In 1985, I wrote a glowing review of Toshio Mori’s Yokohama, California for the International Examiner. I found the collection of 22 short stories whimsical and an astute observation of the Issei and Nisei—during the idyllic days of Nihonmachi, or the country’s Japanese American communities before World War II.
Thirty years later, the stories set in the fictional town of Yokohama, California read more like a true artist working the definition of art: interpretation and intent is left up to the reader. And, for a work originally published in 1949, it was an ahead-of-its-time probe into Japanese American idiosyncrasies and interaction.
The University of Washington Press, publisher of the 1985 reissue of Yokohama, California, has again assembled new versions of “Classics of Asian American Literature” with introductions from national Asian American academics and authors. The first published collection of short stories by a Japanese American, Mori’s work is also “the first real Japanese-American book,” as described by poet Lawson Fusao Inada in his introduction to the 1985 reprinting. “This is the book—the one people ignored and rejected,” he wrote. “This is the book—the one that ‘was postponed.’”
Toshio Mori, a Nisei born in Oakland, California in 1910, was forcibly confined at Topaz, the Central Utah Relocation Center during World War II. After the war, he worked his family’s San Leandro nursery and wrote another short-story collection, The Chauvinist, before his death in 1980. Originally slated for publication in 1942, Yokohama, California became a victim of all things Japanese in America and was scuttled during the war.
Caxton Printers, Ltd. of Caxton, Idaho finally published Mori’s first collection of short stories in 1949—however, with an apparent caveat: that he add two more stories to make the collection more palatable for America’s postwar audience.
In one of those stories, “Tomorrow is Coming, Children,” an Issei “grandma” narrator tells her life story to her Sansei grandchildren—while in a World War II camp—including her immigration from Japan to “San Francisco, my dream city.” While on the surface a warm and fuzzy immigration tale—blunting the impact of the wartime imprisonment with grandma pronouncing that “war has given your grandmother an opportunity to find where her heart lay”—Mori interjects an intriguing twist. During her early days in America, a couple of the grandmother’s few friends were a Japanese acrobat and his white wife.
Was this Mori’s dig at antimiscegenation laws and interracial marriage taboos of the time?
In the other tacked-on story, “Slant-Eyed Americans,” a Japanese American family waits for a son to come home on furlough from the U.S. Army, then reacts with shock to news of the Pearl Harbor attack. The young adult Nisei characters espouse their patriotism: “I’ll take charge of every garden in the city. All the gardens of America for that matter. I’ll rebuild them as fast as the enemies wreck them….” Or: “We’ll face a new world tomorrow with boldness and strength.” (What Nisei talk like that?)
However, Mori subtly slips in the last laugh with his own counter-agenda. The Nisei narrator tells his Issei mother: “… you parents of American citizens have become enemy aliens.” (Italics mine.) And, in the hallmark of Mori’s best stories, he ends them ambiguously. When boarding the train to return to duty, the serviceman son does not pull up the window shade and wave good-bye as others are doing. Why? All this takes place before, and the justification for, the impending forced confinement: “… the last of the train was lost in the night of darkness.”
In his original 20 stories, Mori shows masterful skills as a short-story writer. He modeled his concept for Yokohama, California after Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesberg, Ohio”—stories of the inhabitants of a fictional American town, ordinary people with their quirks, conflicts and big dreams.
In “My Mother Stands On Her Head,” members of a family are in obsessive, indecisive turmoil over whether an Issei door-to-door grocer—commerce conducted in a time gone by—is cheating them. When the mother, sympathetic to the peddler, finally confronts him:
He burst out, “Ho-ho-ho-ho-ho.” His sweat-stained derby went up and down with vibration.
In two quick sentences, Mori says a lot about the era (derby)and the character. And, in Mori’s typically effective, ambiguous ending: Did the peddler really make an honest mistake? Or, was the peddler taking advantage of one of his own, knowing the mother would stay loyal to one of her own no matter what? Did the peddler know he was busted?
The characters in Mori’s few-page stories could be of any ethnicity. However, because they are of Japanese ancestry give the tales deeper meaning. In “The All-American Girl,” two Nisei brothers wait on their porch for their version of “All-American” to pass by: her name is Ayako Saito. In “Tomorrow And Today,” Nisei Hatsuye—“To be crude about the whole thing you would say that she is ugly …”—goes about her daily homemaking routines dreaming of being the lover of Clark Gable.
