Asian & Pacific Islander American Heritage Month spotlight: Mark Yuasa on carrying forward traditions

In 1992, Congress passed a law to annually designate May as Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month, which celebrates the histories of Americans with roots from across the Asian continent and from the Pacific islands of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. May was the selected month because of two key dates. On May 7, 1843, the first Japanese immigrants arrived in the U.S., and on May 19, 1869, the first transcontinental railroad in the U.S. was completed, which had significant contributions from Chinese workers.

At the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), we believe that science and conservation are best advanced by the leadership and contributions of people with widely diverse backgrounds, experiences, and identities, who reflect the communities they serve.

Mark Yuasa joined WDFW as a Communications Consultant in December 2021 after doing freelance writing and serving as the Director of the Grow Boating Program for the Northwest Marine Trade Association. Mark is an avid outdoorsman and was the fishing and hunting writer for 25 years at the Seattle Times, which took him on hundreds of outdoor excursions across the Pacific Northwest to write over 7,000 stories or blog posts over his 33+ year career. It was also during his tenure at the Seattle Times that he got to know and work with a lot of WDFW staff and learn more about fish and wildlife management.

We spoke with Mark about his life growing up in Seattle, and how his Japanese heritage influences his connection to the outdoors and dedication to his community. Mark lives in the greater Seattle area with his wife who is a first-generation Chinese American and their two sons.

What led you to work at WDFW?

I have always had a keen interest in fish and wildlife management. Over the years in my role as the outdoor writer for Seattle Times, I interacted with various Department staff, and really enjoyed learning from them. You could say I’ve always felt a sense of belonging in the natural resources field because of my strong passion for conservation. I also enjoy that the Department has employees that come from a wide variety of backgrounds with different expertise. After doing freelance writing work, I was ready to transition to a position with the Department where I can continue to combine my passions of the outdoors and writing.

What is your ethnic heritage? Where did you grow up?

I am a proud, fourth-generation “Yonsei” Japanese American. Born and raised in Seattle, my parents and grandparents instilled in me a strong connection to Japanese culture. They often spoke Japanese in the home, which was beneficial for me to hear and experience. I felt it gave me more cultural awareness early in life.

Like many Japanese Americans, my grandparent’s lives were uprooted at the start of World War II when they were sent to the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho, and my mom was born there just before the war ended. This was very rarely talked about when I was younger, and it was only when Bachan (Japanese word for grandmother) got older that she started communicating about her experience. I even have a yearbook from Minidoka that includes all the people who were in the barracks. It means a lot for me to have this piece of history and helps me be open with my own kids about the events of that era.

Starting in the 1960s and for nearly 30 years, Bachan owned a beauty salon in Seattle’s International District, where my mother also worked. I would hang out there a lot, and my parents sent me to an elementary school that was closer to the salon rather than the school closer to home. Spending so much time in the International District, I was immersed in a lot of Asian American cultures, not just Japanese.

Even though I saw a rainbow of cultures growing up in the 1970s, I still experienced negativity for being Asian American. It was easy to be angry at times when kids were mean, but I was able to develop a strong feeling of identity and become very proud of my heritage. One person that I remember having a large influence in building my confidence was my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Ed James. We bonded because we both enjoyed arts and crafts, and he would share pieces that showcased his African roots. This really inspired me to feel proud of my own heritage. It was amazing that after decades, we reconnected, and I was able to share with him the impact he had on my life.

Mark with his first coho salmon at Sekiu.

How did you enjoy the outdoors growing up?

My grandfather was an avid salmon fisherman, and my dad’s brothers were all fishermen as well, so I was exposed early on to fishing and shellfishing. When I was 9 or 10, I caught my first coho salmon when my grandfather took me out to Sekiu. I remember watching him intently as he tied leaders and cut bait.

After that first salmon, I was hooked. Growing up near Seward Park, I would hop on my bike and go with my friends to Lake Washington and go fishing for the afternoon. During my teen years, I focused more on alpine skiing, but then in college, my excitement for fishing reignited when I found a group of friends who loved to fish. I bought an aluminum boat, and we would go trout fishing whenever we had the chance.

In addition to fishing, my grandparents took me to gather fuki, also known as Japanese Butterbur plants. The plant’s stalks are skinny, round, and hollow inside, and are edible with a texture like celery. We would prepare it by boiling the fuki with dashi (similar to fish sauce) and serve it as a side dish. We would also go foraging for Japanese mushrooms or matsutake each fall. I still like to do that with my family each year. Our favorite way of cooking them is to pan fry them with butter and garlic.

Mark enjoys foraging for matsutake (Japanese mushrooms) each fall.

Where do you find a sense of community and belonging?

I have been a lifelong member of the Betsuin Buddhist Temple in Seattle. There has always been a large group of Japanese Americans who attend, and it’s been an important community to me for decades. One person who has really inspired me over the years is Reverend Don Castro. He was my reverend all through my youth and young adult years. He taught me how to cherish moments, and that while we don’t live forever, there is a lot to be proud of today.

Every year, the Temple hosts a traditional dance festival called Bon Odori. The event is a way to honor past ancestors and it takes place during summer at Buddhist temples across America. In Seattle, it’s held during Seafair, and is a wonderful way for the community to come together. During the pandemic, the festival still took place online through YouTube. For more than 50 years, Bachan was the choreographer and dance lead for the Bon Odori, which made it an important part of my life growing up and has inspired me to be involved in the festival every year.

In addition to the Temple, I also find a sense of community in Boy Scouts. I am a Boy Scout Leader and I love being able to get kids more involved in the outdoors. It’s my way of giving back and passing on outdoor traditions to the next generation. Both of my boys are Eagle Scouts, and it’s been a rewarding experience for all of us. One fond memory specifically comes to mind, when I had a kid come back to me and say that he got a job on a catamaran in Hawaii, and he had to demonstrate how to tie a knot and lashing I had taught him in Boy Scouts! It’s those little things that are rewarding as a scout leader. Part of the district where I am in includes inner city youth in South Seattle. When we go out to camp, it’s amazing to see them experience nature, see the stars in the sky, and breathe in fresh air.

Mark enjoys a wide variety of local seafood with his family.

What are your favorite seafood dishes?

One of the best things about living in the Pacific Northwest, is that I can eat seafood pretty much all year. It’s great to open the freezer and choose from items caught earlier in the year, including squid, halibut, salmon, trout, crab, and clams.

My wife makes delicious, steamed crab and a Manila clam recipe with black beans and garlic. My favorite way to prepare salmon is to put a layer of mayonnaise on the fillet and then a layer of teriyaki sauce plus furikake (a Japanese seasoning) and bake it. It keeps the salmon moist and adds a unique flavor. Another favorite, and simple preparation method is ginger, green onions, soy sauce and hot oil with salmon. And of course, you can never go wrong with pan fried chunks of halibut or lingcod and razor clams with panko break crumbs!

What advice do you have for people interested in fishing and shellfish harvesting?

Well, I will first tell people they should read the blogs and stories I write. 😊 But really, the WDFW website has a lot of great information for people looking to get started in fishing or shellfish harvesting. We also have a variety of How-To videos on our YouTube channel and have a monthly recreation e-newsletter called the Weekender Report that highlights the best fishing, hunting, and wildlife watching opportunities around the state.

My other piece of advice when you’re out on the water, is to not be afraid or intimidated to ask other anglers for tips. Nine times out of 10, people are happy to share what’s been working for them or other lessons learned. You could also join a fishing club or social media group to ask questions, learn more about gear, and get tips on the latest fishing opportunities. The biggest thing is to do your research, and then give it a try!

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.