Hisaye Yamamoto dies at 89; writer of Japanese American stories

Hisaye Yamamoto, one of the first Asian American writers to earn literary distinction after World War II with highly polished short stories that illuminated a world circumscribed by culture and brutal strokes of history, has died. She was 89.

Yamamoto had been in poor health since a stroke last year and died in her sleep Jan. 30 at her home in northeast Los Angeles, said her daughter, Kibo Knight.

Often compared to such short-story masters as Katherine Mansfield, Flannery O’Connor and Grace Paley, Yamamoto concentrated her imagination on the issei and nisei, the first- and second-generation Japanese Americans who were targets of the public hysteria unleashed after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.


Yamamoto was 20 when the attack sent the United States into war and her family into a Poston, Ariz., internment camp. Her most celebrated stories, such as “Seventeen Syllables” and “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara,” reflect the preoccupations and tensions of the Japanese immigrants and offspring who survived that era. Among her most powerful characters are women who struggle to nurture their romantic or creative selves despite the constraints of gender, racism and tradition.

“She wrote in a true voice,” said Wakako Yamauchi, the Japanese American dramatist who wrote “And the Soul Shall Dance” and had known Yamamoto since childhood. “She wrote about what she knew and that was about us — Asians, Japanese Americans. Her stories were wonderful, beautiful legacies.”

A private, somewhat taciturn woman with a wry outlook, Yamamoto began writing in the 1930s and published her earliest stories in such prestigious journals as Partisan Review as well as in anthologies, including “The Best American Short Stories of 1952.” But she did not receive serious critical attention until the 1970s, when Asian American scholars began to study her work.

“She was the opposite of the self-promoting writer,” said UCLA English professor King-Kok Cheung, recalling a woman who often responded cryptically, if at all, to questions and lacked flair in public readings. Yet Yamamoto was, Cheung notes, “a very unusual writer, especially given the times, when it was so hard for a Japanese American, not to mention a woman, to publish.”

Yamamoto was born in Redondo Beach on Aug. 23, 1921. The daughter of immigrant strawberry farmers from Kumamoto, Japan, she was a voracious reader and published her first story when she was 14. At Compton College, where she earned an associate of arts degree, she studied French, Spanish, German and Latin. She wrote stories for Japanese American newspapers using the pseudonym “Napoleon.”

During World War II, she wrote for the Poston camp newspaper, which published her serialized mystery “Death Rides the Rail to Poston.” She briefly left the camp to work in Springfield, Mass., but returned when her 19-year-old brother died while fighting with the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Italy.

After the war ended in 1945, she returned to Los Angeles and became a reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Tribune, an African American weekly. Her experiences there deepened her awareness of racism to a point of nearly unbearable anguish. She wrote a story about the intimidation of a black family named Short by white neighbors in segregated Fontana. She attempted to hew to journalistic standards of impartiality, cautiously describing the threats against the family as “alleged” or “claims.”

After her story ran, the Shorts were killed in an apparent arson fire. Yamamoto castigated herself for failing to convey the urgency of their situation.

“I should have been an evangelist at Seventh and Broadway, shouting out the name of the Short family and their predicament in Fontana,” she wrote decades later in a 1985 essay called “A Fire in Fontana.” Instead, she pronounced her effort to communicate as pathetic as “the bit of saliva which occasionally trickled” from the corner of a feeble man’s mouth.

She left the newspaper and rode trains and buses across the country. “Something was unsettling my innards,” she wrote of her dawning multiethnic consciousness. “I continued to look like the Nisei I was, with my height remaining at slightly over four feet ten, my hair straight, my vision myopic. Yet I know that this event transpired within me; sometimes I see it as my inward self being burnt black in a certain fire.”

She drew from this well in the burst of writing that followed. Her breakthrough came with the 1948 publication in Partisan Review of “The High-Heeled Shoes, a Memoir,” a shockingly contemporary story about sexual harassment. She weaved intercultural conflicts and bonds into “Seventeen Syllables” (1949), in which a nisei girl’s blooming romance with a Mexican American classmate offers an achingly innocent counterpoint to her issei mother’s arranged marriage. “Wilshire Bus” (1950) explores a Japanese American woman’s silence during a white man’s racist harangue against a Chinese couple on the bus they are riding.

Fifteen of her stories and essays were collected in “Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories” (1988), which an Amerasia Journal reviewer hailed as “a literary time capsule — an intimate slice of Japanese American history.” Two of her stories — “Seventeen Syllables” and “Yoneko’s Earthquake” — formed the basis of an hourlong drama called “Hot Summer Winds” for the PBS series “American Playhouse” in 1991.

With an adopted son, Yamamoto moved to New York in the early 1950s to be a volunteer in the Catholic Worker Movement. In 1955 she married Anthony DeSoto and returned to Los Angeles, where they raised four more children.

DeSoto died in 2003. In addition to Knight, of Los Angeles, Yamamoto is survived by children Paul of Simi Valley, Yuki of Los Angeles, Rocky of Sylmar and Gilbert of Arcadia; seven grandchildren and two brothers.

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Fukui Mortuary Chapel, 707 E. Temple St., Los Angeles, with burial at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills.

Yamamoto often described herself as a housewife, not a writer. Not surprisingly, her output was greatly diminished during the years consumed by childrearing, but picked up again after her children were grown.

“I write when something sticks in my craw,” she told A. Magazine in 1994. “Writing is a compulsion — or an itch.”