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Asawa's Life

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Read the timeline below to learn about Ruth Asawa's life.

1926 – Birth

Umakichi Asawa
Haru Yasuda Asawa (standing) with her sister and mother.

Born Ruth Aiko Asawa on January 24 in Norwalk, a farming community in Southern California, to Umakichi and Haru Asawa. She is the fourth of seven children. Her parents are immigrants from Japan who make their living as truck farmers growing seasonal crops — strawberries, carrots, green onions, tomatoes. Due to discriminatory laws against the Japanese, her parents are not allowed to become American citizens nor own land in California.

Ruth's sketch of her home in Norwalk, from memory (1985).

Photo courtesy of National Japanese American Historical Society.

1929 – The Depression

The Great Depression begins in 1929, when the stock market crashes. For the next twelve years, until the beginning of World War II, the majority of Americans will suffer poverty, unemployment, bankruptcy, and for many, despair. The Asawas struggle to earn a living in hard economic times, in an America that discriminates against people of Japanese ancestry.

1935-1941 – School Days

Ruth in 5th Grade at Norwalk Elementary School. 1935
Ruth's study of formal (left) and informal (right) composition. 1939

Ruth’s painting of a polar bear is put up for display (1935). Her third grade teacher, Mrs. Morrison, acknowledges and encourages her artistic talent. Ruth wins a school competition for her drawing of the Statue of Liberty, representing what it means to be an American (1939). On Saturdays, she attends a Japanese Cultural School, where she studies the Japanese language and calligraphy. Asawa draws whenever time permits and she isn’t working on the family farm or attending school. On the farm, she is often assigned tasks where she works by herself because, her mother says, she is argumentative. She enjoys the solitary work because it allows her to daydream.

1942 – Internment

Ruth outside her family's barrack in Rohwer Relocation Center, age 17. (1943)

In February, Ruth’s father, Umakichi, is arrested by FBI agents. Ruth will not see him again until 1948. By authority of Executive Order No. 9066, 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast are interned first in temporary camps, and then in permanent camps far from the coast. In April, the Asawa family is interned at Santa Anita Race Track, where for six months they live in horse stables. Ruth spends her free time studying drawing and painting with professional artists who are also interned. In September, the Asawas are shipped by train to a camp in Rohwer, Arkansas. Ruth becomes the art editor for the high school yearbook.

Boarding the trains to Internment Camps. Photo courtesy of National Japanese American Historical Society.
Families behind the barbed wire fence at Rohwer Relocation Center. Photo courtesy of National Japanese American Historical Society.

1943-1946 – Studying to be an Art Teacher

Ruth graduates from high school at camp in Rohwer, Arkansas. Through a scholarship from the Quakers, she studies to be an art teacher at Milwaukee State Teachers College in Wisconsin. She earns her way as a domestic servant and by work in a tanning factory. In 1945, she travels to Mexico City with her sister Lois to study Spanish and Mexican art. To get her credential, Asawa is required to practice-teach in a school, but administrators at Milwaukee State Teachers College tell her that they can’t find her a teaching position because of lingering ill-will against the Japanese. Since she can’t complete her degree, she decides to study art at Black Mountain College. Read more »

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