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Yoshiko Uchida was known for her work documenting the hardships of Japanese-American life during World War II and in the postwar era. Over the course of her career, Uchida published more than thirty books, including nonfiction for adults and fiction for children and teenagers, but her reputation in critical circles largely rests upon her autobiographical story Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family (1982).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Disrupted Life
The daughter of Japanese immigrants, Yoshiko Uchida was born in Alameda, California, in 1921. Uchida’s father had a secure job with an international trading company, and her parents provided their two daughters with financial security and a rich education. Uchida traveled to Japan when she was twelve, but she found that she felt little connection with her ancestral land, especially since she could not read the language. The struggle of living with conflicting ethnic identities, however, became a prevalent theme in her writing. Uchida’s high-school experience included her first encounter with institutionalized racism: she found that Japanese American pupils were routinely excluded from school activities and social functions. Uchida worked hard in high school and graduated early, which enabled her to enroll at the University of California, Berkeley, at the age of sixteen.
Everything changed, though, during World War II, when Uchida and her family and thousands of other Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps. On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, bringing the United States into World War II. That day, Uchida’s father was taken away for questioning by the FBI. She and her family were initially sent to a detention center at Tanforan racetrack in California, where they were forced to live in horse stables. They were later transferred to Topaz Detention Center in the Utah desert. Conditions there were even worse than at the racetrack. Nevertheless, the Topaz Detention Center became ”home” for three long years.
From Internment to Literary Success
In 1943 Uchida was allowed to leave the camp in order to study for a master’s degree in education at Smith College, in Massachusetts. She became a teacher and later took various office jobs before becoming a writer in New York. In 1952 Uchida received a fellowship to go to Japan to collect folktales, a trip that resulted in the publication of several collections of stories. Unlike her earlier trip to Japan, this one made her keenly aware of her connection with her ancestral culture. That connection is abundantly evident in her autobiographical Desert Exile, Journey to Topaz: A Story of the Japanese-American Evacuations (1971).
Uchida devotes the early part of her story to establishing her family’s relatively harmonious life in America. At this time Uchida sees little conflict within her hyphenated identity, which does not become achingly apparent until the third chapter, which addresses Pearl Harbor and its immediate effects. The harmonious family life Uchida establishes at the beginning of the book is shattered by the abrupt internment of the family. At this point, Uchida emphasizes the loyalty she and other Japanese Americans felt to the United States, which serves to question the need for internment.
Fiction for Children and Adults
Although Desert Exile is undoubtedly the most famous of Uchida’s books, her 1987 novel, Picture Bride, has also received significant critical attention, and it has become widely taught in high schools. Picture Bride takes place between 1917 and 1943, encompassing World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. Uchida’s narrative emphasizes the racism endured by Japanese Americans during these years. The novel opens with the young female protagonist, a twenty-one-year-old Japanese woman named Hana Omiya, who is a ”picture bride,” a woman who was contracted to marry a Japanese American man after the exchange of pictures. Through Hana’s story, Uchida skillfully documents the history of Japanese Americans in the harsh environment of mid-twentieth-century America.
Along with her adult fiction and nonfiction, Uchida was an accomplished writer of children’s stories. Two of her many children’s works bear particular mention for giving voice to aspects of the Asian American experience. A Jar of Dreams (1981) was written for older children or young adults, and it relates the story of an eleven-year-old girl, Rinko, the daughter of a Japanese barber living in California during the Great Depression. Rinko and the rest of her family witness and experience the racist abuse of her father by white Californians, who feel that, as a Japanese immigrant, he is taking much needed jobs and resources away from them. Uchida comes to explore the problems Japanese immigrants face integrating into the majority culture and the conflicting demands placed upon people of ”hyphenated” ethnicity. Told from an adolescent viewpoint, the story is able to introduce these issues in ways that are appropriate for a young readership.
Uchida’s The Bracelet (1993), written for children up to eight years of age, takes up similar racial themes. This story addresses the experience of internment from the perspective of a Japanese American child named Emi. When the United States goes to war with Japan, Emi and her family are forced to live in a detention camp. Consequently, Emi is separated from her best friend, Laurie. When the time comes to say good-bye, Laurie gives Emi a bracelet as a symbol of their lasting friendship. Emi soon experiences all of the harshness and deprivation of the detention camp, where her family is forced to live in a stable. Then, while Emi is trying to adjust to her new existence, she discovers that her bracelet is missing. Although she is initially upset, Emi soon realizes that the bracelet is immaterial, as her relationship with Laurie will endure.
