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Suma Yagi Poetry: A Japanese Name, An American Story

by Debbie Kashino
August 2016, Volume 66, Issue 7

There are many ways to tell the Japanese American World War II story.  Over the years we have seen many more fiction and non-fiction books, movies, documentaries, Broadway plays and yes, even manga and graphic novels that deal with this subject.  On a pilgrimage to Minidoka in 2010, I heard Lawrence Matsuda read from his book A Cold Wind from Idaho and it was the first time I witnessed the power of a poem to tell this story.

Mid-summer, I saw Suma Yagi and she told me about her newly published book of poetry A Japanese Name, An American StoryShe gave me a copy and once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop until I finished.  I passed it on to my mother, and she did the same.  Both of us were so impressed with how such a little book of 98 pages could so succinctly tell Suma’s personal journey from pre-war to the present.

I talked further with Suma about how this book came to be.  She said that her children had urged her to get her work published.  Suma says, “My Nisei disposition sometimes makes me uncomfortable when sharing personal experiences about my cultural heritage, and yet I feel a special responsibility to both past and future generations.  It is important that we allow the Sansei and future generations to hear our voices.”

Though her children Roberta, Martin and Teresa supported her efforts, it was her son, Victor who was most passionate about seeing this through in time for Suma’s 88th birthday.  He says, “The poems taught him what 'Camp' meant for his mother and father in a way that history books did not and could not.”

For those of us who have known Suma for years, the book offers special insights to who Suma is. Though we know her as a very kind, modest and unassuming person, she is also a very talented writer possessing a special gift to tell this story for all who shared in this experience.  

The books are available at Third Place Book Store locations in Seward Park at 5041 Wilson Ave. S. (206) 525-2347; Lake Forest Park at 17171 Bothell Way N.E. #A101, (206) 366-3333; and Ravenna at 6504 20th Ave. N.E. (206) 525-2347.  They can also be ordered on-line at www.thirdplacebooks.com/japanese_name or by contacting Victor Yagi at victoryagi@gmail.com.  The price is $15.88 plus tax.

Here is a sample of one of Suma’s poems:

Tribute to Our Isseis

Their footprints have long been erased by the
shifting sands, yet our feet feel the indelible
indentations that they left behind.

On upright shoulders, the Issei silently bore
The enormity of Executive Order 9066,
Which stole their lifelong dreams
And imprisoned them in a U.S. concentration camp.

Kodomo no tame (for the sake of their children),
the Issei left their legacy of shikataganai (it cannot be helped),
Gaman (persevere), shikkari (endure), giri (obligation),
Echoing in the winds of Minidoka.

They endured the loss of sons, proud soldiers of the
442nd Regimental Combat Team, who distinguished
themselves as the most highly decorated combat unit,
suffering the most casulaties for a military unit of its size.

They suffered during the absence of sons and daughters
who served as linguists in the Military Intelligence Service,
Decoding military secrets, serving as the eyes and ears
of the Allied Pacific Forces, America’s secret weapon
against the Japanese.
General MacArthur said they shortened the war by at least two
With upright shoulders, the Issei attended the memorial services for sons
killed in action.
U.S. soldiers wearing the same uniforms stood in watchtowers,
With guns pointing at their families.
The Issei sat on folding chairs behind barbed wire.

Shikataganai, gaman, shikari, giri
Echoes over miles and miles of barren land
Under the harsh desert winds of Minidoka.