Introduction to Hisaye Yamamoto and Her Works
Hisaye Yamamoto was a Japanese American, Nisei (“Second Generation”) author. One of her most famous works, Seventeen Syllables, and other short stories, was a collection of short stories produced over her 40-year career. Owing to the nature of Realistic Fiction writing, the short stories of Hisaye Yamamoto reveal her perspective on gender roles in Japanese culture and the generational conflicts between the Issei and Nisei, with her technique of double-telling in her stories.
On August 23, 1921, Hisaye Yamamoto was born to immigrant parents in Redondo Beach, California. She grew up in an immigrant farming community, but because the state of California forbade immigrants from owning land, her family constantly moved every couple of years (Hong “Author Profile: Hisaye Yamamoto”). But after Pearl Harbor, she and her family were soon confined in a United States government internment camp for three years in Poston, Arizona. During World War II, her 19-year-old brother died during combat (Matsumoto “Hisaye Yamamoto”). Her experience at the camp and her brother’s death later formed the basis for one of her most popular stories, The Legend of Miss Sasagawara, which tells the tale of a mentally ill lady living in a U.S. internment camp. After the war, she moved back to California and began writing and publishing many of the short stories that are now in the Seventeen Syllables collection. She opted for shorter pieces instead of novels or essays because she never had enough time to sit down due to taking care of her children (Hong “Author Profile: Hisaye Yamamoto”). Her stories were filled with the struggles of Japanese women before and after WWII. Her collection received the Award for Literature from the Association of Asian American Studies and the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement. King-Kok Cheung, a well-known critic described her as “one of the first Japanese American writers to gain national recognition after the war, when anti-Japanese sentiment was still rampant” (“The Unrepentant Fire: Tragic limitations in…”). The esteemed author sadly passed away on January 30, 2011, in her home in Los Angeles, California.
Exploration of Yamamoto’s Short Stories and Themes
The story Seventeen Syllables revolves around Rosie, a young Nisei girl, and her immigrant mother. The story creates two parallel tales regarding Rosie’s first experience with love and the traditional ideas placed in her father and mother resulting in a relationship conflict between them. The Brown House is about the relationship of a Japanese family that has a gambling-obsessed father, and how traditional Japanese gender roles keep the mother from leaving her abusive husband permanently. One of her shorter stories, Morning Rain, illustrates the day a Nisei daughter discovers for the first time that her Issei father is going deaf. It also portrays the language barrier between immigrant parents and their children. Last but not least, Yoneko’s Earthquake, much like Seventeen syllables, follows parallel tales of Yoneko’s, a Nisei daughter, oblivion to the conflicts around her and her mother’s affair with Marpo, a Philipino worker, which leads to her getting pregnant and her husband forcing her to have an abortion.
Realistic Fiction and Yamamoto’s Literary Style
Hisaye Yamamoto’s short stories fall into the literary genre of Realistic Fiction. Realistic Fiction, “is a classification of literature containing stories that could actually happen, in a time and setting that is plausible and contains realistic characters” (Carson “What is Realistic Fiction?). Her characters do not include witches, dragons, or 100-year-old vampires. But instead, they are really young Nisei woman and their Japanese families dealing with the conflicts and struggles of everyday life. In Yamamoto’s Morning Rain, a regular family is described as sitting together for breakfast and discussing their plans for the day. In Realistic Fiction, the setting is true to life, vivid, and portrayed accurately. Yamamoto’s scene clearly depicts this definition. The characters are the Nisei daughter, her American husband, and her non-English-speaking Issei Father. These are realistic and believable characters that could exist, especially after WWII. In Yamamoto’s The Brown House, the dialogue between the wife and her gambling-addictive husband is real, and possible and portrays possible arguments between any quarreling husband and wife. “‘Now, mother…’ Mr. Hattori said. ‘I’ve learned my lesson. I swear this is the last time.’ ‘Please stop the machine, Mr. Hattori. I don’t want to ride another inch with you.” Mrs. Hattori replied.” (Yamamoto “The Brown House” 41). Everyday language is used in Realistic Fiction to make character dialogue genuine and realistic (Chen “Realistic Fiction). Yamamoto’s works hold up to this definition. Yamamoto uses Realistic Fiction to portray realistic experiences to give the audience a better understanding of the daily problems Japanese women face.
