NEW YORK – My actress friend Michi Kobi died on March 1 at age 91. For most of her long life, her internment during World War II weighed on her. It was what Fortune magazine in its April 1944 issue plainly called “U.S. imprisonment of persons of Japanese descent.”
I knew about that part of her life during my three-decade-long friendship with her. But inattentive as I am, it only recently occurred to me, for example, that the artist she had taken me to meet in the 1980s, in Upper Manhattan, must have been Mine Okubo. Famed for her drawings of her internment, “Citizen 13660,” Okubo, too, had been in the Topaz War Relocation Center as Michi had.
Yes, I knew Michi was an actress. But, again inattentive in the familiarity of friendship, I never asked her about her acting career in any significant way. One question I remember asking was a tease: What about your relationship to Isamu Noguchi? Yoshiko Yamaguchi (Li Xianglan) married the sculptor when she was appearing on Broadway as Shirley Yamaguchi but divorced him, it is said, because he had such a rigid notion of what a Japanese woman was or wasn’t like. Michi’s response was: “Oh, he was just a friend.”
As you can see on the Internet, her acting career reflected the way U.S.-Japanese relations changed over the years.
Michi began to appear in a TV series in 1954 called “The New Adventures of China Smith.” I can’t tell what role she played in it, but her last TV acting seems to have been in the “Law & Order” episode titled “Gaijin” in 2004. According to IMDb, that story had to do with “the murder of a prominent Japanese model visiting New York (that) may have been a yakuza-related murder for hire.”
Michi’s first movie, “Tokyo After Dark,” in 1959, had to do with an overzealous American military policeman in Tokyo who shoots a Japanese teenager dead. In the late 1950s, I knew murders and other problems created by U.S. soldiers stationed in Japan were making headlines. But, in the film, Michi plays the military policeman’s fiance, a kimono-clad chanteuse at an establishment called the Ginza Sukiyaki.
Her next film, “Hell to Eternity,” in 1960, dealt with the internment, at least as a background story. Its protagonist is a Hispanic boy adopted by a Japanese-American family who enlists in the marines after his family is packed off to the Manzanar Relocation Camp, and becomes a hero in the Battle of Saipan — by saving 800 Japanese lives.
In it Michi played what she called a “Honolulu fun girl,” but the film may have led her to confide to a reporter for The Victoria Advocate in October of the same year, 1960: that she’d begun to write a play about her experiences during World War II in relocation camps, though she added, “That isn’t working out too well.”
The old Texas newspaper called Michi “a beautiful girl, a talented actress, a person of charm and intelligence,” but she was in her mid-30s, and she was probably growing weary of the fun-girl routine. “They just don’t write meaty parts for Oriental girls and nobody would think of casting me as anything but an Oriental girl,” she said. She had toured for two years with “The Teahouse of the August Moon” as “the gentle and innocent maiden.”
The Broadway comedy, along with its film version with Marlon Brando, won the Pulitzer, Tony, and other prizes, but it was full of stereotypes and was later condemned as racist.
Michi was born in 1924, the year the U.S. enacted an immigration act based on eugenics, formalizing racial inequality as a foreign policy. In his testament shortly after Japan’s defeat in 1945, Emperor Showa sought the origins of the Pacific War in the U.S. not rejecting “yellow-white discrimination” as Japan asked after World War I.
Michi’s father, Rikikazu Okamoto, had arrived in the U.S. in 1902 when he was 17, and got a medical degree. He went to Japan and married Ito Kobinata in 1923 and brought her to Sacramento. That was where Michi was born.
But her father died of tuberculosis when she was 3 years old. So her mother took her to San Francisco and put her in a Methodist orphanage while she learned her own trade. She took her daughter back when Michi was 9, but the value reversals at the Christian orphanage and in the hemmed-in Japanese immigrant community confounded Michi.
Then came Pearl Harbor with it the “barefaced hostility from students and teachers at school,” as Michi put it.
To list some of the epithets that suddenly began to be hurtled at residents of Japanese descent from one of Mine Okubo’s drawings, there were “Aliens-citizens, a Jap is a Jap,” “Send them back to Tojo,” “Sabotage,” “Can’t trust them,” “Spy ring,” “A Jap looks like this,” “Stab in the back,” and “Bank Freeze Jap.”
In March 1942 the order came that they “voluntarily” leave the West Coast. Then, for those who failed to do so like Ito Kobinata, who couldn’t give up her beauty shop quickly, came the forced “relocation” — first herded to the Tanforan Assembly Center, in fact a racetrack south of San Francisco, then transported by train carriages, with the shades down, for three or four days to Topaz in a Utah desert.
“I became temporarily blind, deaf and partially paralyzed before entering Tanfaron for about 10 days,” Michi wrote in 1988.
She recovered from these experiences and made a successful acting career. As she did so, her initial idea of writing a play expanded into a large novel covering the Japanese immigrants to the U.S. Around 2002 she asked me, “What might a young woman in the early 1900s have read?”
She continued to struggle to turn various historical strands into a coherent story, but was apparently unable to finish it. Maggie Stein Nakamura, one of her friends who looked after her in her last days, reports that Michi had “nightmares” for fear that her writings might disperse with her death.
Part of the reason for her obsession and fear may have been the number of articles on the grave injustice 70 years ago that have recently increased. The most recent one I’ve read, on NBC News, is “Behind Barbed Wire: Remembering America’s Largest Internment Camp,” and it gives the recollections of five surviving inmates in Tule Lake of a maximum-security prison camp.
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.