From a young age, Hisaye Yamamoto was familiar with barriers — some put up by Japanese immigrants in the US and some put up by the US government around Japanese Americans in the country of her birth. She would spend the rest of her life writing about those obstacles.
To mark the beginning of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Google dedicated its Doodle on Tuesday to Yamamoto, one of the first Asian American writers to earn literary distinction after World War II.
Her writing chronicled the Japanese immigrant experience in America, focusing on racism, sexism and issues that divided early generations of Japanese in the US. A key issue in her work is the desire of the immigrant Issei to preserve their language while the US-born generation Nisei leaned toward assimilation through expressions of loyalty to the US and embracing the English language.
To say the 1940s were a difficult time for Japanese immigrants in the US would be drastically understating the hatred and violence they had to endure on a daily basis. Highlighting her experience, and the work that came out of it, seems all that more pertinent in light of a recent upswell in violence directed toward the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in the US.
The daughter of immigrant strawberry farmers from Japan, Yamamoto was born in Redondo Beach, California, in 1921. Because of race-focused laws, her family was forced to move frequently. But as a teenager she found comfort in writing, frequent contributing short stories and letters under the pseudonym Napoleon to newspapers that served the Japanese American community.
Following the outbreak of World War II, Yamamoto’s family was among the 120,000 Japanese Americans forced to relocate to Japanese internment camps. She began writing stories and columns for the camp newspaper at the Poston, Arizona, camp to stay active, but the physical and psychological toll the forced abandonment of homes and businesses would be a frequent theme in her later work.
After three years at Poston, Yamamoto returned to Southern California when the war ended in 1945 and went to work at the Los Angeles Tribune, a weekly newspaper serving the Black community. Drawing from her experience at the internment camp, Yamamoto wrote about the complexities of racial interaction in the US.
She wrote about the intimidation a Black family named Short were experiencing from white neighbors in segregated Fontana. After the family died in an apparent arson attack, she scolded herself for using terms such as “alleged” or “claims” to describe the threats against the family.
Yamamoto would leave journalism after writing the 1948 story The High-Heeled Shoes: A Memoir, which focused on the sexual harassment women are frequently subjected to. The next year, she would follow that up with Seventeen Syllables, explores the generational gap between Issei and Nisei. Her 1950 tragedy The Legend of Miss Sasagawara tells the story of a girl at a relocation camp thought to be insane only to be revealed as lucid in the face of repression by her Buddhist father.
Her work in later years continued to advocate against racism, sexism and violence, and in 1986, she won the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement for her contributions to American multicultural literature.
She died at 89 in 2011 after suffering a stroke a year earlier.