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Miyoshi Umeki: Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

By May 7, 2024No Comments

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we recognize the economic, cultural, political, and social contributions of notable immigrants and refugees who’ve helped shape America’s vibrant tapestry. Today, we spotlight trailblazing Japanese American and Academy Award-winning actress Miyoshi Umeki.

Born in 1929 in Otaru, Japan, Miyoshi Umeki developed a love for music at an early age. She learned to play multiple instruments as a child, including the piano, harmonica, and mandolin. She was the youngest of nine children born to her factory worker father.

After World War II, Miyoshi began traveling through Japan with a U.S. Army G.I. jazz band under the pseudonym Nancy Umeki and became the first person to record American songs for the RCA Victor Japan record label (now part of Sony Music). Finding success as a radio and nightclub musician quickly, her soaring popularity led her to immigrate to the U.S. in 1955. Later that same year, she gained her U.S. citizenship.

In the U.S., Umeki’s rise continued with a regular gig on Arthur Godfrey and His Friends, a popular variety show broadcast on CBS. The role further bolstered her notoriety, leading to a record deal with Mercury Records, for which she recorded two albums. 

Soon after, she was cast in the 1957 film Sayonara alongside Marlon Brando. Her role was that of a Japanese war bride to a U.S. airman facing animosity, which won her an Academy Award and made her the first performer of Asian descent to win an Oscar. Following the win, she starred on Broadway in the musical Flower Drum Song, for which she earned a Tony nomination – she reprised this role in the 1961 film adaptation.  

In all, Umeki played supporting roles in five feature films and made 60 TV appearances throughout her career. This included her co-starring in the ABC sitcom The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, one of the first-ever American prime-time shows to feature an Asian or Asian American in a leading role.

Miyoshi Umeki died in 2007 from cancer.