Seventeen Syllables Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

“Seventeen Syllables,” Hisaye Yamamoto’s most acclaimed short story, combines a number of themes that appear frequently in her fiction. These themes include: the difficulties faced by Japanese immigrants to the United States, the cultural separation between these immigrants and their children, and the restrictions experienced by Japanese American women within traditional Japanese culture. Important for an understanding of the story are some facts about the Japanese immigrant experience in America. Although the United States welcomed Japanese immigrants after 1885, immigration was stopped with the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924. Many of the first Japanese immigrants were unmarried men, who saved their earnings and sent back to Japan for brides they knew only through letters and photographs. Many of these married couples proved incompatible and were forced to make the best of an unsuitable marriage, keeping their problems concealed from the children. The Alien Land Act of 1913 prohibited Japanese immigrants from buying or leasing land for a period of more than three years. Since one-half of the immigrants lived in rural areas, the law forced families to move constantly and dispersed them often. A Japanese woman frequently had no other woman in whom to confide. In spite of these hardships, literature flourished and many immigrants wrote traditional Japanese poetry.

Yamamoto’s story deals with these concerns through a device used often by Yamamoto, the...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Seventeen Syllables Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The Hayashi family lives in a small farming community near Los Angeles. Mrs. Hayashi has begun to write haiku, but when she tries to share the joy of creating poetry with her daughter, Rosie is unable to appreciate her works because she cannot speak Japanese, her mother’s native tongue. Mrs. Hayashi’s English is no better than Rosie’s Japanese. When Rosie wants to share a haiku poem that she has found in her mother’s magazine, it is impossible for her to convey to her mother the meaning of the poem written in English and French. All Rosie does when shown her mother’s poems is utter words of affirmation, instead of telling her mother that she does not fully understand them.

When Rosie’s family visits the Hayanos, another Japanese immigrant family, her mother is absorbed in a discussion of haiku with Mr. Hayano. While Rosie enjoys herself with the four daughters of the family, who are named after the seasons in Japanese, Rosie’s father is forced into conversation with Mrs. Hayano, who has mental problems. When he decides suddenly to leave the Hayanos’ home without giving any signal to his wife, Rosie is puzzled and Mrs. Hayashi finally notices his irritation. On the way back to their house, Rosie feels angry toward her father because he denies her mother personal enjoyment, and she is angry toward her mother because she does not confront her husband’s tyranny.

Paralleling her mother’s devotion to writing, Rosie is engrossed...

(The entire section is 563 words.)