Mitsuye Yamada 1923-
(Full name Mitsuye May Yamada.) Japanese-born American poet, short story writer, and essayist.
Considered a remarkable and courageous Asian-American poet, Yamada is a candid writer whose personal and emotionally evocative rendering of her experiences as a prisoner in a Japanese-American detainment camp during World War II contributed to her reputation in late twentieth-century America. Focusing on racial discrimination, multicultural identity, and feminist awareness, Yamada's poetry generally exhibits the compressed, frequently ironic mode of the Japanese verse forms of senryu and haiku. Her most well-known works, the terse and lucid poems of the “Camp Notes” section of her first collection, Camp Notes and Other Poems (1976), detail the daily degradation of concentration camp life, and the ordeals of discrimination faced by ethnic minorities in postwar America. Yamada's second volume, Desert Run: Poems and Stories (1988), features further meditations on the prospects of racial equality and justice for women in the twentieth century, as well as moving depictions in verse and short prose fiction of the cultural struggles of Japanese Americans.
Yamada was born July 5, 1923, in Fukuoka, Kyushu, Japan, to Jack Kaichiro Yasutake (an interpreter for the U.S. Immigration Service and a poet) and his wife, Hide. At the time of her birth, Yamada's parents were both U.S. citizens visiting Japan for a relatively short period. The family returned to the United States with their daughter in 1926, settling in Seattle, Washington, where Yamada spent the majority of her childhood and attended school. Shortly after the outbreak of war between Japan and the United States in late 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an Executive Order calling for the internment of approximately 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, most of them living on the West Coast. Yamada was sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho, along with her brothers and mother; her father, who was wrongfully accused of spying, was dispatched earlier to a separate camp. After formally renouncing any allegiance to the Emperor of Japan in 1943 (a dilemma she later dramatized in the poem “The Question of Loyalty”), Yamada was freed from incarceration and allowed to attend the University of Cincinnati the following year; although she subsequently completed her undergraduate studies at New York University in 1947. She married Yoshikazu Yamada, a research chemist, in 1950 and continued her education, earning a Master of Arts degree from the University of Chicago in 1953, with additional graduate study at the University of California, Irvine. In the mid 1950s, Yamada's application to become a naturalized U.S. citizen was approved. She began teaching English at Cypress College in southern California in 1960 and was named an associate professor in 1976. Her first collection of verse, Camp Notes and Other Poems,—many of which were composed during her imprisonment at Minidoka and during the later years of World War II—was published the same year. In 1981, Yamada appeared with Nellie Wong in the public television documentary Mitsuye and Nellie: Two Asian-American Woman Poets, in which she recounted details of her internment and other hardships faced by her relatives in the United States. Her second collection of writing, Desert Run: Poems and Stories, appeared in 1988. In the 1990s, Yamada continued to teach, write, and publish and was an active and outspoken member of many organizations, including the International Women's Writing Guild, Amnesty International, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Camp Notes and Other Poems, is divided into sections that chronicle Yamada's ordeals as a Japanese American during World War II and after. Its central “Camp Notes” segment contains her wartime poetry, including “Evacuation,” a work that invokes the details of forced government “relocation” from her home in Seattle to a desolate, arid region of southern Idaho. “Desert Storm” captures the official doublespeak of the U.S. government, which disguised the unjust imprisonment of thousands of Americans beneath euphemisms of relocation and public safety. “Mess Hall Discipline,” “Block 4 Barrack 4 Apt C,” and “In the Outhouse,” as well as other poems from the collection, evoke the grim mood of concentration camp life as it efficiently erodes family bonds, morale, and personal dignity. In the penultimate verse of the sequence, “Cincinnati,” Yamada details the racial discrimination and cruelty that awaited her in middle America after she had been released from internment. Finally, the “Camp Notes” portion concludes with the poem “Thirty Years Under,” a distillation of decades of humiliation suffered by Yamada and other ethnic minorities in the United States. Other pieces in the volume include “P.O.W.,” a translation of two senryu verses written by Yamada's father while he was incarcerated apart from his family, as well as two father-to-child narratives, “Enryo” and “A Bedtime Story.” The remaining poems of Camp Notes describe experiences common to many Japanese Americans in the immediate postwar era and purvey themes of justice and the possibility of equality. “To the Lady,” among them, offers a sense of Yamada's outrage at non-minority U.S. citizens who felt that Japanese Americans simply let themselves be imprisoned during the war without speaking out. Additional works in the volume include meditations on generosity and inclusiveness. Other, later, pieces hint at the burgeoning feminism that Yamada was to explore more fully in her second publication, Desert Run. In this work, Yamada revisits the Minidoka relocation center, expanding her documentation of Japanese-American cultural identity as it was transformed between the early 1940s and the 1980s and broadens her perspective to study gender as well as ethnic discrimination. As in Camp Notes, Yamada's second volume is organized into sections; these bear the titles: “Where I Stay,” “Returning,” “Resisting,” and “Connecting.” A representative poem in the collection, “Guilty on Both Counts,” considers the marginal position of Japanese Americans who were not wholly accepted by either the Japanese or the majority of Americans in the postwar era and were made to feel culpable for both the attack on Pearl Harbor and for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Demonstrating another facet of the collection, “The Club” reveals Yamada's growing feminist consciousness as it centers on the thoughts of a servile woman subjected to her husband's fits of domestic violence. In addition to poetry, Desert Run contains two short stories, both of which focus on the relationship between a mother and daughter.
Yamada has explained that she published Camp Notes and Other Poems in order to increase public awareness of discriminatory treatment suffered by Japanese Americans during World War II and in the ensuing decades. In doing so, she broke a long-standing taboo among those women who were interned at relocation camps run by the government, most of whom chose to endure the humiliating period silently and quietly assimilate into postwar America. After waiting more than two decades to see her poetry published for the first time in 1976, Yamada embarked on a political, as well as artistic, mission to educate the American public about a dark and often forgotten episode in U.S. history. Since its first publication and re-release in 1992, Camp Notes and Other Poems has generally elicited critical praise, not only for its culturally significant content, but also for Yamada's adept balance of personal source material with her poetic evocation of emotion. Her work in both Camp Notes and Desert Run has been additionally acknowledged for its taut use of language and striking imagery, as well as for its pro-feminist and antiracist political stances. While the extent of Yamada's literary output remains limited, many commentators have expressed their hope that she will continue to write and publish poetry and fiction of a similarly high caliber.