Robin E. Field
Karen Tei Yamashita, a third-generation Japanese American, or sansei, was born on January 8, 1951, in Oakland, California. She spent most of her childhood in Los Angeles and then attended Carleton College in Minnesota, studying English and Japanese literature. Yamashita spent her junior year abroad at Waseda University in Japan. During this year and a half, she pondered questions of global migration and ethnic and national identities, issues which figure prominently in her later fiction. To her acquaintances in Japan she was considered “pure Japanese, ” able to trace her family history back fourteen generations. But Yamashita was uncomfortable with a label that prioritized race without acknowledging nation and culture; and in an essay in her recent collection Circle K Cycles, she instead claims the term nikkei, of Japanese ancestry, whether a Japanese emigrant or Japanese American (10). Her story “The Bath” (1975) illustrates the cultural differences between three generations of a Japanese and nikkei family.
In 1975 Yamashita's interests in identity, migration, and assimilation led her to research Japanese immigration to Brazil, which is home to the largest population of nikkei in the world. Funded by a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, she researched the lives and accomplishments of these Japanese emigrants and their descendants. The story “Tucano” (1975) tells of one such emigrant seeking his fortune by farming reclaimed rainforest land. Yamashita spent a total of nine years in Brazil, where she married a Brazilian architect and artist, Ronaldo Lopes de Oliveira, and had two children. She and her family moved to Los Angeles in 1984, which meant, according to Yamashita, “immigrating back to my own country” (Circle K Cycles 13). Yamashita's research and ex-