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JoAnne/Nobuko Miyamoto and Chris Iijima perform at the Third World Storefront organization, Los Angeles, ca. 1972.
JoAnne/Nobuko Miyamoto and Chris Iijima perform at the Third World Storefront organization, Los Angeles, ca. 1972. | Courtesy of Visual Communications

We Are All Part of Many Worlds: Nobuko Miyamoto’s Barrier-Breaking Art and Activism

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But where was our music? What is a people without their own song? As an American of Japanese descent, Nobuko Miyamoto realized that the only way to hear songs that spoke of her life's struggles was to write them herself. It was the summer of 1970 when the words and music came together for "We Are the Children," a song that would galvanize her and her fellow Asian Americans, those who never had their own Bob Dylan, Nina Simone or Victor Jara to sing to them where the answers may be blowing.

Written with Chris Iijima, a young Japanese American musician and activist working with Asian Americans for Action, or Triple A, "We Are the Children" was their first "intentionally written song," an homage to their immigrant grandparents and the struggles they faced:

We are the children of the migrant worker
We are the offspring of the concentration camp
Sons and daughters of the railroad worker
Who leave their stamp on America...

You put us in concentration camps, and now you're saying we can't sing this song!
Nobuko Miyamoto

Miyamoto and Iijima had paired up as a folk duo in Chicago, where they were meeting with members of JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) for what was the first congregation of Japanese American activists from both coasts. The city was still reeling from the FBI's murder of young Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. When Iijima brought out his guitar one night and began singing, Miyamoto didn't miss a beat in realizing the power of what she was hearing. She began harmonizing and their voices quickly coalesced as one, united by their shared commitment to right the injustices suffered by their people.

"We Are The Children" was the song Nobuko and Chris chose to sing on national television in 1972. They'd been invited onto The Mike Douglas Show by Yoko Ono and John Lennon, who served as guest hosts for that week. "They're beautiful singers and they have a story to tell," Lennon said as he introduced them as Yellow Pearl — which was actually just the name of one of their songs, but no matter. Miyamoto knew that the name was powerful and would've been a good name for them. Backstage, a suit from NBC noted that a line from the song was perhaps too provocative for their largely suburban audience:

Watching war movies with the next-door neighbor
Secretly rooting for the other side

Lennon urged them to "fudge" those words. Miyamoto was furious. "You put us in concentration camps, and now you're saying we can't sing this song!" Even a powerful executive and a global pop culture icon couldn't ignore her anguish and convictions. "Usually people know very little about Asians," Miyamoto said on camera as Iijima began plucking the intro on the guitar. "This is a song about our movement, about our people's plight in America."

Generation Rising
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Learn more about the journey of Asian Americans during a time of war.
Generation Rising

Miyamoto recounts this episode in her new memoir "Not Yo' Butterfly: My Long Song of Relocation, Race, Love, and Revolution," which publishes today June 15. The 81-year old musician, dancer, community artist and activist felt it important to document and share her experiences for prosperity, not the least for her grandchildren. "This story is connected to a larger story, of course, of Asian Americans and people of color in this country," she said in a recent interview.

Miyamoto also emphasizes the need for people to know more stories about Asian women, especially in light of the recent massacre of six Asian women in Atlanta-area spas, and how the victims were portrayed by the media. "It showed me that we still, after all these many years of being in America, have such a limited image of what Asian women are," she said. "We need to show the many faces of who we are, the many sides and the many lives that we've lived."

The title is a reference to "Madame Butterfly," the Puccini opera often criticized for its racist stereotypes, namely its portrayal of Asian and Japanese women as docile and submissive toward white men. "You know, pathetic characters," Miyamoto noted. "Not Yo' Butterfly" is also the title of a song from "120,000 Stories," her solo album released on Smithsonian Folkways in January 2021. "I am not your butterfly," she said. "Yes, there's a defiance in it, and a pride. I've had to walk my own path — and it's made me stronger."

