“Seventeen Syllables”

views updated

“Seventeen Syllables”

by Hisaye Yamamoto


A short story set in a California farming community during the 1930s; published in 1949.


A second-generation Japanese American girl confronts the cultural gap between her mother and herself in a tale of thwarted love and creativity.

Events in History at the Time the Short Story Takes Place

The Short Story in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Short Story Was Written

For More Information

Hisaye Yamamoto’s short stories paint a vivid portrait of pre-war Japanese American rural life in California. Yamamoto herself grew up in southern California as a second-generation Japanese American, or nisei (as opposed to issei, which refers to Japanese immigrants to America). In “Seventeen Syllables,” Yamamoto portrays the demanding life and troubled relationship of an issei couple in a farming community just outside Los Angeles in the late 1930s as perceived by their American-born teenage daughter. The story also provides insight into the daughter’s coming-of-age experience in an environment that confronts her with the cultural values of her parents, the conflicting values of her mother and father, and the emerging cultural values of her own generation.

Events in History at the Time the Short Story Takes Place

The first Japanese Americans

In 1885 the government of Japan lifted its two-hundred-year-old ban on emigration. From then until 1924 (when the United States passed the Alien Exclusion Act), approximately 380,000 Japanese people migrated to the United States, settling in Hawaii and on the West Coast. They found work on the railroads, in mines, in canneries, and as domestic employees, or opened small businesses that catered to other Japanese immigrants. Overwhelmingly, however, Japanese immigrants to America worked in agriculture; by 1909, more than 30,000 Japanese toiled in America’s fields. Historians point out that the Japanese workers turned to farming pursuits partly as a means of escaping the racist hostilities that were rampant in industry and in urban centers; violence against Chinese laborers (including a massacre of twenty-two Chinese people in Los Angeles in 1871) had escalated in the years just before the first wave of Japanese immigrants arrived, and a general anti-Asian feeling persisted. Furthermore, farming had always been considered a highly respectable profession in Japan, and many of the immigrants had extensive agricultural experience. They were often content with the seasonal and migratory work of the farming calendar.

However, by around 1908, a new philosophy was taking root among the Japanese laborers—one that arose as a result of changes in immigration laws. Many of them decided to remain where they were and build a new life and community on America’s West Coast. They sent for wives from Japan and started to purchase their own land. Japanese communities sprang up all over the West as Japanese farms grew into successful enterprises. As the following undated excerpt from the San Francisco Chronicle illustrates, Japanese immigrants did so well that the white community viewed them as less than ideal laborers:

Had the Japanese laborer throttled his ambition to progress along the lines of American citizenship and industrial development, he probably would have attracted small attention of the public mind. Japanese ambition is to progress beyond mere servility to the plane of the better class of American workman and to own a home with him. The moment that this position is exercised, the Japanese ceases to be an ideal laborer.

(Kitano, p. 18)

By 1913 fears of economic competition had reached a fever pitch among non-Japanese Californians, and the California Alien Land Act resulted. This law made it illegal for Japanese noncitizens to own land or to lease the same plot of land for more than three years. Many Japanese farmers were able to get around this law by putting their land into the names of children born in America, who were citizens. The law, however, did not sufficiently satisfy the other California farmers, and it was amended in 1920 to read that Japanese farmers could not even lease land, which prevented them from acting as guardians of their (minor) children’s land. This amendment also forced them to move very frequently. The Japanese became tenant farmers and started to raise high-yield, quick-growth crops (like the tomatoes that the Hayashis grow in “Seventeen Syllables”).

Despite all the restrictions placed upon them, the Japanese continued to flock to farming and their communities prospered. Between 1910 and 1920, the birthrate among Japanese immigrants dramatically increased and the number of second-generation (nisei) Japanese Americans rose to nearly 30,000. The Immigration Act of 1924 finally put a temporary halt to all Asian immigration to the country. Hisaye Yamamoto’s own family had to move several times across southern California; she recalls, however, that Japanese people passed leasable land to one another, forming a “floating community” (Yamamoto in Cheung, p. 77).

“Picture brides.”

