THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Nisei literary artists in NY made their mark post-WWII


Throughout much of the 20th century, a unique feature of the West Coast Nikkei community press was the New Year’s supplement. These special holiday issues contained several additional pages in both English and Japanese. Most of the contents, at least in the English sections, were made up of advertisements from local businesses and columns of paid greetings from families. However, interspersed with these were feature articles, highlights from the past year’s news stories and photos and also various literature and art by Nisei. Indeed, in the postwar decades the New Year’s supplements were often the only occasion during the entire year when Nisei newspapers featured fiction and poetry, as well as the other features. For example, the great author Hisaye Yamamoto contributed stories and essays to Rafu Shimpo’s Holiday Issue into the 1980s, even as artist Miné Okubo produced New Year’s drawings for Kashu Mainichi over a period spanning a generation. In the spirit of this long tradition, I am glad to shine light on Sanae Kawaguchi and Mitsu Yamamoto, two versatile Nisei literary artists in New York, who made their mark in mainstream circles in the postwar era.

Sanae Kawaguchi was born in Southern California. Her Issei father Sakujiro Kawaguchi had labored as a young man on the railroads in the U.S. West before taking up farming. Her mother Fuki Endow Kawaguchi, in addition to her farm work, was an avid Japanese poet and diarist (In a previous “Great Unknown” column, I discussed Mrs. Kawaguchi’s journal of her life in the weeks following Pearl Harbor). After Sanae’s birth, the family moved to Japan for a period. However, at length they decided to return to the United States, and in the years before World War II Sanae spent her childhood with her parents and two older sisters on the family farm near Los Angeles.

The Kawaguchi family’s life was interrupted by the outbreak of war. In the wake of Executive Order 9066, they were forced to entrust their land to a white agent. Sakujiro Kawaguchi, having secured a promise of sponsorship from old railroading buddies in Utah, organized an auto caravan with a few other families. In March of 1942, during the brief period of so-called “voluntary evacuation,” the Kawaguchis left the West Coast excluded zone. Although the family escaped mass confinement and the psychological trauma of camp by migrating, Sanae later recalled, life for the family in wartime Utah was arduous. The entire family was forced to labor in the fields as itinerant farmhands. Because of difficulties finding living quarters, they lived in a tent, then an abandoned log cabin, and ultimately a chicken coop, carrying water for washing from a well. Fuki Kawaguchi was often too ill to work, and finally was bedridden for an extended period. The young Sanae’s schooling was intermittent during those years. Following the lifting of exclusion, the Kawaguchis returned to Los Angeles, but Sakujiro’s farm had been sold to new owners, and he was unable to get back his stake.

Instead, he was forced to seek work as a gardener. Sanae found life as a Nisei teenager in postwar Los Angeles oppressive. After going through high school, she left home. Joining forces with a fellow student, she hit the road and migrated to the East Coast.

Once arrived in New York, Kawaguchi swiftly made a new life for herself in the city’s artistic circles. She took up modern dance, and was accepted by the renowned modern dancer Martha Graham as a student. She studied with Graham’s company for several years being forced to retire by an injury. She meanwhile worked as an independent performer and choreographer. In 1956, she performed in the national tour of John Patrick’s play “Teahouse of the August Moon,” starring actor Larry Parks. She herself staged composer Marvin David Levy’s “Sotoba Komachi,” a one-act opera based on Japanese Noh drama, which opened in New York in July of 1957. Meanwhile, she worked as a hostess at the Manhattan nightspot The Hawaiian Room.

In addition to her performing interests, Kawaguchi was attracted to art and literature, especially Japanese culture. She credited her mother, in particular, with having inspired her to appreciate the arts of her ancestral land, and with training her to speak Japanese fluently. During the mid-1950s, Kawaguchi began work on a children’s book that would draw from her acquired knowledge of Japanese folk culture. Beyond entertainment, her goal was to promote international understanding at a time — barely a decade after World War II — when Japan remained little known and suspect among many Americans. The result was “Taro’s Festival Day.” The slim work told a tale of a Japanese boy’s adventures during the Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Day) holiday, including his special meal and his catching of dragonflies. Kawaguchi added to the text a set of brightly colored illustrations that merged classical Japanese art forms and scenes of traditional rural life with modern American graphics. The book’s lively charm attracted the distinguished Boston publisher Little, Brown, which had long before produced Lafcadio Hearn’s “A Japanese Miscellany,” and they offered Kawaguchi a contract.

The first edition of “Taro’s Festival Day” hit the shelves in summer 1957. Its appearance attracted a spurt of media attention. While it was not the very first children’s book by a Nisei author to be brought out by a mainstream press — Yoshiko Uchida’s book of Japanese folktales, “The Dancing Kettle” (1949), had appeared almost a decade earlier — the author’s youth and the fact that she produced her own illustrations were especially noteworthy. Journalist Lee Mortimer referred to Kawaguchi in his syndicated “New York Confidential” column as “Cutest author and illustrator of children’s books in town.”

The book’s sales led Little, Brown to commission a new work from Kawaguchi. Her second book, “The Insect Concert,” like its predecessor, was set in a timeless Japan. This time, the story concerned a boy and girl, Yuki and Yoko, who find a golden cricket and put him in a cage so that he can play with the insect musicians. When they discover that the cricket is unhappy in his cage, they feel obliged to release him. However, on the night of the full moon, when the insects come together to play in the temple garden, the golden cricket returns. He rubs his legs together, and fills the audience with joy by his beautiful song.

