Aug. 28 is the fourth anniversary of the passing of a woman who was an icon in both Japan and the United States. Yet her death in 2007 was barely noted in this, her home country, despite her meteoric rise to stardom in America and the fact that she remains the only East Asian to have received an Academy Award for acting.
In the 1940s, the U.S. had emerged muscular and triumphant from World War II, while much of Japan and Europe was left in ruins. Back then, Americans eagerly embraced foreign entertainers to fit the exotic bill of their newly acquired preeminence in the world.
Miyoshi Umeki — petite, adorable, demure and graceful — pressed all the right buttons. Yet, throughout her subsequent life in the U.S., she was to be stereotyped and encaged in an image created for her in the highly race-conscious Hollywood of those days.
Born in Otaru, Hokkaido, on May 8, 1929, Miyoshi was the last of nine children, all born two years apart from their closest sibling. Her father was a wealthy industrialist who owned an iron foundry. Frequently left to her own devices as a child, she immersed herself in music, studying various instruments including the harmonica, the mandolin and the piano.
After the war, one of her brothers, who worked as an interpreter for the Allied Occupation, brought home some G.I. musicians who immediately recognized young Miyoshi’s talent as a singer. Soon she was singing with those G.I.s in their band under the name Nancy Umeki.
In 1953 and ’54 she appeared in the Japanese musical films “Seishun Jazz Musume” and “Jazz on Parade 1954 — Tokyo Cinderella Musume.” Her earlier rendition of “Orokanari Waga Kokoro” (“My Foolish Heart”) was absolutely gorgeous. But this young talent had her sights set on the U.S. and, in 1955, she moved there determined to make a name for herself.
After the war, Americans were smitten by what they saw as poised, dainty and doll-like Japanese females. They embraced Miyoshi Umeki, unassuming and gracious in kimono, with a shiny bauble in her hair, her dimpled cheeks, coy smile and voice like honey.
To be fair, Miyoshi — as she was known in America from then on — played it that way. She had no choice. In that manner, the person acts out the image, merging with the stereotype and so playing a part in their own confinement.
The prime venue for amateur talent in 1950s America was the TV variety show “Arthur Godfrey and His Friends,” which was instrumental in the discovery of entertainers as varied as singer Pat Boone, and comedians Wally Cox and Lenny Bruce.
From her debut in 1956, Miyoshi was an immediate and wild favorite on the show. It was her performances there that led to her being cast as Katsumi, the wife of airman Joe Kelly (played by Red Buttons) in the 1957 film “Sayonara.”
“Sayonara” opens with your proverbial shots of temples and shrines, with kimono-clad women scurrying along in a most Oriental fashion. Starring Marlon Brando and James Garner, it is the story of American-Japanese love that defies prejudice on both sides.
For Katsumi and Joe, however, the prejudice triumphs; and, though Katsumi is pregnant, they commit double suicide and are discovered together in bed by a bereft Brando.
The lyrics of Irving Berlin’s ballad, “Sayonara,” set the tone for this plaintive love story: “Sayonara, Japanese goodbye / Whisper sayonara but you mustn’t cry … “
The film catapulted Miyoshi to stardom. She received her Oscar in 1958 when, ironically, the British film depicting unmitigated Japanese brutality, David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” took the award for best picture.
Receiving her Oscar from presenter Anthony Quinn, Miyoshi was the picture of bashfulness. She bowed to Quinn, saying in a soft voice, “I wish somebody would help me right now.” Then she thanked “all American people.”
On Dec. 22, 1958, Miyoshi graced the cover of Time magazine. She appeared on virtually ever major TV variety program, including “The Merv Griffin Show,” “The Andy Williams Show” and “The Dinah Shore Chevy Show.” She was also a guest on the hugely popular “What’s My Line?”
I especially adored her appearances on “The Gisele MacKenzie Show,” where she displayed her subtle sense of humor and even used her little mistakes in English to her advantage. She endeared herself to her American audience, affecting coy humility.
As an example, when MacKenzie asked her how she felt about winning an Oscar with Red Buttons, who also received one for his role in “Sayonara,” Miyoshi smiled sweetly and said she was very surprised — “because I do not think they give two Oscar in same family.”
Then she went on to deliver a stunning version, sung in a mixture of English and Japanese, of “How Deep is the Ocean?”
In fact, she used a lot of Japanese in her patter and singing, becoming, in the eyes of Americans, the epitome of guileless Japanese femininity.
Actually, though, she played skillfully to the stereotype imposed on her for all it was worth.
When she appeared on Broadway in 1958 in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical “Flower Drum Song” and sang her beautiful rendition of “A Hundred Million Miracles,” Time wrote: “When Miyoshi Umeki glides on stage to star in her first Broadway show, her first four words capture the house. She is American by solemn determination, but she still lives in the ordered, traditional world of her tight little island home.”
The first four words were: “Ten thousand benedictions, Sir.”
But the meteor was about to fall. Miyoshi’s last film, released in 1962, was “A Girl Named Tamiko,” starring Laurence Harvey. That movie, too, opens with a temple (Todaiji in Nara), a shrine (Toshogu Shrine in Nikko) and a bevy of swift-footed ladies in kimonos.
Parts for Asians were strictly limited in Hollywood films, and so Miyoshi turned to television. Her most prominent part was as Mrs. Livingston, the housekeeper in the popular sitcom, “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” The very first show of the series, in 1969, was even titled, “Mrs. Livingston, I Presume.”
Asians were typecast and stereotyped, and Miyoshi played her role in that game with consummate craft — though ever bitter that the doors to the world of “normal” acting were closed to her.
Having become an American citizen, she retired from show business and, for some 20 years, lived in a Los Angeles suburb and ran a dance studio in North Hollywood.
Then she left all that behind and moved to Hawaii. She shunned all publicity; and, for a time, few in Hollywood knew where she was or whether she was alive or dead. Eventually she went to live with her son and grandchildren in the small town of Licking, Missouri.
For Americans, the postwar decades were the brass age of empire. They envisaged themselves as being on top of the world, with all others below and existing only to fill in the few remaining blanks with color: the color of foreignness, of exotic variation — and of everything considered ancient and destined to disappear.
Miyoshi Umeki possessed colossal talents as an actress, singer and dancer. But there was no place for those gifts to blossom in her “tight little island home” — or so she believed — and there was no room for them to grow and flourish in her big wide-open adopted home.
She is buried in Boone Creek Cemetery in Licking, together with her second husband, Randall Hood, who died in 1976. The only personal marking on the gravestone is the single name, “Miyoshi.”