THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: ‘Nisei Songbird’ Yoshiko Miyakawa of Sacramento


bioline_Greg RobinsonIn the years before World War II, West Coast Japanese Americans encountered numerous obstacles to equality, both official and unofficial, and faced great difficulty in making names and careers for themselves outside of their ethnic communities. However, one exceptional individual, the “Nisei songbird,” Yoshiko Miyakawa of Sacramento, Calif., rose to international celebrity as an opera singer in Paris at the dawn of the 1930s.

Agnes Yoshiko Miyakawa was born in Sacramento, Calif. (the year is unclear but most sources say 1911). She was one of four children of Tsunesaburo Miyakawa. After a career as a salesman and druggist, the elder Miyakawa had distinguished himself by opening the Agnes Hospital (named for his daughter) in Sacramento. Agnes grew up in an accomplished family. Her brothers Jun and Kay Miyakawa both attended Harvard University, where they would gain fame playing on Harvard’s varsity baseball team. Another brother, George Miyakawa, became a doctor.

Agnes herself attended Sacramento Junior College. During this time, she sang with a Sacramento Glee Club, and meanwhile studied voice with a Sacramento-based instructor, Mrs. Charles Brier. Soon, the teenager began performing solo. In 1927, she played piano and sang before the Japanese Christian Women’s Club for the centenary of Beethoven’s death. The next month she sang at Fair Oak Church. In 1928 she performed a recital in Fresno under the auspices of the American Loyalty League (ancestor of the Japanese American Citizens League). The program consisted largely of Japanese songs such as “Shikararete” by Ryutaro Hirota and “Jawashima no Ame” by Yamada. Later in the year, she toured the Northern Pacific cities and sang a concert in Seattle.

In fall of 1928, after being the surprise winner of a local contest, Miyakawa gained the right to represent Sacramento in the finals of a national radio audition sponsored by the Atwater Kent Foundation. The competition took place in San Francisco in October 1928. Miyakawa sang “Una voce poco fa,” from Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” While she did not win, her talent shone through impressively, and her exploits solidified her desire to study in Europe. Thus, in March of 1929, accompanied by her mother, Miyakawa moved to Paris. There she was taken up as a private pupil by Elie Cohen, chef d’orchestre of the National Theater Opera Comique of Paris. Cohen had previously coached other well-known performers, notably the American opera star Mary McCormic.

In January 1931, at age 19, the Nisei soprano made her début (under the name Yoshiko Miyakawa) at the Opéra Comique in Paris, singing (in French) the lead role of Ciao-Ciao-San in Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly.” According to one newspaper account, for the final scene, in which a despairing Butterfly kills herself, Miyakawa borrowed her mother’s wedding kimono to increase the authenticity and drama. She took a dozen curtain calls, and her ovation lasted 25 minutes. According to The New York Times, the French critics hailed Miss Miyakawa for having sung “with a charm and freshness of voice rarely, if ever, known before, proving herself a faultless musician and an astonishingly convincing actress.” In the following days, she became a media sensation in Europe and North America. While French newspapers identified her as a “Japanese doll,” emphasizing her Asian appearance, she was clear about her own identity. “My parents are Japanese but I am an American.”

After her stunning debut as Ciao-Ciao-San, Miyakawa sang her role four more times. Presumably around the same time, she recorded in French a pair of opera arias for the Columbia Record company’s French label: Puccini’s classic from “Madama Butterfly,” “un bel di” (“sur la mer calmée” in French) and “Le Jour sous le soleil béni” from the opera “Madame Chrysantheme” of André Messager. She also presented a concert in London.

Even as Miyakawa gained fame in Paris, her father asked her to return to the United States. In May of 1931, after almost three years in Europe, she landed in New York, then made her way across the country, performing in Denver. Following her return to the West Coast, she made a concert tour. Her first recital was at the First Reformed Church on Post Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown, before an audience of 700 people. Miyakawa sang a series of Japanese songs, including “Shikararete” then performed Madame Butterfly’s aria (in the French version). Soon after, she performed a similar program in Sacramento’s Showa Hall. In June Miyakawa appeared at the Nishi Hongwanji temple in Los Angeles in a concert sponsored by The Rafu Shimpo. There she presented a program of French, Italian, English and Japanese songs. She switched off costumes, wearing first a pink dress with rhinestones, then a blue gown, and then a white kimono for the Japanese songs.

