The Japanese-American author was born in 1921 and passed away in 2011, but it was her work about first and second generation Japanese-Americans that saw her rise to prominence, as she detailed their experiences in the wake of World War II in a bid to bridge the cultural divide between the two.
Yamamoto was born in Redondo Beach, California, to Japanese immigrant parents. Her parents were from the Kumamoto Prefecture in Japan and immigrated to California where they farmed strawberries. Under the California Alien Land Law of 1913, Yamamoto’s family was not allowed to own agricultural land and so they moved around as she was growing up.
She was also no stranger to struggle and loss, all of which fueled the amazing writer that she was. Yamamoto wrote for a daily newspaper for Japanese Californians under the name Napoleon for a bit before she and her family were sent to Camp Poston in Arizona shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. More than 112,000 Japanese Americans were removed from their homes on the West Coast and sent to internment camps, under Executive Order 9066, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Despite the harsh conditions at the camp, Yamamoto continued to write and worked as a reporter and columnist for the camp newspaper, the Poston Chronicle, even in the midst of loosing her brother in the war.
The end of the war saw Yamamoto returning to the Los Angeles area to begin working as a columnist for the Black-owned newspaper, the Los Angeles Tribune, which aimed to diversify the voices in journalism and unify the Angelo Black community with Asian Americans.
Over the next three years, while working as a reporter, Yamamoto witnessed the racism that minority groups faced, which eventually led her to become a literary champion for those who were discriminated against. Following Yamamoto’s death in 2011, Elaine Woo wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Her experiences [at the Los Angeles Tribune] deepened her awareness of racism to a point of nearly unbearable anguish.”
Yamamoto published her first short story, The High-Heeled Shoes, in 1948. That was followed up in 1950 by another short story, ‘The Legend of Miss Sasagawara’, where she continued to be vocal in the fight against war, racism and violence. She then left journalism to pursue writing full-time. She enjoyed exploring topics related to the intersection of gender, race, and ethnicity, and her work was influenced by the adversity she overcame at the prison camp.
Yamamoto remained a life-long advocate in the fight against war, racism, and violence. She wrote: “Painfully, in the two to three years of my employment, 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 country were heir to.”
In 1986, Yamamoto’s storytelling won the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement for her contributions to American multicultural literature.
In honor of the beginning of Asian American history month, we celebrate the life and legacy of this great author for this week’s #WCW. Perhaps Yamamoto’s best-known piece is, “Seventeen Syllables,” wherein a young girl tells the story of her mother, who writes haikus to transcend the boredom of working on a farm. However, the mother is punished for her hobby by her ignorant husband. The point of the story seems to mirror Yamamoto’s own life, which illustrates that one should always find a way to make art, even if it is suppressed or misunderstood.
Her commitment to using her talents to highlight her experiences as well as the experiences of others changed the way that people related to each other, raised global awareness and solidified the importance of fighting for justice in all forms.