Discover the personal story of a powerful, but perhaps underappreciated writer who defined a generation of Japanese Americans as she also sought to expose injustices and give voice to the voiceless.
Hisaye Yamamoto, pictured here with her younger brother John, was born in America to immigrant parents. "Issei" is the Japanese term for first-generation immigrants, and "Nisei" is the term for the Issei's American-born children like Hisaye and her two brothers.
Redondo Beach ("Early 1900s") by Library of Congress ArchivesAmerican Writers Museum
Hisaye was born in 1921 in Redondo Beach, California. Her parents were immigrants from the Kumamoto Prefecture in Japan and farmed strawberries to make a living in the United States.
Since they were not allowed to own agricultural land under the California Alien Land Law of 1913, Hisaye's family moved from place to place while she and her brothers were growing up.
Hisaye Yamamoto's Parents (1920) by Yamamoto Family PhotoAmerican Writers Museum
Hisaye's mother (pictured on the left) encouraged her daughter to write when she was young. Many of Hisaye's short stories explore the issues faced between immigrant parents (Issei) and their children born in the United States (Nisei).
Yamamoto High School Yearbook ("1937") by Yamamoto FamilyAmerican Writers Museum
From a young age, Hisaye was captivated by literature. She sent her writing to a number of different publications in her early years.
Kashu Mainichi Final Edition (1942) by Scan from Densho Digital RepositoryAmerican Writers Museum
By the age of 14, she had her own column in the local journal Kashu Mainichi. She wrote under the pseudonym Napoleon. “On weekends [the Japanese newspapers] would have a feature page, where people would send in all kinds of things. They’d print anything, so that’s how I got started.”
In March of 1942 the paper published its final issue, as all Japanese Americans living in California were sent to internment camps. This piece includes the notice of the paper shutting down, and the article about advance groups being sent to the camps.
Executive Order 9066, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, forced the relocation and internment of "all persons of Japanese ancestry." Families like the Yamamotos were forced to leave behind their homes, livelihoods, and most of their possessions. They were sent by train to live in concentration camps.
Japanese Internment Train Image (1942) by FDR Presidential Museum & LibraryAmerican Writers Museum
Hisaye and her family members were among more than 112,000 Japanese Americans ejected from their homes on the West Coast and sent to internment camps shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Approximately two-thirds of those interned at Poston, which was called the Colorado River Relocation Center, were citizens of the United States.
Poston Chronicle 1 (1942) by Scan from Library of CongressAmerican Writers Museum
Hisaye worked at the camp hospital and as a columnist and editor for the Poston Chronicle, the camp’s newspaper. It was at the newspaper that Yamamoto met many other Japanese Americans that would become invaluable friends and distinguished writers.
She wrote a regularly published column titled “Small Talks,” though it was her serial murder mystery that captured readers’ attention.
John Yamamoto cross (1944) by Yamamoto Family PhotoAmerican Writers Museum
Hisaye was 20 years old when her family arrived at Poston in 1942. They were interned there for three years. During her family’s internment, her younger brother, John (pictured earlier with Hisaye as a child holding the flag), was killed in Italy fighting for the United States in the war.
Poston Chronicle Yamamoto Final Issue (1945) by Scan from Library of CongressAmerican Writers Museum
The Poston Chronicle announced that Edith Fukaye would be taking over as editor-in-chief after Hisaye Yamamoto left the internment camp in March of 1945. This marked Hisaye's transition back to California life as a free woman. By November of 1945, the last residents of Poston were relocated.
Yamamoto at Poston with Friends (1944) by UnknownAmerican Writers Museum
While she was extremely bitter about the government's treatment of them, Hisaye admitted that she made some important lifelong friends at the camp. Many were fellow writers, and their time together created a strong bond. She was especially close with Wakako Yamauchi, who later went on to write award-winning plays.
Hisaye (far left) is pictured here with some of those friends.
Los Angeles Tribune Reporter
After the war, Hisaye returned to Los Angeles and was hired by the Los Angeles Tribune. Reporting on tragedies took its toll on her, and as Elaine Woo wrote in the Los Angeles Times about Hisaye after her passing in 2011, "Her experiences there deepened her awareness of racism to a point of nearly unbearable anguish."
LA TribuneAmerican Writers Museum
Hisaye wrote for the Los Angeles Tribune from 1945 to 1948. The weekly African American paper was founded by Almena Lomax in 1941. It was here that Hisaye was exposed to the racism faced by African Americans.
In 1945, the Los Angeles Tribune was looking for a Japanese American journalist in a bid to bridge the gap between the recently freed Japanese and Black residents of Los Angeles who had moved into Little Tokyo following its evacuation. Hisaye worked as an editor, field reporter, and columnist, with her column "Small Talk." She covered many issues of racial injustice and lynchings happening across the country.
As she wrote later, "Painfully, in the two to three years of my employment, I came to realize that our internment was a trifle compared to the two hundred years or so of enslavement and prejudice that others in this country were heir to."
Los Angeles Tribune beach group photo (circa 1947) by UnknownAmerican Writers Museum
“[W]hile the Japanese were gone, Little Tokyo had become ‘Bronzeville,’ the blacks had moved into that area, and interracial friendship was the aim. They wanted an interracial paper.”
"It was a very educational experience. I learned the extent of racism, besides what happened to us during the war. In those days, there were lynchings going on in the South.”
Fontana Tragedy (1946-04-13) by Los Angeles TribuneAmerican Writers Museum
While working at the paper, she wrote about the animosity O’Day Short and his family faced as Black residents of an all-white neighborhood in Fontana, California.