At the end of “Seventeen Syllables,” Rosie’s mother, Tome, reveals that she married Rosie’s father through a prearranged agreement drawn up by her sister. Although Tome was driven by tragic incidents in her past to leave Japan and marry a complete stranger in America, most of the Japanese women who arrived in America under less unusual circumstances in the first two decades of the century were also stepping into a prearranged situation. They immigrated for the express purpose of becoming brides to Japanese immigrants residing in the United States. In 1907 the United States and Japan came to an informal agreement about the numbers of Japanese immigrants who were arriving on American shores: Japan would no longer issue passports for workers who wished to go to America, and in exchange for this favor America would permit the men already in the country to send for wives from Japan. Between 1910 and 1920 a Japanese woman could emigrate to the United States only under three types of circumstances: if she already had a spouse living in America; if an immigrant returned to Japan to marry and brought his bride back to America with him; and, lastly, if a woman were married by proxy to a male immigrant already living in the United States. This last kind of woman was known as a “picture bride.”

To marry “by proxy” meant that farm laborers would correspond with someone in Japan, sending and receiving letters and photographs (sometimes retouched) across the Pacific, and later sending for the bride they had chosen via mail. The women who emigrated to America in this way tended to be at least a decade younger than their husbands, who had worked and saved for many years before they could afford to send for a wife. By 1920 some 24,125 Japanese women had emigrated to the United States, a large majority being “picture brides.” In 1921 American exclusionists (who had strong anti-immigrant sentiments) decided that the idea of “picture brides” was objectionable on moral grounds, and the practice was forbidden. Those so-called moral grounds involved the fact that Japanese women would work in the fields alongside their husbands, which gave Japanese farms an advantage over those run by Caucasian farmers. California Senator James Phelan reasoned thus: “White women will not and no woman should work in the fields. There is no necessity for it and if we allow the Japanese to come to this country, it will be very difficult for the white man alone to compete against the entire Japanese families, both men and women” (Phelan in Matsumoto, p. 46).

Prearranged marriages were not just a matter of expediting American immigration; rather, they were the typical approach to marriage in Japan. In Japanese culture, marriage was looked upon as a family matter, not an individual choice, and issues of economics and social hierarchy loomed large in all such negotiations. Although many of the Japanese women who came to the United States by virtue of pre-arranged marriages had to endure hardships of poverty, discrimination, and loveless relationships with their spouses, marriage was seen as a sense of duty and obligation rather than a romantic ideal. Divorce among issei couples was almost nonexistent because obligation to one’s family was always the first priority. Once married, the Japanese woman played a carefully defined role within the family: she was to raise the children and care for her husband, putting her individual needs second to the family’s. Japanese immigrants brought this cultural standard with them when they came to America.

Nichibei Shimbun

In the story Tome Hayashi and her husband read a Japanese newspaper, the Mainichi Shimbun, that comes from San Francisco, the same paper to which “Urne Hanazono” (Tome’s pen name) sends her haiku. There is a strong link between newspapers and the consolidation of Japanese culture in California. In particular, the Nichibei Shimbun, or “Japanese American News,” founded by Kyutaro Abiko in San Francisco at the turn of the century, had a great influence on the Japanese community, becoming the largest paper of its kind in America. Abiko had originally come to San Francisco under the auspices of the Fukuinkai, a Christian organization for Japanese immigrants that provided the city’s first rudimentary social services for the thousands who disembarked there. Abiko deplored the racist hostility that existed between the Japanese and the Caucasian Californians, and attributed the cause to both sides. While Caucasians needed to be educated about Japanese culture, the lifestyle of the young Japanese men who followed the crops was hardly an admirable one; away from their families and everything familiar to them, and eager to make as much money as possible, some of the young men turned to crime or to gambling to augment their earnings. Abiko felt that the establishment of a permanent Japanese community, with stable social services, was the remedy. He used his newspaper to help establish such a community. Sponsoring the immigration of Japanese men by giving them part-time jobs at his paper, running advertisements about housing, employment, and community activities, and writing articles in defense of picture brides, Akibo provided Japanese newcomers with a lifeline to their traditional culture as well as the means to prosper in their new home.