While “The Insect Concert” did not sell as well as “Taro’s Festival Day,” it was a more whimsical and inventive book. The historian must wonder whether author George Selden was influenced by Kawaguchi’s work when devising his own cricket virtuoso for the children’s book “The Cricket in Times Square,” published two years later.

After completing her second book, Kawaguchi changed the direction of her career. She married John Moorehead, who had been the stage manager for “The Teahouse of the August Moon.” The couple had two children. In the following years, even as she raised her children, Kawaguchi worked producing art for educational filmstrips (including illustrations for Asian American books), put on performances for young people through the federal arts program “Project Reach,” lived and worked for a period in Japan, and later operated for many years a bed and breakfast in New York. In 2006, she returned to publishing, after a nearly 50-year absence, with the young adult novel “A Time of Innocence,” a fictional portrait of her family’s wartime exile from the West Coast and life in Utah. In 2013, her first adult novel, the sensual romance “The Secret of the Zen Garden,” appeared. Set in postwar Japan, it tells the story of an older woman’s awakening to life through an unexpected, forbidden love.

Another versatile author was the late Mitsu Yamamoto, who mixed classic literature with pop writing. Yamamoto was born Mitsie Ethel Yamamoto in Ohio in 1920, the daughter of a Japanese immigrant father, Sannosuke Yamamoto, and a Swedish mother, Hilda Nelson Bernharina. The family subsequently moved to Philadelphia, and in 1939 Yamamoto enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. After the start of World War II, her father Sannosuke was engaged to teach Japanese language to U.S. Marine recruits at Penn, and was subsequently hired as an “informant” by the University’s linguistics department. He collaborated on a Japanese dictionary for the military, which was also commercially published in 1944 as “Japanese for Military and Civilan Use.” Perhaps as a result of her father’s defense work, and what she herself later termed her “white-bread appearance,” Yamamoto was permitted to enroll in the graduate school after receiving her bachelor’s degree, and took classes in English literature, despite the University of Pennsylvania’s (formal but unannounced) wartime policy of excluding Japanese American students. In 1945, after leaving Penn, Yamamoto married George Anderson. Meanwhile, she enrolled as a student in Dropsie College, a Philadephia-based center for Jewish and Hebrew Studies, as “Mitsie Y. Anderson.” She likewise studied at Columbia University during the 1950s.

It is not known precisely when Yamamoto began writing. However, in 1956 a one-act play of hers won a prize in the Fourth Collegiate Playwriting Contest, sponsored by the Samuel French Co. (It may have been “Pride Goeth,” which she copyrighted under both the names “Mitsu Yamamoto” and “Mitsie Y. Anderson” in 1962). In November of 1957, her short story “The Good News” appeared in The New Yorker. It recounted the tale of two women who meet when they are roommates in a hospital.

Although Yamamoto did not publish further in The New Yorker, “The Good News” was the first of a series of her stories that appeared in national magazines in the following years. For example, her story “In Any Language” appeared in Redbook in 1962, three of her pieces were featured in The PTA Magazine, and her mystery story ran in the magazine Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1973.

Perhaps most notably, two of Yamamoto’s fantasy stories, “Miss Kemper Comes Home in the Dark” and “Karen Stixx and her Jigsaw Puzzle” appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1972 to 1973.

The first of these concerned a woman attacked by a mugger on the street, and the curious consequences that resulted from her defending herself. It was later included in the anthology volume “Best Detective Stories of the Year, 1973.” The second was a Faust story of sorts, in which a mysterious stranger offers an unhappily married man a new life in exchange for a special service. She also published a nonfiction book for children, “Bridges to Fear: A Collection of Strange but True Stories” (1977).

In addition to fiction, Yamamoto worked as an editor and critic. She produced various book reviews for Library Journal. One pithy statement (and perhaps revealing of her own identity) came in her review in August of 1974 of the pioneering Asian American literary anthology “Aieeee!” “(These writers) pronounce themselves a unique American minority, Asian Americans — not Asians, not Americans, not an uneasy combination of both. Overlong and overwrought prefaces repeat this valid identification while tossing around words like ‘yellow goons,’ ‘racist henchmen,’ and ‘manhood.’

Apart from this consciousness-raising, what? Mainly fiction and drama, with a rich, varied content not often matched by a like expression.”

Yamamoto’s editing work centered on the children’s versions she produced of classic novels, adapting such well-known works as Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde” and Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations” plus the Bible, into abridged editions. She died in 2006.

A personal aside: I had contact with both these women, though on a rather different scale. I was introduced to Sanae Kawaguchi Moorehead through a mutual friend in 1998, when I first began studying Japanese Americans. We met for lunch, and hit it off so much that we ended up staying together talking all afternoon. We have remained warm friends ever since. Soon after, in August of 1999, I contacted Yamamoto in connection with some research I was doing on Nisei at University of Pennsylvania during World War II. She generously sent on copies that she had received of her government security forms, as well as other information. I then did a follow-up telephone interview with her. Though I was not aware of her writing career, she sounded so interesting that at the end of our phone chat I offered to take her out to lunch. She considered the invitation for a long moment, then said “I think not,” and declined with thanks. I will always regret missing my chance to meet her.

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

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