Prewar Nikkei life depicted


Yokohama, California

Yokohama, California
Yokohama, California

By Toshio Mori, introduction to the 2015 edition by Xiaojing Zhou (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015, 201 pp., $19.95, paperback)

The new edition of Toshio Mori’s short story anthology “Yokohama, California” forms part of the new University of Washington Press reprint series of Asian American classics, joining such titles as Miné Okubo’s “Citizen 13660” and John Okada’s “No-No Boy.” The current edition of Mori’s book offers a handsome reproduction of the original (1949) edition’s cover art, but it also features a new introduction by Xiaojing Zhou, professor of English and ethnic studies at the University of the Pacific, that stands alongside William Saroyan’s introduction to the original edition and Lawson Fusao Inada’s introduction to the better-known 1985 reprint edition.

Although Zhou’s introduction centers on the literary qualities of Mori’s work, her introduction bears witness to the peculiar history of Mori’s work, which I would argue is inextricable from the text itself. The volume is made up of short stories — for the most part fictionalized portrait sketches of Japanese community members — that Mori wrote as a young Bay Area writer.

After several of these sketches,  which appeared in literary magazines such as New Directions and the prewar Nisei press, “Yokohama, California” was accepted for publication in 1941 by Caxton Printers, a small Idaho-based publisher that specialized in Western and Native American books. The granting of the contract represented a breakthrough, as it marked the first mainstream book publication of literature by and about Japanese Americans.
The book was set for release in 1942. However, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans became a pariah group in the West, and the project was quietly shelved by the publisher. By the time the book was finally greenlighted for publication in 1948, the larger context had changed. The close-knit Nikkei communities had been swept away by Executive Order 9066 and mass incarceration, and the prewar optimism of the Nisei about integrating American literature had also been tempered by experience.

True, the author added to his original manuscript a pair of stories he had produced during the war, “Tomorrow is Coming, Children,” an evocation of an Issei grandmother’s life story with an exhortation to her grandchildren to take pride in their American identity, and “Slant-eyed Americans,” a dramatization of the reaction to the Pearl Harbor attack among Japanese American families. Yet he did not alter the manuscript to add stories that dramatized the wartime camp experience. Indeed, the text nowhere referred to the wartime fate of the author, confined at Topaz (Central Utah), or the communities he had so painstakingly described. As a result, Mori’s book was something of a museum piece even by the time of its initial appearance.

While the rediscovery of Mori since his death in 1980 — in large part thanks to the previous reprint of “Yokohama” — has made possible a more objective evaluation of the literary merits of his stories, the work also remains powerful as a kind of poignant artifact of the lost innocence of the prewar Japanese communities, and the hopes of the young writers who came out of them to create the “great Nisei novel.”

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