Yoshiko Uchida, a writer of children's books about the Japanese American experience, was born on November 24, 1921, in Alameda, California. She was the second daughter of Japanese migrants Takashi and Iku Uchida. Her father came to the United States in 1903 and worked for the San Francisco offices of the large corporate conglomerate Mitsui and Company. Uchida's mother wrote poetry, passing on her love of literature to her two girls. Even during the Great Depression, Uchida and her family lived comfortably, for her father's job paid well and they were thrifty with their money.
While Uchida saw her home as a site of happiness and love, the other places where she spent her adolescence felt different. As a student at University High School in Oakland, she found herself ignored by many of her white classmates, who considered her a foreigner and would not invite her to any of their parties. Uchida graduated early and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, at the age of 16. While she still felt somewhat ostracized by her collegiate peers, she befriended several other Japanese American students and was only six months away from her graduation when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941.
Two months later, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered all Japanese Americans on the West Coast to leave their homes and relocate to concentration camps. Uchida and her family were no exception. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) interrogated her father, and on April 21, 1942, the Uchidas had to leave Berkeley for their new residence—a horse stall at Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, California. The racetrack had been converted to a civilian assembly center to house evicted Japanese Americans. Barbed wire and armed guards surrounded the facility. It was at Tanforan that Uchida received by mail a number of congratulatory graduation cards from friends, as well as her diploma from the University of California. She missed her commencement ceremony by two weeks. In a detailed scrapbook that Uchida kept during her time in camp, she pasted clippings of newspaper articles about and photos of the 5,000 students in Berkeley's Class of 1942 as they celebrated the awarding of their degrees; Uchida's caption reads: “I attend my graduation via the press.”
On September 16, the family was forced to move again—this time to the Topaz War Relocation Center, a concentration camp in the arid and dusty Millard County, Utah. Within the camp's fences, Uchida taught second-grade children and thus saw not only the injustices imposed upon young Japanese Americans but also the varying interpretations these children had of their present circumstances.
In the spring of 1943, Smith College accepted Uchida into, and awarded her a fellowship to attend, its master's program in education. She was therefore allowed to leave the concentration camp in May of the same year. Her sister was released with her, while her parents had to wait until autumn for the U.S. government to permit them to leave. The 13 months that Uchida spent at Topaz left a lasting impression on her consciousness, leading her to write about her wartime experiences in a number of books.
After teaching for several years at a Quaker school near Philadelphia, she came to realize that she wanted to expand her educational audience from a few class rooms' worth of students to a large number of readers. She moved to New York City to work as a secretary, and she wrote stories during her slower hours on the job, as well as in her evenings at home. Uchida soon was asked to contribute to a book about Japanese folk tales, and while working on this project (which never achieved publication) she discovered that she had a multitude of unique experiences to share with a reading public, and her work as a teacher prompted her to focus on literature specifically relevant to young people.
A trip to her parents' homeland on a Ford Foundation Fellowship in 1952 proved formative for Uchida. She came to believe that everything she loved about Japan was and always had been a part of her identity. “In my eagerness to be accepted as an American during my youth,” Uchida wrote, “I had been pushing my Japaneseness aside. Now at last, I appreciated it and was proud of it. I had finally come full circle. Now it was time for me to pass on this sense of pride and
self-esteem to the third generation Japanese Americans—the Sansei—and to give them the kinds of books I'd never had as a child” (Invisible Thread, 131).
When she returned to the United States, Uchida began to write with great prolificacy. In her lifetime, she published more than 30 books, including her celebrated Journey to Topaz (1971), a novel based on her experience as an internee in the Utah desert—and her collection of memoirs, Desert Exile (1982), which brought Uchida international attention. Most of her writings have strong historical grounding and deal with the themes of citizenship, racial identity, and interethnic relationships.
After winning acclaim in the early 1980s, Uchida traveled and lectured extensively, never ceasing to write and publish. She received more than 20 awards for her work, among them an American Library Association's Notable Book citation for Journey to Topaz, a New York Public Library's Best Book of the Year citation in 1983 for The Best Bad Thing, and the Japanese American of the Biennium award from the Japanese American Citizens League in 1988.
Uchida died in Berkeley after a stroke on June 25, 1992. Of all her writings, perhaps the one most representative of her spirit is her autobiography The Invisible Thread (1991), the last work she published in her lifetime. “I want each new generation of Americans to know what once happened in our democracy,” Uchida wrote in the book's epilogue. “I want them to love and cherish the freedom that can be snatched away so quickly, even by their own country. Most of all, I ask them to be vigilant, so that such a tragedy will never happen to any group of people in America again” (133).
Uchida, Yoshiko. The Invisible Thread. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1995.
Uchida, Yoshiko. [Scrapbook.] Yoshiko Uchida Papers. Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. BANC MSS 86/97c, 1942–1992.
“Yoshiko Uchida, 70, A Children's Author.” The New York Times, June 24, 1992. http://www.nytimes.com/1992/06/24/obituaries/yoshiko-uchida-70-a-childrens-author.html