THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Japanese American singer and civil rights activist Ruby Hideko Yoshino

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bioline_Greg Robinson(Editor’s note: The following article was co-written with Jonathan Van Harmelen.)

Along with classical instrumentalists, quite a number of Japanese American operatic and concert singers, mostly women, began their careers on the West Coast during the 1930s. Previous “Great Unknown” columns have featured such standout “songstresses” as Agnes Miyakawa, Toshiko Hasegawa and Tomi Kanazawa. Of all these prewar singers, perhaps the most successful was Ruby Yoshino (Schaar), who became notable in later years for civil rights activism as well as performing.

Ruby Hideko Yoshino was born in Alameda, Calif. in 1913, one of five children of Yoshimatsu and Mitsuye Yoshino. John Y. Yoshino, her eldest brother, would become a Japanese American Citizens League youth leader and ultimately a longtime equal employment opportunity specialist for the federal government. Ruby Yoshino started out as a singer while at Alameda High School. Her music teacher, Hazel Hunter, introduced her to David Carlyes, a representative of the Pacific Coast Opera Company. She would later be accepted as a pupil by San Francisco voice teacher Lona Carol Nicholson.

With help from an introduction by her father, she played her first major concert in 1931, at age 18, before an audience of 2,000 at the California Teacher’s Institute in Oakland. The concert helped jumpstart Yoshino’s local career as a singer, and led to a variety of appearances, often with patronage from women’s clubs or organizations. For example, in 1933 she performed before the Alameda Business and Professional Women’s Club and the Glenview Women’s Club. The following year, she played a free lobby concert at the Oakland YWCA, sang at an “International Concert Tea” at the Hotel Leamington produced by the Matinee Musical Society, and appeared at a benefit tea for the Piedmont Children’s Hospital. In 1935, Yoshino appeared in a concert before an audience of 400 at UC Berkeley’s International House, presenting an aria from Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Tosca.” In a review of the concert, the Nichi Bei Shimbun praised her as a “Nisei songbird.”

In January of 1936, Yoshino received an invitation to sing on the radio for local CBS affiliates in San Francisco. The success of her performance led to the recording being broadcast nationwide. That summer, she reached the semifinals of the Oakland Tribune-California State Fair amateur contest. In September of 1936, Yoshino sang at the Northern Democratic Conference’s Oakland picnic as part of a fundraiser for President Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election campaign. It was followed by an invitation to appear at the Hotel Oakland in January of 1937 at one of the “Birthday Balls” organized under Roosevelt’s aegis by the March of Dimes as a fundraiser for polio research. In her performance at the ball, Yoshino was accompanied by the great musician Duke Ellington, whose band was headlining the event.

In addition to her concert repertoire, Yoshino distinguished herself as an “inspirational singer” performing at churches such as the Berkeley Japanese Methodist Church, and in tours under the auspices of the Epworth League. Beginning in 1936, Yoshino was engaged on an approximately monthly basis to sing at church services at the Unity Wayside Center in Oakland — a rare mainstream gig for a Nisei singer.

In September of 1938, Yoshino enrolled as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. A few months later, in January of 1939, she traveled to New York. According to one source, she intended to audition for the famed Juilliard School. She either decided not to audition or was not accepted. While in New York, she appeared on the nationally-broadcast radio program “Major Bowes Amateur Hour.” Yoshino sang “Una voce poco fa” from Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” and was warmly praised by the host. She studied for a time with Charles Hackett, former tenor at the Metropolitan Opera.

In part as a result of her successful radio appearance, Yoshino grew more active on the West Coast. In December of 1939, she made her San Francisco debut, performing at the War Memorial’s Veterans Auditorium. In February of 1940, she undertook a spring recital tour with performances in Fresno, Berkeley, and Palo Alto. In August of 1940, she sang at UC Berkeley’s Greek Theatre before an estimated audience of 500. In January of 1941, she gave a recital at the Berkeley Music Center. That year she launched a goodwill recital tour of eight California cities, under the auspices of the Methodist Board of Missions. In November of 1941, she sang Mozart’s “Allelulia” at Stanford University’s Memorial Church.

