In a recent column, I told the story of Newton Tani, the talented Nisei pianist who taught at the music schools at Tanforan, Calif. and Topaz (Central Utah). Another eminent internationally-trained musician on the faculty there was Masao Yoshida, a violinist of distinction (but no relation to the later-famous Japanese flute virtuoso of the same name).

Masao Yoshida was born in Shimonoseki, Japan in November 1912, the eldest son of Utaro and Tome Yoshida. He came to the United States as a baby and grew up in Alameda, Calif. His first recorded music performance was at a meeting of the local Alameda Japanese Epworth League in 1928. The next year, he performed at a Young People’s Christian Conference assembly held in Berkeley. During the early 1930s, he spent several years studying with Naoum Blinder, concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony. The violinist Mishel Piastro was likewise taken with the playing of the young performer, so much so that he considered taking Yoshida with him to study and live in New York — in the end all such ideas were abandoned. During this time, Yoshida performed at local events, sometimes leading an orchestra — even once doing a whistling song!

A person is holding a violin as if ready to play it.

In the fall of 1934, Yoshida announced plans to study in Belgium, as he had been encouraged to do by Blinder. In October of that year, the Northern California YPCC held a benefit concert at the Alameda M.E Church, designed to raise funds for his European studies. The first part of the concert featured arias by local star soprano Ruby Yoshino, with accompaniment by Vera Tanaka. On the program, Yoshida played two movements of Max Bruch’s first violin concerto, as well as pieces by Fritz Kreisler and Koscak (i.e. Kosaku) Yamada. According to the Nichi Bei Shimbun, close to 400 people attended. The following month, he made his San Francisco debut in another benefit concert, this time teaming with a koto specialist, Madame Suwada, to perform a Japanese piece for violin and koto. Soon after, he performed the Japanese folk song “The Moon over the Ruined Castle” on the “Japanese Watch Tower” radio program on KROW. These appearances were rare occasions that Yoshida programmed Japanese pieces. In the next weeks, he played a concert in Sacramento. In February of 1935, just before embarking for Europe, he played a final concert at the Oakland M.E. Church.

Yoshida arrived in Europe in the spring of 1935. For the next four years, he studied at the Royal Music conservatory in Brussels, training primarily under Mathieu Crickboom. He traveled around France and Belgium, especially to the city of Bruges, which enchanted him. In 1939, he completed his examinations, and secured the second highest grade. He was staying in Paris in September of 1939 when war broke out. Yoshida later recalled that even at that early date, people in Paris anticipated the coming disaster, and a long trail of refugees began leaving the city for safer places outside. Stranded over the border, Yoshida sold his books for food. He managed to borrow money to return to Belgium, then get across the English Channel, and finally return to the United States. The Nazi conquest of his beloved Belgium in mid-1940 would cause him great anguish.

In July 1940, several months after his return, Yoshida resumed his concertizing. His first appearance was at a recital at the Reformed Church in San Francisco sponsored by the Bay Area YPCC. Heavily promoted in the Nisei press and reported in the San Francisco Examiner and in the Oakland Tribune, it drew 400 people. His program featured works by Mozart, Henryk Wieniawski and Pablo de Sarasate. During this time, Yoshida also took master classes in conducting at Mills College with the groundbreaking woman conductor Antonia Brico. In October of 1940, Yoshida performed at the Alameda Methodist Church auditorium as part of a benefit for the local Japanese American Citizens League, on a program with pianist Katherine Kaneko. Yoshida performed music by Beethoven and a sonata by Eugène Ysaÿe (who had been the teacher of his own teacher Crickboon!). An admiring profile published that fall in the fledgling Nisei magazine Current Life described Yoshida as “a tall, slender young man of sensitive bearing.”

Because of his musical talents, in January of 1941 Yoshida was nominated for the Yamagata “Nisei of the Year” award, though he was not selected. In June of that year, Yoshida performed at the Japanese Union Church in Los Angeles under the auspices of the Los Angeles Japanese Music Society, with Teruko Hiroshima accompanying him. According to the Kashu Mainichi, the concert was a great success, especially Yoshida’s performance of the “Meditation” from Jules Massenet’s “Thaïs,” and he played a pair of encores in response to the cheers. Columnist Tsuyoshi Matsumoto, himself an accomplished musician, reviewed the performance in the Nichi Bei Shimbun. Matsumoto praised the quality of Yoshida’s playing, but expressed concern over Yoshida’s shy and diffident manner and lack of showmanship. Likely Yoshida’s last public performance before Pearl Harbor was part of an Alameda JACL welcome program for the local Kiwanis Club at the Hotel Alameda, where he again performed alongside Ruby Yoshino.

In the spring of 1942, Yoshida was rounded up with his family and confined, first at the Tanforan Assembly Center and then at Topaz. Like Newton Tani, he joined the music school faculty and gave lessons. At Tanforan, he appeared at the final concert of the Music Studio, performing Felix Mendelssohn’s “On Wings of Song” and Niccolò Paganini’s “Caprice No. 9.” At Topaz, he was a featured artist at the Music School concert in May of 1943. With fellow faculty member Miwa Kai accompanying him on piano, he performed a sonata. In September of 1943, he played at a faculty recital, presenting Pablo de Sarasate’s “Gypsy Airs” to a cheering crowd.

Following his release from camp in mid-1943, Yoshida migrated to Cincinnati. War Relocation Authority officer Raymond Booth made a public appeal for local music schools or ensembles to hire Yoshida. Booth told the Cincinnati Post that Yoshida was an example of an outstanding young American. “A very cultured young man…diffident, shy, almost frightened in appearance…a graduate of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels who is, I believe, symphonic material, but who is unknown to most lovers in this community, He ought to have a chance, but how?”

Yoshida seems not to have been engaged by the Cincinnati Symphony. However, in the first year after the war, he moved to St. Paul, Minn. There the local chapter of the International Institute submitted a letter to the American Federation of Musicians asking that he be admitted to the union. However, the union refused him entry on the grounds that he was not an American citizen. The unfairness of requiring proof of citizenship from Yoshida, a lifelong U.S. resident who was an “alien ineligible to citizenship” due to his Japanese birth, was clear. Apparently the ban was ultimately waived, as he joined the local chapter of the Musician’s Union. In 1948, Yoshida was featured in an article on the orchestra at the University of Minnesota. The article noted that the ensemble combined music students, professionals and outside amateurs. One of the latter was Masao Yoshida of Alameda, “A grocery clerk who has studied music in Europe.” In later years he worked teaching music in Gardena, Calif. He became a U.S. citizen in 1962.

Masao Yoshida, like Tani, was a musician on the international stage who studied in Europe, though neither seems to have actually performed there. After being confined during World War II, both worked at the music school in Topaz. Both made a career teaching music in later years. The inability of Yoshida to find work as a performer, whether solo or with orchestras, no doubt reflects the large-scale discrimination that existed against Japanese American musicians.

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 The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

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