“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...
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