Mitsuye Yamada: Making Asian American Feminism Visible

mitsuye-yamada

Post by SoYeong Jeong and Ruth Wu

Asian American women throughout U.S. history have struggled between fighting for their rights as Asian Americans or as women. Mitsuye Yamada is one of the first activists to settle the fundamental groundwork for defining Asian American feminism and distinguishing the movement from white feminism. Her radical writings on the unheard stories of Asian American women attempt to extend the visibility for otherwise unseen minority groups. Yamada’s writings further provide critical contributions to breaking the stereotypes of Asian American women as docile and complacent.

Born in Kyushu, Japan, Yamada spent the majority of her childhood in Seattle, Washington. In 1942, at the outbreak of World War II, her family was relocated a concentration camp in Idaho. This experience was the catalyst for her activist works.

Yamada eloquently states her political opinions with her personal aspects that have a deep understanding of people’s experiences in both Japan and the United States. Growing up in a household where she was encouraged by her Japanese mother to embrace her ethnicity, Yamada formed a strong connection to her Japanese heritage. Most crucially, because Yamada spent time in Japan as well as in America, she has the experience of being both Nisei (Second-generation Japanese American) and Issei (Japanese immigrant to America). Yamada’s dual cultural and political identities connect her to both generations and allow her to have an increased personal contextualization in her activism.

Yamada’s dual identities and core messages are ingrained in her poems, stories, essays and other areas in literature. Yamada’s first publication is Camp Notes and Other Poems(1976), a poetry collection that serves as a documentary of Yamada’s life surrounding her experience at the Japanese internment camp [1]. Through this publication, not only did she discuss her traumatic experiences at the camp, Yamada successfully challenged the Japanese tradition and stereotype that demanded women to be docile and silent. This activist for Asian American women’s rights continues to vocalize her experience of internment, racial discrimination, and feminist issues to this day.

At the core of Yamada’s activism is creating visibility for various Asian American groups, particularly Japanese Americans. As an Asian American woman, she emphasizes the importance of shattering the stereotype of being apolitical and passive, and reclaiming the power to be visible. Yamada also encourages other Asian American women to defy the norms that silence Asian American women [2].

She further sought to make known their historical presence in America and frustration toward the gendered and racist oppression. Her voice serves as a venue for many Asian Americans to commemorate the tragedies of Japanese internment camps and other forms of oppression and unlawful discrimination that previously remained unspoken.

Moreover, Yamada argued that the fight for the rights as women should not conflict with the fight for the rights as Asian Americans. Upon realizing that the fight against racism and the fight for feminism were causes that were intersectional, she encouraged Asian American women to “affirm our culture while working within to change it.” [3]

Yamada has combined the personal with the political through her writing and  grassroots activity such as forming multicultural feminist writing workshops and organizing her local community [4]. Working with other prominent Asian American feminists like Merle Woo and Nellie Wong, Mitsuye Yamada has defined Asian American feminism and started the momentum to vocalize more Asian American women.

 

Duality.png

Our creative piece explores the duality of being an Asian woman. We are invisible due to the insidious nature of the stereotyping of Asian women as apolitical and silent, but at the same time Asian American Feminism strives to change that. However, the movement has not seen much growth in the past few years, and for now Asian American women remain invisible. In addition, this piece explores the overarching Asian American patriarchy and white feminism that silences Asian American women. All of this is conveyed through the strategic highlighting of the yellow blocks overlaying the text.

Works Cited

[4] Jaskoski, Helen. “A MELUS Interview : Mitsuye Yamada. ” MELUS 15 (1988):97-
108. Los Angeles: Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the
United States.

[3] Lim, Shirley Geok-lin. “Feminist and Ethnic Literary Theories in Asian American Literature.” Feminist Studies 19, no. 3 (1993): 571-95.

[2] Sheffer, J. (2003). Three Asian American writers speak out on feminism. Iris, 47, 91.

[1] Yamada, Mitsuye. Camp Notes and Other Poems. New York: Women of Color Press, 1976.

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