Japanese school

Rosie Hayashi, the teenage girl in “Seventeen Syllables,” attends a Japanese school part-time in addition to her studies at a local high school. Rosie has not learned very much Japanese in all her years of attendance, but she does enjoy the cultural immersion and sense of community that she finds there. Her experience resembles that of many second-generation Japanese Americans, whose parents were determined that they learn the rudiments of the Japanese culture; in 1939, approximately 10,000 Japanese American children were enrolled in Japanese schools in Los Angeles alone. The children attended Japanese school after regular school hours, on Saturdays, or both. The teachers generally came directly from Japan and were paid by a community group that took monthly tuition from parents; often, members of the community with particular skills stepped in when they were needed. One historian, himself a student of Japanese schools, reports that most of the children who attended such institutions were never really able to speak Japanese fluently, but that attendance was strongly encouraged anyway, as a means of consolidating Japanese feelings of community. In addition to reading and writing, instruction in the arts—even cooking—was sometimes offered. The Japanese schools were shut down during the Second World War, and most of them never reopened.

The Short Story in Focus

The plot

“Seventeen Syllables” is the story of Rosie Hayashi, a nisei teenager, and her issei mother, Tome. Rosie works alongside her parents on their farm when she is not in high school or in Japanese school, and the story takes place during a particularly urgent time during the yearly tomato harvest.

Tome Hayashi has recently taken up the intellectual and artistic exercise of writing haiku, a highly ritualized form of Japanese poetry with seventeen syllables in three lines. As soon as her family duties are done for the day, she sets to work and labors into the night; her hard work and creative energy meet with some success, and several of her haiku are published in a San Francisco newspaper for Japanese immigrants. Tome tries to share her excitement at the beautiful things she is writing with her daughter. In response, while Rosie feigns interest in her mother’s poetry, she has neither the Japanese language skills nor the temperament to appreciate her mother’s art and takes the easy way out, telling a half-truth: “‘Yes, yes, I understand. How utterly lovely,’ Rosie said, and her mother, either satisfied or seeing through the deception and resigned, went back to composing” (Yamamoto, “Seventeen Syllables,” p. 22). Her father, too, cut from a rougher cloth than her mother, does not appreciate his wife’s new-found artistic calling, and resents the time she spends writing her poetry. One evening the Hayashis are visiting another Japanese family, and, as Tome excitedly discusses haiku with Mr. Hayano, another budding poet, Mr. Hayashi leaves abruptly, saying nothing to his wife. She has to run after him, and her gentle plea for understanding is met with nothing more than a grunt. “As they rode homeward silently, Rosie felt a rush of hate for both—for her mother for begging, for her father for denying her mother” (“Seventeen Syllables,” p. 27).


A Japanese student immigrating to America recounts the reaction of some of the women aboard his ship when first casting eyes on their new spouses:

“All those picture brides would look at their future husbands’ pictures, and all those pictures were of good-looking young men. But when they arrived in San Francisco, those young brides discovered that all those men who were waving at them were old and baldheaded. When they discovered that those older men were, in fact, their husbands, they cried and cried” (Wataru Ishisaka in Sarasohn, p. 110).

In the next scene, Rosie is rushing through the tomato fields at night to meet Jesus Carrasco. He and his parents have been hired by Mr. Hayashi to help with the tomato crop. Although Jesus and Rosie can barely remember each other from high school, they have become friends from working together all summer. Jesus has asked Rosie to meet him alone that night so he can tell her a secret; Rosie is completely taken in by his amateur lie, and is surprised when the secret he has for her is a kiss. Rosie is pleasantly overwhelmed and races back to the house, where her mother is in the parlor discussing haiku with Rosie’s aunt and uncle. On her way to take a bath, she runs into her disgruntled father, who has left the gathering in the parlor as a result of his displeasure.

Rosie is still reeling from Jesus’s kiss the next day when a strange man drives onto the Hayashi property. He is the haiku editor of the newspaper in San Francisco to which Tome has been sending her poetry. He is there to award her first prize in the poetry contest she entered. The award is a framed print by Hiroshige, an eighteenth-century Japanese artist known for his delicate “floating-world” works. Rosie’s mother is delighted and invites the man in for tea; a short time later, Mr. Hayashi sends Rosie in to retrieve her mother, citing the importance of the harvest. Rosie’s mother, speaking in elegant Japanese with the editor, is reluctant to cut short their discussion of haiku and to appear rude, so she remains in the house with her visitor. All of a sudden, Rosie sees her father march angrily to the house, watches the poetry editor get into his car and drive off, and then sees her father reemerge from the house, carrying the painting, which he smashes and burns before returning to the fields.

