WINSOME | Lensey Namioka

“The Valley of the Broken Cherry Trees” by Namioka was published in 2005.
“Half and Half” by Lensey Namioka was published in 2003.

By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly

She excelled in mathematics when she attended elementary school in Cambridge, Mass. Her classmates thought she was weird for her unique academic ability.

But, it’s her unique storytelling that has a new generation of those ages 5 through 15 thinking she’s hip, not weird. They are the ones who selected her last book, “Mismatch,” for the 2008 International Reading Association Young Adults’ Choices list.

Lensey Namioka’s first name is also unique, the creation of her Chinese linguist father, Yuen Ren Chao. He chose two syllables, “len” and “sey,” that could be combined in English but are not used in any Chinese words.

Namioka, 79, has written 23 books about subjects ranging from martial arts to Asian American life to mysteries. According to one report, her biggest seller in 1999 involving the cultural tradition of foot binding, “Ties That Bind, Ties That Break,” sold about 160,000 copies.

About being considered as an Asian American pioneer for her 40-year writing career, Namioka said, “Gee, I’m not sure in what way I’m a pioneer. Well, maybe, I was one of the first to have a book published in English for young people that has a Japanese samurai detective. I can’t think in what other way I’m a pioneer, but it is a great honor.”

Born in Beijing, she pursued her talent for writing at an early age. “I wrote ‘Princess with the Bamboo Sword’ when I was 8, before we moved to Hawaii,” she said. “We lived in Honolulu for a year before coming to the U.S. mainland.”

She attended Radcliffe College in 1947 and earned both her bachelor’s degree in 1951 and master’s degree in 1952 at the University of California at Berkeley.

While a graduate student, she met fellow student Isaac Namioka, a Japanese American also studying mathematics. They married and soon moved to Ithaca, N.Y., where she taught mathematics at Wells College and later, Cornell University. They have two daughters – Aki and Michi.

Namioka worked as a translator for the American Mathematical Society from 1958 to 1966. “I realized early that I wasn’t going to do any original, creative work in math,” she said. “At first, I did some translation of Chinese mathematics into English, but that was kind of boring so I started writing articles, humorous articles at first.”

Then, a trip with her father-in-law to Japan’s Himeji Castle in 1968 proved to be an important moment in her new career as an author. She described it saying, “It was a stunning sight, and I decided to write a story (“White Serpent Castle”) set in the castle.”

While she has also visited the remains of her husband’s namesake Namioka Castle, she returned to Himeji Castle a number of times by herself. “It was during one of these visits that I nearly stayed past closing time and frantically rushed around trying to find my way out!” she said.

In the 1970s, she says there wasn’t much interest in multicultural literature. “So, the editors would say, ‘You know, your main characters shouldn’t be Asian. They should be white in order for us to publish.'”

Undeterred, she wrote another story about a Portuguese soldier-of-fortune for her 1976 book, “The Samurai and the Long-Nosed Devils.”

“After that book sold, the editor who published the book said, ‘Hey, have you got any other books in the series?’ and I happened to have the (White Serpent) Castle book already written. So, they (Random House Children’s Books) published both books, more or less, simultaneously,” said Namioka.

“Then, the whole cultural scene changed … and that was a real help for me,” she added. “So, I was able to make, in succeeding books, the main characters Asian.”

Namioka has also written several short stories, nonfiction articles and even a play — “Herbal Nightmare” — in 1991.

For her next project, she’s working on the biography of the late Nankai University professor Chern Shiing-Shen, one she hopes will be on sale by his 100th birthday in 2011.

“Professor Chern, himself, asked me to write his biography, and since he was a friend of my parents, as well as a world-renowned mathematician, I couldn’t refuse,” she said. ♦

For more information about Lensey Namioka, go to

James Tabafunda can be reached at

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