Nobuko Miyamoto’s ‘120,000 Stories’ helps people find a path forward
As people across the country and around the world became antsy while enduring iterations of the pandemic lockdown, Nobuko Miyamoto dug deep into her creative well to find the silver lining—composing and releasing the album 120,000 Stories in December 2020, and writing and delivering her debut memoir, Not Yo’ Butterfly: My Long Story of Relocation, Race, Love, and Revolution, in June 2021. As a child of relocation who was incarcerated in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, a woman who was forced into single parenthood in her early 30s when the father of her biracial son was killed and a lifelong activist, the now-83-year-old Miyamoto has endured things much more difficult than sheltering-in-place. And, as we now readjust to life as we knew it during pre-pandemic times, Miyamoto is excited to share her work with the world.
On Saturday, Aug. 5 at 2pm, Miyamoto will bring songs from 120,000 Stories to San Francisco’s Presidio Theatre. The concert, which coincides with the celebration of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California’s 50th anniversary, tells the rich, multifaceted history of the struggles and experiences Miyamoto experienced in a Japanese internment camp, as an activist, as the mother of a biracial, bicultural son and as an artist.
“120,000 Stories refers to the 120,000 Japanese Americans who spent four years incarcerated during World War II. I wanted to honor that memory, but it’s also a metaphor for the stories that are not told, not seen and not heard,” Miyamoto says.
Miyamoto may not be fluent in a language other than English, but she sings in multiple languages and speaks to people from all walks of life through the universal language of music. Her song “Gaman,” titled after the common Japanese phrase “gambaru,” or “gaman shite kudasai,” which translates roughly to “please endure/stick it out,” tells pieces of the stories of people who were forced to endure internment camps. Another song, “Banbutsu no Tsunagari,” or the “Connection of All Things,” is a version of an “obon-dori”—a festival dance—which is a staple of summer festivals in which people of all generations dance in a circle.
“Songs are a condensed way of telling your story in three to four minutes,” Miyamoto says. “Listening to each others’ stories in a song is not as threatening as going to a demonstration, because everybody has a story and most people have struggled. If we really get down to the nitty gritty, our struggles are pretty much related.”
Miyamoto’s song ‘Black Lives Matter,’ which she released several years before George Floyd’s untimely death, became particularly relevant in the aftermath of it. Why does Miyamoto think it’s important for her, as a Japanese American, to speak out about such matters with songs?
“Black lives have always mattered to me. I have a Black son and Black grandchildren. If we can’t claim George Floyd to be a son or a brother, the world is really in trouble,” Miyamoto says.
Miyamoto says that dancing was the medium of the first expressions of her voice, but the craft of singing, songwriting and creating music is what gives her the most hope. “I believe we’re only going to heal from the biggest struggles by hearing each other’s stories, knowing each other’s traditions and learning each other’s lives. This is how we build empathy and decide that we’re not so different after all,” she says. “Not everyone has the patience or time to read a whole book, but most people listen to music.”
When Miyamoto took on the unwieldy task of writing her 300-page memoir, Not Yo’ Butterfly: My Long Story of Relocation, Race, Love, and Revolution, she recalls relying on her skillset and passion as a songwriter to get through it. “It’s the longest song I’ve ever written. The idea of writing a book was overwhelming, but when I imagined each chapter as a song it became doable,” she says. “It’s told through the eyes of an artist, through the lens of someone who was a child of relocation camps. It’s personal and political. I wanted to preserve the story and document the relationships and the dynamic period that we lived through as people in the Movement in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Although there are many access points for experiencing Miyamoto’s work—by watching it live on stage, participating in a circular ancestral festival dance called a bon-odori, listening to it on a platform like Spotify or reading it in her book—Miyamoto is unwavering in what she sees as her life’s purpose. “I’m here to tell the story,” she says.
Miyamoto’s husband, Tarabu Betserai Kirkland, is a fellow storyteller who uses the medium of film to touch hearts and minds. Miyamoto appeared in Kirkland’s 2021 documentary detailing the story of his mother, Mamie Lang Kirkland, who fled Mississippi in 1915 to escape lynchings and traveled back to the same place to confront the racist history at the age of 108. In the film, Miyamoto chats with Kirkland’s mother over ice cream and helps her do stretches. Kirkland says that he and his wife Nobuko Miyamoto have collaborated on the adventure of life for almost four decades.
“I was working on a project and someone recommended collaborating with Nobuko,” Kirkland recalls. “While only one of our projects got done at that time, we’ve been collaborating ever since; for the past 37 years.”
Kirkland says that while many people felt physically confined during the pandemic, he watched his wife flourish as an artist during that time.
“While it was an awful year for the world in so many ways, it was a huge year for Nobuko in so many ways. I would sum up [120,000 Stories], that dovetails with her book, as an anthology of her life’s work,” Kirkland says. “She’s an extremely disciplined artist. She’s always working, creating and trying to connect people. The idea of bringing people together is a central theme, whether it be through song or dance or theater or writing, that’s her primary motivation that pushes her work forward. I think she’s able to pretty seamlessly reflect on [the struggles] people are going through, and through her own experience empathize, support and connect the stories—because it’s basically one struggle.”
While the pandemic restrictions may have interfered with Miyamoto’s ability to share her works of heart and art with the world as quickly as she would have liked, sharing it at this time with the San Francisco Bay Area allows for it to coincide with the 50-year anniversary of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. And, as Kirkland beams about his wife’s work, “There’s no better time than now!”
Nobuko Miyamoto’s concert, 120,000 Stories, will lead the audience through decades of her life journey, from someone who experienced incarceration during World War II to someone who was subjected to typecasting in her showbiz days to someone who became an activist in the ’70s to being a singer, songwriter, performer and artist who keeps on fighting with the goal of uniting people from all walks of life. The show will take place on Aug. 5 at 2pm at the Presidio Theatre on 99 Moraga Ave. in San Francisco. To learn more about Nobuko Miyamoto’s work or to get tickets for her forthcoming concert, visit www.nobukomiyamoto.org.