Toyo Suyemoto

Called by the Japanese American poet and writer Lawson Fusao Inada “our major Camp Poet and Nikkei Poet Laureate,” Toyo Suyemoto was born in 1916 in Oroville, California. Suyemoto was a librarian, poet, memoirist, and inmate in Topaz.  During her early years, Suyemoto published under her husband’s surname as Toyo Kawakami, Toyo S. Kawakami, and Toyo Suyemoto Kawakami, though later in life she preferred to be remembered only by her family name. During her lifetime, Suyemoto published a reference book for librarians, Acronyms in Education and the Behavioral Sciences, as well as poems in Yale ReviewCommon Ground and the anthology American Bungaku (1938). Interest in her work increased in the 1970s and 80s, however, and Suyemoto’s work soon appeared in the anthologies Speaking for Ourselves: American Ethnic Writing (1969), Ayumi: A Japanese American Anthology (1980), and Quiet Fire: A Historical Anthology of Asian American Poetry 1892-1970 (1996) as well as in the magazines Many Mountains Moving and Amerasia Journal. Four years after her death in 2003, Rutgers University Press published her memoir I Call to Remembrance: Toyo Suyemoto’s Years of Internment (2007). 

Suyemoto was trained from an early age to be a poet. Her mother taught Japanese literature to her and her eight siblings as children, and also recited Japanese translations of Shakespeare. Suyemoto’s own work in haiku and tanka is the direct result of her mother’s influence, though she was also worked in conventional English lyric forms she learned as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, and later in creative writing workshops she took at the University of Cincinnati. Suyemoto herself began publishing poems in Japanese American community papers when she was a teenager, and she continued writing during her years of incarceration as a young woman in Topaz, where she was relocated after she, her infant son, Kay, and her parents and siblings were detained in Tanforan. Her husband, Iwao Kawakami, a journalist and poet, abandoned Suyemoto and Kay during the first weeks of Japanese American relocation and incarceration. For the rest of the war, and many years after, Suyemoto remained with her immediate family. 

At Topaz, Suyemoto worked in the prison’s library, and taught English and Latin in the school. Along with her friend, the artist and writer Miné Okubo, she worked on the editorial board of the literary journals Trek and All Aboard, publishing several poems in these magazines.

After the war, Suyemoto, Kay and her parents moved to Cincinnati, where Suyemoto worked at the libraries of the University of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Art Museum. Her son, Kay, died tragically in 1958 at the age of 16 from an illness contracted at Topaz; Suyemoto had devoted much of her life to caring for him, and for her aging parents. After their deaths, Suyemoto attended the University of Michigan for a Masters in Library Science degree, and in 1964 became Head of the Social Work Library and Assistant Head of the Education Library for the Ohio State University. She retired in 1985 and spent the rest of her life in Columbus. 

Suyemoto revisited Topaz in the early 1980s and also testified before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians about her experiences there. In her last two decades, Suyemoto spoke frequently to high school, university, and community audiences about her incarceration, bringing national attention to the longstanding impact of incarceration on Japanese Americans. Her work earned her praise from important Asian American writers and activists, and increased attention to her creative work. 

Toyo Suyemoto remained active in the arts and in her community until her death in 2003. 

Work

Bibliography

I Call to Remembrance: Toyo Suyemoto’s Years of Internment, Rutgers University Press, 2007.