Hisaye Yamamoto Essay - Critical Essays

Yamamoto (DeSoto), Hisaye


Hisaye Yamamoto (DeSoto) 1921-

American short story writer, non-fiction writer, and poet.

One of the first Japanese-American writers to gain national attention in the United States after World War II, Yamamoto is concerned with issues ranging from the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War to family tensions arising from a daughter's coming of age. A governing theme in her writing is the struggle of Japanese-American women, who often are isolated from society, caught between the traditional Japanese worlds of their husbands and the Western values and identities of their children. Frequently drawing upon places and events from her own life, Yamamoto creates complex characters; blends poignancy, compassion, and humor; employs irony and understatement; and constructs layered plots through the use of limited and shifting perspectives. Her best-known works are collected in the volume Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories (1988), and include the title story, "Yoneko's Earthquake," and "The Legend of Miss Sasagawara."

Biographical Information

Born in Redondo Beach, California, to first-generation immigrant parents, Yamamoto experienced the deeply divided realities of her Japanese heritage and life in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. The gulf between her Japanese ancestry and the dominant white American culture was made dramatically clear when she was forced to spend three years in the Poston Relocation Center in Arizona while she was in her early twenties. Poston was one of about ten Japanese internment camps in the Western United States that confined more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans—two-thirds of whom were American-born citizens—in the years immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. During that time, people of Japanese descent were considered potential enemies of the United States. They were removed from their homes, farms, and businesses and detained in relocation centers. Yamamoto's experiences in the camp significantly influenced her life and gave rise to several of her most highly acclaimed stories, notably "The Legend of Miss Sasagawara."

While at Poston, Yamamoto served as a reporter and columnist for the camp newspaper, the Poston Chronicle. After her release, she moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Tribune, a small weekly newspaper intended for an African-American audience. Her experiences there inspired the 1985 story "A Fire in Fontana." In 1948, Yamamoto's first story, "High-heeled Shoes," appeared in the Partisan Review.

In 1953, Yamamoto declined an opportunity to study at Stanford University with poet Ivor Winters, and instead headed East with her adopted son to volunteer at the Catholic Worker community farm on Staten Island. The community and its charismatic founder, Dorothy Day, impressed Yamamoto with their promotion of pacifist values and selfless ideals, as taught by Jesus Christ. Commentators have observed that Yamamoto's decision stands in interesting relation to her involuntary communal experience at Poston. Yamamoto wrote for the Catholic Worker newspaper, which she continued to do for years after leaving the community. Her story "Epithalamium" draws upon her experiences during this time. In 1955 Yamamoto married and returned to Los Angeles, where she became mother to four more children.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Most of Yamamoto's stories were published initially in small magazines and regional Japanese-American newspapers. Her first story, "High-heeled Shoes," delineates both the subtle and overt sexual abuse faced by women in American society. In "Seventeen Syllables," a nisei (second-generation Japanese-American) girl on the verge of womanhood witnesses conflict between her father, a farmer, and her mother, a poet. "The Wilshire Bus" tells the story of a Japanese-American woman, who, while taking a bus to visit her hospitalized husband, sees a drunken Caucasian man harass a Chinese couple. "The Brown House" describes the conflicts between an issei (first-generation Japanese immigrant) woman and her gambling husband. "Yoneko's Earthquake" is a tragic story about domestic turmoil in a Japanese-American family.

Several of Yamamoto's stories, such as "Seventeen Syllables," "Yoneko's Earthquake," and "The Legend of Miss Sasagawara," have appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories of 1952. Yamamoto's first collection of stories was published in Japan in 1985 as Seventeen Syllables: 5 Stories of Japanese American Life. A collection of fifteen stories, Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, appeared in the United States in 1988.

Critical Reception

Commentary has focused on Yamamoto's treatment of the Japanese experience in the United States. Critics have commented on the strength, courage, and honesty of her writing at a time when Japanese-Americans were openly disdained by much of American society. They have noted that Yamamoto draws on both Anglo-American and Japanese-American literary traditions to examine her themes and explore the complexity of human relationships. Her stories feature unreliable narrators, literary and historic references, imaginary dialogues, symbolism, and multiple plots. Several critics have noted compassion, understanding, wisdom, insight, and humor in Yamamoto's sympathetic portrayals of those on the periphery of American society.

