Friday, May 13, 2016

Yoshiko Uchida, Writer

Yoshiko Uchida won awards for writing children's books for Japanese-Americans after WWII, after finding that none existed. She wrote about the internment camps where she was forced to live with her family during the war. 

"I had also discovered that writing in the booklet was a means, not only of holding onto the special magic of joyous moments, but of finding comfort and solace from pain as well. It was a means of creating a better ending than was possible in real life." ~ Yoshiko Uchida

Born on November 24th, 1921 in California, Yoshiko Uchida's parents were Dwight Takashi Uchida and Iku Umegaki Uchida, from Japan. Takashi had been in the US since 1903, and worked for Mitsui and Company in San Francisco.

Yoshiko had one sibling, an older sister named Keiko. They were Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-Americans, born in the United States. They lived in a neighborhood in Berkeley that had previously been open only to white families, and enjoyed many privileges. The girls took piano lessons and the family enjoyed going to concerts and traveling to the East Coast and Japan on vacation.

Yoshiko's parents spoke and wrote well in English, but the girls spoke Japanese at home. On Sundays they attended the Japanese Independent Congregational Church of Oakland, and as prominent leaders in the Bay Area Japanese community, her parents would often host visitors from Japan.

Yoshiko graduated from high school in 2-1/2 years and majored in English, History, and Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Her friends at the University were almost entirely other Nisei students, and they were excluded from many university organizations due to their heritage.

In her senior year at U.C. Berkeley, on December 7th, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

World War II

On the very day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Yoshiko's father was immediately suspected of being a potential threat to American interests. In a sweep on the west coast of prominent Japanese-American businessmen, the FBI arrested him, and held Takashi in the Immigration Detention Headquarters in San Francisco.

For the simple crime of being Japanese and living in the United States, Takashi was sent to an intern camp in Missoula, Montana, along with 1,000 other Japanese men. No-one was ever charged with disloyalty, but they were imprisoned for the duration of the war.
New arrivals at the Fort Missoula camp, 1942, courtesy of the
K. Ross Toole Archives, University of Montanta
Fort Missoula internment camp, Montana 1942. Courtesy of
the K. Ross Toole Archives, University of Montana
Five months later, Takashi's family was ordered out of their home by an exclusion order from the US government, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. They had to organize themselves quickly as they did not know when they would be returning; they left some of their possessions with friends in their neighborhood; some with families from church.

To find a home for the family's dog, Yoshiko took out an ad in the school paper, but the boy that responded would report to Yoshiko just a few weeks later that the dog had died.

The family's first assignment was to the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, CA, where they lived in a former horse stall. About one week after they arrived, they were overjoyed to be joined by Takashi, who had been moved there from his initial high-security confinement.

1942, Tanforan Assembly Center barracks
where 8,000 prisoners were held
The barracks had dirty wood floors with no insulation from the winter cold. Thousands had to share the same small space, each person being assigned with a number when they checked in. The family did their best to live a life that was normal within their sparse and unjust confines.

When summoned to the camp, they had been told that the move was for their own protection and that life in the US was not safe for Japanese-Americans, but when they got to the camp they noticed the guns protruding from the guard towers were pointing into the camp, not outward.

Keiko established a nursery school for the children of the camp with Yoshiko's help, and Yoshiko became a second-grade teacher. Finding the role fulfilling, Yoshiko decided to pursue a teaching credential while at the camp.

The Uchida family in the camp
Five months later the family was moved again, this time to a camp in Topaz, in the Utah desert. The camp housed 8,000 prisoners. Yoshiko worked first as a secretary to the block manager, then again as a teacher. In this camp however, the school barracks were unfinished and unusable, which distressed her greatly. School would not begin for months, until the rooms were finished.

