YOSHIKAZU YAMADA, ARTIST, SCIENTIST, AND INVENTOR
May 20, 1915 - July 12, 2001
Yoshikazu Yamada, or Yosh as he was known by his family and friends, was born in Honokaa on the big island of Hawaii in 1915.His parents, Gifuku Yamada and Nabe Taira, owned a small dry goods store in downtown Honokaa and the family lived in a small room behind the store where three boys, Yoshikazu, Yoshitsugu, and Yoshikiyo were born attended by a midwife.
When Yosh was 6 years old, his father died of pneumonia which forced his mother to sell the store in order to cover living expenses to support herself and her sons, 6, 4 and 2 years of age. For a period of time she sewed children’s garments on her sewing machine with fabric she saved from the store and sold them to plantation workers.
Yosh remembers taking care of his 4-year-old brother while his mother walked around to the plantations with a pushcart to sell her sewn garments carrying the 2-year-old on her back. He remembers having a "job" to start the fire for the community bath everyday for which he was paid 10 cents. He would start the fire in midday and the bath water would be warm by evening when the families came to take their baths. He would cook rice for himself and his brother and go to "okazuya," a Japanese fast-foods store, to buy a few cents worth of cooked food to eat with their rice.
Yosh’s mother enjoyed telling his children the story of how she happened to remarry. When Yosh was 11 years old, he announced to his mother that he wanted to go to college. She told him she would have to marry a man who will send him to college because she cannot afford to do so. Yosh then went to a matchmaker and found a man who, he said, was willing to marry his mother and send her three sons to college. In 1926, Nabe Taira Yamada married Heiishi Iha, a plantation foreman. They moved to Camp A, the living quarters of the plantation workers and their families.The Ihas had two more sons, Maurice and Thomas, and two daughters, Maureen and Jocelyn.
Yosh attended elementary, junior and senior high schools in Honokaa. Because he always had his nose in books from his early childhood, his mother’s friends called him "the professor." His classmates in later years spoke of him as being possessed with the unusual combination of being a talented artist and a brilliant student, especially in math and science.
In 1933, Yosh left home to attend the University of Hawaii in Honolulu where he earned his bachelor’s degree. During this time, his stepfather was fired from his job as plantation foreman because, Yosh believed, he honored his promise to Yosh that he would allow him to go to college instead of forcing him to work on the plantation as all of the workers were expected to do by the plantation owners. The family then moved from the big island to the island of Oahu where they ran a restaurant.
In 1937, Yosh was accepted by the University of Michigan. He changed his major to science, he said, because he remembered his physics professor at the University of Hawaii asking him what in the world was he doing in art when he had a natural talent for math and physics? At that time art majors were required to take one science course, and he had chosen physics because he was looking for something easy to take. He decided to work for a masters degree in chemistry which seemed to have greater career potential than physics or water color painting. He continued to take art classes at the University and entered several of his water color paintings in the "Young American Artists" exhibits which included an exhibit at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City. He received a Masters of Science degree from the University of Michigan in 1940.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army in April 1941, trained for service in the medical corps, and sent overseas to the Philippines with the 5th Air Base Group. He found himself in the middle of a shooting war shortly thereafter. During combat, he sustained a broken back and was transported to a hospital in Sidney, Australia, on the last plane before the invasion of the Philippines by the Japanese troops in April 1942.
After his recovery, he was assigned to the newly formed Allied Translators and Interpreters Section in Australia. In March, 1944, he and another Nisei, George "Sankey" Yamashiro joined a group of translators to decipher a captured Japanese document found at sea by Filipino guerrillas when Japanese planes were shot down. Both Japanese and American historians believe this turned out to be one of the most important documents captured during the war. The captured document, the now famous Z Plan, unveiled the machinations of the Japanese Navy in the Marianas and spelled out the then current status and projected plans of the Japanese Navy. It is believed that the translation of the Z Plan led directly to U.S. Naval victories known as the " Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,’ and was a turning point in the war.