In an oft-cited piece, “The Woman Who Makes Swell Doughnuts,” the conclusion of a superficial read would be that it is a plotless, static story of an elderly woman making doughnuts who lives by train tracks and has little to say. However, the key line is “… inside of her she houses a little depot.” For the visiting narrator, it is a way station to get refueled with a sense of community and self-pride. And, in Asian culture, silence can sometimes mean more than speaking.
Issues still considered relevant today—interracial marriage, preservation of the past, ensuring self-history to succeeding generations, longing for the loss of Nihonmachi, taking advantage of one’s own, the still-held lunacy that Americans of Asian descent are forever “foreigners”—Toshio Mori wrote about those in the ’30s and ’40s.
Too bad he didn’t write a similar collection set in the Topaz camp.
The nonfiction companion to “Yokohama, California” is Yoshiko Uchida’s “Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family.” Along with Looking Like the Enemy by Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, this is the best memoir of the World War II forced confinement.
Originally published in 1982 by University of Washington Press, the publisher has also reissued Desert Exile this year as one of its “Classics of Asian American Literature.” Both the authors of “Yokohama, California” and “Desert Exile” dedicate their books to their Issei parents, paying homage to that generation and reviving a time when the American dream was being achieved and lived before December 7, 1941.
Yoshiko Uchida (1921-1992) is the pioneering author of over 30 books mostly in the children’s and young adult genres, featuring Japanese and Japanese American characters and stories. Most notable are the novels Journey to Topaz, its sequel Journey Home and the acclaimed picture book, The Braclet. Uchida brings the culmination of her craft to Desert Exile. Like Mori’s experience, a courageous publisher during anti-Japanese times (Harcourt, Brace and Company) published her first picture book, The Dancing Kettle and Other Japanese Folks Tales, also in 1949.
Uchida evocatively relives sunny times and still Sundays in a Berkeley, Calif. neighborhood. Her Issei mother—those of “uncommon spirit” who traversed the Pacific as teenagers to marry strangers and endure a life of continual, turbulent adjustments—“cooked from the heart.” Her community-minded Issei father, for that reason alone, is apprehended by the FBI the day of the Pearl Harbor attack. Uchida is approaching the end of her senior year at Cal-Berkeley when she and her family are expelled to the “assembly center” at the Bay Area’s Tanforan horse racetrack.
A plainspoken remembrance, Desert Exile is unique for its inclusion of simple losses explaining a lot.
… [M]y friends and I would sometimes go to the grandstand just to watch the people coming and going, for even though they were strangers to us, seeing them gave us a brief sense of contact with the outside world….
Whenever the children played house, they always stood in line to eat at make-believe mess halls rather than cooking and setting tables as they would have done at home. It was sad to see how quickly the concept of home had changed for them.
And, when Uchida’s family members are frequently ill from crowded camp conditions and poor quality, inadequately-prepared food:
It was simple enough to find a makeshift bedpan, but it was embarrassing for her to use it, knowing the neighbors could hear everything but the faintest sighs. We finally solved the problem by keeping newspapers on hand, and it was my function during her illness to rattle them vigorously and noisily whenever she used the bedpan.
During September 1942, Uchida’s family is transported by train to the Topaz camp, which would eventually hold some 8,000 Japanese Americans in Utah’s Sevier Desert—a former lake bed which became “loose flour-like sand.”
As we plodded through the powdery sand toward Block 7, I began to understand why everyone looked like pieces of flour-dusted pastry….
When my sister and I went out to meet some incoming buses in the hot desert sun, we came home sunburned, covered with dust, and feeling like well-broiled meat.
And the audacity of the U.S. government to recruit volunteers in the camp to form a U.S. Army segregated unit is given original treatment:
But the thought of a segregated unit was abhorrent. Why, we wondered, couldn’t the Nisei simply serve as other Americans? Why should they be singled out when it hadn’t been deemed necessary to create an all-Italian or an all-German unit? Wouldn’t a segregated unit simply invite further discrimination and perhaps simplify their deployment to the most dangerous combat zones? These were urgent questions asked by the Nisei as well as the Issei of Topaz.
Uchida was able to leave Topaz via a graduate fellowship in education from Smith College at Northampton, Mass. She eventually returned with her family to their native Berkeley.
Yoshiko Uchida concludes in her memoir:
I wrote it for the young Japanese Americans who seek a sense of continuity with their past. But I wrote it as well for all Americans, with the hope that through knowledge of the past, they will never allow another group of people in America to be sent into a desert exile ever again.
Perhaps a patriarchal character from “Yokohama, California” defines the value of reprinting and reissuing:
There are many stories untold. Some are lost. Others will come up in the future.