Mari Yoriko Sabusawa Michener

Mari Yoriko Sabusawa Michener is well known for her activism and her support of the arts. She was born to Japanese immigrant parents in Las Animas, Colorado on June 17, 1920. Her father died when she was only nine years old, and in 1936 she moved with her family to Long Beach, California where she became active in the Japanese Friendship Circle at her high school, a local girls club for children of Japanese immigrants, and she joined the local Japanese American Citizens league as an officer while attending Long Beach Junior College. 

In the spring of 1942, executive order 9066 prevented her from following her plans of attending UC Berkeley when her family was relocated to Santa Anita for confinement before being moved to the Amache camp in Colorado. 

She was given an early release from the Amache camp after receiving a scholarship to attend Antioch College from the American Baptist Home Mission Society. She focused her studies on political science and international relations while attending Antioch College, serving as chairman of the College Race Relations Committee, working to raise scholarship funds that would allow three outstanding Black students to attend Antioch, acting as a student representative for Japanese Americans, and going through Japanese news and propaganda at the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service in Washington DC as part of Antioch’s cooperative job program as an analyst. 

After college, she moved to Chicago where she worked with the American Council on Race Relations (ACRR), a lobbying group focused on the eradication of racism. The director she worked with was Robert Weaver, who would eventually be appointed the first African American Cabinet official in 1965.

After WWII was over, she began graduate school and studied sociology with a specialization in race relations, which she combined with her experience and work to become Assistant Director at the ACRR and to hold many positions in community and political organizations between 1947 to 1955.

In 1947, she served as the official hostess at a summer institute at the University of Chicago on “Race Relations and Community Organization” that was jointly sponsored by the University and the ACRR and was assigned to conduct preliminary research work in preparation for the institute and she became the first Chair of the new Japanese American Citizens League Midwest District Council. In 1948, she was elected as the first woman president of the Chicago chapter of the JACL and was elected to the National Board of the JACL. This, in addition to being invited by Mary McLeod Bethune, director of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), to serve as an ACRR representative on a national human relations committee sponsored by the NCNW. In 1950 she held the position of Public Relations Chair for the 11th JACL national conference and served on the committee to select the Nisei of the Biennium. Then the ACRR folded, and Mari became Assistant Editor of the American Library Association’s Bulletin while working actively on civil rights in the community. From 1954-55, she represented the JACL on the board of Chicago’s Council Against Discrimination.

She volunteered with a Chicago group that assisted with resettlement of GIs who married Japanese women and in 1954 she was invited, along with other JACL members, to a lunch sponsored by LIFE magazine. At this lunch she met the bestselling novelist James A. Michener. He had been commissioned by LIFE to write a story on Japanese “War Brides” and had hoped the Nisei of the JACL would be able to provide insight and information. Mari up front in her opinion and and told him that she did not like the conclusion of Sayonara, because it made it seem that interracial couples would all face a tragic end just like the couple in the novel had. Despite this interesting start, they clicked and wrote to each other while he traveled for the next few months.  

It wasn’t until he came back to the US the following year that they became a serious couple and were married. James’s writing took them all over the world. They lived in Hawaii while he worked on his 1959 novel Hawaii before relocating to Pennsylvania near James’s hometown for a time and traveling often to Japan. In 1982 they bought a house here in Austin after the Texas governor asked James to write a novel about Texas. A few years later, they were invited to Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka and the couple lived in Alaska for several years while he worked on another book. 

While married Mari Michener focused on daily life, so that he could focus on research and writing. Though she did read his manuscripts. In 1960 she performed with him in a New Jersey summer stock production of the musical South Pacific and played a small role in the 1978 TV miniseries Centennial, adapted from the novel.

She was also the one behind many of the major donations the couple contributed to different organizations: They gifted a collection of 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints to the Honolulu Academy of Art; the Michener Art Collection 376 works of 20th-century American art, to the University of Texas; funding for the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania that opened in 1988; established the Mari Sabusawa Michener Endowment to fund all the educational programs at the museum and provided a Mari Michener Docent Award to the teacher, lecturer, or tour guide who put in the most hours. 

And it wasn’t just museums that benefited from their support of the arts, education also got quite a boost from the Micheners. Unsurprisingly, writing and programs that fostered diversity were the focus’. They supported the Iowa Writers Workshop and Swarthmore College, as well as the University of Texas. The Texas Writers Center, later renamed the Michener Center for Writers, began with a gift of $1 million in 1986. The Mari Sabusawa Scholarship Fund at Eckerd College was designed to provide scholarships for racial and ethnic minority students over several years. And, to honor John W. Thomas, who had arranged the scholarship at Antioch College that allowed her to leave Granada, a bequest to the American Baptist Churches, USA established a scholarship fund to assist American Baptists in attending seminars, conferences, and continuing education programs, and encouraging diversity. And though she was not as active with the JACL by this point, she was still a kind of JACL goodwill ambassador and endowed the Mari and James Michener Scholarship for freshman college students under JACL auspices.

Mari Sabusawa Michener died of pancreatic cancer on September 25, 1994, three years before her husband passed and both are buried in Austin Memorial Park Cemetery

Michener Headstone: James Albert 1907-1997 Traveler, Citizen, Writer Mari Sabusawa 1920-1994 Philanthropist, Art Lover, Wife