In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Tuesday’s Google Doodle celebrated Nisei short-story author Hisaye Yamamoto, among the first Asian Americans to receive post-war national literary recognition.
Throughout an acclaimed career, Yamamoto constructed candid and incisive stories that aimed to bridge the cultural divide between first- and second-generation Japanese Americans by detailing their experiences in the wake of World War II.
Born on Aug. 23, 1921, in Redondo Beach, Yamamoto was the daughter of Japanese immigrant parents from Kumamoto Prefecture. In her teens, she wrote articles for a daily newspaper for Japanese Californians under the pen name Napoleon.
Following the outbreak of World War II and due to Executive Order 9066, over 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced by the U.S. into government prison camps, where they faced harsh conditions. Yamamoto’s family was relocated from Oceanside to Poston in Arizona.
Despite the injustices encountered daily, she kept her literary aspirations alive as a reporter and columnist for The Poston Chronicle, the camp newspaper. She befriended fellow incarceree Wakako Yamauchi, who later became a well-known playwright.
Her brother Johnny joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and was killed in action in Italy at the age of 19. Decades later, she went to Italy to visit Johnny’s grave in a U.S. military cemetery.
As the dust settled from the war’s end, Yamamoto was released from the camp and returned to the Los Angeles area in 1945. She soon found work as a columnist with The Los Angeles Tribune, a weekly Black-owned and founded newspaper that sought to diversify the voices in journalism and unify the Angeleno Black community with Asian Americans.
Over the next three years gathering news for the publication, Yamamoto witnessed first-hand the widespread racism that many underrepresented groups faced. For example, she had to compile a weekly list of lynchings across the country. These experiences profoundly changed Yamamoto, who became a literary champion of not just the Asian American community, but for others who also endured discrimination. She discussed this period in her essay “A Fire in Fontana.”
In 1948, Yamamoto published her first short story, “The High-Heeled Shoes,” which inspired her to leave journalism and pursue writing full-time, often exploring topics related to the intersection of gender, race, and ethnicity in her works.
The adversity she overcame at the camp formed the basis for much of Yamamoto’s work, such as her 1950 short story “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara.” She also remained a life-long advocate in the fight against war, racism, and violence.
In 1986, Yamamoto’s storytelling won the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement for her contributions to American multicultural literature. Her book, “Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories,” was first published in 1988.
In 1991, PBS broadcast “Hot Summer Winds,” a drama that director Emiko Omori, a family friend, adapted from Yamamoto’s short stories “Seventeen Syllables” and “Yoneko’s Earthquake.” Yamamoto was also interviewed for Omori’s 1999 documentary about the camps, “Rabbit in the Moon.”
For many years Yamamoto contributed short stories and essays to community publications such as The Kashu Mainichi, The Rafu Shimpo, The Pacific Citizen and The Hokubei Mainichi as well as Amerasia Journal. Her stories appeared in several anthologies of Asian American literature and a Japanese translation of her short story collection was published in 2008.
More recently, Yamamoto herself became a character in a play: “The Ballad of Bimini Baths: Mexican Day” by Tom Jacobson. Based on actual events, the play dramatized her role in protests of racial discrimination at Bimini Baths, a public bathhouse and plunge in Los Angeles. Jully Lee played Yamamoto. The title refers to the fact that Latinos were only allowed to use the pool when it was dirty and about to be cleaned.
Predeceased by her husband, Anthony De Soto, Yamamoto passed away in 2011 at the age of 89. Survivors include five children and six grandchildren.