King-Kok Cheung, a critical analysis writer says this about Yamamoto, “As a woman writing at a time when feminist sensibilities were scarcely publishable, Yamamoto couches her sympathy in a disarming style that keeps alarming subtexts below the surface” (Cheung “Double Telling: Intertextual Silence in Hisaye…” 279). She was Influenced by her own ethnic community, one that discourages verbal confrontation and open protest. This is why she used her technique of double-telling to conceal the problems so it is not obvious and instead the real messages of her stories are hidden and difficult to find. At the beginning of Seventeen Syllables and Other Short Stories, Yamamoto adds an introduction to educate the audience before they read her short stories. The introduction gives a brief history and background knowledge of Japanese culture and traditions. It also explains the hidden messages of some of the in-depth stories. The only complaint about Yamamoto’s work was made by Anne Thalheimer who stated that the Introduction should instead be put at the end of the book so it would not give away the inner meanings and secrets of the stories before you even read them. The reader should first wonder, then suspect, and then finally understand the hidden content (Thalheimer “Seventeen Syllables and other short stories”). The Introduction should be placed at the end for a much-needed element of surprise.
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Cultural Influences and Gender Roles in Yamamoto’s Writing
Japan is greatly influenced by Confucianism which focuses a lot on the family. Confucianism laid the foundation for the status of women. Men were the heads of the households and the women were dependent on the men. This meant the women stayed home cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children while their husbands worked. ”In 2002, Japanese men averaged only 30 minutes of housework, childcare, and elder care each day” (Kincaid “Gender Roles of Women in Modern Japan”). Arranged marriages were common because women were expected to produce children and oversee the household. According to tradition, women’s happiness comes only from marriage. Motherhood also defined the woman in Japanese culture. This is part of the reason why women struggled with their sense of identity apart from the cultural expectation (Kincaid “Gender of women in Modern Japan”). They were unable to freely express their hobbies or interests in a work environment because they would be put back into place and restrained from having to do with anything besides their assigned gender role. Before WWII from 1602-1863 women did not legally exist in Japan, even after that, women did not have many rights. Yamamoto illustrates how these cultural expectations for both genders were woven into the lives of the characters in Seventeen Syllables, The Brown House. Women played a huge part in almost every single one of her short stories. In her most famous short story, Seventeen Syllables, Rosie’s mother, a lover of haiku, finds her identity with haiku besides only motherhood or house cleaning. At a house party scene, her mother engages with other male haiku writers while her husband socializes with the remaining guests. This divides the husband and wife into two separate classes, literary and non-literary. This goes against traditional gender roles because the status of the literary class goes along with power and authority which should be placed with the husband. The fact it was a public separation made it even more damaging and this resulted in her husband blowing up and taking all of his anger on one of his wife’s most prized possessions and lighting it on fire. While staring at the flames, Rosie’s mother reveals to Rosie that she had been in an arranged marriage with Rosie’s father. Some women even considered suicide like the mother in The Brown House because of the intensity of traditional gender roles. One night after dealing with her abusive husband, Mrs. Hattori confides in her son, “Sometimes I lie awake at night and wish for death to overtake me in my sleep. That would be the easiest way” (Yamamoto “Brown House” 43). She finally left her husband for a short period of time but because she was unable to gain full custody over her children, she resorted to moving back in with her abusive husband in order to be with her kids. Even after promising to stop gambling, he returned to his old ways. She became pregnant again. Motherhood again defined women. Women were either forced or expected highly to produce children. In Seventeen Syllables, Rosie’s family visits the Hayano family one night. Yamamoto describes that after Mrs. Hayano had her first child, she was left in critical condition. She still went on to have three more children even after this injury. Mrs. Hayano now is unable to walk and is constrained in a chair for the rest of her life. Yamamoto shows how traditional expectations engrained the importance of motherhood in Japanese women which sometimes resulted in miserable consequences. Soon after WWII, Japan changed its constitution and now women can own property, marry and divorce freely they also gained parental rights (Kincaid “Gender roles of women in Modern Japan”). It was a big step for gender equality in Japan.
