Yoshiko Uchida

A prolific author best known for her children’s books about her concentration camp experiences at Topaz, Yoshiko Uchida was born November 24, 1921 in Alameda, CA, to Issei parents Dwight Takashi Uchida and Iku Umegaki Uchida, leaders in their local Japanese American community who often hosted visitors from Japan.  Uchida spent her childhood and adolescence in a largely white enclave in Berkeley, California, before enrolling at the University of California, Berkeley, where she majored in English, history and philosophy. Uchida was a precocious student, enrolling in college at age 16 and finishing her degree in two and a half years. As many university institutions excluded Asian Americans on account of race, Uchida’s friends in college were largely other Nisei Japanese Americans, attracted to Berkeley because of its more welcoming enrollment. 

Because of Dwight Takashi Uchida’s leadership position in the Japanese American community, he was arrested on Pearl Harbor day, and held in Immigration Detention Quarters in San Francisco before being moved to an internment camp in Missoula, Montana. The rest of the Uchida family was forcibly removed by the April 21, 1942 exclusion order and sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center, where they lived in a horse stall.  After five months at Tanforan, the Uchidas were sent to Topaz, where the family learned that Takashi had been paroled and would be allowed to join them at the camp.

During her time at Topaz, Uchida worked as a secretary then as an elementary school teacher for the students incarcerated at Topaz.  In 1943, she received a full scholarship to Smith College and she--along with her older sister, Keiko, who had been accepted as a college student to Mt. Holyoke—left for the East Coast. Uchida’s parents, Takashi and Iku, moved to Salt Lake City a few months after. 

Uchida graduated from Smith College with a M.Ed in 1944, and took a teaching position at Frankford Friends’ School in Philadelphia. Uchida soon quit teaching to move to New York and focus on her writing, studying at Columbia University, where she took a class on writing for children. It was there that Uchida began to adapt many of the Japanese folk tales her mother taught her for an American audience, and she published her first book, The Dancing Kettle, and Other Japanese Folk Tales with Harcourt, Brace in 1949. 

Uchida went on to publish 34 books in total, working occasionally as a secretary to the Nobel Laureate chemist Glenn Seaborg, but more often living on fellowships and earnings from her publications. While neither a Utah native nor longterm state resident, Uchida is most widely known for her books on her concentration camp experience in Utah, an experience which proved to be not only personally but creatively life-changing. Uchida's are the first such books written for children by a Japanese American author. Her most popular books include her children’s novel, Journey to Topaz: A Story of the Japanese-American Evacuation (1971), and her memoir, Desert Exile (1982). All of Uchida’s books either center on Japanese American characters or are set in Japan, a deliberate choice, as she told interviewers, since “There weren’t any books like that in the 50’s when I started writing for children.”

Uchida spent the rest of her adult life in Berkeley, CA, where she moved to be near her parents, who had relocated first from Salt Lake to New York, then to Oakland. She won a number of literary awards for her work. Including the Ford Foundation Fellowship, the Commonwealth Club of California Medals in 1972 for Samurai of Gold Hill and in 1982 for A Jar of Dreams, and a Child Study Association of America Children’s Book of the Year citation in 1985 for The Happiest Ending

A beloved and prolific author, Uchida suffered during her last years with ill health, including chronic fatigue syndrome. She died in Berkeley on June 21, 1992, at the age of seventy.

Work

Bibliography

Children’s Books 
The Magic Purse (1994).
Journey To Topaz (1971).
A Jar of Dreams (1981).
Journey Home (1978).
The Best Bad Thing (1983).
The Bracelet (1993).
Samurai of Gold Hill (1972).
The Dancing Kettle: And Other Japanese Tales (1949).
The Sea of Gold: And Other Tales from Japan (1965).
Rkubei and the thousand Rice Bowls (1962).
The Rooster who Understood Japanese (1976).
Sumi and the Goat and the Toyoko express (1969).
Sumi’s Prize (1964).
Sumi’s Special Happenings (1966).
Takao and Grandfather’s Sword (1958). 
The Wise Old Woman (1994). 
The Terrible Leak (1990).
The Birthday Visitor (1975).
Forever Christmas Tree (1963).
The Happiest Ending (1985).
In Between Miya (1967).
The Magic Listening Cap: More Folk Tales from Japan (1955).
New Friends for Susan (1951).
The Full Circle (1957).
The Promise Year (1959).
Mik and the Prowler (1960).
Hisako’s Mysteries (1969).
Makoto, the Smallest Boy: A Story of Japan (1970).

Adult Fiction and Non-Fiction
Do Not Work Alone: The Thoughts of Kaniro Kawai (1953).
The History of Sycamore Church (1974).
Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family (1982).
Picture Bride (1987).
The Invisible Thread (1991).

Other Works
The Old Man with the Bump (cassette, 1973).
The Two Foolish Cats (filmstrip and cassette, 1977).
The Fox and the Bear (cassette, 1979).
Tabi: Journey through Time, Stories of the Japanese in America (cassette, 1984). 

Links

The Yoshiko Uchida Papers, University of California
Yoshiko Uchida, Densho Encyclopedia