OBITUARY: Playwright Wakako Yamauchi, Remembered for ‘And the Soul Shall Dance’

Rafu Staff Report

GARDENA — Wakako Yamauchi, a renowned Nisei writer best known for her play “And the Soul Shall Dance,” passed away on Aug. 16 at her home in Gardena. She was 93.

She is remembered for depicting the struggles of Japanese immigrants and their children during the Great Depression and World War II, which she personally experienced.

Yamauchi, who was also a short-story writer, a poet and a painter, published two books, “Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays, and Memoir” (1994) and “Rosebud and Other Stories” (2011).

She was born Wakako Nakamura on Oct. 24, 1924, in Westmorland to Issei parents who farmed in the Imperial Valley, near the Mexican border. As tenant farmers, they moved continuously with four children in tow, following work from town to town. During the Great Depression, her father was forced to begin farming for himself and her mother assisted him in the fields, but also taught Japanese on Sundays at the Buddhist church. Unable to make ends meet, they also opened a boarding house for other Japanese immigrants.

Pearl Harbor was bombed when Yamauchi was 17 years old. She recalled in an interview that her Nisei classmates stopped coming to school and one of her teachers condemned the “Japs” for attacking America. She and her family were incarcerated at the Poston concentration camp in Arizona. It was there that she got to know Nisei writer Hisaye Yamamoto, a few years her senior and already established in the Japanese American press.

Yamauchi had enjoyed Yamamoto’s column in The Kashu Mainichi, written under the pen name Napoleon, and later recalled being disappointed when she found out Napoleon was a woman. Both women worked on the camp newspaper, The Poston Chronicle, as layout artist and contributing writer, and shared an interest in art and literature. Until Yamamoto’s passing in 2011 at age 89, the two maintained a close, life-long friendship of inspiration and artistic support.

After a year and a half at Poston, Yamauchi relocated to Utah and then to Chicago, where she worked in a candy factory and began attending plays, marking the beginning of her love for theater. In 1948, she married Chester Yamauchi (1923-1992). Although the couple later divorced, she continued to write under her married name.

Their daughter Joy, who served as editor of Tozai Times, a monthly newspaper founded by Chester, passed away in 2014 at age 58.

Production photo of Wakako Yamauchi’s “And the Soul Shall Dance,” first performed at East West Players in 1977. From left: Haunani Minn, Yuki Shimoda, Jim Ishida and Josie Maseras Pepito.

Returning to Los Angeles after the war, Yamauchi studied painting at the Otis Art Center and later took a correspondence course in short-story writing. Although she was better known as an artist, in 1960 she was asked by The Rafu Shimpo to contribute to its annual holiday edition and from that year on, she regularly penned a short story or essay for the newspaper.

An avid reader since childhood, Yamauchi has cited a variety of literary influences, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Zane Grey, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams, and many of her fellow Asian American writers.

In 1974, a group of Asian American writers — led by Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada and Shawn Wong — organized a landmark anthology entitled “Aiiieeeee!,” which published Yamauchi’s short story “And the Soul Shall Dance” after Yamamoto suggested it for inclusion. Yamauchi’s stories appeared in a number of other anthologies, including “Counterpoint: Perspectives on Asian America” (1976), as well as the academic publication Amerasia Journal.

Her other stories include “The Boatmen on Toneh River,” “The Sensei,” and “Shirley Temple, Hotcha-cha.”

She recalled in an interview that “The Sensei,” which was about camp life, angered her Caucasian writing teacher. “She wanted the American pie finish, not a criticism of the Japanese American internment camps … But the story was my husband’s and I had to tell it the way it happened. I realized then that an acceptable philosophical and political point of view was important to mainstream publication, so I stopped trying for white publications and wrote for Rafu Shimpo … They knew what I was saying.”

Wakako Yamauchi (third from left) and fellow writer Hisaye Yamamoto (left) were both incarcerated at Poston in Arizona during World War II.

East West Players Artistic Director Mako read “And the Soul Shall Dance” and convinced Yamauchi to turn it into a play, despite the fact that she had never wr