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Toshio Mori ranks among the most important early Asian-American writers. His signature work is Yokohama, California, a short-story collection that spans the 1920s to the 1940s and features innovative portraits of the Japanese-American community and the internment of the Issei, Nisei, and Young Sansei (various generations of japanese immigrants) during World War II. The stories offer vivid, artful, and intimate portraits of Japanese-American life, and often display a wry and ironic sense of humor.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Mori’s parents, Hidekichi and Yoshi (Takaki) Mori, emigrated from Otake, Japan, in the late 1890s. On his way to the United States, Mori’s father briefly stopped and worked in Hawaii before buying a San Francisco bathhouse. His wife then made her way from coastal Miyajima to San Francisco, where Toshio Mori was born on March 3, 1910. Mori’s two elder brothers, Masao and Tadashi, subsequently left Japan to join the family, and by 1914 the entire family was reunited. A younger brother, Kazuo, was born in California. From 1913 to 1915 the family co-owned a flower nursery in Oakland, California. in 1915, however, the family acquired their own flower and greenhouse business in San Leandro, California.
As a teenager, Mori dreamed of life as either a professional baseball player or Buddhist missionary. At home, he spoke Japanese to his parents, but spoke English in school and with his brothers. He also read voraciously, and had a particular interest in dime novels, works of fiction that were popular during that time period. When his interest in short-story authorship deepened, he turned to the famous writers and works he mentioned in a 1980 interview with editor Russell Leong: ”O. Henry, Stephen Crane, de Maupassant, Balzac, Katherine Mansfield, Chekhov, Gorki, Gogol and Winesburg, Ohio [a book of short stories by Sherwood Anderson].”
in the 1930s Mori established a rigorous schedule that included full days working at the nursery and four hours writing stories at night. He sent his stories out for publication but frequently received rejection letters, often on the grounds that his subject matter—Japanese America—was odd fare and would not appeal to a mainstream readership. The acceptance of one of his stories, ”The Brothers,” by Coast magazine in 1938 finally launched his career. His works then made regular appearances in various smaller magazines and journals. Encouraged by the novelist William Saroyan, who had read and admired his stories and became a friend, Mori’s work was adopted by a small Idaho publishing house, Caxton Printers, which decided to put his short-story collection, Yokohama, California, on its 1942 list.
Mori and the Japanese Internment
As was the case with lives of the entire Japanese-American community, Mori’s emerging literary career was interrupted on December 7, 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, a U.S. naval base in Hawaii. This historic event led President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to declare war on Japan and issue Executive Order 9066, which called for the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans in camps across the American West. It was believed that Japanese Americans posed such a threat to national security they could not be trusted to live freely in society. Mori and most of his family were sent first to an assembly center at Tanforan Racetrack, California, and then to a Topaz Relocation Camp in central Utah, where Mori spent the whole of World War II as an internee. While interned, Mori and other Japanese Americans lost all the property they left behind. Inside the camps, education was limited, there were few employment opportunities, and detainees had to adhere to a strict schedule.
In the face of widespread anti-Japanese sentiment that resulted from the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the onset of World War II, Caxton made the decision to postpone the publication of Yokohama, California. Meanwhile, Mori became camp historian at Topaz, helped found the camp journal Trek, had some of his work featured in the Best Short Stories of 1943 anthology, and witnessed the return from the Italian front of his seriously wounded brother Kazuo, an enlistee in the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Mori was not able to return to San Leandro until the war ended in 1945. In June 1947 he married Hisayo Yoshiwara, and in July 1951 they had a son, Steven Mori. In 1949, Yokohama, California was finally published, and featured an introduction by Saroyan. Few stories in the collection better represent Mori’s strengths than “Lil’ Yokohama,” a meticulously crafted mosaic of a Japanese-American township in California in the years leading up to World War II. The story emphasizes the everyday life of ”our community,” reminding readers of how the town’s ordinary twenty-four-hour cycles parallel those of cities from Boston, Massachusetts, to Emeryville, California. In his writing, Mori attempted to capture Japanese-American life while facing widespread hostility against the Japanese and anything ”Oriental.”
Yokohama, California sold few copies, and there were few reviews. More than a decade passed before Mori began to make a serious impact on the literary scene. With the close of the family nursery in the 1960s, Mori became an independent flower wholesaler and salesman. However, by the end of that decade America’s multicultural literary renaissance opened the way to Mori’s recognition as a writer. In the 1970s Mori became a widely celebrated figure. Anthologies featured his stories, lecture and conference invitations were frequent, and he became a mentor to a new generation of Asian-American writers.