On December 16, 1945, the Short Family’s home was burned and the family killed. The fire was ruled an accident in the investigation, but many believed it had been arson. This event deeply troubled Hisaye and motivated her to become further involved in the fight for racial equality.
Yamamoto Quote--A Fire in Fontana (1985) by Hisaye YamamotoAmerican Writers Museum
In 1985, Hisaye published an essay on her time at the Tribune... "Given the responsibility by the busy editor, I had written up from my notes a calm, impartial story, using 'alleged' and 'claimed' and other cautious journalese. Anyone noticing the story about the unwanted family in Fontana would have taken it with a grain of salt."
Short Story Writer
Hisaye wrote amazing stories that were critically acclaimed, but she often had difficulty referring to herself as a writer. Like many of the characters she wrote about, for Hisaye, family came first. As hers started to grow, her time spent writing dwindled, but she still took every chance she could to put her intricate stories down on the page.
Partisan Review 10 (1948) by Partisan ReviewAmerican Writers Museum
In 1948—just a few years after the end of WWII—Hisaye had her first major short story published in the Partisan Review, a major literary journal of the time. It was a major accomplishment for a Japanese American woman to have her work published.
Hisaye's story, "The High-Heeled Shoes" is an early feminist piece looking at the issues of sexual violence and harassment women faced daily from "the man on the street car with insistent thighs," to the threat of rape.
Yamamoto Quote-"High-Heeled Shoes" (2021) by American Writers MuseumAmerican Writers Museum
Partisan Review 11 (1949) by Partisan ReviewAmerican Writers Museum
One year later in 1949, she was published again in the Partisan Review for what would become one of her most well-known stories, "Seventeen Syllables."
In this issue, she was published alongside exceptionally prestigious writers such Camus and Bellow.
"Seventeen Syllables" highlights a growing cultural divide between the Issei and the Nisei. While the Issei strive to hold onto their Japanese heritage, the Nisei strengthen their American patriotism.
Yamamoto Quote--Seventeen Syllables (1949) by Hisaye YamamotoAmerican Writers Museum
The story of mother and daughter is subtly poignant in its understanding of the differences between generations and also the differences between immigrants and their quickly assimilating children.
The story’s title comes from the definition of haiku, a traditional Japanese form of poetry. Hisaye’s writing style is illustrative of the ability to pack strong emotion and understanding into a limited number of syllables.
Yamamoto headshot closeupAmerican Writers Museum
Hisaye would find it difficult to write while raising a family with five children. She would write primarily at night. When something hit her emotionally, she would write a story to explore it.
In writing about her career, she said she must "in all honesty list [her] occupation as housewife."
But her work is continually praised for its skill, humor, and deep understanding of community and family.
Seventeen Syllables First Edition (1988) by Kitchen Table: Women of Color PressAmerican Writers Museum
While highly praised for her short stories—which were published in a host of journals and magazines from the late 1940s through the 1980s—her work was only collected into a book in 1988, taking its title from her most well known story.
The book has been reprinted with new stories added and even a reprint of the serialized "Death Rides the Rails to Poston" being added to the most recent edition.
Yamamoto Chair Photo (circa 2000) by Yamamoto Family PhotoAmerican Writers Museum
Hisaye’s writing inspired many Japanese Americans such as Wakako Yamauchi, Cynthia Kadohata, and Chizuko and Emiko Omori to share their own stories.
Her work highlighted key issues faced by Japanese immigrants and the children of those immigrants. It illuminated the struggles of many minorities in the “melting pot” of the United States. Countless ideas expressed in Hisaye’s work continue to ring true, even half a century later.
Yamamoto wearing lei (2008) by Yamamoto FamilyAmerican Writers Museum
“She continues to be my ethical and moral guide. What she did with language astounds me daily”
—Kent A. Ono
“Hisaye was like a star in the sky—she made me dream about what was possible”
“Hisaye’s prophetic voice, tempered by a tremendous wit and intelligence, spoke so much of the unspoken in the Japanese American experience”
Mexican Day: A Play by Tom Jacobson (2018) by Tom JacobsonAmerican Writers Museum
Hisaye Yamamoto not only inspired through her words, but also inspired through her actions. In 2018, playwright Tom Jacobson wrote "Mexican Day," which looks at the time in 1948 when Hisaye put her job as a reporter at risk while working to desegregate Bimini Baths.
While fictionalizing some of the history, Jacobson highlights her real work and her real words, taking inspiration from her short stories to help create her voice.
Misa Sugiura (2021) by American Writers MuseumAmerican Writers Museum
"Hisaye Yamamoto's work (as well as Toshio Mori's and John Okada's) was definitely an influence on mine in terms of my interest in the Japanese American internment experience, the important role of art and beauty during the internment, and the different ways the experience played out in people's families in the years after it happened.”
—Author Misa Sugirua, featured in the My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today exhibit.
My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today -- Now Open (2019-11-21) by American Writers MuseumAmerican Writers Museum
The American Writers Museum is thrilled to have the opportunity to explore the life, work, and influence of the writer Hisaye Yamamoto. We have done this in conjunction with our exhibit My America, which can be visited in person at the museum; much of its content and programming can also be accessed online at www.my-america.org.
We want to thank Kiyo Knight, daughter of Hisaye Yamamoto for her support of this exhibit. We would also like to thank Dr. King-Kok Cheung, Dr. Cheryl Higashida, and Tom Jacobson for their insights. We are also thankful to the Library of Congress and the Densho Digital Repository for many of the images and interview content.