Celebrating an ever-changing community with Nobuko Miyamoto

Joanne Nobuko Miyamoto and Chris Iijima at Gerde’s Folk City

Singer to perform Aug. 5 at San Francisco’s Presidio Theatre

Joanne Nobuko Miyamoto and Chris Iijima at Gerde’s Folk City, 1971 photo by Bob Hsiang

Nobuko Miyamoto’s career spans more than half a century. A childhood interest in music and dance led her to roles in films such as “The King and I” (1956) and “West Side Story” (1961), but the octogenarian entertainer shares a 50th anniversary with the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California this year with a special concert at the Presidio Theatre, Aug. 5.

Miyamoto, a Sansei, initially set out to become a dancer after showing interest in music as a child. Born in Los Angeles, her family was sent to Santa Anita Assembly Center when she was two years old, but rather than being imprisoned in a concentration camp, her father found work in Montana picking sugar beets. From there, her family moved to Parker, Idaho and later to Ogden, Utah. Miyamoto’s mother, a frustrated visual artist, and her father, a frustrated musician, encouraged her pursuit of the arts, but she found limited opportunities for Asian Americans.

That frustration led her to becoming an activist, a path her parents were not so supportive of, after she joined an Italian filmmaker on a trip to New York to film a documentary about the Black Panthers.

“I’ve been aware of the Civil Rights Movement, but now I was right in it, and I was seeing close up Black people fighting police brutality, trying to feed Black children breakfast before they went to school, finding different ways of serving the community. And it was amazing to me to see this, … the image of these folks was very twisted, and so we were fearful of what they were doing, rather than really seeing the purpose of their struggles and how they were serving the community,” Miyamoto told the Nichi Bei News.

In New York, Miyamoto met Yuri Kochiyama during a 1969 church occupation by the Puerto Rican Young Lords.

“I’m seeing this sole Japanese American woman at this church take over, and I’m going like, ‘Whoa, who is she?’ And she’s looking at me and she is saying, ‘Who is she?’”

Kochiyama introduced Miyamoto to other Asian activists in New York at the time through Asian Americans for Action. There, she met Chris Iijima and the two traveled to Chicago for the 1970 Japanese American Citizens League convention. Miyamoto, along with a number of other young activists from across the country, attended the convention to call on the JACL to make a statement against the Vietnam War.

“We were really inspired, and so at the end of the night, he brings out his guitar and I’m thinking ‘Oh my goodness, he plays the guitar.’ And he starts noodling around on the guitar and I’m going, ‘Wow, this guy is good. And he sings. And he’s really good.’ And so I started singing with him and, spontaneously, we sort of wrote a song right there, and the next day, we performed that song for the JACL convention. And we realized at that moment, ‘Wow, this is powerful.’ This is another way of communicating ideas, feelings, presence to our brothers and sisters and to our community,” Miyamoto said.

While Miyamoto and Iijima composed “The People’s Beat” then and there that evening for the convention, the murder of Stockton, Calif. teen Evelyn Okubo the next day further inspired Miyamoto and Iijima to set out to the West Coast to see “what was going on.”

With the help of activists and organizers such as Jeff Mori and Harvey Dong in Northern California and Warren Furutani in Los Angeles, Miyamoto and Iijima toured the West Coast along with folk musician Charlie Chin.

“We were committed to sing and talk about a new concept, that there was a person who was an Asian American,” Chin wrote in a statement to the Nichi Bei News. “We hoped to provide some answers to the questions being raised and to firmly establish that as Asians in America, we had a history of building and defending this country, and we had a right to be here.”

The trio toured various ethnic enclaves across America and performed at churches, colleges, rallies and community spaces.

“While we did not agree on all points of political theory and historical accuracy, by accident of history, we were the first musical group using the title ‘Asian American’ in our generation to do so,” Chin said.

While all three were individually drawn away to other projects, Chin said they decided to record an album to meet the requests for them to play. The album, “A Grain of Sand: Music for the

Struggle of Asians in America,” recorded in 1973, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The album contained songs such as “Yellow Pearl” (a play on the term “yellow peril”) and “We Are the Children.”

“Well, it’s interesting, never in my wildest imagination, and when we were doing this, did I ever think that 50 years later, I would be singing this song or anybody else would,” she said.

Since recording “A Grain of Sand” and becoming an activist, Miyamoto stepped away from seeking success as a performer herself. She instead formed Great Leap, a multicultural arts organization based in Los Angeles, in 1978. She has since worked in the Asian American community to create projects otherwise passed over by the larger entertainment industry.

More recently in 2021, she released “120,000 Stories” with Smithsonian Folkways Recording, which not only rerecorded a number of classics like “We Are the Children,” but also recorded more contemporary pieces like “Black Lives Matter.” Most recently, she composed and choreographed “Kangie, Gathering of Joy” in 2022, a new Bon Odori for Southern Californian churches.

“This year 2023, it’s the 50th anniversary of ‘A Grain of Sand’ as it is the 50th anniversary of the JCCCNC, and so that was one of the things I was going to try to bring together in this concert,” she said of her upcoming concert in San Francisco. “This long struggle on this long history of serving the community in different ways and the heart and endurance, if you will, to continue through a lot of difficulties to maintain a presence and find different ways of serving our community. So I’m really honored to be able to do that with the San Francisco community.”

“Welcoming Nobuko to the Bay Area in celebration of our own 50th anniversary is a great honor for the Center, as we both reflect on reaching a milestone that emerged from an era defined by great change, limitless and compassionate collaboration, and with great dreams for the future,” Paul Osaki, executive director of the community center said in a statement. “Nobuko’s vision for changing the world through expression and deep pride for her heritage and identity is what we as a community and cultural center hope to convey to future generations — that there is something powerful in knowing your culture, understanding where you came from, and honoring those who came before.”

Miyamoto said she plans to collaborate with a number of artists to sing classic songs from her touring days, as well as more contemporary works.

“We’re bringing up a group of our own musicians and then I’m talking now with Nancy Hom, who is a visual artist, who’s going to contribute some artwork that we will project during the show, and Bob Hsiang, his pictures,” she said.

While she has not set which musicians will be performing with her specifically, she said PJ Hirabayashi will also perform.

“I haven’t performed in the Bay Area in quite a few years. Maybe since the ‘90s, maybe a little bit, a few things here and there after that, but not a lot,” she said. “And there hasn’t been a lot of exchange especially after 9-11, when traveling became kind of difficult. I have a lot of relationships with musicians there and other artists and continued to have friendships with people like Jeff

Mori and others. So I have a special place in my heart.”

“Nobuko Miyamoto – 120,000 Stories” will celebrate the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California’s 50th anniversary Aug. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Presidio Theatre at 99 Moraga Ave. in S.F. Miyamoto and a team of eight musicians will “trac(e) her roots to the Santa Anita Assembly Center in 1942, taking us through her early showbiz career on the Broadway stage and in Hollywood as one of a few Asian American performers, then her emergence in the 1960s as ‘Chris and Joanne,’ with her embrace of her own Asian American identity and the power of inclusion. Nobuko’s stories address issues such as race, gender, multiculturalism, and climate change. She is as relevant today as she was 50 years ago when she, Charlie Chin, and Chris Iijima recorded the iconic ‘We Are the Children,’ our anthem for the yellow movement that was part of the groundbreaking album ‘Grain of Sand.’” Tickets: $30 to $250: https://www.presidiotheatre.org/show/2023-nobuko-miyamotos-120000-stories/; boxoffice@presidiotheatre.org; (415) 960-3949.

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