Mitsuye Yamada--American



Mitsuye Yamada
(1923-    )

Born in Japan, in 1923, Mitsuye Yamada, grew up in Seattle, Washington.  She was incarcerated with her family in Idaho in 1942.  She and her brother were released from the camp when they renounced loyalty to the Emperor of Japan.  She began her studies at the University of Cincinnati in 1944 and completed her degree at New York University in 1947.  She earned a Master’s degree from University of Chicago in 1953.  Yamada’s first book, Camp Notes and Other Poems, addresses the internment of Japanese-Americans.  Desert Run: Poems and Stories, is another book work that speaks to how the Japanese were discriminated against during the war. 

"Cincinnati," in Camp Notes

Freedom at last
in this town aimless
I walked against the rush
hour traffic
My first day
in a real city

no one knew me.

No one except one
hissing voice that said
dirty jap
warm spittle on my right cheek.
I turned and faced
the shop window
and my spittle face
spilled onto a hill
of books.
Words on display.




poetry . . .has been my spiritual guide throughout 
my incarcerationin the darkest of times I turn
to Neruda and Hikmetand Rukeyser and Ritsas 
and Chrytos and Whitman. . .
                               – U.S. Political Prisoner

They mean to kill
the sentient being in me

White white
no poetry in
white floors walls ceiling white
white chairs tables sink white
only when I close my eyes do I see
beyond the white windowless walls
remembering springtime of
lacy trees lightly green against baby blue.

There is silence silence more silence
to drown out the incessant silence
I fill my inner ear with robinsongs
melodious and soothing
but how to quell deafening
nonhuman screeches and scrapes
sounds bouncing against the white walls?

Dull smells of dead air in the cell
but through the olfactory nerves
in my mind
I can tickle with the zest of lemon
and the sweetness of wildflowers.

Willfully bland diet aimed
to erase use of my tongue
Add a pinch of salt with the taste
of sweat or even of blood
anywhere on my body
Remembering the taste of cheese.

One human touch allowed
my own arms enfold me
my fingers move over my sagging breasts
my nipples and soft parts of my body

They mean to neutralize me but
poetry keeps me alive.



The Question of Loyalty

 If I sign this

What will I be?

I am doubly loyal

to my American children

also to my own people.

How can double mean nothing?

I wish no one to lose this war.

Everyone does.



Recruiting Team

Why should I volunteer?

I'm an American

I have a right to be





As we boarded the bus

bags on both sides

(I had never packed

two bags before

on a vacation

lasting forever)

the Seattle Times

photographer said


so obediently I smiled

and the caption the next day


Note smiling faces

a lesson to Tokyo.