Something about me today…To All Relations – Book Review of Nobuko Miyamoto’s Not Yo’ Butterfly by Miya Iwataki

Not Yo’ Butterfly: My Long Song of Relocation, Race, Love and Revolution by Nobuko Miyamoto – Book review by Miya Iwataki. Posted Nov. 29, 2021

I met Nobuko Miyamoto during a New York visit back in the day when she was still JoAnne and I was still “Linda.” It was a special time in New York. The Third World People’s Movement was on the rise.  I met Nisei, second generation Japanese Americans like my parents, who were playing a leading role in the Asian Movement!  Asian Americans for Action or Triple A was led by Kazu & Tak Iijima, Bill & Yuri Kochiyama, Aiko Yoshinaga Hertzberg,who would become Nisei-activist legends, along with Sansei – Chris Iijima, Billy-Aichi-Eddie Kochiyama, and others.  They were planning, strategizing and leading anti-war, anti-Imperialist actions in the streets of New York!  This L.A. sister was blown away and enthralled.

On top of that, I was staying with the Kochiyama’s – in the very same apartment graced by Malcolm X.  I looked up his signature in the guest book that Yuri kept on a small table next to the door for her hundreds of visitors to sign.  A never-ending stream of visitors coming to this fabled hub of revolutionary activism, seeking an audience with revolutionary greatness.  Meetings, marching, eating, partying all night…and music!  New York so lived up to its hype.  In my young revolutionary fervor, I would have chosen New York over traveling to any country in the world! It was within this context that I first saw Chris and Joanne perform. Chris Iijima and JoAnne Miyamoto were the first Asian Movement singer-songwriting duo, later joined by Charlie Chin.

Joanne Nobuko Miyamoto and Chris Iijima perform at the Third World Storefront, Los Angeles. Photo by Alan Ohashi, Visual Communications Archives.

    We are the children of the migrant worker

    We are the offspring of the concentration camp

 They were singing about us!

     …Watching war movies with the next- door neighbor

      Secretly rooting for the other side…

 They were singing exactly how I felt growing up!

    …We are the cousins of the freedom fighter

     Brothers and sisters all around the world

    We are a part of the Third World People

    Who will leave their stamp on America!

Those last lines always gave me chills as we all stood and shouted out the ending.

That song so clearly captured the shared experience of Asians; as secret outsiders who were now standing up, throwing off our “psychological shackles,” and uniting with our Third World sisters and brothers to make our voices heard and our presence felt.  To make Revolution!  That simple song became an anthem for the bourgeoning Asian Movement and threw open the doors for creating and embracing an Asian American culture.  We could still enjoy Gil Scott-Heron, Marvin Gaye, Oscar Brown Jr and Jean Pace; but now we had our own artivists…Chris and Joanne, and soon Charlie.

JoAnne Nobuko Miyamoto was at the birth of this “cultural renaissance.” In her first book, Not Yo’ Butterfly, she shares her life journey.

Every Asian Movement OG has a story; a storyline that brought, eased, or flung us into the revolutionary whirlwind of the 60s-70s.  With Not Yo Butterfly (NYB) there is no “road not taken.”  Nobuko fully embraces and moves forward with each new life path like Dorothy following the yellow brick road.  Nobuko’s story unfolds like movements in a musical – each act setting the stage progressing into the next act; building and unfolding, building and unfolding until it comes full circle…bringing the Chickens Coming Home to Roost , their NY storefront named after a quote by Malcolm X, to her current life today.

Attalah Ayubi and Nobuko march the Republic of New Afrika demonstration at the United Nations. Photo from Nobuko Miyamoto collection.

I was born where I didn’t belong.  At 2, I became the enemy, a would-be spy, a threat to US internal security.  Soon I was removed with 110,000 others who looked like me to a place the grown-ups called “camp.”

The “First Movement” (Section 1 of 3) opens like a family album interspersed with snapshot-stories of her family’s forced removal into Santa Anita horse stalls; picking sugar beets in Montana; living in Idaho, then Ogden, Utah during the WWII years.  She weaves in a surprisingly detailed history of several generations of her family, including intermarriages, setting the stage for her own experiences as Hapa – Asian and white – and how perceived otherness impacted her life.  Throughout the book, she overlays historical and contemporaneous context within the various stages of her life.

