Have you ever heard of the poet Kenneth (AKA Shōson) Yasuda? Chances are, you may not have. Yet he was influential in popularizing haiku in the United States, and remains one of the most cited poets in the literature for his translations of haiku, tanka, and renga into English. He was also one of those rare kibei who, despite the disillusionment he faced as a result of his World War II incarceration experience at Tule Lake, was inspired to become a cultural ambassador between the US and Japan during the Cold War. His poems written in camp, while less known than those of other Nisei poets like Toyo Suyemoto and Mitsuye Yamada, were some of the first to be published after the war by a major publishing house. He also deserves notice for his review of the original 1957 edition of John Okada’s canonical novel No-No Boy.
Yasuda was born in August 1914 in the eastern California town of Auburn. During his early childhood, he split his time between living with his grandparents in Japan and with his father on his fruit ranch. According to family lore, the young Yasuda became interested in poetry after a chance encounter with Clark Ashton Smith, the famed horror writer and poet. Smith’s volumes of sonnets influenced Yasuda’s early poems, and the two authors remained in close touch. In 1938, Yasuda enrolled at University of Washington, where he studied the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron under English professors Lawrence Zillman and George Savage.
During his time at University of Washington, Yasuda published several poems in the Japanese American press, working in both sonnet and haiku form. Writing under the pen names “Ken Bysen” or “K.Y.B.,” Yasuda published 10 poems in the San Francisco Shin Sekai Asahi Shinbun. In 1939, Yasuda travelled to Japan to study under the haiku expert Kyoshi Takahama. The editor of the haiku magazine Hototogisu, Takahama inspired Yasuda to pursue a career in poetry translation while also encouraging him to pursue his love of romantic poetry. Takahama connected Yasuda with several poets, including Yone Noguchi. After returning to Washington in 1940, Yasuda undertook a series of essays, inspired by the work of Japanese literary scholar Asataro Miyamori, on the nature of haiku.
In April 1942, Yasuda and thousands of other Japanese Americans were incarcerated in the Tule Lake concentration camp in northern California. Yasuda wrote poems for the camp’s newspaper The Tulean Dispatch. In two issues of an arts supplement to the newspaper, Yasuda authored an essay on the impressionistic nature of haiku and its similarities to visual arts. Titled “Haiku and Painting,” the essay drew from his prewar essays on literature. While only few of his poems directly addressed life in camp, those that did underscored the sense of isolation and desolation associated with the desert setting of the camp.
During his time at Tule Lake, Yasuda associated with several intellectuals, including Dr. Yamato Ichihashi, a prewar professor of Asian Studies at Stanford University. Yasuda also mingled with several Nisei researchers working with the Japanese Evacuation and Resettlement Study based out of UC Berkeley, including James Sakoda. In one conversation recorded by a JERS staffer, Yasuda and a fellow Nisei both argued that Japanese Americans lacked a proper literary culture, and agreed that a novel on the Japanese American experience would further the acceptance of Japanese Americans into U.S. society.
In 1943, Yasuda was transferred from Tule Lake to the Jerome concentration camp in Arkansas. The transfer proved to be fortuitous, as once at Jerome Yasuda met the Southern poet John Gould Fletcher. A Pulitzer Prize winner and disciple of the Imagist movement, Fletcher took Yasuda under his wing and mentored him on developing his poetry. The result would be Yasuda’s first haiku anthology, A Pepper Pod, published by Knopf in 1947, for which Fletcher wrote the foreword. The book, one of the first volumes of poetry by an Asian American to appear with a mainstream press, established Yasuda in the world of literature.
Following the success of A Pepper Pod, Yasuda moved to Japan to begin immersing himself in translation work, and in the succeeding years he published further volumes of original poetry and translations with a series of Japanese presses. After completing his PhD in literature at Tokyo University—the first non-Japanese citizen to do so—Yasuda began to work for the Asia Foundation’s Japan bureau. In 1956, he transformed his dissertation into the scholarly study, The Japanese Haiku. Published by the Tokyo-based publisher Charles E. Tuttle Company (now Tuttle Publishing), it soon became a classic reference on the subject.
It was at this time, in 1957, that Yasuda began doing regular book reviews for The Japan Times, an English-language Japanese journal based in Tokyo. In May 1957, Yasuda took on the assignment of reviewing John Okada’s novel No-No Boy, then newly published by Tuttle. While the review was published anonymously (perhaps to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest involved in critiquing a book put out by Yasuda’s own publisher), there are several clues within the review that establishes Yasuda as the author.
Yasuda’s brief review of No-No Boy—it is only 330 words long—provides a capsule overview of the novel, along with an evaluation of its importance. In the first two paragraphs of the review, Yasuda shares his thoughts on the importance of literature, in a passage that reflects Yasuda’s literary views and his own experiences at Tule Lake:
It could be said the Nisei have only just begun to do serious writing. Compared to the colored people in the States, another minority group, the Nisei are way behind in modes of expression, whether in literature, art, music, or the theater.
That it should have been written at all is surprising enough. With it from almost the zero point in novel writing, the Nisei (taking them as a whole) have jumped high up with one bounce in the literary field. Using No-No Boy as yardstick there is every inclination to expect that the next novel by a Nisei will be even better and something great.
Similarly revealing of his own experience are Yasuda’s comments on the historical implications of the novel for the Japanese American community. Describing No-No Boy as the first true “Nisei novel” to narrativize the camp experience, Yasuda praised the book as an attempt by a Japanese American to validate the experiences of the incarceration.
Perhaps the most telling part of the review is Yasuda’s remarks on the ending of No-No Boy. In language similar to his remarks on the interpretive nature of haiku, Yasuda argues that the ending of No-No Boy relies on ambiguity: “He does not give us the answer. The reader is left to make his own guess . . .”
Although Yasuda remains relatively obscure, his work nonetheless deserves attention. Yasuda helped explain and popularize the Japanese haiku poem for Western readers in the years after the war, and influenced scholars and fellow poets from Gary Snyder to Kenneth Rexroth.
Yasuda’s life story is also emblematic of those of the many Japanese Americans who straddled the cultural borders between Japanese and American culture, and represents those who chose to serve as a bridge between the two.
Jonathan van Harmelen is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UC Santa Cruz. A specialist in U.S. social and political history, he is writing his dissertation on Congress and the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans. In addition to his dissertation, he frequently writes about new topics in Japanese American history, and he has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, LA Times, and Seattle Times. He is currently working on a biography of poet and translator Kenneth Yasuda and his legacy in Western haiku studies and Asian American literature.