Seventeen Syllables

by Hisaye Yamamoto

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Seventeen Syllables Summary

In the short story “Seventeen Syllables” by Hisaye Yamamoto, Rosie Hayashi is a young Japanese American woman living in California in the first half of the twentieth century.

  • Rosie struggles to connect with her mother, Tome, due to their language barrier.
  • Rosie begins to notice the lack of love in her parents’ marriage and her father’s abuse. She also develops a romance with Jesus Carrasco, a young Mexican American man.
  • Rosie’s mother reveals the tragic events that led to her marriage to Rosie’s father and begs Rosie to never marry. Although conflicted, Rosie agrees.

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Last Updated on September 29, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 902

“Seventeen Syllables” follows Rosie Hayashi, a young Japanese American woman who lives with her parents in a farming community in California. Her mother, Tome, has recently begun writing haiku, Japanese poems consisting of seventeen syllables, under the pen name Ume Hanazono; her poems are regularly published in the Japanese American newspaper Mainichi Shimbun. Rosie does not fully understand her mother’s haiku, despite attending Japanese school. Tome speaks little English, and so the two are unable to communicate with each other as well as they would like. Haiku comes to occupy much of Tome’s time and attention—during the day she keeps house and works on the tomato farm, but by night, she writes. Yet the narrator notes that Tome’s career as a poet lasts only a few months.

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One night, the Hayashis go to visit their friends the Hayanos. Mr. and Mrs. Hayano have four daughters: Haru, Natsu, Aki, and Fuyu. Rosie looks forward to seeing the girls but is pained by the sight of Mrs. Hayano, who has been ill and weak since the birth of her first child. She spends most of the evening with the sisters, all of them taking turns trying on Haru’s new coat. Meanwhile, Tome discusses haiku with Mr. Hayano while Mr. Hayashi flips through a magazine and talks loudly to Mrs. Hayano. Abruptly, Rosie’s father announces that it is time to go, and the Hayashis leave, Tome with reluctance. In the car, Rosie feels a surge of hatred for her parents—“for her mother for begging, for her father for denying her mother.” She briefly wishes their car would crash, then only that her father would laugh.

Another night, Rosie’s aunt Taka and uncle Gimpachi come over for a visit. Rosie reflects on her good luck: tonight she has agreed to meet Jesus Carrasco, and her relatives will provide a distraction. After announcing that she is going to use the outdoor bathroom, Rosie runs through the tomato fields to the packing shed, where Jesus has asked her to meet him so that he can tell her a secret. Jesus is the son of a Mexican American family whom the Hayashis have hired to help with the harvest; he is a couple of years ahead of Rosie at Cleveland High. The two have become good friends over the summer, often joking together or racing to see who can pick tomatoes faster. Now, in the shed, Jesus kisses Rosie, until she pulls away and runs back to the house.

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Inside, Tome is telling Aunt Taka and Uncle Gimpachi about the haiku she entered in a contest in the Mainichi Shimbun, and Mr. Hayashi is uncharacteristically short with Rosie. Rosie takes a long, luxurious bath, singing as she does so. When she emerges, her mother is still discussing haiku with Taka and Gimpachi, and her father is nowhere to be found.

The next day at Japanese school, Rosie is “grave and giddy by turns,” and she entertains her friend Chizuko with impressions of famous actors and singers. At noon, Mr. Hayashi comes to pick Rosie up and take her home to help with the harvest. When she sees Jesus drive up, Rosie hides in the bathroom and watches him.

Rosie is walking toward the shed when an unfamiliar car pulls up and a man in a business suit emerges with a package under his arm. He introduces himself as Mr. Kuroda, the haiku editor for the Mainichi Shimbun; he is on his way from San Francisco to Los Angeles and has stopped to present Tome with her award—a picture by Ando Hiroshige—for winning first prize in the haiku competition. Tome invites Mr. Kuroda inside for a cup of tea, and Mr. Hayashi remarks to Rosie, “Ha, your mother’s crazy!” After Rosie resumes her work, Mr. Hayashi tells her to go and remind Tome about the tomatoes. Rosie does so and returns with her mother’s reply that she will only be a minute. Mr. Hayashi seems to accept this at first, then makes an “incredible noise” and charges toward the house.

Alarmed, Rosie watches her father enter the house, which Mr. Kuroda leaves. Mr. Hayashi then comes out of the house carrying the picture by Hiroshige, which he smashes with an ax and then sets on fire. Rosie runs into the house and, alongside Tome, watches the fire die away through the window. Tome suddenly asks Rosie if she knows why Tome married Rosie’s father; Rosie does not know. Terrified, Rosie listens as her mother explains that she married Mr. Hayashi at nineteen “as an alternative to suicide.” Tome had been in love with an upper-class young man in her village but was poor and unable to marry him, and after she gave birth to their stillborn son, she begged Aunt Taka, who was living in the United States, to send for her. Taka quickly arranged a marriage for Tome with Mr. Hayashi, who had recently emigrated from Japan.

Rosie is stunned by her mother’s story and particularly by the idea that she would have had a brother if her mother’s first child had lived. Tome kneels on the floor and takes Rosie’s wrists, begging her never to marry. Shocked, Rosie thinks of Jesus but ultimately agrees, despite how deeply conflicted she feels. She begins to cry, believing that her mother thinks her a fool.

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