Mori published three texts in his waning years. In 1978 a small San Francisco publisher, Isthmus Press, operating with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, published Mori’s novel Woman From Hiroshima. Mori drew upon his family history to present the fictional autobiography of Mrs. Toda, or Toda-san as she is called by her community, as she describes her life for her grandchildren, Johnny and Annabelle. Woman From Hiroshima offers Toda-san’s life story both for what it says about the individual character and as a tale representative of the larger Japanese-American experience. In 1979 Mori’s second story collection, The Chauvinist and Other Stories, was published by the Asian-American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. Featuring twenty-two stories set out in six sections, the book again features Mori’s trademark irony and attention to detail.
On April 12, 1980, Mori died in his hometown of San Leandro after suffering several strokes. He was survived by his wife and sons. Mori was mourned in Asian-American circles as well as the larger literary community. In the interview earlier that year with Russell Leong, Mori spoke warmly of his life and writing, of his remembered history of family and community, and of his unyielding commitment to the craft of storytelling. He looked back at the early rejection slips he received from magazines and publishers, explained how he came to focus on ”Japanese life-relations” as his main subject matter, and described the delayed publication history of Yokohama, California. Mori also spoke of his literary influences and reading and discussed without bitterness his internment at Topaz.
Works in Literary Context
Mori’s subtle command of voice and the influence of Zen—quiet self-contemplation and the admiration of the virtues of harmony and balance—are apparent in many of his stories. Mori’s writing usually features typical scenes, such as housewives on the porch, old men reading newspapers, and shifts in the weather. Such intimate attention to detail marks all of Mori’s work.
Mori particularly enjoyed focusing on the simple, common experiences of everyday people, and much of his writing features a ”day-in-the-life” quality. In ”Lil’ Yokohama,” for example, small occurrences and commonalities are what draw the community together. Baseball loyalties are divided between the Ala-meda Taiiku and the San Jose Asahis. The school day parallels the workday. The death of Komai-san, a longtime gardener, occurs at the same time as the Sansei birth of Franklin Susumu Amano. From his window, Yukio Takaki, a painter living on Seventh Street, looks at the scene outside. Sam Suda expands his fruit market, and Satoru Ugaki gets married. The sight of a new Oldsmobile Eight in the neighborhood inspires gossip. Ray Tatemoto leaves to study journalism in New York. The daily Mainichi News appears. Radios blast Benny Goodman’s jazz, and the school day comes to a close. Mori’s portrait closes with, ”The day is here, and is Lil’ Yokohama’s day,” a subtle reminder that Japanese America is an unthreatening township at peace both with itself and its fellow citizenry despite the international war. Unmentioned, but implied throughout, is the threat of internment.
Cross-cultural themes also abound in Mori’s work. In Yokohama, California, the story ”Tomorrow Is Coming, Children,” is a good example of how he employs cross-culturalism to explore the Japanese-American experience and the atmosphere of World War II America. Told by an interned grandmother to her grandchildren, Annabelle and Johnny, it describes the grandmother’s emigration from Japan and her adaptation to life in America. She recalls leaving her Japanese village, sailing from the port of Kobe, her seasickness, the sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, and her husband’s misgivings about the fact that she wears a kimono instead of Western clothes in their new home in the United States. Over the course of her narrative, the grandmother recalls the kindness of a neighbor, a white American woman who is married to a Japanese acrobat. She and her American neighbor have no common language with which to communicate, but they are able to share compassionate silence, tea, and a love of children. To the narrator, San Francisco represents a larger, more generous America, the life beyond the camps indicated by the ”coming tomorrow” of the story’s title.
More cross-culturalism is found in the story ”The Sweet Potato” (1941) published in Unfinished Message: Selected Works of Toshio Mori. The encounter at San Francisco’s Treasure Island fairground between the Nisei narrator, his friend Hiro, and an old Japanese-speaking white lady demonstrates a commonality across cultures and generations.
Works in Critical Context
In her introduction to Mori’s The Chauvinist and Other Stories, Hisaye Yamamoto, a fellow Californian Nisei author, writes admiringly of Mori’s ”panorama of Japanese America,” as well as his ”persistence in continuing to write despite the odds.” With this statement, Yamamoto summarizes Mori’s appeal for Japanese-American readers and mainstream America alike.
