Life of A Yellow Pearl: Reflections with Nobuko Miyamoto
by Diana Tsuchida. Posted July 20, 2023
Nobuko Miyamoto, a force of activism, creativity and intersectional solidarity, has been one of the community’s great thought leaders and advocates for independent storytelling for more than 50 years. With childhood aspirations to study ballet and dance, Nobuko’s passion for the arts was supported by her parents, which eventually landed her roles in seminal films and Broadway shows, including The King and I, Flower Drum Song, West Side Story. But as she ventured deeper into Hollywood as an Asian American, she found that only stereotypical roles and opportunities were available to her, limiting the complexity that reflected her lived experiences.
Nobuko Miyamoto. Photo by Michael Becker.
Then, profoundly transformed by her exposure to the groundbreaking activism of the late 1960s and 1970s, Nobuko became involved with social justice movements across the color lines, leading her to an organic formation of Chris and Joanne, with Chris Iijima, and Yellow Pearl, with Chris, Joanne and Charlie Chin. This year marks 50 years since the release of their album, A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America, which is now a part of Smithsonian Folkways.
For the first time in many years, Nobuko will be making a rare Bay Area appearance to perform her concert, 120,000 Stories, in celebration of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California’s 50th Anniversary: Celebrating Generations. In this interview, she shares the major turning points of her life, from incarceration, to her activism days to the importance of independent storytelling and the power of arts and culture. Tickets to this special anniversary show are available for purchase on the Presidio Theatre website: Nobuko Miyamoto’s 120,000 Stories – Presidio Theatre.
Diana: Could you describe your first childhood memory?
Nobuko: My first memory was riding on my father’s shoulders at Santa Anita racetrack and the dust, and the atmosphere, a heavy atmosphere that was around us. And that image has lived with me forever. I guess I was around two and a half, something like that. Then we went from Montana to Parker, Idaho. My grandfather was there. My grandmother had died already. We stayed there for a while until my father got a job in Ogden, Utah.
I didn’t know where I was, really. I was very quiet, and sort of a lost child, until my father took us to Ogden, where he decided to celebrate because we were free. He took me and my mother to a concert of classical music. And we went into this theater, sitting there on the balcony, and suddenly this music emerged from these players in the orchestra. And that just shifted my whole life. I felt like I was floating, and I wanted to be part of the music. So I went home and I started listening to my father’s records and dancing. When my mother saw that and she thought, let’s find a dance school in this little town. And she did find a little dance school, and started me dancing at four years old.
Diana: What did you discover about yourself when it came to dance and music?
Nobuko: That was the first place where I had a sense of place. Just being in a classroom and then later being on a stage gave me a sense of place because I was sort of rootless. So, thinking about it all these years later, looking back, that was really a foundational moment of reclaiming my body, finding a voice through dance.
Diana: Your parents were big enthusiasts for art, but they never explored it for themselves in any professional way?
Nobuko: At that time, for Nisei to have any kind of dream about being an artist was pretty futile, I would say. So, for me to have that desire, they really supported me. And that’s sort of unusual because most parents want you to have a nice, secure job and a secure life. But they didn’t force that on me. They saw that this is what I wanted to do.
Nobuko Miyamoto (r) in cast of Flower Drum Song.
At a young age, I got my first job when I was 15 years old in a movie called The King and I. And then I went on and did another film called Girls, then a Broadway show called Flower Drum Song. But it actually was inFlower Drum Song, which had an almost all Asian cast that I felt uncomfortable about how the audience looked at us as we were singing this one song, “Chop Suey.” And then I realized, “Oh, we’re chop suey. We’re Chinese food for white people.” The whole show was created to please white people. All this hard training, all this work, all this hard work that I did. I started thinking, where’s our real stories?
From that point on, I was really trying to cross the color line. Why do I have to be stuck doing these Asian things? Why can’t I do something else? And that time, it was called “oriental.” So my goal was always to cross the color line. And I had my chance when I auditioned for West Side Story, and I passed for Puerto Rican. So, it was a great experience with amazing dancers and a choreographer that was the best in America. But where do I go after that? You can’t just make a living in show business doing one thing. So, I began to study singing. I was studying acting, but the jobs were really mostly stupid and playing the stereotype.
Nobuko Miyamoto and Rita Moreno in West Side Story.
Diana: How did that experience of auditioning for stereotypical roles affect your trajectory and future in performing?
Nobuko: It made me really angry that I would go to these auditions, and I had a bad attitude knowing that our chances were really slim of doing anything that had some dignity and truth to it. I thought, well maybe if I sing, I can choose whatever songs I want to sing. And so I had a great singing coach, Dini Clarke, [an] African American guy who really nurtured me and helped me find my singing voice. I sang in a club in Seattle for several months as a sort of a workshop.
