Yoshiko Uchida: Biography, Books & Timeline

Instructor: David Raudenbush
Yoshiko Uchida was the first major writer to write for a Japanese-American juvenile audience. This lesson will discuss her life and works, which were largely shaped by her experiences in internment camps during World War II.

Defining Moments

Can you think of a time that changed your life? Was there ever some experience or circumstance that led you to look at the world differently or changed the way you expressed yourself? That's just what happened to a young writer growing up during a time of war hysteria in American history.

Author Yoshiko Uchida gained fame as the first major writer to publish books about Japanese-American culture for children and young adults. However, there's no telling what direction Uchida's writing might have taken if the Japanese hadn't attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The events that drove the United States into World War II changed Uchida's life in a way she could have never predicted. Those events determined many of themes she would write about for the next 50 years.

From Pearl Harbor to Internment

Mere hours after the news of the Pearl Harbor bombing reached the mainland, FBI agents knocked on the door of the Uchida house in Berkeley, California. The arrival of the agents must have come as a shock to Takashi 'Dwight' Uchida, Yoshiko's father, who immigrated to the United States 38 years earlier in 1903. Because he worked for a Japanese-owned company in San Francisco, he had fallen under suspicion of espionage.

People of Japanese decent were evacuated from the West Coast to Internment Camps by the executive order posted on the wall in the background.
Japanese Internment

He wasn't alone. The US government cast a wide net across the West Coast for Japanese and Japanese-Americans males hoping to nab potential spies and saboteurs. Thousands of arrests followed. Not long after questioning, the FBI arrested Dwight Uchida. Without the benefit of a trial, the authorities confined Uchida to a prisoner of war camp in Missouri.

Yoshiko Uchida was a senior at the University of California at Berkeley when authorities detained her father. In February of 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which allowed the military to remove people of Japanese descent from certain strategic areas like the West Coast. A few months later, Yoshiko, along with her sister and mother, boarded a bus bound for a temporary internment camp at an abandoned race track . She finished her college degree in a horse stall, a typical shelter for the evacuees. Eventually, they shipped out to a second camp in the Utah desert called Camp Topaz.

From the Camps to a Career

Eventually, Takashi Uchida joined his family at Camp Topaz. In 1943, Yoshiko Uchida left the camp freely to attend graduate school at Smith College in Massachusetts. However, the time she spent in the camps left an indelible impression on the young writer. The close confinement with other Japanese prisoners deepened her appreciation and knowledge of her heritage. The internment experience led Uchida to question her place as both a Japanese and an American, a theme she pursued in a several decades of writing.

After the war, Uchida taught at a Quaker school outside Philadelphia, but she soon found that teaching left little time for writing. She moved to New York City where she got a job doing secretarial work that allowed her more time to write at night. She published her first book, The Dancing Kettle and Other Japanese Folk Tales, in 1949. A few years later, in 1952, she received a Ford Foundation Fellowship to study culture, customs, and folk tales abroad in Japan.

Major Works and Themes

Upon returning to the United States, Uchida's writing career blossomed, and she went on to publish over 30 books. Her experiences in internment shaped a large portion of her work. Some of her works explore themes of cultural isolation and feelings of betrayal by friends and neighbors that Uchida and her family experienced at the time.

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