In late July 1931, Miyakwa set sail for Japan to do a concert tour to be sponsored by Asahi Shimbun. She expressed excitement about the tour: “I have sung ever since I can remember hearing the haunting melodies of old Nippon.” While on a stopover in Hawai‘i, she sang a concert at the Pan Pacific Club, and signed to record with Nipponophone, the Columbia Recording company’s Japanese arm, and a fall 1933 recording of her exists.

Once arrived in Japan, Miyakawa gave concerts in Osaka and Tokyo (including well-publicized benefits she gave to raise money for unemployed Japanese). Soon after, she was signed to a motion picture contract. In early 1933, she made her screen debut, in the Japanese sound film “Warau Chichi” (“Smiling Father”). The film, a Japanese adaptation of Samuel Butler’s novel, “The Way of All Flesh,” concerns the trials of a bank clerk, stripped of his money by a gold digger, who sinks to the position of a rag-picker. One day he sees his eldest daughter (Miyakawa) in a concert hall showered with acclaim by the admiring throng. When the man visits his estranged family, his daughter does not recognize him. Because of Miyakawa’s featured role, the film attracted special interest in West Coast Little Tokyos, and prints were taken to the United States and shown around the West Coast.

Sometime around the time that Agnes Miyakawa moved to Japan, her family joined her. The elder Miyakawa’s hospital, which had faced serious financial trouble amid the Great Depression, went out of business in the early 1930s, and he preferred to start over in his old homeland. Miyakawa’s parents settled in Okayama prefecture. There they helped care for Agnes when she was struck by illness and bedridden for several weeks. Brother Kay was ultimately assigned to the Japanese embassy in Hsinking, China.

In November 1933 Miyakawa shocked her fans by getting married — the Los Angeles Times headline shouted, “Japanese Diva Wrecks Career — Cupid Wins Singer from Operatic Stage.” Her new husband was Richard Takebumi (aka Takeo) Makiyama, a mining company executive who was the son of a wealthy Japanese sugar magnate. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal, Makiyama had participated in a goodwill tour of the U.S. The couple soon had a daughter, Virginia Seiko Makiyama. Still, the marriage was not a happy one — according to an interview with Agnes’s nephew, the novelist Edward Miyakawa, she contracted syphilis from her husband.

The next few years remain obscure. During a trip to the U.S. in 1935, Makiyama declared that his wife had retired from the stage and from motion pictures, but was still making records. A surviving 78 disc from 1938 features Miyakawa in a program with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, singing “Le jour sous le soleil béni.” Miyakwa returned to public notice in 1940, when she sang on the “American Salute” program on JZK, a Radio Tokyo’s overseas outlet. She likewise sang at a gala of overseas Japanese in Tokyo in November 1940. Articles announced that she would return to the stage as the lead in composer Koscak (aka Kosaku) Yamada’s opera, variously entitled “Tojin Okichi,” “Yo-ake” and “Reimei” Miyakawa was set to play the role of Okichi, the geisha who became common law wife of Townsend Harris, America’s first diplomatic envoy to Japan. It is not clear if the performance ever took place. (Yamada did premiere that year his opera “Kurofune,” on the Black Ships.)

With the coming of the Pacific War, Miyakawa and her family were caught in Japan. Their experience is not recorded. What is certain is that at war’s end, Miyakawa was engaged as a secretary to a Col. Miller, of the occupation Eighth Army, and then to Col. William K. Noel, Judge Advocate General of the Ninth corps in Sendai. In late 1946 Agnes (by then single) announced that she would return to the United States and live with her brother George, who operated a medical practice in Charleston, West Virginia. In fall of 1947, Miyakawa presented a concert at Charleston’s Municipal Auditorium with the Charleston Symphony orchestra. The following fall, she again concertized with the orchestra. In 1950, she married Ryotaro Minejima (aka Mineshima) in West Virginia.

Miyakawa seems to have moved thereafter to New York. In April 1949, she offered her first New York recital, at Times Hall. The program mixed French chansons by composers such as Roussel, Debussy and Fauré with Puccini arias. In 1951, she gave a radio concert on WNYC’s “Hands Across the Sea” program, singing Japanese and Ainu folksongs. Meanwhile, she served as an interpreter for a visit by a delegation from Tokyo to General Douglas MacArthur’s wife in New York. As far as I have been able to locate, her last concert was a joint recital with mezzo-soprano Nancy Wyner in March 1962 at the Museum of the City of New York. I have found no information on her later life.

Although Agnes Yoshiko Miyakwa was one of the most renowned West Coast Nisei of her generation, her star has dimmed to obscurity and her name is now all but forgotten.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., 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. His new book based upon his Nichi Bei columns, “The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches,” was recently published by University Press of Colorado. He can be reached at The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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