That was about 1967, when the Vietnam War was going on, and a lot of people in Seattle were activists and against the war. So, people who came into the club, the younger people, would say, “Why don’t you come to the demonstration with us?” That was a new idea for me. I had been cloistered with ballet. I’d been cloistered in show business and thinking about my career. But this was my first inkling of, “Okay, let’s look out to the world now.”
Diana: When did you have your first politicized experience or engagement?
Nobuko: When I went back to Los Angeles, I volunteered to work on a political campaign for an anti-war candidate. And then I met somebody who was making a film about the Black Panthers. Now, this is going from my eyes [totally closed] to opening. He asked me if I wanted to help him make this film because it’s a documentary and a drama, and I just jumped into this world of Black revolution. And that was my first exposure to politics. It was in 1968, very intense for the Panthers. But I was seeing real life for the first time. Then when we went to New York where we were shooting, that’s when I met Yuri Kochiyama. It was Yuri that brought me into the movement and introduced me to Asian Americans who were radical, who were against the war. There were elders and younger people, people like Yuri and her generation, Nisei generation, and Sansei. And I thought, “This is nothing like my parents.” And New York was it, they are sophisticated. They were exposed to a lot of things, and I think my father and mother didn’t get out into the world in that same way.
Nobuko Miyamoto and Chris Iijima singing on “The Mike Douglas Show” in 1972.
Diana: When did you first encounter or meet Chris Iijima?
Nobuko: So, I joined Asian Americans for Action and met Chris Iijima. His mother and father were part of Asian Americans for Action, and he was like a second generation radical, one of the leaders. And we went to Chicago because Warren Furutani, who had just come out to New York said, “Hey, we’re going to go to Chicago to speak to the JACL and make them take a stand against the Vietnam War. Come and meet us there.” So that was the first time that East Coast and West Coast Asians who were activists were going to connect in Chicago.
While we were there, we were just amazed to connect with people from San Francisco, Stockton, Los Angeles. So, Chris and I, we visited the Black Panthers there, we met with Native Americans as well as young activists. One night he took out his guitar and started just doodling around. And on the spot, he started writing a song, and I started singing along with him and we wrote a song right there on the spot. Warren said, “You got to sing this song tomorrow when we make a presentation in front of the whole JACL.”
It was an awakening for us to see the bigger Japanese community and Asian community. But it was also amazing for people to see us performing on stage as folk singers.
Diana: What were you hoping people would take away from listening to you and your songs? Or was it just unfolding organically as you continued?
Nobuko: We didn’t see ourselves as just artists. We were activists who could sing. And so, we were more like troubadours in that we were able to see, witness and hear stories and be able to move from place to place and begin to. Those were formative years that made me realize…that I need to go back home and plant my roots somewhere. So, I came back to Los Angeles towards the end of ‘73 and decided I was going to try to use the arts as a voice for Asian Americans. And at the same time, I was pregnant. So, I had other things going on but I planted my roots here and eventually I started an arts organization in the hall of the Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles. It gave me a beautiful space to teach, dance, to rehearse, to create work and launch projects from and eventually started writing Obon music.
I created a lot of work out of that space, theater pieces, musicals, because I had a band, and then I was teaching dance, and I started bringing dance and music together and creating theater pieces. And then Great Leap, my organization, we fostered a lot of support for artists to create their own work and did a lot of collaborations and then started doing work in the community, helping community people tell their own stories.
120,000 Stories performance at Getty Center in Los Angeles. Feb. 19, 2022.
Diana: How is this year a significant year for your life’s work and impact through music?
Nobuko: Chris and I made A Grain of Sand, our album, in 1973, 50 years this year. And I know that the JCCCNC is 50 years old as well. So, in this program, I wanted to talk about half a century of service and the connections that exist today because of that moment when things emerged. And I want to talk about the heart that it took, and the vision that it took, to continue through those years, and the relationships that remain and have grown and developed and spread, and the consciousness that has spread from that moment.
Diana: What could audiences expect with your show, the 120,000 Stories, if they haven’t seen it and this is their first time? What do you hope they walk away with after seeing it?
Nobuko: When I did the album a couple of years ago, 120,000 Stories, I was referring, of course, to our experiences in camp and so many untold stories that still exist, but also it represents the stories we need to hear that are going to bring us together now, because the world is very divided and fearful. There’s a lot of fear and we are becoming the majority in this country. People of color are becoming the majority and some white people are very apprehensive about that and about losing power. So, a lot of what I have to say is about relations and that’s, of course, Native Americans have always talked about all relations. I mean, relating to Mother Earth, Father Sky, but also the diverse people of the Earth. To me, we’re at this moment where the Earth is speaking to us very strongly.
Of course, it’s going to be through the music and through talking and stories and friends who will be part of this. I have a special feeling for the Bay Area in San Francisco. So there’s so much history. Movement history is so rich in San Francisco.
Interviewer’s Bio: Diana Tsuchida is the Creative Director at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco.
Nobuko Miyamoto at Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, Los Angeles.