The Issei are the first Japanese to immigrate to the United States after 1907. They are Japanese-born and are also known as the “First Generation”. The Nisei, “Second Generation”, are the Issei’s children, who are born and educated in the U.S. In Yamamoto’s short stories the Issei are mainly portrayed as the mother and father and the Nisei, their children. This difference in the birthplace and generational difference results in a big language barrier between the parents and their children. Most of Hisaye Yamamoto’s stories are told from the Nisei daughter’s point of view and through her eyes, they show the Issei mothers, silenced in a life of isolation. In Yamamoto’s Seventeen Syllables, the main character, Rosie would listen to her mother talk about her haiku. Rosie pretended to understand her mother’s haiku thoroughly because she did not want her mother to know how little Japanese she actually knew. Yamamoto writes, “English lay ready on the tongue but Japanese had to be searched for and examined and even then put forth tentatively (probably to meet with laughter). ” “It was so much easier to say yes, yes, even when one meant no, no” (Yamamoto “Seventeen Syllables” 8). Her mother was probably skeptical so she would explain her poems anyway. Her mother would not challenge Rosie’s understanding of them to avoid embarrassing her daughter. No one would acknowledge the problem head on, resulting in her mom not sharing her passion with her daughter and Rosie not being able to express her interests haikus herself to her mother. She had so much to say but could not communicate due to the language barrier. Later after her mom revealed that she was in an arranged marriage and in tears asks Rosie to promise never to marry, Rosie repeats the same glib agreement from before, “Yes, yes, I promise” (Yamamoto “Seventeen Syllables” 19). But this time her mother’s “eyes and twisted mouth” said, you fool. In one of Yamamoto’s shorter stories, Morning Rain, Yamamato expands on generational conflicts. The story begins with a daughter and her husband and her dad eating breakfast together. The daughter asked, “‘Well what are your plans for the day, Oto-san?’ she asked. She asked it pretty well, too; she only had to resort to English for ‘plans’” (Yamamoto “Morning Rain”). As you can see she is always actively thinking about her ability and level to speak Japanese. But conversations were limited for they always ended up tensely, delivering an overly ebullient monologue. Her husband did not know much Japanese so he resorted to asking her to pass the salt and pepper. Her father did not know any English so he could not communicate with her husband. The two principal men in her life could not interact with each other and this was an issue that she could not fix for soon after, she finds out her father is going deaf. “Non-verbal communication and indirect speech remain pervasive in traditional Japanese American families, at least among the first two generations” (Cheung 277). The lack of communication between the family members in both short stories causes agony and suffering for all the people involved (Craig “Critical Analysis Artifact). Yamamoto is able to elaborately shed light on these communicational conflicts and how they affect the lives of the Issei and Nissei.
Literary Techniques and Impact of Yamamoto’s Works
Double telling is a term used by King-Kok Cheung to describe one of Yamamoto’s writing techniques she incorporates in her stories Seventeen Syllables, Yoneko’s Earthquake, and The Brown House. Cheung describes it as telling two tales in the guise of one. For instance, Yamamoto’s Seventeen Syllables and Yoneko’s Earthquake, both reflect a naive narrator which is the mind of a young Nisei girl while the drama and conflict are between her Issei parents (Cheung “Double-Telling: Intertextual Silence in Hisaye…” 278). The author never focuses on the conflict between the parents until the end of the story when the two plots finally come together. The beginning and middle surround the daughter’s life and her oblivion to the drama with little hints of conflict and foreshadowing added in. Yamamoto constructs hidden and elaborately sculpted plots to deflect attention from the unsettling messages (Cheung “Double Telling: Intertextual Silence in Hisaye…” 278). For instance, in Seventeen Syllables, Rosie takes the audience on her journey of meeting Jesus, a boy that works for her family, and eventually falling in love with him. Meanwhile, in the background, you get an insight into the real problems in the story. Rosie’s family left a family friend’s house abruptly as her father began to get upset as soon as her mother began to speak of Haiku to Mr. Hayano, “As they rode homeward silently, Rosie, sitting between, felt a rush of hate for both-her mother for begging, for her father for denying her mother.” The tale of her mother’s sorrow is showing through in the story pushing aside the tale of Rosie’s drama with love. Only from the tellings of the daughter, do we catch the dark meanings/outcomes of adult refrainment. From playing the naive Nisei point of view against the silence of Issei, suspense builds because the parents refrain from disclosing adult problems to the children.
With her technique of double-telling supporting her insight into the gender roles in Japanese Culture and the generational conflicts between the Issei and Nisei, she was able to create Realistic Fiction short stories that exposed audiences to the obstacles Japanese women face daily. Hisaye Yamamoto’s writing inspires many Japanese women to this day and teaches them not to be silent, but to find their voices even when it seems the entire world says otherwise.