Nationality: American. Born: Oakland, California, 20 March 1910. Education: Graduated from Oakland High School. Career: Interned with family, Topaz Relocation Center, Millard, Utah, during World War II: editor and contributor, Trek, Topaz Camp magazine. Worked in family nursery business. Died: 1980.
Yokohama, California. 1949.
The Chauvinist and Other Stories, edited by Hisaye Yamamoto. 1979.
Woman from Hiroshima. 1979.*
in Asian American Literature: An Annotated Bibliography by King-Kok Cheung and Stan Yogi, 1988.
"Mori's California Koans" by Margaret Bedrosian, in Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Summer 1988; "Short Stories Mori" by David R. Mayer, in Fu Jen Studies: Literature and Linguistics 21, 1988.* * *
Originally published in 1949, Toshio Mori's Yokohama, California was hailed by Lawson Fusao Inada as "the first real Japanese American book." Mori indeed excels in the portrayal of the Japanese American community in California in the early decades of this century. Most of his characters are immigrants and their children, who are involved in agriculture and small business—farmers, nursery workers, and green grocers. In recounting the quiet lives and dreams of these decent and humane Japanese Americans, the narrative voice remains patient, understated, and compassionate. Unlike John Okada's No-No Boy (1957), which is permeated with blind rage and self-hatred sparked by the internment of Japanese Americans, Mori seldom dwells on his experience at the Topaz Relocation Center, devoting his stories instead to the ordinary people—their joy and aspiration, their pain and disillusionment.
Mori, however, was neither a prolific nor a major writer. Many stories in Yokohama, California are no more than character sketches, and throughout his career Mori continued to recycle his materials. The opening episodes of his novel Woman from Hiroshima, for instance, are derived almost verbatim from "Grandpa and the Promised Land," published on 25 December 1948 in Pacific Citizen, and from "Tomorrow Is Coming," the first story in Yokohama, California. What Mori does exceptionally well is the depiction of humaneness and warmth in seemingly unimpressive characters. In this sense Mori greatly resembles Hisaye Yamamoto, a Japanese American female writer whose Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories (1988) is a collection of 15 short stories, some published as early as the late-1940s.
In Mori's collection the narrator's gentle voice becomes the center, rippling outward to individuals, to families, and finally to the close-knit community. Many vignettes of characters are indelibly etched in the reader's mind, all with a tinge of sadness. The savvy and hard-working newspaper boy in "Business at Eleven" is forced to move away from the network of clients he has established because of his mother's second marriage; the aging nursery worker in "The Chessman" collapses in his effort to prove his usefulness by trying to keep up with the murderous pace of a young colleague. But the most significant group of such unforget-table characters are dreamers. Mori seems to have reserved a tender spot in his heart for these failed idealists, all of whom are described with utmost sympathy and absolutely no cynicism. The protagonist in "Akira Yano" boldly travels to New York and finances the publication of his own collection of essays, only to sink into oblivion like countless other young writers. In "The Seventh Street Philosopher" the philosopher expounds "The Apology of Living" to a nearly empty stadium, despite his invitation to a sizable Japanese American community. The lover of flowers and truth in "Say It with Flowers" prefers losing his job to lying to customers about the freshness of flowers—a common practice in that profession. The self-anointed economic wizard in "The Finance over at Doi's" dreams about making it big on Wall Street, but he is left with little of his savings after the venture. All these dreamers appear slightly clownish and insane, yet they all the more endearing because of their flaws.
The representation of the harmonious Japanese American family is underpinned by two types of characters in Mori's stories. The idealized motherhood emerges in "My Mother Stood on Her Head" and "The Woman Who Makes Swell Doughnuts." The former recounts how a housewife continues to patronize a vegetable vender who possibly is taking advantage of her kindness. The latter ennobles womanhood even further by turning the woman's doughnuts into a symbol for the nurturing, self-sacrificing femininity. Mori also deals with the role of fathers as the perfect patriarchs. The happy family of "Nodas in America" sustains itself through the care and love of the father. The uncle in "The Six Rows of Pompons" wisely channels the energy of his unruly nephew into the tending of pompons, believing that the waste of six rows of his garden is worthwhile "till he [the nephew] comes to his senses." Even sibling rivalry in "The Brothers" is looked upon by the father of the story as part of the elation of life.
The Japanese American community is delineated with both sorrow and optimism. "The End of the Line" introduces an ever-shrinking ethnic group where many Issei, first-generation Japanese Americans, have returned to Japan. But in "Lil' Yokohama" the national pastime of baseball is embraced wholeheartedly. With each district of this community rooting for its team, Mori demonstrates well the level of assimilation and Americanization of Japanese Americans, yet subtly points out the discrimination still in existence—these teams compete with each other, never with teams of Caucasian players. In fact, there are very few references to racism or Japanese American's identity problem, perhaps with the mild exception of "Slanted-Eyed Americans," on the attack of Pearl Harbor. This ought to be viewed less as an inadequacy than as Mori's style marked by gentleness and sensitivity in a world of fury.
The Chauvinist and Other Stories, published just months before he died, is Mori's only other volume. It collects 20 of his several hundred stories.