Rosie is shocked by her father’s behavior and goes in the house to find her mother, who is watching the smoldering prize through a window. Calmly, then, Tome tells her daughter the story of how she came to marry Mr. Hayashi. As a young girl in Japan, Tome fell in love with a wealthy young man and became pregnant by him. Because her family was not of a prominent social stature, the two could not marry. Tome gave birth to a boy, stillborn, who would now have been seventeen years old. To escape enduring disgrace, Tome begged her sister in America to arrange a marriage for her. Rosie is stunned at the thought of having once had a brother, but her thoughts are interrupted by her mother’s sudden, passionate plea that Rosie never marry. Rosie can only think of Jesus, but promises her begging mother that she will do as she is asked. Tome hears in Rosie’s voice the same easy lie that she has heard before, when Rosie pretends to be interested in and impressed by haiku, and realizes that once again Rosie is only appeasing her:

[H]er mother, hearing the familiar glib agreement, released her. Oh you, you, you, her eyes and twisted mouth said, you fool. Rosie, covering her face, began at last to cry, and the embrace and consoling hand came much later than she expected.

(“Seventeen Syllables,” p. 38)


The specific type of poetry that Tome Hayashi writes is the haiku, a three-line poem of 5-7-5 syllables (seventeen in all). Strict rules of form and content govern the writing of such poetry, which dates to sixteenth-century Japan. In fact, nineteenth-century writers of haiku desired that the practice be as rule-bound as possible, to increase the artful game and to discourage too many people from participating. The Japanese government actually set up haiku authorities, who pronounced certain schools of haiku “legitimate”; one critic points out that “the link between haiku and the biological blood-lines that dictate social class are strong” (Goellnicht in Cheung, p. 184).

Haiku demanded a certain level of linguistic sophistication and imitation of its classical origins; among other things, it was linked to the Zen Buddhism idea of satori, a self-awakening linked to a mystical appreciation of nature. Tome Hayashi, married to an ill-educated tomato farmer, appears to be trying (after dinner and when work is done) to escape her lot as subservient farmwife whose only relationship to nature is as a field laborer by participating in an elite cultural pursuit that concerns itself with the transformative power of the natural world. Her penname, “Urne Hanazono,” furthers this association: Ume means “flowering tree” and Hanazono means “flower garden” (Mistri in Cheung, p. 197). An essay by Charles Crow also points out that the seventeen syllables of the haiku recall the seventeen years since Tome’s son was stillborn; the attempt to immerse herself in the world of haiku might be seen as an attempt to recapture the higher-born world of her lost lover and son.


Hisaye Yamamoto was born in Redondo Beach, California, in 1921 to Japanese immigrant parents. Yamamoto draws from her own family experiences and personal understanding of the differences between the generations as she examines them in her stories. While she did not grow up on a farm, she did have relatives who farmed for a living and her observations of their lives helped her develop the rural atmosphere of “Seventeen Syllables.” Also, Yamamoto—herself a writer from the age of fourteen—was able to convey Tome Hayashi’s passion for creative writing. Yamamoto has revealed that “Seventeen Syllables” is actually her own mother’s story. Although the details are fictitious, her mother’s immigration to the United States was similar to that of Rosie’s mother and many other issei women of the time.

The reason I call it my mother’s story is that, like most women, she didn’t fulfill her potential. She had us kids to look after, on top of all the housework and working alongside my father in the fields.... I remember when she was president of the Japanese school mothers’ club, the group was very active, with such projects as Chinese cooking lessons and tie-dye sessions.

(Yamamoto in Cheung, p. 86)

Yamamoto’s mother wrote poetry for a Japanese American newspaper in Los Angeles, and was part of the literary culture so strong among Japanese immigrants.

Events in History at the Time the Short Story Was Written


“Seventeen Syllables” was published in 1949, only a few brief years after the last Japanese internment camp was shut. The shadow of the approaching confinement of Japanese Americans during World War II and the irrevocable changes it wrought within their community hangs over the pre-World War II environment in “Seventeen Syllables.” In some ways, the story offers a portrait of a way of life that disappeared after the war.