Principal Works

Seventeen Syllables: 5 Stories of Japanese American Life 1985

Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories 1988


Dorothy Ritsuko McDonald and Katharine Newman (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Relocation and Dislocation: The Writings of Hisaye Yamamoto and Wakako Yamauchi," in MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Vol. 7, No. 3, Fall, 1980, pp. 21-38.

[In the following excerpt, McDonald and Newman discuss several of Yamamoto's best-known stories in the context of what they identify as the "hallmarks " of Yamamoto's style and technique.]

Yamamoto received her first rejection slip at the age of fourteen and persisted in her aspiration to be a writer until she received her first acceptance from a major periodical when she was twenty-six. In the years between, she completed the program at Compton Junior College, contributed to school, college, and small magazines, and wrote even while she was at Poston. After her release from camp she went to Los Angeles and obtained a reporter's job on the only newspaper that would hire a Japanese: the Negro Los Angeles Tribune. She worked there from 1945 to 1948. Her first story, "High-heeled Shoes" appeared in 1948.6 The following year she was accorded a John Hay Whitney Opportunity Fellowship which enabled her to write without a worry for a year. During this time, in addition to more short stories, she translated the whole of Rene Boylesve's "L'Enfant à la Balustrade" from French into English.

While she was working at the Tribune, she had begun to collect copies of the Catholic Worker, and so, intrigued that there was a place where "non-violence, voluntary poverty, love for the land, and attempt to put into practice the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount" were the rules, she finally went East and spent the years 1953-1955 on the Catholic Worker farm on Staten Island. For years after she returned to California, she continued to write for the paper, the Catholic Worker, among her most important pieces being on Seabrook Farms, Iva Toguri ("God Sees the Truth but Waits"), and the United Farm Workers.

After the Catholic Worker experience she settled into a career as wife and housewife, then as mother of five kids, and now, also, the grandmother of two, all of whom live in or near the DeSoto home. In short, as she phrases it, she keeps busy "tending her own garden," which means family, flowers, friends, and writing.7

During all these years, there has never been a published collection of her work, but her reputation has been kept steadily alive by anthologists. Four of her short stories made Martha Foley's list of "distinctive" short stories for their particular years, with "Yoneko's Earthquake" reprinted as one of the Best American Short Stories of 1952. She has been represented in at least twenty anthologies, with favorites being "Seventeen Syllables" and "The Legend of Miss Sasagawara." Runners-up are "Las Vegas Charley," "The Brown House," and "Yoneko's Earthquake."8 It is noteworthy that between 1949 and 1952, when there was still some hostility and a great deal of apathy about the Japanese, Hisaye Yamamoto published five short stories that won national acclaim.

"High-heeled Shoes" is more essay than story, unlike those that followed, but it has the Yamamoto hallmarks:

  1. References to literary materials outside the Japanese-American tradition. This shows her wide reading. In this story, Freud, Ellis, Stekel, Krafft-Ebbing, and Robert Browning are mentioned. In "Epithalamium," she quotes extensively from Gerard Manley Hopkins as well as echoing the Miltonic poem. This strategy lifts her stories into the wider world of European-American culture and adds surprise and new angles of perspective.
  2. References to actual events, place, or people. In this story she names Wakako Yamauchi as the friend who has given her the plants from which the narrator is picking pansies in the story.
  3. Lists, particularly of foods, flowers, and oddments that give sensory appeal as well as substantiating the reality of the story. In "High-heeled Shoes," she is irritated when the phone rings because she fantasizes that it is a salesman and she does not have money to buy from him. She lists what she would have bought by week's end if she only had money.
  4. Soliloquies and imaginary dialogues. Here she has a talk with Gandhi about non-violent responses versus the suffering of women attacked by rapists. Gandhi does not come off well.

The keynote in all of Yamamoto's work is her use of her own mind: she is analytic, meditative, honest, compassionate, and ironic. Whether she uses the first person or a narrator, the final word is usually hers—and it is frequently so open-ended that the reader feels there are stories and meanings as yet unguessed implicit in each tale.

