Taro Yashima, an artist and author born in Japan who aided the United States during World War II, has died at the age of 85.
Yashima, who lived the last half of his life in Los Angeles, died Thursday at Glendale Memorial Hospital.
Born Atsushi Jun Iwamatsu in Kagoshima, Japan, he and his wife, Mitsu, were imprisoned and beaten as suspected communists for opposing Japan’s slide into militarism. The couple immigrated to New York in 1939, and wrote “The New Sun,” an account of their imprisonment and their work with the Japan Proletarian Artists League.
The book caught the attention of the U.S. Office of War Information, which immediately recruited Yashima. Some of his countrymen branded him a traitor because he wrote and illustrated many pro-American publications for the War Information and Strategic Services offices during World War II. But Yashima said he worked for the United States to stop the loss of Japanese lives as well as Americans, and because he wanted to bring a new democratic age to Japan.
“At the time it was easy to say I was one who was against his own country,” Yashima told The Times in 1982. “That’s the most terrible thing, because my feeling (was), I’m doing (it) because I love my country.”
To protect his family in Japan, including his son, Mako, who became an Academy Award-nominated actor, the artist-writer adopted the pen name Yashima, which means “eight islands” and symbolizes Japan. For a first name, he chose Taro, a boy’s name commonly used in children’s stories.
He wrote a second autobiographical book, “The Horizon is Calling,” in 1947, detailing his work for the U.S. government.
With a young daughter, Momo, who soon demanded stories about her father’s birthplace, Yashima turned to writing and illustrating children’s books. Among his well-received stories were “Village Tree” in 1953, “Plenty to Watch” in 1954, “Crow Boy” in 1955, “Umbrella” in 1958, “Momo’s Kitten” in 1960, “The Youngest One” in 1962 and “The Seashore Story” in 1967.
The Seashore book was selected as one of that year’s best children’s books by both the New Yorker and the New York Times. Yashima was a frequent runner-up for the Caldecott and Newberry literary awards.
He also continued his endeavors as an artist and in 1953 moved to Los Angeles to establish the Yashima Art Institute. He taught painting and worked in his own studio, earning the 13th Grand Prix International Painting Award of Deauville, France, and other awards.
Despite a stroke in 1977, Yashima taught, wrote and painted until recently. He had just completed a documentary about his work for a Fukuoka, Japan, television station and was writing a book titled “One Inch Fellow.”
Yashima is survived by his son, Mako Iwamatsu, his daughter, Momo Brannen, and four grandchildren.
Services are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Japan America Theater, 244 S. San Pedro St., in Downtown Los Angeles.