A Day With Wakako Yamauchi

Jill Kunishima


For the Christmas of 1994, I received only books as presents. One of these books was Songs My Mother Taught Me by Wakako Yamauchi. I had never heard of nor did I care to learn of the book or the author; I was completely content with my R.L. Stine horror novels.


A few years passed, and R.L. Stine became decreasingly important to me. What took its place was a new love of history, from Ancient Egypt to the 20th century. It was then that I finally removed Wakako Yamauchi's now dust covered book from the highest shelf in my room.


And read it from cover to cover. In 24 hours.


It had been eight years since that sunny southern Californian books-receiving Christmas when I decided to sit with Karli, my youngest sister, and flip through an article on grandmothers and their granddaughters in the Japanese American National Museum newsletter. I hadn't read much when Karli jumped up:
"Hey! That's my friend Alyctra!"
My Mom and I then looked on to see, and our faces lit up as well:
"Hey! That's Wakako Yamauchi!"


In my mind, it only meant one thing: I now had some means of talking to this woman, and I was going to do it.


***


From looking around her nice yet humble home in humble yet nice Gardena, California, it's hard to believe this woman is so famous. As I sit on her oversized couch, I examine my surroundings: the drawings on the walls and the multitude of photographs are a dead giveaway that she is a devoted grandmother; the forcing on of tea and other goodies certainly help to propagate that image as well. But despite the fact that she's obviously a wonderful grandmother and overall kind and gentle person, she seems to have an edge that not many grandparents have.


"My grandson was here the other day and he wouldn't stop kicking the wall," she informs me. "I told him if he didn't stop, I'd start kicking him!" she adds with a mischievous grin.


Meet Wakako Yamauchi, writer and woman extraordinaire.


At 79 years of age, Wakako looks great. Her smile, contagious, her style, nothing short of cute. When I tell her I want to look like her when I'm her age, she chuckles with a hint of embarrassment. Her laugh is great, too.


For those of you who do not know, Wakako Yamauchi is one of the most distinguished Asian American women writers of our day. Though she is accomplished in many types of fine art, she is known especially for her writing.


A Nisei (second generation Japanese American) born on October 24, 1924 to two Issei farmers, Wakako grew up in California's Imperial Valley. When she was seventeen and in her senior year of high school, she and her family were forced to evacuate to the Poston internment camps established by the government during World War II.


World War II and the internment camps made for a very grim looking future in the eyes of young Wakako, but in a strange twist of fate, she admits that she probably would not have been a writer if not for the internment camps.


"It was there I met Hisaye [Yamamoto, another writer], and if not for her, I probably would not have had the chance [to write]," she explains.


In the internment camps, both Wakako and Hisaye worked on the newspaper/bulletin. Hisaye, a reporter and Wakako, a cartoonist.


After the internment camps were shut down and World War II ended, Wakako and her husband, Chester, moved back to Los Angeles, where she eventually gave birth to her only child, Joy.


It was around this time that she also started her own writing.


"When I was young, there were a lot of stories I wanted to tell-- we all have our stories before they're gone you know, and I just wanted to tell the stories of those who didn’t have the ability to tell their own, like the common people, their lives are so normal, it's interesting. But I didn't want to go to school, I hated school-- to heck with school! I just wanted to write. So I sent my work all over the place-- I got a lot of rejections."


Luckily, she had a chance to work at the Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese newspaper in Los Angeles, whose editor knew Hisaye.


"At first the editor wouldn't let me write, but he said I could draw for them. So I bargained with him: 'I will illustrate if you take my stories.' And that's how it really began," Wakako states matter of factly.


Years passed and eventually issues of diversity started surfacing. Around that time Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Authors also made its groundbreaking debut, and Wakako was asked to contribute.


"It was a big deal you know, the first of its kind. I felt so honored to be a part of it," she says.
At this point Wakako halts, "I make it sound simple, like everything just came together, but I was really lucky, so fortunate. I was far from brilliant, Japanese American, and a woman in post-war America-- I was truly blessed."


***


I realize now, after spreading the good news that is Wakako, that I don't want to gush, because I don't think she would want me to; she'd be one of those to attribute her successes to luck. The truth is, I think she's pretty amazing, and I want to tell her story… just as she has done for others.


And after all, it's too late.


***


It is now around three in the afternoon, and I have gone through four chocolates and three cups of tea. There's a knock at the door at this point, and Wakako looks at me:


"Is that your Mom?"


I tell her it most likely is, as we walk to the door. It's actually my sister Krista, who's playing go-fer for my Mom, who remains seated in our white Honda Odyssey in the driveway.


"Where's your Mom?" Wakako asks.


Krista points to the car.


"Ah. Tell her to come in!" Wakako instructs indignantly.


The next thing I know, my Mom, Krista, Wakako and I are all seated in her kitchen, drinking more tea, and eating more chocolates. The conversation flows like the tea: warmly, and without stop.


As our afternoon finally comes to a close, we exchange hugs and kisses, thank yous and take cares.
I only hope that this will be the first of many days with Wakako.


***


As I sit here, in my lovely apartment, staring at my iBook screen, I can't help but think about how fortunate I am. Wakako, after all, did not have any of this. Aside from simply less material wealth, she was also forced to battle issues like racism and sexism on a much deeper level-- issues that I do not have cope with nearly as much, greatly in part to people like her.


I owe great thanks to Wakako, for her existence, for her perseverance, and for her successes, I have hope, because if she could do it, so can I.