Michi Kobi Papers (TAM 697)

A black and white photograph of Michi Kobi from the chest up. She is looking at the camera and smiling. Michi Kobi (1924-2016) was born Michiko Kobinata Okamoto in Sacramento, California on November 2, 1924. She was one of over 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II in camps established by Executive Order 9066. She was 18 years old when she and her mother were sent to Tanforan Assembly Center and then Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah. After camp, she moved to New York City to pursue a career in acting, and lived in the city until her death on March 1, 2016.

Kobi was a film, television, and stage actor. Her breakthrough role was as Sumi Fujita in Tokyo After Dark (1959). She also appeared in Twelve to the Moon (1960), Hell to Eternity (1960), Cry for Happy (1961), and American Tiger [American Riscio] (1990). On stage, Kobi toured with The Teahouse of the August Moon, was in the original 1963 Broadway version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and played Imelda Marcos in Amnesia and Aki in American Dream Lost & Found. Her roles on television included episodes of The New Adventures of China Smith (1954), The Californians (1957-59), Studio One in Hollywood (1958), The Ann Sothern Show (1959), Law & Order (2004), and a stint on Saturday Night Live. She had an active career as a model in print and video, and worked as a secretary, as well as a translator and tutor in the Japanese External Trade Organization (JETRO) program.

Despite her success, Kobi was critical of the limited roles available to her and Asian American women in entertainment. She was also outspoken about the sanitized depictions of World War II incarceration camps in films such as Hell to Eternity, and in the Broadway play Allegiance, inspired by the life of George Takei.

Her activism addressed issues beyond representation. In the late 1970s, Kobi was involved in the push to hold Commission hearings in New York City as part of the larger Redress Movement which sought justice, in the form of formal apology and reparations, for those incarcerated during World War II. In 1998, she helped the Japanese American National Museum organize the exhibition American Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience at Ellis Island, where she was a volunteer.

The Michi Kobi Papers consist of correspondence, newspaper clippings, and drafts of writing by the collector. Correspondence predominantly relates to Kobi’s study of Japanese American history and the incarceration of Japanese Americans, and includes letters to personal friends, scholars, and activists in the Japanese American community. The collection also includes several drafts of her memoir about her experience at the Topaz Relocation Center, and drafts of an unpublished novel about Japanese immigrants in early twentieth-century San Francisco. The papers contain several files of clippings and ephemera related to conferences on Japanese incarceration, and the campaign for Redress between the late 1980s and 2000s.

To learn more about the contents of the Michi Kobi Papers, located at the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, view the collection’s finding aid.