Normally such top secret documents are translated by officers, but a exception was made in this case. Both Yosh and George Sankey were enlisted men who were promoted the next day to Warrant Officer without explanation and later promoted to Second Lieutenant. The mission was kept secret for many years until Joseph Harrington briefly outlined the mission in his book YANKEE SAMURAI in 1979 after talking to the two translators and other Nisei who were serving in Australia. In 1997, after 50 years, Yosh was awarded The Legion of Merit by the United States Army. His fellow translator, George Sankey received his medal posthumously.
At the end of the war, Yosh went to Japan with the first Occupation Troops to enter the defeated country. Yosh enjoyed telling the story of how he met the famous Japanese print artist, Hattori Aritsune, whose work he admired for many years. He sought him out in Tokyo immediately upon his arrival and said "Teach me all there is to know about multi-colored Japanese prints." and the artist replied, "You Americans, you come here and want to learn in one day what Japanese artists have worked to develop for 2000 years!" but gave him lessons on the spot and Yosh left saying he would return. Much to his regret he was not able to resume instruction because a few days later, the U.S. Army declared the infamous artists’ district Aritsune was living in off-limits to American GIs.
After being mustered out of the Army in 1945, Yosh returned to the Midwest and took advantage of the GI Bill of Rights to continue his education. He earned his Ph.D. in Inorganic Chemistry at Purdue University in 1950.
During this time, he visited friends in Chicago on weekends and met Mitsuye Yasutake who was attending the University of Chicago graduate school. Mitsuye remembers attending a one-man show by the New York artist, Taro Yashima, and being introduced to Yosh as "this foolish young man who is getting a Ph.D in chemistry." "Anybody," Taro said, "with a little bit of diligence could get a PhD. but very few people in the world are blessed with the kind of natural artistic talent as Yosh." They were married in 1950 soon after his graduation from Purdue University.
During the first year of their marriage, Yosh was hired as a research person by a fledgling television company run by two young enterprising engineers. Color television for home television sets was at that time still the dream of the future. He talked constantly of an exciting future for color television, but his salary in this small company was barely enough to pay living expenses, even with Mitsuye working part-time at the University Bookstore. After the birth of their first child, Jeni, he reluctantly accepted a job in Brooklyn, New York, as a research chemist at the Mergenthaler Linotype Corporation. Their sons, Stephen and Kai were born in the suburbs of New York City. After six years in New York, he was sought out by Bell and Howell Corporation in Chicago to direct their Research and Development Department. Mitsuye, who was pregnant with Kai, decided to stay in New York, while Yosh commuted between the two cities for two years. When the company moved its Research Department to California, the family moved to Sierra Madre, California.
A fourth child, Hedi, was born the following year. They were members of the Ascension Church in Sierra Madre and the younger children attended the Ascension Parochial School.
Yosh plunged into early retirement to develop his own inventions, and Mitsuye was by then teaching full-time at Cypress College in Orange County. They moved to Irvine in 1970. Yosh worked on an invention of his mathematically conceived perpetual calendar which he designed and manufactured. He also developed a black and white photographic mural when lit up by black lights tranformed the rural city lights into a briliiant night scene. He opened a gallery at the Laguna Village which became The Yamada Family Gallery. He displayed his newly designed calendars, his photographs, Jeni’s hand sketched note cards, Kai’s photographs, Hedi’s etchings, and Mitsuye’s poetry books. Meanwhile he was working on a book on Art and Science, a subject very dear to his heart. He was very proud of his four children and it appears the other Laguna Village storekeepers were very familiar with all their accomplishments.
For several decades, Yosh supported Mitsuye’s active involvement in the women’s and human rights movements. He encouraged her academic and literary interests and always helped her take her student poets out on field trips to the desert for interdsciplinary studies.They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Irvine last year with a backyard luau attended by their four children, their spouses, and grandchildren.
Yosh is survived by his wife, Mitsuye; daughters, Jeni and Hedi; sons Stephen and Kai; their spouses, Bill, Andre, Sharon and Virginia; five grandchildren, Aaron, Jason, Adam, Alana and Evan; siblings, Yoshitsugu and Dr. Edward Yamada, Maurice and Dr. Thomas Iha, Maureen Chong and Jocelyn Nishihara.