THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Pioneering Nisei writer and physician, Yasuo Sasaki, fought for reproductive freedom

This is the first installment of a two-part series that traces aspects of the long and rich life of Dr. Yasuo Sasaki, who was a pioneering Nisei poet and intellectual, as well as a scientist, physician and fighter for reproductive freedom. Beginning at an early age, he worked to unite the twin strands of his family heritage — medicine and literature — and pursued both throughout his career.

Sasaki was the scion of a long line of doctors. His great-grandfather had been a doctor of Chinese medicines who worked for a samurai family during the Edo period, as well as served the public. His paternal grandfather was a physician who studied German medicine at what was then Tokyo Medical School (part of today’s The University of Tokyo). Yet Sasaki’s father Shuichi (George) Sasaki did not go into medicine; instead, he yearned to be a writer.

Born in 1883 near today’s Iwaki City in Fukushima Prefecture, Shuichi Sasaki traveled to Tokyo in 1902 to study Japanese and Chinese literature at Waseda University (then called the Tokyo Professional School). Three years later, he came to the United States and settled successively in Oregon and Idaho, going to school during the winter and working as a picker in the radish fields during the summer. After sojourning in Japan for 18 months following his father’s death in 1909, he returned to Idaho, taking a Japanese bride. The couple would eventually have seven children, including three sons. A few years later, the family moved to Salt Lake City, where Shuichi found work. When he was not struggling to earn money to support his large family, he was employed as a poet and journalist, working under the name Sasabune Sasaki. He later wrote a series of Japanese-language books, notably “Amerika Seikatsu” (“Life in America”) (1937), a set of short articles and essays, and “Yokuryujo Seikatsuki” (“Life in Camp”) (1950), a memoir of his experience as an enemy alien who had been incarcerated at Missoula, Mont.

Sasaki, the eldest child, was born in Idaho on Oct. 31, 1911 and grew up in Salt Lake City. A skilled violinist, at one time he had ambitions to launch a concert career. After attending Granite High School, where he won a coveted prize in a chemistry contest, he enrolled at University of Utah at the end of the 1920s. There, Sasaki continued his science education in preparation for a medical career, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in December of 1932, and graduated in 1933 with high honors. At the same time, he wrote for the University Pen, a student literary magazine, won a prize for his poetry in the Gleam Scribbler contest, a university competition sponsored by a pair of literary fraternities, and was selected to read the class poem at the class day exercises.

Sasaki’s literary activities extended far beyond his campus exploits. Together with a group of friends in Salt Lake City, in 1931, Sasaki founded Reimei, the first Nisei literary magazine. His goal was to encourage Japanese Americans to take pride in their Japanese ancestry and to draw from their cultural heritage in their self-expression. In its initial issue, he wrote a slightly grandiloquent preface to his Nisei readers: “This is our apology in presenting you the Reimei. We only desire you to accept it as your own — for you to gain closer intimacy with the people who harboring under the same Star, have the same problems, a like destiny, the same ideals: for you to become a participant in our effort to ward off all handicaps and strive for the goal — perfection in life.” Over the following two years, four issues of Reimei were produced, with contributions by such notable Nisei authors as Taro Katayama, Tosuke Yamasaki and Chiye Mori, as well as “Hoshina Airan” (the pseudonym of a white friend who joined the group). Issues of Reimei also featured translated excerpts from French writer Kikou Yamata’s 1925 romance “Masako” — the first published novel by a Nisei. As well as editing the journal, Sasaki contributed poems, a review of Willa Cather’s “My Antonia” and a pastiche dialogue based on Lady Murasaki’s “The Tale of Genji.”

