Nobuko Miyamoto’s riveting stories — on and off the stage



By Nobuko Miyamoto (Oakland, Calif.: University of California Press, 2021, 344 pp., $29.95, paperback)

Playful, provocative, never boring — that sums up Nobuko Miyamoto and her memoir, “Not Yo’ Butterfly.”

From a young age, Miyamoto showed promise as a dancer, winning a scholarship to the American School of Dance in Hollywood. 

At the age of 15, Miyamoto was cast in the movie “The King and I,” starring Yul Brynner, and from there, she went on to dance on Broadway in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Flower Drum Song.” 

For the “West Side Story” audition, Miyamoto beat out hundreds of other dancers to become one of two Asian Americans in the movie. (The other is Jose De Vega, who was of Chinese, Pilipino and Guatemalan descent). 

But after Miyamoto hooked up with a filmmaker, who wanted to do a documentary on the Black Panthers, her career path changed. 

Miyamoto’s New York years are riveting as she writes about the Young Lords, Asian Americans for Action (often referred to as Triple A), Warriors of the Rainbow and the Basement Workshop. 

She describes meeting the legendary activist Yuri Kochiyama and explains how New York Asian Americans became associated with Malcolm X’s phrase, “Chickens come home to roost.” 

Most importantly, readers will learn how Miyamoto partnered with Chris Iijima and later with Charlie Chin to record the seminal album, “A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America,” which is considered the first Asian American folk album. 

After touring the country, Miyamoto resettles in Los Angeles where she gives birth to a Japanese American and African American boy at a time when racially mixed children were a rarity within the Nikkei community. Despite her struggles to raise a child as a single mother, Miyamoto goes on to form Great Leap, the performing arts organization that Miyamoto still heads. 

But some details are lost in the creative writing. The beginning of the memoir is a bit confusing since it jumps around, and the reader is never told what year Miyamoto is born, although it becomes clear she was born before World War II. 

One glaring mistake is a reference to a Nikkei gang as the Black Wands. This should be Black Juans. They were a postwar Eastside gang, headed by the notorious General (aka Jim Matsuoka). 

The spelling of Japanese words should also be double-checked. For example, a go-between should be baishakunin, not bishakunin; older sister, nesan, not neisan; one is unsure whether the word “ore” in the memoir is referring to “orei,” which is an expression of gratitude, to point out just a few. 

There is also reference to the Hawaiian Pidgin English word “kotonk,” which the memoir refers to as “empty as bamboo,” but ask any Japanese American from Hawai‘i and they will say it is the sound of an empty coconut. 

Another common error that should be corrected is the reference to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team as the “most decorated infantry unit of the war.” The 442nd was the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service.

World War II camp terminology should also be corrected. United States citizens cannot technically be “interned” in “internment camps” since this connotes the legal incarceration of enemy aliens. Two-thirds of Japanese Americans imprisoned in the War Relocation Authority camps were U.S. citizens.

Despite these shortcomings, the memoir captures an important part of American history that has been rarely written about. It is well worth reading. After that, take time to listen to the “120,000 Stories” album. 

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