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Camp Notes (book)

Creators: Mitsuye Yamada

Mitsuye Yamada 's first collection of poetry, initially published in 1976, includes poems she wrote during World War II and soon thereafter. The first book of poetry by a Japanese American woman to focus explicitly on the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans and its aftermath, the collection includes illustrations by Yamada's daughters, Jeni and Hedi, and calligraphy done by her husband, Yoshikazu Yamada.

Author Background and Publication History

Yamada was born in Fukuoka, Kyushu, Japan, and raised in Seattle. Government agents arrested Yamada's father soon after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Along with her mother and brothers, Yamada was incarcerated first at the Puyallup Assembly Center and then the Minidoka camp. She relocated to Ohio in the early 1940s to attend the University of Cincinnati and eventually received her BA from New York University in 1947. She earned a Masters degree in English from the University of Chicago in 1953.

Camp Notes was initially published in 1976 by the feminist Shameless Hussey Press based in the San Francisco Bay Area town of San Lorenzo. It was subsequently reissued, first by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in 1992, and then again by Rutgers University Press, under the title Camp Notes and Other Writings in 1998 along with poems that appeared in Yamada's second book of poetry, Desert Run: Poems and Stores , which Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press originally published in 1988.


Organized in three sections, the poems of Camp Notes often focus on ethnic and gender issues and frequently the intersection of both. The first section lays cultural groundwork for poems later in the book about the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. Poems written in the voice of an Issei woman, most likely Yamada's mother, like "Marriage Was a Foreign County" (about a new bride arriving in the United States to join her husband) and "Homecoming" (about raising children) explore the uncertainties and hardships that pioneering Issei women faced in the United States.

The second and central section of the book, the eponymous "Camp Notes," functions like a crystallized saga of World War II incarceration. Poems like "Evacuation" (an ironic short work about obediently smiling for a newspaper photographer while boarding the bus to the Puyallup Assembly Center) and "Harmony at the Fair Grounds" (about perceptions of life in Puyallup) are impressions of the early phase of the mass exclusion of Japanese Americans. In poems like "Dust Storm" and "In the Outhouse," Yamada comments on the hardships of the Minidoka concentration camp, where the government incarcerated Yamada, her brothers and mother.

Yamada explores in "Recruiting Team" the complex reactions of imprisoned Nikkei to the military's efforts to form an all-Nisei combat unit. In "The Question of Loyalty," she juxtaposes her mother's confusion over the infamous " loyalty questionnaire " with her own straightforward responses.

In "The Night Before Goodbye," a tender recollection of the eve before her departure to Ohio (where she moved to attend the University of Cincinnati), Yamada sets up the subsequent poem, "Cincinnati," in which she recounts experiencing freedom in that Midwestern city while also encountering threatening racism.

"And Other Poems," the final part of the book, includes several poems related, directly or indirectly, to the incarceration of Japanese Americans. In "Here" and "There," two short poems, Yamada ironically juxtaposes how she is perceived as an outsider in both America and Japan. In "Here," young (presumably white) boys in her California neighborhood casually call her "MIT SUEY CHOP SUEY," echoing racist mockery of Asian languages. While in "There," she recalls being called "America no ojo san" ("Girl from America") when visiting Japan.

In "To the Lady," Yamada recounts a time when a woman asked her, years after World War II, why Japanese Americans did not protest their incarceration. In the poem, Yamada imagines possible extreme responses—including, self-immolation, bank robbery, hijacking a plane—as a rhetorical device to point out how ahistorical the woman's question is and to point out ironically that no one came to the defense of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Scholarly Analysis

Literary scholar Susan Schweik, in her book A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women Poets and the Second World War , includes in-depth analysis of many poems in Camp Notes . Schweik notes that Yamada develops a "a specifically feminine poetic narrative which strongly resembles, and equally strongly revises, the masculine plot of conventional modern ironic war literature" and that "Poem after poem in Camp Notes hinges on a concentrated verbal irony reminiscent of those which structure so many war poems by [Wilfred] Owen and [Sigfried] Sassoon." [1]

Poet and professor Traise Yamamoto explores many of the poems in Camp Notes in her book Masking Selves, Making Subjects: Japanese American Women, Identity, and the Body . Yamamoto identifies two interrelated themes in the collection: "the need to document Nikkei experience, particularly, but not limited to the internment; and the necessity of recuperating the self as subject from beneath racist and/or sexist constructions." [2]

Boston University professor Anita Haya Patterson, in her article "Resistance to Images of the Internment: Mitsuye Yamada's Camp Notes," argues that in Camp Notes Yamada "examines how the internment profoundly shaped Japanese-Americans' experience of their political obligations as American citizens—and their conflicting attitudes toward the duties that bound each internee to the government or State." [3]

Authored by Stan Yogi , Writer, Oakland, California


  1. Susan Schweik, A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women Poets and the Second World War (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 200.
  2. Traise Yamamoto, Masking Selves, Making Subjects: Japanese American Women, Identity, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 206.
  3. Anita Haya Patterson, "Resistance to Images of the Internment: Mitsuye Yamada's Camp Notes," MELUS 23.3, (Autumn, 1998), 104.
Media Details
Author Mitsuye Yamada
Publication Date 1976
For More Information

For More Information

Patterson, Anita Haya. "Resistance to Images of the Internment: Mitsuye Yamada's Camp Notes ." MELUS 23.3 (Autumn, 1998): 103–27.

Schweik, Susan. "A Needle with Mama's Voice: Mitsuye Yamada's Camp Notes and the American Canon of War Poetry." In Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation . Edited by Helen M. Cooper, Adrienne Auslander Munich, and Susan Merrill Squier. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. 225–43.

———. A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Woman Poets and the Second World War . Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991. [Incorporates much of the above essay into a chapter titled "Identity and Contestation in Nisei Women's War Poetry."]

Yamamoto, Traise. Masking Selves, Making Subjects: Japanese American Women, Identity, and the Body . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.