Yamamoto's pervasive love for humanity is found in "The High-heeled Shoes." The protagonist ("I") is confronted with sexual perversions: she receives an obscene telephone call at the story's beginning and this propels her mind into "unlovely, furtive things" about other encounters with men that she and her friends have had. The most startling was the time she caught sight of a pair of legs in black high-heeled shoes sticking out from the open door of a "dusty-blue, middle-aged sedan." As she approached and glanced in, she discovered that the shoes were worn by a naked man reclining on the front seat . . . and she was, "with frantic gestures, being enjoined to linger awhile."

The narrator calls on her reading for some understanding of this frightening experience but concludes: "Reading is reading, talking is talking, thinking is thinking, and living is different." However, she regards both incidents as caused by society and does not blame the men, believing that they were part of "a great dark sickness on the earth that no amount of pansies, pinks, or amaryllis, thriving joyously in what garden, however well-ordered and pointed to with pride, could even begin to assuage."

There is a final paragraph: her aunt calls, thus purifying the telephone from the contamination of the obscene caller, and she offers to come over for dinner, bringing food with her. This is the only "Japanese" touch in a story all too universal: "ricecakes with Indian bean frosting, as well as pickled fish on vinegared rice. She has also been able to get some yellowtail, to slice and eat raw." Yamamoto, as narrator, comments, "It is possible she wonders at my enthusiastic appreciation, which is all right, but all out of proportion."

What remains with the narrator is: "Whatever, whatever—I knew I had discovered yet another circle to put away with my collection of circles." A similar personal revelation of the sickness of humankind was revealed in "The Wilshire Bus," a 1950 story, which deals with a Japanese-American woman's fear of being identified as Chinese by a drunken bigot. Shocked at finding this weakness in herself, she lost "her saving detachment . . . and she was filled once again in her life with the infuriatingly helpless, insidiously sickening sensation of there being in the world nothing solid she could put her finger on, nothing solid she could come to grips with, nothing solid she could sink her teeth into, nothing solid."9

She has written two stories about gamblers: "The Brown House" (1951), and "Las Vegas Charley" (1961). The former has a jocose tone: Mr. Hattori, weary of trying to make a living growing strawberries, seeks out a Chinese house where he can try his luck at gambling. The appearance of the house is whimsical: "recently painted brown and relieved with white window frames. . . . To the rear of the house was a ranshackle barn whose spacious blue roof advertised in great yellow letters a ubiquitous brand of physic."

During the travail, as the Hattoris come to argue and their marriage nearly expires, there are humorous incidents, such as a police raid and the semi-friendship between Mrs. Wu, wife of the manager of the brown house and Mrs. Hattori, who must wait, hour upon hour, in the car with the three little children. The children come to acquire a taste for the Chinese cookies that Mrs. Wu brings to the car and Mrs. Hattori becomes quite attached to the Chinese woman. But Mrs. Wu, looking at them, concludes "she had never before encountered a woman with such bleak eyes."10 As the story ends, the reader goes back over it and sees that it never was humorous, that human interaction is "a collection of circles."

Las Vegas Charley began life as Kazuyuki Matsumoto, a prosperous young immigrant farmer until the death of his beloved wife in childbirth broke his spirit. Ultimately he has become a dishwasher in a restaurant in Las Vegas, spending his free time gambling. As he grows old, he becomes closer to his son and daughter-in-law in Los Angeles. Finally Charley dies, and the doctor who has attended him, complaining of his...

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Charles L. Crow (interview date 1987)

SOURCE: "A MELUS Interview: Hisaye Yamamoto," in MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 73-84.

[In the following interview, Yamamoto and Crow discuss the author's life and work, and in particular how Yamamoto 's personal circumstances have influenced her writing.]

Hisaye Yamamoto's reputation as a writer of fiction grows, despite the relatively small body of her work and its original publication in little magazines and in regional Japanese-American newspapers. By 1980, as Dorothy Ritsuko McDonald and Katharine Newman noted in MELUS, she had been reprinted in at least...

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King-Kok Cheung (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Introduction to Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1988, pp. xi-xxv.

[In the following introduction to Yamamoto's collection of stories, Cheung provides an overview of Yamamoto's life and work, touching on the author's themes, styles, and techniques.]

I first met Hisaye Yamamoto at a conference in Irvine, California in 1987. Long an admirer of her short stories, I asked which was her favorite. "None of them is any good," said the recipient of the Before Columbus Foundation's 1986 American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement, with a seemingly straight face. But her words, like her stories—often told by unreliable...

