Authors Wakako Yamauchi and Hisaye Yamamoto, children of immigrant Japanese families, became friends when they were interned together at Poston, Arizona during World War II. It is not surprising then, that the work of these two authors should run parallel courses. Both have written of their lives in pre- and post-war America, and two of these works, Yamauchi’s play And the Soul Shall Dance and Yamamoto’s story Seventeen Syllables bear striking similarities and a few crucial differences.
Both are the stories of artistic women (seen through the eyes of adolescent girls), exiled to America because of sexual misdeeds in Japan. They are married off to hard-working, no nonsense farmers who want their wives to conform. When the women seek intellectual or emotional satisfaction outside the home, the husbands feel rejected and lash out at their wives. The men see the farm as their lives, and they become enraged by their wives attempt at escapism. They respond by crushing their wives’ dreams and knocking them back into their assigned roles as mothers and farm helpers. The women are shown to be powerless, perhaps because their past has made them of little value.
Both pieces are set on the farms of 1st generation Japanese immigrants (Issei) in the American Southwest, where the primary crop is tomatoes. The families practice subsistence farming, and can easily be classified as poor (Yamauchi’s farm has an outdoor bathhouse; Yamamoto’s farm has an outdoor privy.). Being poor keeps the families trapped where they are – in exile from their homeland and their loved ones (“You can go into some kind of business with money, but a man like me…no education…there’s no kind of job I can do.”).
The setting also provides us with the first difference between the two, as Yamauchi’s play is set in pre-war America, when the Japanese had not been in the United States for very long. They still dream of earning their fortunes and then returning home to Japan to become prosperous merchants (“That’s everyone’s dream. Make money, go home, and live like a king.”) They speak a mix of English and Japanese in the home, and retain much of Japanese culture (“Is she really kitchigai?”).
In Yamamoto’s story, set about a decade later, the family is firmly planted in America with no apparent plan to return to Japan. English is quickly obliterating all vestiges of the mother tongue in the vocabulary of the children, to the extent that the parents send their children to “Japanese school” two days a week in a failing attempt to keep the “old ways” alive in the next generation.
Families in these pieces are structured in identical ways: father, mother and one child, an adolescent daughter.
The fathers in both works are portrayed as diligent, hardworking, no-nonsense farmers struggling to carve out their little piece of America. They are also seen as short-tempered with little imaginative power and prone to violent outbursts directed at wives they do not respect as partners. Yamauchi’s character Oka scrapes to get enough money together to bring his teenaged daughter to America from Japan, and he is increasingly alienated from his wife, who seems to drift away mentally in a type of escapism that Oka interprets as rejection. The unnamed father in Yamamoto’s story shares all of these character traits with Oka, including a wife whose imagination looks elsewhere for satisfaction, causing a rift to develop in the family (“So Rosie and her father lived for a while with two women, her mother and Ume Hanazono.” Ume Hanazono is the mother’s haiku pen name.).
The daughters in both of these pieces are rapidly becoming Americanized, and to their backwards looking parents, become less Japanese every day. In Yamauchi’s play, Masako, age 11, is seen by her parents as ill-mannered, and Yamamoto’s Rosie knows little of her parent’s language. The differences between the two girls stem largely from the difference in the timing of the pieces. In 1935 Masako has only been away from Japan a few years and has lost less of her native culture. Also, her parents cling to the idea that one day they will all return to Japan, so little effort is made to assimilate with the locals.
Rosie has lived through the depression and Japan’s destruction in war, and her parents have long ago given up on the dream of a return to their homeland. Rosie is quickly assimilating into the native culture, and instinctively sees her future as American, not as Japanese. Her name is English, as is her primary language (“Rosie knew formal Japanese by fits and starts”). She mimics American entertainers at schools and begins a tentative flirtation with the son of Mexican migrant workers. Perhaps she also has subconsciously learned the lessons of the internment camps, which is that it is not good to be different in America. For Rosie, the internment camps are in her past, and have become part of who she is. For Masako, the internment camps are still in her future, and she remains unaware of the danger of being perceived as different. It is through the eyes of the girls that we see the development of the story in both works, so it may be that for the authors, these are at least partially remembrances of their childhood.
The central characters in both pieces are Japanese wives, who seem marooned in a hard desolate world they did not choose. In Yamauchi’s play Emiko is a thirty-year old wife who seems forever out of place in America, where she has been exiled because of her promiscuous behavior in Japan.
Emiko often reminisces about her life in Japan (“In the city I did do some classics: the dance, and the koto, and the flower, and of course, the tea. All those. Even some singing... I had more freedom in the city. I lived with an aunt and she let me…she wasn’t so strict.”). She dreams of returning to Japan and to her lover there and sadly clings to her past as a way to escape the reality of her arranged marriage in America (“I must keep the dream alive. The dream is all I live for. I am only in exile now. If I give in, all I’ve lived before will mean nothing…will be for nothing. Nothing. If I let you make me believe this is all there is to my life, the dream would die. I would die.”).
For Yamamoto, the wife is more settled (again owing to the time spent in America) but becomes increasingly fixated on writing haiku as her escape. She also was married off because of a sexually blemished past in Japan, but unlike Emiko, she harbors no dream of returning to Japan, and instead stoically resigns herself to her fate.
In the hard, unfeeling world that these Japanese women inhabit, there is nothing in their lives for which to look forward. Daily life is a series of unrewarding, mundane (and often-times backbreaking) chores that do little to stimulate the mind or the soul. These women did not choose this purgatory, but were condemned to it after having breached sexual etiquette in Japan. All that is left for them is to survive one day at a time, and each chooses her own path in this regard. When their hopes are trodden under, they bear up with surprising resiliency.
What separates these two women, and indeed the characters in both pieces, is the paths they tread toward their future. While the characters in Yamauchi’s pre-war And the Soul Shall Dance are still clearly Japanese, looking to Japan for the fulfillment of their dreams, the characters in Yamamoto’s post-war Seventeen Syllables are much more American, and look not to Japan, but to themselves in America for hope.
Clearly, the decade between the settings for the two works seems more like a century when one reflects on the outlook of the families. The reasons for this dramatic shift are the events that marked that span, most significantly the Second World War’s destruction of Japan and the internment camps that became a temporary home to families such as these. These watershed events carved deeply into the psyche of the Issei people. They emerged from the war years determined to never again be seen as aliens in their adoptive homeland, to stop looking back to a life in Japan that they could never reclaim and to instead walk boldly into their new future as Americans.
In the end, And the Soul Shall Dance and Seventeen Syllables are not just about who these people were, but perhaps more importantly, who they were on the road to becoming.
Yamauchi, Wakako. “And the Soul Shall Dance.” Literature and Society: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Nonfiction. Eds. Pamela J. Annas and Robert C. Rosen. 4th Ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2006. 214.
Yamamoto, Hisaye. “Seventeen Syllables.” Literature and Society: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Nonfiction. Eds. Pamela J. Annas and Robert C. Rosen. 4th Ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2006. 331.