Mitsu Yashima: Artist, Activist, and “Voice of the People”

A Young Artist and Imperial Japan Dissident

Mitsu Yashima (born Tomoe Sasako) was born on October 11, 1908 in Innoshima, Japan. From an early age, Mitsu had a passion for art and pleaded with her father to allow her to pursue studies in art until he finally relented. Mitsu first enrolled in Kobe College in Nishinomiya, Japan before going on to study at the Bunka Gakuin in Tokyo in 1926, where she met and fell in love with her future husband, artist Taro Yashima (born Jun Atsushi Iwamatsu).

Taro Yashima

Mitsu and Taro became politically active and were heavily involved with protesting the growing militarism of the Japanese Empire. The Imperial Government repeatedly detained and tortured them, and Mitsu endured months of beatings and starvation, even while pregnant. She gave birth to a son Makoto, nicknamed Mako, in 1933 after her release from prison.

As Japan’s military ambitions continued to expand, Mitsu’s parents encouraged the outspoken young couple to flee Japan, worried that they risked another imprisonment, and, in Taro’s case, conscription into the Japanese Imperial Army. In 1939, Mitsu and Taro heeded their advice. The couple tearfully left young Mako behind with Mitsu’s parents out of fear their child would not survive the voyage to America.

Settling in America and Joining the OSS

Mitsu and Taro were scraping by as poor art students in Manhattan on December 7, 1941, the infamous day of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States soon declared war on the Empire of Japan, leaving the couple torn between love of their homeland and desire to serve their new country. Mitsu would later recall, “I felt conflicted about the war at first, but I was eventually won over by the American people.”

Because the couple lived on the East Coast, the U.S. Government did not order them into internment camps once war broke out, unlike those of Japanese descent living on the West Coast. Taro joined the U.S. Army and later the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), CIA’s predecessor organization. He was on assignment to India when V-J Day happened, and shortly thereafter, he was sent on a mission to Japan—the first time he had been back to his homeland since fleeing in 1939—where he found his son alive and well. Meanwhile, Mitsu, wanting to do her part for America’s war effort, relocated to Washington, D.C. and began work on the OSS’ “Voice of the People” radio program. The broadcasts were recorded, shipped, and beamed into Japan. Mitsu did so well that the OSS moved her and the project to San Francisco.

In an interview after the war ended, Mitsu explained, “My job was to talk to the women in Japan and urge them to run away from the war effort.” Her voice coming through the radio would convince Japanese women to leave the major cities and not believe the propaganda coming from the Imperial Government.

Despite her success with the OSS, outside of work, Mitsu faced hostility and overt discrimination because of her Japanese heritage.

The Post-War Years: A Return to Art

The U.S. granted Mitsu and Taro permanent resident status after the war ended because of their service to the country. They were also able to bring their son, Mako, to the States to join Momo, his baby sister.

Mitsu and her daughter, Momo, San Francisco, 1953 (Left). A teenage Mako Iwamatsu holds his baby sister, Momo, after joining family in U.S., c. 1949 (Upper Right). One of Mitsu and Taro’s bestselling children’s books, Momo’s Kitten, 1961 (Lower Right).

Mitsu and Taro then worked together on a number of creative projects, including some top-selling children’s books. A few revolved around their daughter Momo, who grew up to become a successful actor, just like her Academy Award-nominated brother, Mako. Many may remember Mako from various movie roles that include the critically acclaimed The Sand Pebbles (1966), the epic Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Conan the Destroyer (1984) series, Seven Years in Tibet (1997), Pearl Harbor (2001), and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005). He died in 2006.

Mako playing Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in the film Pearl Harbor, (Getty Images).

Mitsu devoted herself to inspiring young Asian Americans in her local community in San Francisco and passing on her knowledge of art. Mitsu’s life-long passion continued until her death in Los Angeles at the age of 80 in 1988.

Mitsu Yashima in her studio in San Francisco, CA. 1975 (San Franciso Chronicle).

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