At five, Dad took her to see Sir Thomas Beecham conduct the Utah Symphony.  Afterwards, each day she would listen to her dad’s classical music and dance.   Mom took the cue, nurturing her interest by seizing on opportunities for Nobuko to enroll in West Coast Music and Dance school (at 8 she knew she wanted to be a ballerina); in LA Conservancy of Music and Arts; in a TV talent show; and auditions.

“For you to make a living at dance, you have to be twice as good,” she was told by her dance mentor.

Most of us who knew “JoAnne” during the pre-Nobuko years, knew she danced in West Side Story and Flower Drum Song, but had no idea of the years of discipline and rigor she had dedicated to her art.  She had 12-18 dance classes while attending LA High. It was exhausting and the physical toll brought on eczema.  But the result was being “lucky to work with two dance giants at such a young age” –  Jerome Robbins and Jack Cole.

Jan Ken Po with Nobuko and children: Erin, Kamau Yubbi, Akemi Kochiyama at Gene Dynarski Theater. Photo from Nobuko Miyamoto Collection.

The chapters on this part of her life are fun and fascinating, filled with insights and an impressive catalogue/resume  of dance opportunities on Broadway and film:

    1955 celebrated 15th birthday dancing in The King and I on film.

    Jerome Robbins’ Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Broadway.

    At 16, worked with legendary choreographer Jack Cole in Kismet on Broadway; and Les Girls.

    At 17 yrs. a dance soloist at Desert Inn Las Vegas “The Geisha Girl Revue”

    1958 a lead dancer in Flower Drum Song, Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway hit.  Gene Kelly directing. 1 yr contract

    Films:  The King and I (Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr).

    At 21 – West Side Story

This is peppered with historical commentary on limited, stereotypic roles for “Orientals” – Sexy Oriental dancers, and some Broadway chisme on what Asian women dancers faced.

Reiko Sato, Jack Cole, Nobuko dancing on the Hollywood Palace Variety Show. Photo from Nobuko Miyamoto Collection.

In 1967 she was singing in a nightclub in Seattle while Martin Luther King was marching.

What was the great leap (pun intended) from Broadway to the Asian Movement?  Moving back to LA she fell in with a journalist/ filmmaker, Antonello Branco, who was shooting a documentary on the Black Panthers.  He took her to a Black Panther political education class giving her exposure to the Panthers beyond the headlines.  It was the was beginning of her conversion.

Next it was back to NY East Harlem to help Antonello with his film on the Young Lords Party, further deepening her knowledge and respect for Third World revolutionary groups.  At an event for the YLP Free Breakfast program, she met Mary (Yuri) Kochiyama who invited her to a Triple A (Asian Americans for Action) meeting, and to dinner at her place.  It was an introduction to the Asian community; and her life was changed.  It was a different New York from her Broadway days 10 years earlier.

The 60s-70s was an era of opportunity and revolutionary change.  Everything felt possible.  We learned by doing.  Creating as we move forward.  We were open to work, new solutions.  Money didn’t seem to matter.  Not Yo Butterfly captures the excitement and the feeling of invincibility of those years as Nobuko dives into another exciting chapter in her life: her work with Third World activists and organizations, and discovering she could draw upon her artist background to celebrate the Asian Movement:

Chris and JoAnne.  In a Chicago church hall settling, Chris Iijima pulls out his guitar and begins strumming chords, gets a rhythm, starts singing words. He’s writing a song on the spot! JoAnne starts singing along; they sound good together.  Soon they began writing songs. Chris is a “gifted poet and musician with the ability to capture complex… political ideas and humanize them.”

A first community concert in NY raises money for tickets to fly to LA, where people have lined up several concerts on the West Coast. No one was writing songs celebrating our Asian identity; smashing stereotypes; exploring our history.  Songs could be an act of liberation.  The reception was positive.  Chris & JoAnne began meeting other artists creating brand new Asian American music: from Hiroshima, to Yokohama CA fronted by Robert Kikuchi, and Kinnara Taiko.  Gidra! Newspaper and UCLA’s Roots Journal.  A cultural explosion was happening in every genre, in step with the movement.