Learn more about Asian American artist Nobuko Miyamoto’s journey using art for social change.
Artist Nobuko Miyamoto Found Her Voice in Activism | June 11

"I was born where I didn't belong." So begins Miyamoto's book and her life's constant struggle to come to terms with her identity as an American-born Japanese with mixed heritage. She was born JoAnne Nobuko Miyamoto in Los Angeles in 1939. In December 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the trajectory of her and her family's life was forever changed. "At two, I became the enemy, a would-be spy, a threat to U.S. internal security," she writes. The ensuing war planted inside her a seed from which her powerful work as an activist musician, dancer and theater director would bloom.

JoAnne Miyamoto's (then called JoJo) first dance experience in Ogden, Utah, ca. 1945.
JoAnne/Nobuko Miyamoto's (then called JoJo) first dance experience in Ogden, Utah, ca. 1945. | Harry Hayashida

Miyamoto's earliest memory takes place at The Santa Anita Park racetrack in Arcadia. JoAnne, as she was known back then, was riding high on her father's shoulders, but couldn't see any jockeys riding horses around. Instead all she saw were row after row of Japanese families, waiting in line for a meager meal of rationed canned food. There were 18,000 Japanese from the Southland being held at the horse stables there, until they could be shipped off to one of ten concentration camps expressly built following FDR's signing of Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. A total of about 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry, the majority of whom were American citizens, were incarcerated at the concentration camps, or "relocation centers" as they were officially called, as a result of the order.

Miyamoto's family was split up. Her cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents were sent away to Gila River in Arizona and Heart Mountain in Wyoming. She and her family went to Montana, where her father volunteered to go harvest sugar beets, then to Parker, Idaho, where her paternal grandparents were from. Grandpa Tokumatsu "Harry" Miyamoto was a first generation Japanese immigrant who came to work on the railroads there, where against all odds he met and married Grandma Lucy, a white Mormon woman. It was a time when state laws and religious rules prohibited interracial marriage. This faction of the Miyamoto clan, which included Harry and his two sons, stayed put in Idaho until the end of the war.

After the war Miyamoto and her family moved back to L.A. First in the Jefferson Park neighborhood in South L.A., then to Boyle Heights, Pico-Union, and finally in Arlington Heights, where her parents had bought a house. Where they ended up in their constant "relocations" were determined in large part by the presence, or lack thereof in certain parts, of the city's restrictive covenants, which prevented Black, Japanese and other people of color from owning houses. As a result, Nobuko's neighborhood interactions were with kids of diverse backgrounds — not necessarily in a good way. "You dirty Jap!" She remembers hearing from a white boy. "We don't want to play with someone like you!" Those words came from a Japanese girl. They were painful reminders that a sense of belonging wasn't going to come easy for her. So she turned to devoting herself to dance, which for her became "my anchor, my place, my home."

Asians are looked at as pushovers at everything, not just in Hollywood, just because we haven't been as vocal and insistent as other groups have, or visible in our protest
Nobuko Miyamoto

Through dance Nobuko began finding her place. But she also saw firsthand the inequities within the world of show business. She had to be twice as good as everyone else just to have the same opportunities, her instructor told her — and she knew exactly what he meant by that. "I knew I was pushing into a world not made for me," she writes. A workshop with Sister Corita Kent showed her the power of art-activism, and reminded her to question everything and break all the rules.

"The King and I," "Les Girls," "The Flower Drum Song" and "West Side Story" were some of the more notable films and productions in which Miyamoto appeared as a dancer, credited as JoAnne Miya on some occasions. "I knew a part of me was missing," she writes, when she saw that name on screen. Some film and TV work she would rather forget included parts in "Laramie," "The Doris Day Show," "Confessions of an Opium Eater," "I Spy" and "Women of the Prehistoric Planet." Her roles included a geisha, a maid, a Chinese concubine, a Japanese spy, and "a Martian who kills her brother to help White earthlings." "They were horrible," she writes.