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Valerie Matsumoto (review date 1989)

SOURCE: "Windows on a World," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VI, Nos. 10-11, July, 1989, p. 5.

[In the following excerpt from a book review of Seventeen Syllables, Matsumoto discusses the scope and complexity of Yamamoto's stories, concluding that the stories "act on us, transforming our sense of ourselves and the world. "]

Hisaye Yamamoto's collection of short stories represents the work of 40 years, bringing together her most acclaimed pieces with several lesser known, all gleaned from an array of literary magazines, journals and newspapers ranging from the Poston Chronicle (the newspaper of the Poston concentration camp in Arizona where Yamamoto...

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Stan Yogi (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Legacies Revealed: Uncovering Buried Plots in the Stories of Hisaye Yamamoto," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 2, Autumn, 1989, pp. 169-81.

[In the following essay, Yogi focuses on the stories "Seventeen Syllables" and "Yoneko's Earthquake," asserting that Yamamoto uses hidden plots and subtexts to explore the experiences of Japanese-American women caught within complex social environments hostile to their desires.]

Between 1949 and 1961 the Nisei woman Hisaye Yamamoto gained national attention as a short story writer.1 Awarded a John Hay Whitney Foundation Opportunity Fellowship in 1949, Yamamoto's stories depicting the lives of...

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Zenobia Baxter Mistri (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: '"Seventeen Syllables': A Symbolic Haiku," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 197-202.

[In the following essay, Mistri examines Yamamoto's use of haiku as a metaphor for the themes explored in her story "Seventeen Syllables. "]

In 1942, the Japanese Relocation Act incarcerated 110,000 Japanese in Poston, Arizona. Born in 1921 of Japanese immigrant parents, Hisaye Yamamoto is a Nisei1 and one of those who watched closely the effects of that tragic internment. Although there are books, taped reminiscences bound into collections, and a slender handful of films, there is little criticism available that examines the experience...

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Ming L. Cheng (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "The Unrepentant Fire: Tragic Limitations in Hisaye Yamamoto's 'Seventeen Syllables'," in MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 91-107.

[In the following essay, Cheng emphasizes the social, cultural, economic, and gender conditions that influence the actions of the issei father in "Seventeen Syllables. "]

"Seventeen Syllables," perhaps the most anthologized, acclaimed and analyzed short story by Hisaye Yamamoto, epitomizes the complex rendering of characters within an intricately drawn plot characteristic of her larger body of works. Yamamoto masks a...

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King-Kok Cheung (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "The Dream in Flames: Hisaye Yamamoto, Multiculturalism, and the Los Angeles Uprising," in Bucknell Review: A Scholarly Journal of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, Special Issue—Having Our Way: Women Rewriting Tradition in Twentieth-Century America, edited by Harriet Pollack, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, 1995, pp. 118-30.

[In the following essay, Cheung relates the subject matter and themes of Yamamoto's 1985 story "A Fire in Fontana" to the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of four police officers accused of using excessive force in the arrest and beating of African-American motorist Rodney King.]

The 1992 Los Angeles riot broke out three months before I...

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Naoko Sugiyama (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Issei Mothers' Silence, Nisei Daughters' Stories: The Short Fiction of Yamamoto," in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, 1996, pp. 1-14.

[In the following essay, Sugiyama describes the use of silence in Yamamoto's stories both as a stylistic technique and as a key element in the lives of her characters.]

Silence is often seen as evidence of women's oppressed position in society. Tillie Olsen, in her book Silences, describes how the creative talents of women have been forced into "unnatural" silences by the constant demands of daily life, which allow them no existence other than that of mothers, wives, daughters, and nurturers....

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Further Reading

Cheung, King-Kok. "Rhetorical Silence: 'Seventeen Syllables,' 'Yoneko's Earthquake,' and 'The Legend of Miss Sasagawara.'" In Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa, pp. 27-73. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Explores the multiple levels and forms of silence employed in Yamamoto's stories, focusing on "Seventeen Syllables," "Yoneko's Earthquake," and "The Legend of Miss Sasagawara."

——. "Reading between the Syllables: Hisaye Yamamoto's Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories " In Teaching American Ethnic Literatures: Nineteen Essays, edited by John R. Maitino and David R. Peck,...

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