This cotton robe or yukata, and the history shared by the donor, are examples of how a single artifact can be used to tell multiple stories, including unexpected ones. Taken by itself, it is a simple cotton yukata (summer kimono) or robe, with a small tag reading “Japan” inside the neck. It has a narrow belt made of the same material, and wide, straight sleeves. Without knowing its provenance, it looks like a piece made for American (or otherwise non-Japanese) audiences, as a simple version of a traditional garment. That in itself provides avenues for exploration of fashion history, cultural exchange, and the like.

The piece was donated to MCHS in 1990 by Alice A. Harmon, who informed us that it was a gift received by her sister, Helen Anderson, upon graduating from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1938. Now we have a place, a time, and an occasion, and a way to talk about the importance of high school graduations in American culture, the kinds of presents people give, and the kinds of presents teenage girls actually want to receive, as well as some insight into the personality of the owner (who, presumably, enjoyed the gift enough to keep both the garment and the story behind it).

The information from the donor goes further, however, to tell us more about the neighbor who gave the yukata. Minnie Robinson Usuda (1888-1974) was the daughter of a British Army officer and his Spanish wife, and grew up in Korea. She moved to the United States, and married Yoshisada Karlo Usuda (1884-1962), who worked at the Japanese Embassy in D.C. During the 1930s, Mrs. Usuda “sent away” to friends in Korea for “house goods and clothing” to sell, and help support her family. This yukata given to Helen Anderson – who was a neighbor, and possibly also a friend of one of the same-age Usuda children – was probably one of the pieces sent from overseas.

According to the donor, Mrs. Usuda became a naturalized U.S. citizen, and her four children were also citizens. Mr. Usuda, a Japanese citizen, spent World War II in an American interment camp. So far, I have found little in our library to corroborate this part of the donor’s story – which, to my mind, makes this artifact all the more interesting. Although it has little to do with the Usuda family’s experience during the war, the yukata was the catalyst that prompted the donor to share her knowledge with us; otherwise, we might have nothing about the family at all. I’ve found a few references to the children at B-CC High School, in newspapers and yearbooks. Mr. and Mrs. Usuda, and their son Charles (1919-1940), are buried at Rockville Cemetery. Mr. Usuda’s brief obituary in the Washington Post makes no reference to his wartime experiences, and his name does not otherwise appear in that paper; perhaps there is something on the family in the more-local Sentinel, but that is a research avenue for the future. For now, our library yields only the 1944 Bethesda phone book, which lists the family under Mrs. Minnie R. Usuda; presumably she was regarded as the ‘head of household,’ in the absence of her husband.