Nobuko (JoAnne Miyamoto) on Broadway performing "Chop Suey" in the show Flower Drum Song.
Nobuko/JoAnne Miyamoto (front row, fourth from left) on Broadway performing "Chop Suey" in Flower Drum Song, New York, 1958. | Harry Hayashida

"Asians are looked at as pushovers at everything, not just in Hollywood, just because we haven't been as vocal and insistent as other groups have, or visible in our protest," Miyamoto said, referring to the lack of understanding and representation of Asians within American media. Recent critical successes of films like "Minari" and "Parasite" notwithstanding, she stresses the need to keep pressing forward, right now. "Look at Black people, who have really paved and shown the way of using their talents to create a voice that shows a spectrum of who they are as a people — we have a ways to go for that," she said. "And that's going to take a lot of determination."

Performance of "Jan Ken Po" with Nobuko Miyamoto and some children at the Gene Dynarski Theater.
Performance of "Jan Ken Po," Gene Dynarski Theater, Hollywood, 1982. Left to right: Erin Inouye, Kamau Ayubbi, Nobuko, Sanza Fittz, and Akemi Kochiyama. | Courtesy of Great Leap Archives

In 1968, an encounter with the Black Panther Party awakened Nobuko's activist spirit. At their L.A. headquarters on Central Avenue, she witnessed Panthers discussing Chairman Mao's Little Red Book. She had accompanied Antonello Branca, "a revolutionary with a camera," who was in the process of making his docufiction film "Seize The Time." "Power to the people — right on!" she heard them chant. As part of the film crew, Miyamoto attended Elaine Brown's recording session with pianist Horace Tapscott and his revolutionary Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. She helped hand out meals for the Panthers' Free Breakfast for School Children Program. These intimate interactions were the first time she felt "recognized as a person of color, the first time I felt I fit in somewhere."

"We Are The Children," alongside ten other Miyamoto-Iijima originals, plus a song written by Charlie Chin, a veteran Chinese American musician who had recorded with the Buffalo Springfield, comprise "A Grain Of Sand: Music For The Struggle By Asians In America," considered the very first Asian American album in history. It was released in 1973 on Paredon Records, co-founded by musician and activist Barbara Dane with the aim to tell the stories of people's movements and struggles through music and amplify the voices of the underrepresented. The label's catalog also included spoken word recordings from Che Guavara, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh and Huey Newton. "Barbara had just done an album called 'I Hate the Capitalist System,' and that convinced us this was the right record company," Miyamoto told the NY Times on the occasion of the Paredon's 50th anniversary.

A Slice of Rice performers gather for a group photo in 1989.
A Slice of Rice performers, Los Angeles, 1989. Left to right: Nobuko, Shishir Kurup, Jude Narita, Amy Hill, Long Nguyen, Dan Kwong (with baby puppet), and Louise MIta (lying down). | Courtesy of Great Leap Archives

"A Grain of Sand" also includes "Yellow Pearl" as well as "Free the Land," featuring backing vocals from Mutulu Shakur, Black liberation activist and stepfather of Tupac and Attallah Ayyubi, a fellow "citizen" of the Republic of New Africa (RNA) — which "saw Black people as an oppressed colony within the United States" — and the father of Miyamoto's son Kamau.

Miyamoto and Ayyubi had been introduced by Yuri Kochiyama, the revolutionary activist and a friend of Malcolm X, working alongside the RNA to "free the land," which was their mantra. Kochiyama and Miyamoto had initially met at a party for the Young Lords, a political activist organization mainly comprising Puerto Ricans and other Latinos in America. Ayyubi was known as Mfalme when they met. Mfalme means "king" in Swahili, and was the "third of four chapters in his short book of names," following Peter Jeffreys and Peter X. Still known by her Anglo name, she was urged by Mfalme to begin using her Japanese name. "When I took on Nobuko, my life and values as JoAnne shattered," she writes. "I breathed in a new image of myself. I felt rooted. I felt whole."