Like other Nisei artists, Yoshino was forced to deal with being exoticized as Japanese. On one hand, Yoshino often appeared onstage in a kimono, and agreed to perform as part of “international night” events. Her programs included songs by modern Japanese composers, notably Kōsaku Yamada and Kishi Yasuichi. Nonetheless, her repertoire consisted mostly of selections from classical European composers, including operatic arias by Rossini, Giuseppe Verdi and others, plus lieder. (She emphasized songs by living composers such as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss and Rudolph Ganz).

Unlike other Nikkei sopranos for whom Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s “Japanese” opera “Madama Butterfly” was their “bread-and-butter” role, Yoshino never sang the role onstage, though she occasionally performed the aria “Un bel di” in costume, such as at a “Professional Tryout Night” in Oakland in January of 1936. She seems not to have auditioned to perform in the annual West Coast touring productions of “Madama Butterfly,” starring soprano Hizi Koyke, that the San Carlo Opera Company put on during these years.

While Yoshino’s career was slowly rising, world events put a stop to her performances. On Dec. 7, 1941, she was scheduled to sing at an international fellowship at Oakland’s First Methodist Church. It would be her last West Coast appearance. Shortly after, as a result of the incarceration of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066, Yoshino’s family was sent to the Tanforan detention center in San Bruno, Calif. before ending up in Topaz concentration camp in Central Utah. Yoshino escaped incarceration by moving to Denver, where she worked in a cleaning establishment — a photo of her working in the shop was used by the War Relocation Authority as part of their resettlement program. She sang occasionally before church and club groups. In July 1944, she traveled to the concentration camp at Granada (Amache) in Colorado, and performed a concert for the inmates in the camp high school building.

In August of 1944, Yoshino was offered the opportunity to make an East Coast publicity tour for the JACL to promote understanding of Japanese Americans and build support for resettlement from camp. Accompanied by speaker Dr. Thomas T. Yatabe of the Chicago JACL, Yoshino presented concerts in areas throughout the East Coast. On one occasion, Yoshino sang before wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Hospital, with a photo of her performance appearing in a JACL pamphlet on the Nisei contributions to the war effort. In January 1945, Yoshino returned to New York to sing for a fundraiser for the Japanese American Committee of New York.

After the end of the war, Yoshino settled in New York City and resumed her singing career. In 1948, Yoshino helped form the One World Ensemble, an interracial “quartette” dedicated to showing that music “is beyond racial and nationality barriers.” Napoleon Reed, an African American tenor, was a member of the ensemble. As with Yoshino’s previous solo repertoire, the quartet sang operatic arias from composers such as Mozart, along with songs from Japan and other countries. The group toured in New York and Chicago for a year.

She soon married pianist Rudolf Schaar, performing alongside him at recitals. In December of 1950 she made her formal New York concert debut at Times Hall. She sang a number of Japanese songs as well as a Beethoven aria and a group of songs by contemporary American composers. A New York Times critic remarked, “Miss Yoshino sang everything loudly and in a metallic tone that soon palled. There were a few relaxed notes which gave an inkling of her true beauty of voice, however.” Shortly afterward, she played a sold-out concert at Kimball Hall in Chicago. In September of 1951 she sang at the Brooklyn Museum, a concert broadcast over radio station WNYC. In May of 1953 she sang an additional recital at the Community Church of New York. She additionally began work as a vocal instructor for celebrities, counseling famed actors such as Anne Bancroft, Joan Crawford and Don Ameche.

In addition to her singing career, Yoshino also established herself as a JACL leader. During the early 1950s, Yoshino lobbied for the right of Japanese immigrants to naturalize, which was granted by the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. Yoshino ultimately served as president of the New York JACL chapter in the 1970s, and as a board member of the JACL’s Pacific Citizen from 1974 until 1980. In 1986, the New York chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League honored Ruby Yoshino Schaar for her public advocacy with the creation of the Ruby Yoshino Schaar Biennium Playwright Award. On Aug. 26, 1987, Ruby Yoshino Schaar died after a year-long battle with cancer.

Before there was Mary Kageyama, the “songbird of Manzanar,” there was Ruby Yoshino. By her graceful appearance and singing, she was able to transcend racial categorization and communicate with people of different backgrounds.

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. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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