Groundbreaking biography of Nisei social justice advocate siblings



By Diane C. Fujino (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020, 272 pp., $29.95, paperback) 

In “Nisei Radicals: The Feminist Poetics and Transformative Ministry of Mitsuye Yamada and Michael Yasutake” Diane Fujino has set herself the formidable task of writing a joint portrait of the Rev. Mike Yasutake and Mitsuye (Yasutake) Yamada, a rare brother-sister duo of Nisei political activists who engaged in decades-long struggles for social justice, beginning in the 1970s. Mike Yasutake, an Episcopalian minister based in Chicago, campaigned for peace and disarmament, counseled Vietnam-era draft resisters, and served as executive director of the Interfaith Prisoners of Conscience Project. Mitsuye Yamada shined as a poet and a pioneering feminist voice — most famously as author of the poetry volume “Camp Notes” (1976) — and devoted herself to work on behalf of Amnesty International, to whose national board of directors she was elected in the 1980s. While both took inspiration from their Japanese American heritage, both looked beyond their communities in their activism.

While Fujino is a veteran biographer of Nikkei radicals, authoring past studies of Yuri Kochiyama and Richard Aoki, this book breaks new ground. Not only does it place in counterpoint two members of a family, but Fujino also sensitively examines the impact of their odd transnational upbringing and wartime confinement experience on their later development. Both spent their early years in Japan, where they were cared for by others, before returning to the United States and being reunited with their parents, who felt like virtual strangers. 

During the war, they were confined at the Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho, then were released and moved to Cincinnati and enrolled at the University of Cincinnati. However, when Mike was asked to take a so-called loyalty oath and refused on the grounds that he was opposed to war and to the draft, he was expelled from the university. This experience fueled his interest in working for justice, especially aiding Black, Native American and other minority prisoners. It was likewise determinative for Mitsuye, who left Cincinnati and enrolled at New York University, and later the University of Chicago. She married chemist Yoshikazu Yamada in 1950, and spent the next decade largely as a housewife and mother. However, she was uncomfortable in her largely white suburban town. Inspired by the feminist movement of the 1960s, she worked as an English professor, and became politically active in support of civil rights. Her poetry volumes “Camp Notes” and “Desert Run” drew from her political ideas and experience.

Fujino deserves special praise for theorizing the role of religious belief in the Rev. Yasutake’s work. Her call for greater focus on “faith-based activism” is important. I wish that she had considered the career of the Rev. Perry Saito, Yasutake’s Chicago Methodist counterpart, whose activism is discussed in Klancy Clark de Nevers’ 2004 “The Colonel and the Pacifist.” I would have liked some discussion of Mitsuye Yamada’s courageous pro-LGBT activism, notably her 1988 letter to the Los Angeles Times slamming Orange County for challenging local non-discrimination ordinances.

All in all, “Nisei Radicals” is not only a book well worth reading as a joint biography of two remarkable Nikkei, but I hope will act as a springboard for larger discussions of social justice.


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