Rafu Staff Report
Masao Yamashiro, a Kibei Nisei columnist who wrote for more than four decades for the Japanese section of The Rafu Shimpo, passed away on Sept. 19. He was 102.
Masao Yamashiro spoke about his life in a 2014 interview. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)
Starting in February 1970, Yamashiro penned the column “Kobuta Kai Ni” (To Go Buy a Piglet), in which he expressed his observations on daily life and issues of the day, particularly on the experiences of Kibei (persons of Japanese descent who were born in the U.S. and largely educated in Japan).
Yamashiro was born Jan. 12, 1916 on a plantation on Kauai; after both his parents died from illness, he and his siblings were sent to live with an uncle in Okinawa, where he found his life-long passion for reading the literary works of authors such as Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki.
When he turned 16, Yamashiro returned to Hawaii. He eventually moved to Los Angeles in 1936, attending Polytechnic High School, where there was a large number of Kibei students. He was majoring in English at Los Angeles City College, when war broke out between Japan and the U.S. on Dec. 7, 1941.
Yamashiro was first sent to the Santa Anita Assembly Center and then to Amache (Granada) War Relocation Authority (WRA) camp in Colorado.
When the so-called loyalty questionnaire came out in early 1943, Yamashiro answered “no-yes” to Questions 27 and 28, the two most controversial questions, and was shipped to the Tule Lake Segregation Center in Northern California.
At Tule Lake, Yamashiro was part of a literary group that gathered at the barrack of famed Issei poet Bunichi Kagawa. Yamashiro, Kagawa, Jyoji Nozawa and Kazuo Kawai published a literary journal in Japanese under the title “Tessaku” (Iron Fence).
The journal did not publish political pieces, focusing instead on poetry, short stories and essays. Eight hundred copies of the first volume were printed with a mimeograph machine and sold for 25 cents each at the camp canteen.
“I was asked by the FBI what ‘Tessaku’ means,” said Yamashiro in a 2014 interview with Martha Nakagawa for the Rafu Holiday Edition. “I told them look at the iron fence. You put us into this iron fence.”
After the war, Yamashiro became a gardener, writing in his free time. In 1963, he married Shizue Sato, a painter from Japan. The creative couple supported one another’s passions throughout their lives. Shizue, whose paintings were featured in exhibitions throughout Japan and the U.S., created the cover for “Kibei,” a book by Yamashiro that explored the conflicting worlds of Kibei like himself. He also published “Tooi Taigan” (The Far Opposite Shores), a compilation of his columns.
Yamashiro’s writings were introspective and complex. In 2014, he explained that the title of his column was layered with meaning. “Kobuta Kai Ni” was an inside joke, referring to offerings families had to make to the Kingdom of Ryukyu in Okinawa. It also described how he had not fully developed or attained perfection since he must metaphorically raise the piglet and that he himself was like the maturing piglet.
Private services were held last Friday. Yamashiro is predeceased by his wife Shizue. He is survived by many nieces and nephews: in Los Angeles, Kitty Sankey, Dr. Mikio Sankey, EdWing Sankey; in Maine, Amy (T.K.) Lee; in Hawaii, Gilbert (Tomie) Yamashiro, Roy (June) Senaga, Dale Senaga; in Japan, Yoko (Hiroteru) Tsukahara, Ayako Ichikawa, and Maki Niida.