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Yuki Okinaga Hayakawa Llewellyn: A Life Beyond the Iconic World War II Photo

Walk into the Manzanar National Historic Site today in California’s Owens Valley and a large photo of a little girl sitting on a suitcase is one of the first things seen. People stop transfixed by this iconic image and ask the staff “Who is that little girl? Whatever happened to her?” That little girl grew up to be Yukiko Okinaga Hayakawa Llewellyn.

The photograph was taken by Clem Albers in March of 1942 at Union Station in Los Angeles. Yuki and her mother Mikiko Hayakawa were being transferred from the Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia, California, where horse stalls served as a temporary detention camp for Japanese Americans, to Manzanar War Relocation Center. In her life, Yuki Llewellyn would not let the three and a half years she spent in the internment camp hold her back, she paved her own way and became an inspiration to many.

Left: Paul Kitagaki Jr.'s photo of Yuki near Manzanar in 2005, right: Clem Albers photo of Yuki at Union Station in 1942. Both images were featured in Kitagaki’s exhibit Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit. Courtesy of Paul Kitagaki Jr.

Yuki’s journey ended Sunday, March 8, in Columbia, Missouri after a long illness. It began April 22, 1939, in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles where Yuki had a modest but happy childhood with her mom in spite of her parents’ breakup due to profound cultural differences from an arranged marriage. Everything changed for the two after “the day that will live in infamy”—December 7, 1941—and the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 that required all American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry to relocate to internment camps. Yuki and her mom, both American citizens, were some of the first people brought to Manzanar, Yuki grew up without having even a toy.

Much later, while doing research at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, Yuki discovered that her father was also at the concentration camp but it was so large that they may not have ever crossed paths. In October, 1945, they were some of the last to leave when they were sponsored by a host family in Cleveland, Ohio. Miki earned a living as a seamstress and Yuki went to school where kids often called her derogatory names. In defiance of this she earned an academic scholarship to Lake Forest College outside of Chicago. There she became a member of Alpha Phi Sorority, met lifelong friends, and graduated in 1962 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Dramatic Arts.

Yuki continued her pursuit of education and of “the art behind the fourth wall” at Tulane University in New Orleans. It was here that she met her future husband, Don Llewellyn. They were brought together through their love of coffee darker than night, their mutual love of suspended disbelief, and a ferocious feline named Fang. Their theses were on Rashoman, a theater production for which Yuki directed, Don designed sets and lighting, and Miki created the costumes. Yuki received her Master of Fine Arts Degree from Tulane in 1966.

She found her true home when the couple headed north to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Yuki worked for the university, first as a secretary in Public Relations and then would become Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Registered Student Organizations for 22 of those 37 years.

Their son David Tatsuo was born in Champaign and when she and Don divorced, she worked two jobs to make ends meet to feed an “eat everything in the house” hockey player, and plunged Dave into extracurricular activities. She became a devout hockey mom, filmed many of his games and redefined the meaning of team parent.

She did so much for others as well, including campaign manager for local politicians, advisor to Alpha Lambda Delta Honor Society for freshmen, and advisor to Atius-Sachem Leadership Honorary for sophomores and juniors. As head of the U of I Mother’s Association she compiled the Mothers Association Cookbook to raise money for band uniforms. She made sure that important Asian Americans came to campus to inspire younger generations and was thrilled when the Asian American Cultural Center opened in 2005. She gave many interviews and talks about growing up under Executive Order 9066.

Yuki was a cutthroat bridge player who also enjoyed a round of the Japanese card game Hanafuda which she learned from her mom. She had a very funny, dry sense of humor, with a killer sense of timing. A voracious reader, she would devour books the way folks these days scroll through Facebook.

When grandkids were born, she found herself smitten. She was so proud of little Midori (Madison), Kirin (Stewart), and Ozeki (Duncan). She loved to spoil her kids and grandkids, and she would do it in a way that made them feel as if they were doing her a favor to allow it.

Yuki will be joining her mother Mikiko and a veritable flock of pets including Fang, Tuggles, Roxy, Champ, Mo, and Shama. Missing her dearly and waving from the station are her son David, daughter-in-law, Mandy, and her grandchildren Madison, Stewart, and Duncan.

The photo taken long ago at Union Station has become iconic—it has been on book covers, on billboards to encourage civic engagement, and in exhibitions about the internment campsdue to the forced relocation. Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr. paired his 2005 portrait of Yuki with the Albers image in Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit at the Japanese American National Museum in 2018–19. Much happened to that little girl over the years, and nothing could hold her back.

Memorial service plans will be announced at a future date, but will include a reception at the University of Illinois Asian American Cultural Center in Urbana, Illinois.


© 2020 David Tatsuo Llewellyn

manzanar Paul Kitagaki Jr. photograph World War II Yukiko Okinaga Hayakawa Llewellyn