Seventeen Syllables

by Hisaye Yamamoto
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Analysis

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Last Updated on September 22, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536

Hisaye Yamamoto’s short story “Seventeen Syllables” was first published in 1949 in the Partisan Review and was later reprinted in Yamamoto’s 1988 collection, Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories. Yamamoto wrote “Seventeen Syllables” after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, prompting the United States to enter World War II; as a result of these events, Japanese and Japanese American families living in the United States, like her own, were racially profiled by the US government and forced to live in internment camps. Yamamoto was a young woman when she and her family were incarcerated in a camp in Poston, Arizona, and she started writing stories for a newspaper in order to maintain some sense of freedom. She also was part of the Nisei generation, which was the first generation of American-born Japanese, who, unlike their (Issei) immigrant parents, were integrated into American culture and struggled to relate to their parents and their traditions. Therefore, her short story about a young girl, Rosie, who can’t understand or relate to her mother, Tome, is semi-autobiographical.

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Another unique aspect of Yamamoto’s story is her use of perspective and the parallel narrative structure. The beginning of the story is narrated from the narrow, subjective point of view of young Rosie as she pulls away from her mother’s traditional Japanese culture in preference of a more modern, American one. The telling of the story from only Rosie’s perspective in the beginning further accentuates Tome’s voicelessness and restraint, despite her struggle against her husband to be herself and have her own writing career. While Tome tries in vain to connect to and relate her hopes and fears for her daughter through the haiku that she writes, the language barrier is too great, and Rosie is too distracted by her love for Jesus, a young man from a different culture outside of her own, to listen to or heed her advice. It isn’t until the end that the reader learns that despite the generation gap, the two women are more similar than they seem.

Finally, there is the great significance of the haiku poem as a symbol of Japanese culture and a metaphor for the two female characters’ struggle for freedom, restraint of spirit, and estrangement from each other. Traditionally, haiku are very short, succinct poems of only three lines and seventeen syllables that seem simple yet must somehow convey the spirituality, harmony, and natural order of all things in just a few words. Much like this, Tome must express her creativity and independent spirit within the confines of her short poems as well as express herself and the mistakes of her past to her own daughter, the latter of which she fails to do. The story, much as a haiku poem develops over the course of three short lines, develops over the course of three short months, in which Rosie has a sexual awakening while her mother’s writing career transforms and blossoms. In this brief amount of time, the two women must live their lives to the fullest before ultimately having their hopes and dreams extinguished by the male-dominated, traditional Japanese culture they live in, where women must be passive, powerless, and obedient to their husbands and fathers.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 307

Haiku serves as the metaphor of the narrative technique employed in the story. Haiku is supposed to convey the packed emotion of poets while offering their observation of the outer world. It is for the reader to connect the inner and outer worlds. The poet is required to choose words carefully, as the poem may contain only seventeen syllables.

As haiku demands a reducing of words, this story intentionally holds back some information. Mrs. Hayano’s insanity is simply narrated as a fact, but no accounts follow. Nor is the motivation for Mrs. Hayashi’s writing explained. Apparently these episodes are related to the Japanese immigrants’ dismay over their linguistic disadvantage.

The author uses haiku as the representation of the traditional Japanese culture, as well as of Mrs. Hayashi’s packed emotions. Rosie’s incapacity to appreciate her mother’s haiku highlights the linguistic and cultural gap between them. Not understanding the language used in the mother’s poems, Rosie does not decipher the mother’s complex inner feelings or her need to write. The only emotion narrated in the story is Rosie’s, and the contrast of Rosie’s inner voice with the absence of her parents’ voices shows that the story is narrated from her perspective. At the same time, the silence of Rosie’s parents shows the strict self-control that their native culture has encouraged in them.

Hisaye Yamamoto’s writing itself signifies the essence of haiku poetry. Yamamoto shows the gap between the first and second generations of Japanese Americans by sketching the Hayashi family concisely. Yamamoto, a Japanese American herself, is not foreign to the generational gap shown in the story. As emotions are condensed in haiku, Yamamoto puts all her emotion into a short story. She offers only a brief illustration of the Hayashi family, and seldom describes the characters’ emotions.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 67

Suggested Readings

Cheung, King-Kok. “Double-Telling: Intertextual Silence in Hisaye Yamamoto’s Fiction.” American Literary History 3, no. 2 (1991): 277-293.

Cheung, King-Kok, ed. Seventeen Syllables. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.

Yogi, Stan. Legacies Revealed: Uncovering Buried Plots in the Stories of Hisaye Yamamoto. Studies in American Fiction 17, no. 2 (1989): 169-181.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 390

Focusing on the relationship between Rosie and her mother, the story illustrates the gap between Japanese immigrants and their American-born children. The gap is rooted not only in generations, but also in linguistic and cultural differences. As the title suggests, the linguistic difference is most evident in the story and is given a symbolic role. The gap between Rosie and her mother is compounded by cultural differences, as shown by the fact that Rosie fails to understand that her mother’s behaviors were acquired in a Japanese cultural context.

Mrs. Hayashi apparently is not satisfied with her present situation and has sought to release her emotions by becoming a poet. She uses a pseudonym when she writes, and Rosie feels as if her mother is two different people. The motivation of the mother’s writing is not explicitly discussed, however, indicating Rosie’s disinterest in her mother’s inner world.

Mrs. Hayashi’s urge to write is born out of her suppression, which is primarily caused by her linguistic handicap in the immigrant land. Another major factor in her suppression is the submissiveness of women to men, embedded in the traditional Japanese culture. She seems to accept her role as a wife, although she tries to acquire her own world by indulging herself in writing poetry.

Her husband has the power to determine the welfare of the other members of the family, and his disapproval cuts off Mrs. Hayashi’s creativity. When she is talking about poetry at the Hayanos’ residence, her husband decides to leave for home without consulting her. Although his self-centered action upsets Rosie, Mrs. Hayashi remains calm and her frustration is not revealed. She does not get sympathy but only contempt from Rosie for her reaction. Mrs. Hayashi remains reserved, even when her husband’s irritation has grown into outrage and he breaks the prize for her haiku poem.

The distance between Rosie and Mrs. Hayashi is inevitable, and no solution is suggested in the story. Rosie is unable to perceive her mother’s deep feelings, especially when the mother kneels down to beg her not to marry. At the end of the story, their gap is confirmed with the perception of the mother’s consoling hands. When Mrs. Hayashi consoles her crying daughter, Rosie feels that the mother’s timing is a little too late.

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