Yellow Pearl. The Basement Workshop for artist-activists in NY Chinatown, raises money to put together Yellow Pearl, an album-sized collection of words, music, visual expression – reflections by Asians based on Chris, JoAnne and Charlie’s songs.

Barbara Dane of Paredon Records records Chris, JoAnne and Charlie’s album Grain of Sand. Dane has now donated Paredon Archives to the Smithsonian, so album would be preserved and distributed by Smithsonian Folkways.

Nobuko with Warren Furutani in Little Tokyo. Photo courtesy of Visual Communications Archives.

***

One night, brother Mfalme asks JoAnne if she has a Japanese name.  Names have meaning and power of intention, he says.  Nobuko begins another life change.  Ironically, it was on one of my trips to New York that Yuri, Eddie and Aichi Kochiyama learned my Japanese name was Miya, and for the remainder of my stay {and my life} would no longer address me by my “slave name”  Linda,which began a new chapter in my life.

Soon Mfalme, now Attalah Ayubbi, and Nobuko have a son, Kamau Shigeki Bin Attalah Ayubbi.  After Attalah was shot dead, his best friend Mtulu Shakur (father of Tupac) assumed the role of Kamau’s godfather.

“Rev. Mas Kodani gave me a community.”  Nobuko moves to Los Angeles alone, and goes to nearby Senshin Buddhist Church to seek counsel with Rev. Mas.  He hires her to teach dance at Senshin.   Soon a series of artist collaborations is launched with Kinnara Taiko and Benny Yee, forming Warriors of the Rainbow and leading to grants to produce “Chop Suey,” a rock opera with East West Players, and educational projects like “American Made.”

Original Warriors of the Rainbow Band: Alan Furutani, Bobby Farlice, Nobuko, Kenny Endo, Chris, Danny Yamamoto, and Benny Yee. Photo from Nobuko Miyamoto Collection.

Great Leap (named by Benny Yee) is formed, leading to many collaborations which fill out the Third Movement section of the book, culminating with current work with Quetzal and Fandango Obon.

Nobuko and Great Leap in performance. Photo by Abe Ferrer courtesy of Visual Communications Archives.

Norman Jayo introduces Nobuko to Tarabu Betsurai.  She is working on a musical on Holiday Bowl with a Sansei guy and a Black sister; Tarabu is working on Juke Box centered on a Black man, played by Danny Glover, and a Nisei woman (that will be played by Nobuko).  Their work and their deep friendship yield/result in marriage that will strengthen her home and family bond and ground them in their neighborhood.

And still there is more – an eventful journey to Japan for a first-time meeting and warm acceptance by her family, and embracing the knowledge of being Japanese.  And compelling chapters on her time with Grace Lee Boggs in her 90s in Detroit who imparts knowledge about leaders and “solutionaries.”  Her words, “You need to write your book.  It will change your life.  It did mine,” provided the impetus for this book.  More wisdom is paired with that of Mamie Kirkland, Tarabu’s mom who, at 107 yrs. of age was honored by the Equal Justice Initiative in New York, covered on the front page of the New York Times.  “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Mamie Kirkland tells that gathering.  And it is with this sentiment that Nobuko’s well-written  thought-provoking memoir Not Yo’ Butterfly closes.

FandangObon band, singers, and guests. Photo from Nobuko MIyamoto Collection.

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Author’s Bio: 60s-70s Asian Woman Movement activist, warrior for Redress/Reparations, host of East Wind Radio series on KPFK Pacifica are pieces in Miya Iwataki’s life journey leading to opportunities to work and learn with communities of color seeking justice and equity.  A founding member of NCRR, she was most profoundly impacted by the courage and testimonies by Issei and Nisei at the CWRIC Hearings; and having the opportunity to work with JA community heroes: 442nd Vets, Fair Play Committee members. Her poetry, writings and columns are shaped by an appreciation for these life-changing experiences.

Bonus video: Eddie Wong produced this short video on Nobuko Miyamoto for Visual Communications’ retrospective exhibit: “At First Light: The Dawning of Asian Pacific America” at the Japanese American National Museum in 2019.

1 Comment

  1. David on April 11, 2022 at 12:22 am

    Wonderful everything and lovely evolving soundtrack. The world is made more loving through your multifaceted contributions and spirit. Thank you.

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