Many of Mori’s numerous short stories in this collection draw on events in his own life, including the decades he spent working in his family’s horticultural nursery business. In ”Through Anger and Love,” the protagonist is a nine-year-old boy, the son of a flower-seller, who, angry at his father, sets off to sell flowers by himself. Another story, ”The Chessmen,” ”is a prize, a heart-rending tale of an old nurseryman-gardener who is about to be put out to pasture,” Akira Tofina wrote in Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy, and the Humanities online.
Unfinished Message: Selected Works of Toshio Mori
In 2000, Unfinished Message: Selected Works of Toshio Mori, a major retrospective edited by the Sansei poet Lawson Fusao Inada, was published. Inada’s introduction to Unfinished Message calls attention to Mori’s ”hard-won mastery of English, his self-taught, masterful technique and style” and his deserved stature as an Asian-American literary ”founder.” Inada bases his estimation on Mori’s treatment of Japanese-American life, including family, school, work, baseball, the Nisei-Sansei triumphs and tensions, the flower-nursery business of his own West Coast family, and World War II and internment. Mori’s literary reputation took time to emerge, but his storytelling’s gentle ease of manner and his profound observations about human behavior are now widely recognized and celebrated.
Lonny Kaneko, who reviewed the volume in the International Examiner, noted that ”there are three or four traditional conflict-based stories in the collection, but many others demonstrate a touch that is unique and off-the-beaten path.” Kaneko called Unfinished Message ”a delightful read.”
- Banhart, Sarah Catlin. ”Toshio Mori,” in Asian American Short Story Writer: An A-to-Z Guide, edited by Guiyou Huang. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003, pp. 195-202.
- Davis, Rocio G. Transcultural Reinventions: Asian American and Asian Canadian Short-Story Cycles. Toronto: Toronto South Asian Review Publications, 2001.
- Horokoshi, Peter. ”An Interview with Toshio Mori,” in Counterpoint: Perspectives on Asian America, edited by Emma Gee. Los Angeles: Asian American Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles, 1976.
- Kim, Elaine. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.
- Lee, A. Robert. Multicultural American Literature: Comparative Black, Native, Latino/a and Asian American Fictions. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003.
- Mayer, David R. ”Toshio Mori: Chronicler of Japanese-American Oakland,” in his Door Stoops and Window Sills: Perspectives on the American Neighborhood Novel, Nanzan University Academic Publication Series. Kyoto: Yamaguchi, 1992, pp. 55-77.
- Trudeau, Lawrence J., ed. ”Toshio Mori,” in Asian American Literature: Reviews and Criticism by American Writers of Asian Descent. Detroit: Gale, 1999.
- Bedrosian, Margaret. ”Toshio Mori’s California Koans,” MELUS, 15, no. 2 (1988): 47-58.
- Keneko, Lonny, review of Unfinished Message: Selected Works of Toshio Mori in International Examiner (Seattle, WA), April 30, 2001, p. 12.
- Leong, Russell. ”Toshio Mori: An Interview,” Amerasia Journal, 7, no. 1 (1980): 89-108.
- Mayer, David R. ”Akegarasu and Emerson: Kindred Spirits in Toshio Mori’s ‘The Seventh Street Philosopher,”’ Amerasia Journal, 16, no. 2 (1990): 1-10.
- –”The Philosopher in Search of a Voice: Toshio Mori’s Japanese-Influenced Narrator,” Asian American Literature Association Journal, 2 (1995): 12-24.
- –”The Short Stories of Toshio Mori,” Fu Jen Studies: Literature and Linguistics, 12 (1988): 73-87.
- –”Toshio Mori and Loneliness,” Nanzan Review of American Studies, 15 (1993): 20-31.
- –”Toshio Mori’s Neighborhood Settings: Inner and Outer Oakland,” Fu Jen Studies: Literature and Linguistics, 23 (1993): 100-115.
- Palumbo-Liu, David. ”Toshio Mori and the Attachments of Spirit: A Response to David R. Mayer,” Amerasia Journal, 17, no. 3 (1991): 41-47.
- Sato, Gayle K. ”(Self) Indulgent Listening: Reading Cultural Difference in Yokohama, California,” Japanese Journal of American Studies, 11 (2000): 129-146.
- Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy, and the Humanities Online, http://www.ralphmag.org/ (August 16, 2005), Akira Tofina, review of Unfinished Message.
- Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2008. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008. http://galenet.galegroup.com/ servlet/BioRC
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