Hisaye Yamamoto, and Japanese Internment During WWII

February 19 marks the anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's executive order to imprison thousands of Japanese Americans.

By Thoai Lu Feb 17, 2011

Saturday is the annual Day of Remembrance, honored each year in the Japanese American community to mark the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The order eventually sent over 110,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War II.

This year’s annual event in Los Angeles will be held under the theme of "September 11: Ten Years Later", to draw historical parallels to growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. If you’re in the area, Angry Asian Man has more. Another event is also being planned in San Francisco’s Japantown.

But we want to take a moment out to remember Hisaye Yamamoto, a Japanese American writer who was one of those tens of thousands interned during WWII. Elaine Woo at the Los Angeles Times pays homage to Yamamoto, who’s best known for her short stories and contributions to an African-American newspaper after WWII. Yamamoto recently died in her sleep in her Los Angeles home last month.

According to UCLA English professor King-Kok Cheung, Yamamoto was a "very unsual writer." After the Pearl Harbor attack by Japan in 1941, it was rare for a Japanese-American author to be published, let alone a female author. Yamamoto, however, broke barriers by publishing Seventeen Syllables in 1949, which would become her best known work.

Although many of her works explore the cultural tensions between first generation Japanese immigrants (Issei) and those, like Yamamoto herself, of the second generation (Nissei), she developed a multicultural consciousness by contributing to Los Angeles Tribune, an African-American weekly, after the war ended in 1945.

After working at the Los Angeles Tribune, Yamamoto said: "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 county were heir to."

At a point during her three years at the newspaper, she wrote a story about how a black family, the Shorts, were intimidated by white neighbors. After the story was published, the Shorts were killed in an arson fire. Yamamoto had a deep reaction:

"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," Yamamoto later remembered "Yet I know that this event transpired within me; sometimes I see it as my inward self being burnt black in a certain fire."

Yamamoto was born in Redondo Beach, CA in 1921 to immigrant farmers from Kumamoto, Japan, and was later held in an internment camp at Poston, Arizona at the young age of 20. She reflected on that horrible experience in "The Legend of Miss Sasagawara," a short story that deals with a woman who is thought to be insane by other inmates at an internment camp.

The Los Angeles Japanese Daily Rafu Shimpo notes that Yamamoto’s own personality seems cryptic and silent, much like her fictional character Miss Sasagawara, as she responded minimally to questions and barely participated in public readings. Her talent, however, is undeniable. She first published at age 14 for Kashu Mainichi, under the pen name "Napolean."

Hisaye Yamamoto (R) with other former residents of Poston camp. (The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley. Photographer Charles Mace)

Japanese Exclusion Order

Bus headed for Manzanar internment camp. (Library of Congress)

A shop in Los Angeles "Little Tokyo" closing before evacuation. (Library of Congress)

Japanese American evacuees in San Francisco, CA. (Library of Congress)

Manzanar relocation center. (Library of Congress)