his poetry and lends his work a political edge. After two years in the camp, the Mitsui family was allowed to return to Washington, with the stipulation that they live at least a hundred miles away from the coast. They settled in the wheat country of eastern Washington state, where the elder Mitsui found work with the Great Northern Railroad, employment that lasted fifty-seven years.
James Masao Mitsui grew up in Odessa and graduated from the town’s high school, where he was active in athletics. He attended Eastern Washington University in Cheney, majored in French and education, and graduated in 1963. He was named the outstanding Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) graduate, and during the Vietnam War, he served two years as a first lieutenant adjutant in the U.S. Army in Fort Carson, Colorado. He received a B.A. (1973) and an M.A. (1975) in English from the University of Washington, where he studied with the poets Richard Hugo, William Stafford, David Wagoner, Richard Blessing, and Nelson Bentley. Mitsui also formed a great and lasting admiration for the poetic works of William Carlos Williams, James Wright, and Pablo Neruda. After graduate school, Mitsui taught English in high schools in the Puget Sound area. He settled in this area, married, divorced, and married Lilly Kramer in 1986. In 1999, he retired from high school teaching after more than thirty years, and moved to Surprise, Arizona, where he has taught at Arizona State University’s Emeritus College and the Southern New Hampshire University Online.