A Local Life: May Asaki Ishimoto, 90

May Asaki Ishimoto dies; created costumes for ballet stars

May Asaki Ishimoto at age 19 in Hanford, Calif., and as the American Ballet Theatre's wardrobe mistress.
May Asaki Ishimoto at age 19 in Hanford, Calif., and as the American Ballet Theatre's wardrobe mistress. (Family Photos)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010

When May Asaki graduated from high school, her parents tried to find her a husband. They turned to traditional Japanese marriage brokers in their home town of Hanford, Calif., but their daughter -- independent and resourceful from an early age -- turned down the first three men she met.

"When suitor number four appeared," she wrote in an unpublished memoir she completed last year, "I felt sorry for my parents so I closed my eyes and said I would marry him."

Much to her relief, however, she found herself rejected by the prospective groom. His family had concluded that the slight and cultured May Asaki would not make a suitable wife for a chicken farmer.

Her mother quietly arranged for her to move to Los Angeles to attend a fashion and dressmaking school. May Asaki had been sewing for most of her life and designed her first dress, for a younger sister, when she was 12. In high school, she made clothes for her teachers.

Decades later, her skills as a seamstress would launch her on a globetrotting career with some of the greatest ballet stars in the world, but at 22 she was still living at home with her parents.

On Dec. 7, 1941, she went to a matinee at the only movie theater in Hanford. When she came out, there was an odd commotion in the street, and May learned that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

"I didn't even know where Pearl Harbor was," she wrote in her memoir, "but I was angry that Japan had attacked us."

Her Japanese-born parents had been in the United States for more than 25 years, but they were fearful and distraught. Her father dug a hole in the back yard and burned everything from Japan: books, letters, even clothing.

"When the fire was set," May recalled in her memoir, "we watched our possessions burn and I wept."

On May 8, 1942 -- May Asaki's 23rd birthday -- she and her family were loaded into the back of an Army truck and sent to a detention center. They were allotted one suitcase each.

May, who was the second oldest of 11 children, spoke only rudimentary Japanese and had known no home but California. Her older brother volunteered for the Army the day after Pearl Harbor, but his patriotism didn't help her family. U.S. authorities considered Americans of Japanese descent to be potential enemies during World War II, and the Asaki family eventually ended up at an internment camp in a snake-infested swamp in Arkansas. Within six months, May's mother was dead at 48.

"My older brother was serving in the U.S. Army while our family was incarcerated as criminals," May wrote in her memoir, "the stress of which was too great for our mother to bear."

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