September 2015

Chris Beal

fiction

Yokohama, California by Toshio Mori

Yokohama, California, by Toshio Mori, captures the experience of first- and second-generation Japanese Americans in twenty-two vignettes. All but two of the stories were written before World War II and take place in the 1930s and early 1940s. These pre-war stories share a common narrator -- a young Japanese American man, still living at home, interacting with various others in his community.

The San Francisco East Bay region was much more rural in that era than today. The area labeled "Yokohama, California" is never clearly identified but appears to be around San Leandro, currently a twenty-minute freeway drive south of Oakland but a much longer drive in the pre-war era. Here, the Japanese community flourished, with nurseries as the main businesses.

The narrator, who is never identified by name, visits the homes and workplaces in the community -- even works in a nursery for a while himself -- and occasionally wanders as far afield as San Francisco. The people whose characters he captures are as uniquely human as anyone anywhere, concerned with occupational success for themselves and their children and with maintaining ties with those around them.

One of the hallmarks of these vignettes is that no one changes very much, even though they themselves may want to or promise to do so. The author's attitude is not judgmental, though. Rather, he lovingly portrays his characters' foibles and self-deceit. He seems to be saying, "Aren't we all foolish like this?"

There is, for example, the "philosopher." A man who imagines he can lead other people to truth, he hires a large hall to give a talk but finds virtually no one in the audience. Or, again, there is the writer who is perennially sure he is about to be discovered but never is.

This collection has a long history. First accepted for publication in 1941, it was pulled when the war with Japan began. Not until 1949 was it finally published, with two later-written stories added. In one, "Tomorrow is Coming, Children," a grandmother in an internment camp talks to her grandchildren about her life, while the other, "Slant-Eyed Americans," explores the thoughts of community members when Pearl Harbor is attacked. These two stories show how the relation of the Japanese community to the rest of American society suddenly shifted, and so they are important to the overall picture Mori is painting of his community. Still, they feel out of place -- especially "Tomorrow is Coming, Children" which appears at the beginning of the volume and leads to a false expectation that these stories are about Japanese Americans during the Second World War.

After the 1949 edition, the collection found publication again in 1985, and now we have a 2015 edition. Each edition had an introduction -- the first by William Saroyan and the second and third by scholars Lawson Fusao Inada and Xiaojing Zhou, respectively. Saroyan's is the shortest -- and strangest. It begins, "Of the thousands of unpublished writers in America there are probably no more than three who cannot write better English than Toshio Mori." Near the close of the short introduction, Saroyan continues to damn while praising: "All I can do is hope that Toshio Mori will grow more lucid and at the same time not lose any of the things he has which belong to him alone." Mori has promise, but it is not yet realized, Saroyan seems to say.

It is true that the grammar has its quirks. Most second-generation Japanese Americans learned Japanese at home before learning English. The Japanese language has no articles and no relative clauses, to name just two of the differences from European languages. Mori's grammatical errors are consistent ones -- omitting "the" where native speakers would use it and using it where native speakers would leave it out, for example. But it's rare that an error interferes with meaning, and, in fact, a reader could even conclude that the errors are intentional -- an effort to portray the narrator as a typical second-generation speaker. (Otherwise, it might be asked, why would a publisher's editor not have corrected them?)

As for lucidity, the collection lacks none. It may be that expectations with respect to fiction have changed since this collection was first published sixty-six years ago but to the modern reader these stories say exactly what they need to say. There is not much action, but there doesn't need to be: these are vignettes, not dependent on plot but on vivid and often tender character descriptions. Mori presents a lively picture of a community that dissolved a few years later, when the Japanese were removed to internment camps. It is a community that remains only in the minds of the dwindling numbers of survivors -- and in these stories.

Yokohama, California by Toshio Mori
University of Washington Press
978-0295994741
201 pages