When I see Yumi Sakugawa in person for the first time, she’s wearing black overalls and neon pink lipstick and encouraging everyone already sitting in her circle to remove any empty chairs and move in even closer, so she’s pretty much how I imagined she’d be from my years of consuming her comics: colorful and present.
A graduate of UCLA’s Fine Art program, Yumi is an Ignatz Awards-nominated comic book artist who has gained popularity within and outside the independent comics community over the years with published books like I Think I Am in Friend-Love With You, which I picked up in college while standing in line at an Urban Outfitters, wept at, and then gifted to three of my best friends for Christmas. She’s also been involved in the Japanese American community in Southern California as an alumni of the Nikkei Community Internship and a performer at Tuesday Night Café, the oldest Asian American mic series in the country that takes place in Little Tokyo.
There’s something about Yumi’s drawings –– wispy bunny-eared beings, six-eyed monsters with tentacles wrapped around teacups, glowing crystals and tangled webs and blobby clouds –– that makes you feel introspective and light-hearted, which is kind of the point. Much of Yumi’s work focuses on mindfulness and spirituality, things she learned about while adopting meditation in her early twenties to battle depression and creative roadblocks. With her other books like Your Illustrated Guide To Becoming One With the Universe and There Is No Right Way to Meditate: And Other Lessons, Yumi uses her art to connect to readers on a human level and leave them more clear-headed than they were when they began reading.
I finally meet Yumi at Comic Arts LA, a weekend independent comics expo, in her guided meditation workshop. After going around the circle of strangers and having us each spout off three words to describe our current relationship with our creative work, Yumi has us close our eyes and imagine a detailed scenario in which we meet our inner demons and have tea with them –– that is, to try to understand them rather than suppress them. I’m surprised to discover my inner demon is me at age 8. After Yumi taps her singing bowl three times to signal the end of the meditation, I feel at peace with myself and head into my interview wondering if this is how she feels every day.
Kizuna: When did you realize your love for art and creating art?
Yumi Sakugawa: I always gravitated toward drawing as a kid, and I remember picking up crayons and drawing bunnies, flowers, houses. I was a really shy kid, so I was drawn to shy-kid activities like drawing, reading – activities where I could be in my own world and do my own thing without worrying about interacting with people. As I got older I started reading more comics: the Sunday funnies, Japanese manga. I think I always knew on some level I was going to be doing this for the rest of my life.
K: Your comics, especially your most recent book, Fashion Forecasts, incorporate Japanese references like ikebana and wishing trees, as well as Japanese American references like basketball leagues and obon festivals. What has your Japanese upbringing been like?
YS: I’m shin-nisei –– second generation –– and my parents met in Southern California after they both decided to move to America. Growing up, I went to Japanese language school on Saturdays, which I hated because I couldn’t do Girl Scouts or sleepovers, and I also went to obon festivals at Buddhist temples. I also got to visit Japan every few years because the rest of my family is still there. We spoke Japanese in the home, too, so Japanese culture has always been woven into the fabric of my day-to-day life.
K: You participated in the Nikkei Community Internship when you were in college. How did that experience inform your involvement in the Japanese American community?
YS: My class was the third iteration. I interned at the Pacific Citizen, JACL’s newspaper, and got to cover stories ranging from the Little Tokyo Tofu Festival to Anime Expo, and even after the internship I had a monthly column where I wrote about Japanese American identity called Memoirs of a Non-Geisha. I thought I was so clever at the time… I still do. I really loved it because I had just ended my first year as an undergrad at UCLA, and it was in college that I opened my eyes to the possibility that there could be an Asian American and Japanese American history that spoke to my experience. It was transformative to be in a group of peers like me, and to center my own experiences instead of feeling marginalized or pushed to the side.
K: Do you have advice for young people who want to make their part-time passion into a full-time career?
YS: You don’t have to pressure yourself to make this big dramatic leap from a full-time day job to full-time artist. In my case, it was a very gradual transition. I was working as an intern for a start-up, and I slowly built a client base of people who wanted to hire me as a freelance illustrator, so as my work increased I was able to decrease my hours at the internet start-up. I had to ease myself into becoming a full-time artist and even when I did, I gave myself permission to live with my parents for a couple of years. It wasn’t until a few years later that I felt confident enough to live on my own. It helps to define for yourself what your own benchmarks are to transition, and maybe that’s waiting to have six months of savings in your bank account.
K: At the beginning of your book There Is No Right Way to Meditate: And Other Lessons, you mention discovering meditation at a time when you were young and depressed and needed to take care of yourself. How would you define self-care, and what is your favorite form of self-care?
YS: I like see self-care as a form of preventative medicine. I think a lot of people make the mistake of utilizing self-care after they’re stressed and frazzled and on the verge of breaking down, where they say “I’m feeling burned out, so I’m going to give myself a day to go to the Korean spa and get a massage.” For me, self-care is something you have to do every day to minimize that breaking point where you feel you have to pull out all the stops. It’s doing the bare basics, which is adequate sleep, eating healthy food, consciously scheduling time with friends. I also go to a therapist every other week, and that’s an anchor for a lot of people to have a safe space to share what’s going on in their lives.
I like to pay attention to the cycles of the moon. At the reset of the new moon, I see it as a time to think about new intentions, new beginnings, and what new energy I want to bring into my life. At the end of the moon cycle when the moon is waning, I like to use it as a time to be more receptive and restful and do less. I like to remind myself that for all the activity I want to accomplish, I need an equal amount of rest. You can’t outsmart the cycle of nature.
K: Your new book, Fashion Forecasts, playfully imagines a future in which people can wear whatever they want. How does this visualization portray the future you want to see?
YS: Clothing and fashion are powerful signifiers of how you want to present yourself to the world, and it’s done with intention. One big aspect of Fashion Forecasts I feel strongly about is the idea that fashion should not just be for the young and beautiful, and famous and rich. Instead of this vertical structure, where only people at the top are the tastemakers and everyone else aligns to it, I want to see fashion as a horizontal structure where everybody, regardless of age, gender expression, body type, economic class, and cultural identity, are able to equally participate.
As a woman who recently discovered how fun fashion can be, I don’t want to stop having fun once I reach a certain age. I want to live in a world where I’m 95 and still having fun with how I’m dressing myself. Instead of fashion being this isolating thing that creates distance between people, fashion should be this collaborative, connective thing where strangers can connect and feel less alone. That’s the world I want to live in.
K: What are three words you’d use to describe the future of Asian America, and Japanese America?
YS: Empowered, visible, shameless.
ABOUT YUMI SAKUGAWA
Yumi Sakugawa is an Ignatz Awards nominated comic book artist and the author of I THINK I AM IN FRIEND-LOVE WITH YOU and YOUR ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO BECOMING ONE WITH THE UNIVERSE. She has also exhibited multimedia installations at the Japanese American National Museum and the Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building.