At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), there were slightly more than 125,000 people of Japanese ancestry residing in America—most of them on the Pacific coast. Within two months of the attack, which forced the entry of America into World War II, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, otherwise known as the Japanese Relocation Act of 1942. Under this law, all Japanese Americans (including people born in America and hence citizens) were forcibly relocated away from the West Coast. More than 11,000 Japanese Americans were dispatched inland to makeshift camps in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. Many historians think that the Japanese removal from the Pacific coast was motivated not only by fear but also by racial intolerance and by the vocal demands of non-Japanese farming interests in the area, which had a lot to gain by the forced absence of their competition. The Japanese Americans who were moved generally lost their homes and their businesses.

After World War II had ended, anti-Japanese sentiment endured throughout the country. The bombing of Pearl Harbor, “a day that would live in infamy,” in the words of President Roosevelt, would not be forgotten easily, and other Americans made the too-quick association between Japanese ancestry and responsibility for the actions of the Japanese government during wartime. The discrimination that had already been inflicted upon Japanese Americans grew, in some cases, even stronger than before. After being released from the internment camps, many Japanese Americans returned to California, where they were often met with hostile demonstrations, and found their homes and property permanently confiscated. Approximately $400 million of Japanese-owned property was lost through relocation. Returning “home” from the camps, many Japanese Americans were forced to begin from scratch; this is the difficult context in which “Seventeen Syllables” was written.

Race relations

Hisaye Yamamoto and her family spent some three years interned in a camp in Poston, Arizona. After being released, Yamamoto worked for the Los Angeles Tribune, a job she held from 1945 to 1948. She had been writing for years, and contributed regularly to the camp newspaper, so the fact that she got a post as a journalist is perhaps not surprising. What is surprising is that, as a Japanese American woman, she went to work for the Tribune, which was an African American newspaper. Almena Davis Lomax, who hired Yamamoto, was interested in having a Japanese writer on staff for two reasons. First, she hoped to attract Japanese advertising dollars to the African American paper. Second, she wished to do something positive about the racial harmony in “Little Tokyo,” the Japanese part of Los Angeles that, during the war, had become repopulated by African Americans. Yamamoto records that she proved a complete failure in both respects: “I doubt if my presence on the staff attracted even one line of Japanese advertising or even one Japanese subscriber” (Yamamoto in Cheung, pp. 63-4); furthermore, not being what she calls an “activist type,” she did not manage to forge bonds between the Japanese American and African American communities (Yamamoto in Cheung, p. 78).

On the other hand, Yamamoto’s short stories often contain situations in which people of different races mingle; in “Seventeen Syllables,” for example, Rosie’s first romantic attachment is to the Mexican American Jesus Carrasco. Yamamoto has said that, in general, interracial relationships were frowned upon but that her own parents did not much interfere in her personal life; the only time her father had anything to say on the matter was to warn Hisaye against marrying a white man.


“Seventeen Syllables” has gradually become one of America’s favorite short stories; it has been anthologized so many times that Yamamoto herself has lost count. When first published, the story apparently garnered little attention, but over time it has been turned into a television play (Hot Summer Winds, broadcast on public television in 1991) and read on the radio; it has also become a mainstay of university literature courses. The story, notes Yamamoto, appears to attract more attention from Asians than non-Asians, and its audience seems largely to be made up of women. Also the story seems more popular on the West Coast than elsewhere. “Ethnic, feminist, regional”—these are the groups most interested today in reading “Seventeen Syllables,” according to its author (Yamamoto in Cheung, p. 84).

For More Information

Blyth, R. H. Haiku. 4 vols. Japan: Hokuseido, 1966.

Cheung, King-Kok, ed. “Seventeen Syllables”: Hisaye Yamamoto. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

Crow, Charles L. “A MELUS Interview: Hisaye Yamamoto.” MELUS 14, no. 1 (Spring 1987).

Kitano, Harry H. Japanese Americans: The Evolution of a Subculture. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976.

Matsumoto, Valerie J. Farming the Home Place: A Japanese American Community in California, 1919-1982. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Nakano, Mei. Japanese American Women: Three Generations, 1890-1990. San Francisco: Mina, 1990.

O’Brien, David, and Stephen S. O’Brien. The Japanese American Experience. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Sarasohn, Eileen Sunada, ed. The Issei: Portrait of a Pioneer: An Oral History. Palo Alto, Calif.: Pacific, 1983.

About this article

“Seventeen Syllables”

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


“Seventeen Syllables”