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A Japanese American Journey: Kazue Mizumura

(Today’s guest post is by Sybille A. Jagusch, Chief of the Library’s Children’s Literature Center. The post is adapted from her recently released book, “Japan and American Children’s Books: A Journey,” published by Rutgers University Press in association with the Library of Congress, June 2021.)

Author and illustrator Kazue Mizumura, a child of Japan’s Taisho era (1912-1926), displayed the independence and confidence for which that era became known. Tested by hardship and sorrow, Mizumura (1920-96) survived to become a teacher, painter, textile designer, jewelry maker, advertising artist, and, finally, an illustrator and writer of children’s books.

Born in Kamakura, one of Japan’s former capitals, Mizumura was the youngest of five children. A distinguished family member, Seifu Takasaki, was a poet and scholar. Her father, Yumihiko Takasaki, a baron and member of the Upper House of the Diet, was among the Japanese officials who were posted to Dairen, Manchuria (now Dalian, China). It was there that Mizumura entered primary school in 1926. When the family returned to Japan in the early 1930s, she entered Gakushuin, the Peeresses’ School, the elite institution established by Emperor Meiji for the children of the aristocracy (which, years later, future emperor Akihito would also attend). She graduated in 1938, and entered the Art Institute in Tokyo, graduating in 1942.

Childhood drawings by and photograph of the book illustrator Kazue Mizumura.

Childhood drawing (left) by Kazue Mizumura (right), 1926. Jagusch Collection.

Mizumura’s father “doted on her,” as a friend wrote, though he strongly objected to her marriage to a handsome young banker. His headstrong daughter married anyway. Yet her dream of becoming “an ordinary happy wife and a mother” ended tragically after World War II, when both her husband and baby daughter died. Her life and her country in ruins, Mizumura struggled to survive. She worked at the American P.X. in Tokyo, where she sold scarves and cards, and taught calligraphy to members of the American occupation forces. Some became lifelong friends. One paid for her ticket to America. She arrived in New York in 1955 on a merchant ship, having won a two-year scholarship from the Pratt Institute of Art in Brooklyn. She tried to make a living with textile design, upscale Japanese restaurant décor, jewelry, ceramics, and book illustration. Often, the textile companies would use her designs, but give her neither credit nor payment.

Once again, her life was filled with sorrow when her second child died in infancy and her marriage to Claus Stamm, a German writer and student of classical Japanese literature, ended in divorce. But gradually, life became a bit brighter. In 1963, with her friend Ruth Ueymura, she bought a house in Stamford, Connecticut. Here, from her picture window, she could watch Long Island Sound and observe the animals, birds, and plants she would feature in her children’s books.

More good fortune was on its way. It came about largely because of an imperial invitation to Elizabeth Gray Vining, a Quaker, librarian, and award-winning writer. On October 1, 1946, Vining set sail for Japan to tutor 12-year-old Crown Prince Akihito. In her late 40s, childless and widowed, Vining was chosen by the Emperor Hirohito himself from a list of names provided by the staff of General Douglas MacArthur. The Emperor was so pleased with the result that he was later overheard saying, “If ever anything I did has been a success, it was asking Mrs. Vining to come here.” Vining would write about her experience in “Windows for the Crown Prince” (1952) and “Return to Japan” (1960).

Vining, who had never been to Japan, observed the country’s devastation with dismay. She would write about it in her children’s book “The Cheerful Heart” (1959), which told the story of the Tamaki family—father, mother, grandfather, six-year-old Ken, and eleven-year-old Tomi. After almost three years living in the country with Uncle Saburo, the Tamakis return to their old Mejiro neighborhood (where Vining herself lived). They find their house destroyed; Mariko, their eldest daughter, dead, and Ichiro, their older son, still missing. As they slowly rebuild their lives, it is Tomi, the middle child, who cheers up the family with her exuberance and joy over her new bicycle, the puppy that wanders into their yard, the new house, and, finally, the family’s own bath.

Vining wanted a Japanese illustrator for her book, and Kazue Mizumura was chosen. It marked the beginning of Mizumura’s children’s book career.

“A Pair of Red Clogs,” by Masuko Matsuno, illustrated by Kazue Mizumura. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1960.

A Pair of Red Clogs,” by Masuko Matsuno, illustrated by Kazue Mizumura. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1960. 

Mizumura’s first picture book, “A Pair of Red Clogs,” (1960), written by Masako Matsuno—who had also come to America on a scholarship—became a great success. More books with Japanese themes followed, including Claus Stamm’s “Three Strong Women: A Tall Tale from Japan” (1962), in which Forever-Mountain, the famous wrestler, is done in by three unusual young women; Yoshiko Uchida’s “Sumi’s Prize” (1964), the story of how Sumi almost wins first place in the kite flying contest; and Uchida’s “Sumi & the Goat & the Tokyo Express” (1969), in which Mr. Oda’s pet goat Miki stops the new bullet train.

Gradually, Mizumura branched out into children’s books set in other places. Among fine writer-illustrator matches were “The Prince Who Gave up a Throne: A Story of the Buddha” (1966) by Nancy Serage, the tale of Siddhartha, the holy prince who leaves the splendor of his father’s kingdom of Kapilavastu to seek enlightenment; and “The Moon of the Winter Bird” (1969) by Jean Craighead George, in which Mizumura showed her talent for watercolors of small birds, Queen Anne’s lace, wild thistles, and other delicate grasses native to America.

By the end of the 1960s, American postwar enthusiasm for things Japanese had waned. Mizumura, too, was ready to leave Japanese motifs behind. Working with the gifted editor Ann Beneduce, Mizumura created more of her own stories, poetry, and books of nonfiction, including “The Emperor Penguins” (1969), one of the Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science Books that she illustrated. In all her books—the Library of Congress catalogue lists fifty entries—her love for the natural world was obvious as she drew with ease all kinds of creatures, including ants, jellyfish, pandas, and penguins.

“Flower Moon Snow: A Book of Haiku,” by Kazue Mizumura. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1977.

Flower Moon Snow: A Book of Haiku,” by Kazue Mizumura. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1977.

Yet, looking back over her rich work, Mizumura’s finest books were those that sprang from her Japanese heritage. Among them is Mizumura’s own favorite, the serene “Flower Moon Snow: A Book of Haiku” (1977), a small album of modest earth-toned woodcuts and sparse words, celebrating the seasons:

Tulips open one by one;

Each is bringing you

A cupful of spring.

. . .

White petals falling

In the moonlit mist;

The pear tree blossoms no more.

. . .

Following me all along the road,

The moon came home

With me tonight.

Clink!

An iced branch falls.

I see the shattered moonlight

Scatter at my feet

. . .

Playing hopscotch on the

Snow patches,

The sun pushes winter away.

Kazue Mizumura’s work is reproduced with permission from her estate.

For questions, contact Library of Congress reference staff through Ask a Librarian.

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