In a camp memoir titled Desert Exile, Yoshiko describes her days as follows:
"I worked hard to be a good teacher; I went to meetings, wrote long letters to my friends, knitted sweaters and socks, devoured any books I could find, listened to the radio, went to art school and to church and to lectures by outside visitors. I spent time socializing with friends and I saw an occasional movie at the Co-Op. I also had a wisdom tooth removed at the hospital and suffered a swollen face for three days. I caught one cold after another; I fell on the unpaved roads; I lost my voice from the dust; I got homesick and angry and despondent. And sometimes I cried."
In 1943, the family was allowed to leave. Yoshiko departed for Smith College in central Massachusetts, where she had a full scholarship, and Keiko received a job offer at Mt. Holyoke College, which was near to Smith. A few months later, their parents settled in Salt Lake City.

Like many Japanese American families detained during the war, they never reclaimed the possessions they had prior to the war, and were never charged with any crimes. Within the camps they had been able to get by, and different prisoners used various approaches to be able to do this. The Japanese culture taught "gaman," or to preserve and endure, so some embraced that this was simply a part of the journey they had to go through. Others organized politically, or protested and were punished.

Regardless of how they chose to deal with it, Executive Order 9066, that sentenced over 120,000 Japanese Americans to confinement in their own country, taught this population that they were different, "outsiders," and not to be trusted. They were even viewed as dirty, which was completely unfair given that the main reason the prisoners were dirty was due to the overcrowded and unkempt barracks.


At Smith College, Yoshiko completed her Masters in Education, graduating in 1944. She went to work for a school in Philadelphia, but found it difficult to dedicate time to another of the loves of her life, writing. To gain more time to write, Yoshiko moved to New York (where her sister Keiko lived) and worked as a secretary for six years.

When she wasn't working as a secretary, she was writing. She started with short stories, which she submitted to publications like the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly, but after generating only rejection slips she took a course on writing for children. With her experience teaching and fondness for children, it was a natural fit.

In reading the children's books that existed in the 1950s, Yoshiko was stuck by one thing: there were no stories about Japanese children that were not stereotypical, either set in Japan or in the US. As she would remark later in an interview with Catherine E. Studier Chang, "I wanted to write stories about human beings, not the stereotypical Asian. There were no books like that in the early 50s."

So Yoshiko started writing them. She wrote The Dancing Kettle and Other Japanese Folk Tales (1949), which gained great support and would be the first of many successes. Her second book, New Friends For Susan, featured Japanese-American characters and was set in Berkeley, CA, prior to the war. The books were popular not only with Japanese-American children, but with Caucasian children too, for they offered insights into the manners and ways of the Japanese culture, and facilitated understanding.

With the success of her books, Yoshiko was granted a scholarship to study in Japan. She spent one year in Kyoto and one in Tokyo, studying folk tales and folk art. Back in the US she still found it hard to find enough time to write, so she quit her job as the secretary of the UC Berkeley Nobel laureate chemist Glenn Seaborg and began writing full-time.

In the 1950 and 60s, Yoshiko wrote a series of Japanese folk tales and published several collections. She also wrote about the experience of living in a concentration camp, and was the first Japanese-American to do so. In the 1960s, she wrote a book called Journey to Topaz: A Story of the Japanese-American Evacuation (1971). She also wrote a camp memoir for children, called The Invisible thread.

For adults, Yoshiko wrote Desert Exhile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family, a work that was published in 1982 but was turned down by over 20 publishers as they felt their audience would not be interested. The book has become one of the most well-known and oft quoted memoirs of its kind.

As she gained fame, Yoshiko earned multiple awards for her books, and she kept writing until one day on June 21st, 1992 she passed away from numerous health problems. She was 70 years old.

Regarding the intern camps themselves, they would remain a part of our hidden history, tucked away where no-one would notice them or what they stood for. It was not until 1988 when the Civil Liberty Act was passed that the US would apologize for the confinement of  the Japanese-American people.


"The secret to wisdom is curiosity."

"I wanted to write stories about human beings, not the stereotypic Asian. There weren't any books like that in the early '50s when I started writing for children."

  • Yoshiko Uchida, Brian Niiya, Densho Encyclopedia,, March 22nd, 2016
  • Alien Detention Center, The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula,, 2016
  • Japanese American Internment: What Have We Learned? Sherry Posnick-Goodwin, California Teacher's Association,,2012.

No comments:

Post a Comment