Academic journal article Journal of Ethnic American Literature

The Role of Haiku in Hisaye Yamamoto's "Seventeen Syllables"

Academic journal article Journal of Ethnic American Literature

The Role of Haiku in Hisaye Yamamoto's "Seventeen Syllables"

Article excerpt

Hisaye Yamamoto, a Japanese American writer who is best known for the short story collection Seventeen Syllables and Other Stones, was born on August 23, 1921 in Redondo Beach, California. She is the daughter of immigrants from Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, Kanzo and Sae Yamamoto. The number of Japanese Americans with last name Yamamoto is the second largest to those with last name Tanaka among others. Her work has a showdown with issues of the Japanese immigrant experience in America, the gap between Is sei (first) and Nisei (second) generation immigrants.

Hisaye Yamamoto's generation, the Nisei, was born into the roaming lives imposed upon their parents by the Alien Land Law,1 which limits the property possession by Japanese immigrants, and the Asian Exclusion Act, which in principle prohibits the immigration of Asians into the United States. Yamamoto replied the interviewer about her repeated moving: "We moved at least four times in the Redondo Beach area, then inland to Downey, Artesia, Norwalk, Hynes (the Greatest Hay and Dairy Center in the world), which is now known as Paramount, and finally down to Oceanside" (Cheung, "Interview" 77).

Yamamoto found ease in reading and writing from a young age. As a teen, she began publishing her letters and short stories in newspapers. Many Issei immigrants tried to preserve their native Japanese language, while the interests of the Nisei are likely to be in the culture of the United States, easily obtained through the English language as Yamamoto says, "My spoken and written Japanese is practically nonexistent" (Cheung, "Interview" 76). As a result, the relationship between Issei parents and their Nisei children confronted immediate tension, causing them to misunderstand each other.

Yamamoto became a published writer at the age of 14, writing for the Kashu Mainichi under the pen name "Napoleon." Yamamoto attended Compton Junior College in Los Angeles, where she majored in French, Spanish, German, and Latin. As mentioned in the short story, "Seventeen Syllables," she also attended Japanese school for 12 years. Her father was a farmer, and the family was living in Oceanside when World War II broke out.

At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, there were more than 125,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the Pacific coast. Within two months of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, known as the Japanese Relocation Act of 1942. All Japanese Americans, including U. S. citizens born in America, were forced to evacuate from the West Coast. More than 1 1 ,000 Japanese Americans were relocated to ten internment camps in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. The Japanese Americans thus lost their homes, property, and business.

From 1942 to 1945, Yamamoto was interned at Poston, Arizona, along with her father and three brothers Johnny, Jim, and Frank; her mother had died in 1939. Yamamoto was twenty years old when her family was relocated to the internment camp. While interned, she wrote for the camp newspaper, the Poston Chronicle. She wrote her first work of fiction, Death Rides the Rails to Poston, a mystery that was later added to Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, followed by Surely I Must Be Dreaming. In 1944, she and two other brothers were relocated to Springfield, Massachusetts, but when the oldest brother, Johnny, died in Italy while serving with the all Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team, she and two brothers came back to the camp in Poston at the request of their father.

After World War II had ended, the internment camps were closed and their detainees were all released. However, anti- Japanese sentiment continued throughout the country, but many Japanese Americans returned to California, despite hostile demonstrations they often met with. Yamamoto and her family also returned to Los Angeles, where she began working as a columnist, reporter, and editor for the Los Angeles Tribune, a weekly newspaper for African Americans, a job she held from 1945 to 1948. …

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