Taro Yashima, whose given name was Jun Atsushi Iwamatsu, was born on September 21, 1908 in Kagoshima, Japan. His father was a country doctor who collected art and encouraged his son's interest in artistic endeavors. Yashima studied at the Imperial Art Academy in Tokyo for three years, where he became a successful illustrator and cartoonist. When he and his wife, Tomoe, protested the militaristic government in Japan, they were sent to prison.
In 1939, the couple visited the United States to study art, leaving their son, Mako, with his grandparents. [As an aside, today Mako is a famous actor, nominated for an Oscar in The Sand Pebbles and for a Tony for Pacific Overtures.] They studied at the Art Students' League in New York City until 1941. When war was declared on Japan, Yashima enlisted in the US Army and changed his name to protect his son and the rest of his family, who were still in Japan. After the war, Congress passed a bill to allow Yashima and his family to stay in the United States permanently. Yashima brought his son to New York in time for the birth of the couples' second child, Momo, a daughter. Yashima became seriously ill with stomach ulcers, spending a great deal of time with his daughter while he recovered. For her, he created stories about his childhood in Japan, which were soon published.
The Village Tree was published in 1953, followed by Plenty to Watch in 1954. Yashima won three Caldecott Honor medals for Crow Boy (1956), Umbrella (1958), and Seashore Story (1967). Taro Yashima died in California in 1994.