As the mother and grandmother of Black children, Miyamoto is worried. "There's a trauma that all Black people carry," she said, and it's something that she believes is intergenerational. George Floyd's murder, for example, wasn't just an isolated incident that affected Black individuals. It had the effect of triggering "echoes of incidents that had happened to their families, to their brothers and sisters, to their Grandpa, Father." Her son's father Ayyubi was shot and killed in an ambush at a mosque in Brooklyn when the child was just ten weeks old.

 Nobuko Miyamoto performs "The Chasm" from her one-person show.
Nobuko Miyamoto performs "The Chasm" from her one-person show "A Grain of Sand," Los Angeles Theatre Center, 1995. | Courtesy of Great Leap Archives

For "120,000 Stories," Miyamoto recorded new versions of songs from "A Grain of Rice." "Those lyrics still have meaning today," she said. "We Are The Children" was redone in a more deliberate and reflective style. "Somos Asiaticos (We Are Asians)," a song written in Spanish, was first sung at THE DOT, a scrappy community coffeehouse in Manhattan that became the cultural center for Latin American and Indigenous activists and musicians. "The song opened their hearts and drew our communities closer," she writes in the book. The new recording gives "reason for people of color to stand up for themselves," Miyamoto said, "and force the system to do the right thing."

Fandangobon, a project of the community arts organization Great Leap that Miyamoto founded in 1978, is yet another example of how she brings different communities together through music. A collaboration with award-winning Chicano musician Quetzal Flores, Fandangobon is a participatory music and dance event, a fusion of Latin American- and Japanese-style traditions, the name itself a portmanteau of fandango and obon from Veracruz, Mexico and Japan, respectively. It's "one of these rare moments that hundreds of people come together and just dance," Miyamoto said. For one particularly powerful workshop, participants walked across the First Street Bridge from Self-Help Graphics in Boyle Heights to Zenshuji temple in Little Tokyo — a literal bridging of the two historic communities of color. "To do it and connect with culture and who you are and what you believe in and to feel oneness with other people — it's powerful."

FandangObon Festival musicians wear traditional robes while singing on stage.
FandangObon musicians perform on stage at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Los Angeles, October 25, 2015. Left to right: Asiyah Ayubbi, Nobuko, June Kaewsith, Nancy Sekizawa, Carla Vega, Sean Miura, Quetzal Flores, Sandino Flores, and Tylana Enomoto. | Mike Murase

Also included on the album is the song "Black Lives Matter." Originally written in 2015, it's an homage to the movement "that continues to struggle against the systemic violence against Black people," as Miyamoto describes it. In it she sings,

He's my son, he's my brother
He's my husband, he's my lover
She's my sister, she's my mother
She's my friend, she's my other

Some have questioned her use of "brothers" and "sisters" as a non-Black person. But with a Black son, Black husband and Black grandchildren, "I'm not kidding," Miyamoto said. "We're not just one thing, we're many things," she said. She encourages all of us to acknowledge and embrace the reality that we are all a part of many worlds. "I want to open the borders, I want to open the conversation. I want to open the lens so that we can see each other more deeply and more fully."

People gather in circles for the FandangObon Festival at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.
FandangObon Festival on the Isamu Noguchi Plaza at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, 2014. Nobuko Miyamoto and the singers stand on the tarima. | Mike Murase

When asked where she would place herself in the history of Asian American activism, Miyamoto said she feels a part of a movement tradition that has long tried to build community and politics through art. And it goes beyond just Asian Americans. "I'm one of those connector roots that has wound up connecting with the Black community and now connecting with the Latino community," she said. "That's what I feel like, I'm really a part of that weaving of roots to create something bigger than ourselves."

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