Mitsuye Yamada Yamada, Mitsuye - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Camp Notes and Other Poems 1976

Desert Run: Poems and Stories 1988

Sowing Ti Leaves: Writings by Multicultural Women [editor; with Sarie Sachie Hylkema] (anthology) 1990

Mitsuye Yamada and Helen Jaskoski (interview date spring 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Yamada, Mitsuye, and Helen Jaskoski. “A MELUS Interview: Mitsuye Yamada.” MELUS 15, no. 1 (spring 1988): 97-108.

[In the following interview, Yamada reveals her thoughts on writing poetry as a woman and a Japanese American.]

Mitsuye Yamada's own words are the best introduction to her life and work. In 1986 she wrote this statement for Amnesty International: “My writings generally express my ethnic experiences; my literature and writing courses are taught from a multicultural perspective; and my community activities reflect my human rights interests. With these activities I have been working towards integrating the complex fragments of my life into...

(The entire section is 4347 words.)

Valerie Matsumoto (review date July 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Matsumoto, Valerie. Review of Desert Run: Poems and Stories, by Mitsuye Yamada. Woman's Review of Books 6, nos. 10-11 (July 1989): 5.

[In the following excerpted review, Matsumoto positively assesses the meditative poetry and female-centered short stories of Yamada's Desert Run, with particular emphasis on their relation to Japanese-American life in the mid-twentieth century.]

There is a world I grew up with, the world of my family and fictive kin, composed of myriad threads of shared understanding rituals, jokes. We ate raw fish and seaweed, “to make your hair black” or “to put hair on your chest” (depending on my father's mood), and...

(The entire section is 921 words.)

Susan Schweik (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Schweik, Susan. “A Needle with Mama's Voice: Mitsuye Yamada's Camp Notes and the American Canon of War Poetry.” In Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation, edited by Helen M. Cooper, Adrienne Auslander Munich, and Susan Merill Squier, pp. 225-43. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Schweik analyzes the poems of Yamada's Camp Notes, focusing on their evocation of a suppressed Japanese-American woman's voice during wartime.]

A recent, useful bibliography of American war literature by David Lundberg acknowledges one of its significant gaps in a note: “There have also been no...

(The entire section is 6944 words.)

Renee Graham (essay date 5 December 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Graham, Renee. “A Poet Speaks Painful Truths of Her Past.” Boston Globe (5 December 1992): L21.

[In the following essay, Graham offers historical background to the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II as the impetus to Yamada's collection Camp Notes and Other Poems.]

Mitsuye Yamada was still huddled around the radio listening to the crackling reports of death and destruction near Hawaii when FBI agents came to the door looking for her father. He was an interpreter for the Immigration Service, but his fluency in Japanese and English made him a suspect, an enemy of the people, on a Sunday afternoon more than 50 years ago.


(The entire section is 966 words.)

Anita Haya Patterson (essay date fall 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Patterson, Anita Haya. “Resistance to Images of the Internment: Mitsuye Yamada's Camp Notes.MELUS 23, no. 3 (fall 1998): 103-27.

[In the following essay, Patterson concentrates on themes of philosophical obligation and resistance in Yamada's Camp Notes.]

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, a document that effectively granted General John L. DeWitt full authority to exclude persons of Japanese ancestry—both American citizens and resident aliens—from the West Coast. The Order indicated that this evacuation of the Japanese, and their placement first in “assembly centers” and then in concentration or...

(The entire section is 4946 words.)

Traise Yamamoto (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Yamamoto, Traise. “Embodied Language: The Poetics of Mitsuye Yamada, Janice Mirikitani and Kimiko Hahn.” In Masking Selves, Making Subjects: Japanese American Women, Identity, and the Body, pp. 198-261. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Yamamoto explores Yamada's chronicle of Japanese-American life and the need to recover from the sexist and racist assumptions of American society in her collections Camp Notes and Other Poems and Desert Run.]

Mitsuye Yamada's two collections, Camp Notes ([1976] 1992) and Desert Run (1988), explore the possibilities and problematics of a subjectivity defined by...

(The entire section is 6368 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Brown, Doug. “New Amnesty Official Recalls Her Years in Internment.” Los Angeles Times (23 August 1987): M1.

Describes Yamada's involvement with the human rights organization Amnesty International and some of her other social and political activities.

Omori, Chizu. “Mitsuye Yamada: Poetry of Survival and Triumph.” Ms. 3, no. 5 (March 1993): 65.

Discusses Yamada's dual cultural identity during the 1970s.


Cheng, Scarlet. Review of Desert Run: Poems and Stories, by Mitsuye Yamada. Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women 4, no....

(The entire section is 280 words.)