Uchida made it her life’s work to demonstrate the injustice of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Through her writing for adults and children, she described the experience from a variety of perspectives, both autobiographical and fictional, making her position clear. Yet, the internment issue also formed part of a larger message. Particularly telling in this regard is Uchida’s description of her mission as a writer of children’s stories:
I try to stress the positive aspects of life that I want children to value and cherish. I hope they can be caring human beings who don’t think in terms of labels—foreigners or Asians or whatever—but think of people as human beings. If that comes across, then I’ve accomplished my purpose.
During her life, Uchida was immensely prolific. Her bibliography consists of more than forty books ranging from the autobiographical to the fictional. Toward the end of her life, illness curtailed that productivity, but she still continued to publish until her death in 1992.
Works in Literary Context
Japanese Folk Tales
The ancient tradition of Japanese folk tales reaches back some twenty centuries. The tales are generally rooted in the country’s chief religion, Shinto, as well as the philosophical schools of Buddhism and Taoism. Indian and Chinese literature had a significant influence on the earliest examples of Japan folklore, but as Japan grew increasingly politically isolated, such outside influences became less prominent. Japanese folk tales are abundant in strange situations; colorful arrays of ghosts, gods, and demons; and odd humor. There is also a streak of detachment and a tendency for the hero to emerge unsuccessful in the tales. In her book, Dancing Kettle and Other Japanese Folk Tales (1949), Uchida revisited some of her favorite folk tales and rewrote them for a young audience.
The Japanese-American Experience
Uchida’s works reflect her attempts to document the Japanese-American experience, incorporating both her own firsthand experiences and those of other immigrants. Most notably, she has written of her experiences in an internment camp during World War II; this has formed the core of her work, just as it has become the single most significant event in the cultural history of all Japanese Americans. In addition, Uchida has focused on the experiences of picture-brides—another defining element of early Japanese-American culture, due to restrictive immigration laws—as well as traditional Japanese folktales that function to preserve an element of Japanese identity for a group that would have been otherwise cut off from their native culture.
Works in Critical Context
The Happiest Ending
Uchida enjoyed enthusiastically positive responses from critics to both her adult literature and her books for children. The Happiest Ending (1986), a story about an arranged marriage, was hailed by The New York Times for being ”filled in richly with details of Japanese-American life in the 30’s: the furniture, clothes, food, social patterns and manners of a culture balanced between two identities.” Uchida herself was praised for her ”gift for humorous twists and vigorous narrative.” However, a reviewer for the School Library Journal suggests, ”Young readers may be confused by the attitudes expressed and the vocational and educational restrictions imposed upon the Japanese-Americans, for the fact that the story takes place in 1936 is not well integrated into the story.” The review concludes on a positive note by stating that ”this is a good, comforting rite-of-passage story.”
The Invisible Thread
The last book Uchida published before her death in 1992 was The Invisible Thread, an autobiography intended for teenage readers. Like so much of Uchida’s work, the book was favorably reviewed. A reviewer for Booklist states of the book, ”Uchida writes movingly of her family’s hardships during World War II” and that it might prove to be ”fascinating reading for history students, Japanese Americans, and fans of Uchida’s books.” A reviewer for School Library Journal commends the author, who ”tells her story without bitterness or anger, and relays the joy she felt upon achieving her dream of becoming a teacher and author.”
- Davis, Rocfo G. ”Itineraries of Submission: Picture Brides in Recent Japanese American Narratives,” in Asian American Studies: Identity, Images, and Issues Past and Present, edited by Esther Mikyung Ghymn. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.
- Sinnott, Susan. Extraordinary Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. New York: Children’s Press, 2003.
- Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
- Campbell, Patty. ”Children’s Books.” The New York Times (February 9, 1986).
- Harada, Violet. ”Caught Between Two Worlds: Themes of Family, Community, and Ethnic Identity in Yoshiko Uchida’s Work for Children.” Children’s Literature in Education 29, no. 1 (1998): 19-30.
- McDiffett, Danton. ”Prejudice and Pride: Japanese Americans in the Young Adult Novels of Yoshiko Uchida.” Studies in Culture and the Humanities 3 (1994): 1-22.
- ”Yoshiko Uchida, 70, A Children’s Author” (obituary). The New York Times (June 24, 1992).
- Fazoli, Carol. ”Autobiographies—The Stories Behind the Stories.” School Library Journal (November 1, 2003).
- Usui, Masami. ”Regaining Lost Privacy: Yoshiko Uchida’s Storytelling as a Nisei Woman Writer.” English Journal 90, no. 3 (2001): 60-65.
- Online Archive of California. Finding Aid to the Yoshiko Uchida papers, 1903-1994 (bulk 1942-1992) .Accessed November 25, 2008, from http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=tf0c600134&chunk.id=bioghist-1.3.4.
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