Even as he directed Reimei, Sasaki contributed pieces to West Coast Nisei newspapers. In 1932, he produced a short tale, “Young Atheists,” for the first Sunday literary page of Kashu Mainichi. Editor Larry Tajiri later pronounced it “one of the finest short stories to be published by the Nisei press.” In 1933, following his graduation from University of Utah, Sasaki traveled to Los Angeles, where his family had previously moved from Utah. There he stayed with the socialist activist Joseph Hansen, who discussed political theory with him and persuaded him to read the work of Leon Trotsky (to whom Hansen would later serve as secretary). Sasaki would long remain influenced by Trotsky’s ideas. Meanwhile, Sasaki joined the staff of the Nisei newspaper Shin Sekai, and fell in with a local circle of literary Nisei who called themselves the Nisei Writers Group. Sasaki and Carl Kondo agreed to serve as editors of their mimeographed magazine, Leaves. (At least three issues of Leaves were ultimately published, but they do not exist in any public archive.) Through the group, Sasaki met a local Nisei writer and columnist, Mary Oyama (later Mary Oyama Mittwer), who in turn introduced him to her younger sister Lily. Lily was a talented artist who had studied for a year at the Otis College of Art and Design. Sasaki and Lily were married in 1937, and remained together for more than 70 years. Their daughter Averil Miye (Mimi) Sasaki was born afterward.

In the fall of 1933, Sasaki accepted a scholarship to University of Cincinnati, where he was also employed as an assistant instructor in the biochemistry department. He received his Ph.D. from Cincinnati in 1936. His doctoral thesis, “The effect of vitamin B1 deficiency on the lipides of the central nervous system,” concerned the nervous disease beriberi, which had roots in malnutrition. In the process of his doctoral research, Sasaki grew interested in pellagra, a nutritional deficiency disease widespread in the American South. Following graduation, Sasaki spent six months in Birmingham, Ala., which he later called “a fascinating experience.” Working at the Hillman Hospital, a charity hospital, he witnessed the depressed conditions among poor whites and blacks, all of which deeply moved him. Sasaki was a central researcher in a medical team led by Dr. Thomas Spies, and together with Spies and Esther Gross, he authored a pair of published medical journal articles on pellagra in 1938. (That same year, Spies and two other colleagues were awarded TIME magazine’s “Man of the Year” distinction for science after proving that niacin would cure pellagra in humans.)

Throughout this time, Sasaki remained absorbed in literary work. In 1937 he began a regular column for Nichi Bei Shimbun entitled “Bioscheme,” in which he discussed literary and political topics, with the goal of awakening his Nisei readers’ social conscience. For example, in a January 1938 column he reviewed John Steinbeck’s now-classic novel “Of Mice and Men,” then newly published, and praised its depiction of life among the poor (including Mexican laborers, he reminded his Nisei audience). In 1939 he toured the Midwest and South and published a series for Nichi Bei Shimbun and Rafu Shimpo entitled “A Nisei Discovers America.” Soon after, in another article in the Rafu, entitled “The Negroes’ Problem,” he analyzed the different sides of the struggle for racial equality among black Americans. Praising the “surging movement” among blacks “for the ultimate victory of democratic ways,” Sasaki argued that the Nisei might do well to consider adopting similar strategies of militant protest. In May of 1939, Sasaki returned to Los Angeles, where he organized another literary group, the Nisei League of Writers and Artists, and helped put together its mimeographed publication, The Letter, to which he contributed a book review. When the League was attacked as an antifascist group, he replied, “Politically, all we provide for is a defense of democratic ideals, including civil rights and freedom of thought and press. We stand for the highest ideals of the American way and are striving to be loyal, progressive citizens. … Primarily, of course, we are a fellowship of those who love to write or draw.”

There is some uncertainly about developments over the following years. What is clear is that after leaving Birmingham, Sasaki was employed by Cincinnati’s Longview Hospital, an institution for mental disorders, where he worked in the dispensary. He received his M.D. in 1941 from the University of Cincinnati Medical School, and one source from 1941 listed him as on the staff of St. Mary’s Hospital in Cincinnati. He was geographically separated during this time from Lily, who was living with the Sasaki family in Los Angeles. In 1942, when West Coast Japanese Americans were rounded up following Executive Order 9066, Lily and Mimi accompanied the Sasaki family to the Granada (Amache, Colo.) concentration camp. (Shuichi, who had been incarcerated after Pearl Harbor and incarcerated at Missoula, was released after a few months and ultimately joined the family in Granada [Amache]). Sasaki remained in Cincinnati, outside the excluded zone, and opened a medical practice in the nearby town of Covington, Ky.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

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