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Hisaye Yamamoto's 'Seventeen Syllables'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1255 words Published: 24th Aug 2021

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The “Seventeen syllables” is written by a Japanese-American author, Yamamoto who focuses on various issues which Japanese people who immigrated to the United States faced in the late 19th Century. She writes stories which capture disconnect between the original Japanese families and their children who had been exposed to the American culture. The story focuses on various themes which she experienced as a World War II prisoner in America (Yogi 169-181). These themes include repression felt by women, arranged and loveless marriages, and the general hardships faced by women and immigrants in general in America.

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There major plot advanced by Yamamoto revolves around Hayashi, an adolescent who arranges a meeting with Carrasco, who was a Mexican hired by her family to help in harvesting (Cheung 277-293). Rosie however has limited knowledge of Japanese due to her socialization into the American way of life. She does not understand her mother’s interest in submitting articles on haiku, to a San Francisco Japanese language paper, weekly. These articles discuss inter-generational and cultural differences between these two generations; the oriental Japanese generation and that which has been socialized into the American culture. During the middle of the harvest of tomatoes, the editor of the paper rewards her with a Hiroshige print due to her contributions (Yamamoto 34-39). However, since it is in the middle of harvest season, her husband is not impressed and burns it. Tome then explains to Rosie that she got married as an alternative to suicide. Her wealthy lover rejected her and she gave birth to a stillborn child. An arranged marriage is organized by one aunt who resides in the US. Tome asks Rosie to refuse marriage due to the experiences which she has undergone.

Themes advanced

There are several themes which are advanced in the “Seventeen syllables”. Some of these themes will be briefly discussed below;

Women’s struggles in family and marriage

This was one of the most dominant themes which were discussed by Yamamoto. She captures the struggles which women faced in family institutions and marriage especially during this period in history (Koppelman 23-39). The challenges of arranged marriages are highlighted in the story. Tome is married after being forced into an arranged marriage by her aunt and she frequently contemplates suicide. She lives in a loveless marriage where she regrets getting married. In fact, she advises Rosie not to get married due to the challenges she sees in the marriage institution. This is a challenge many traditional Japanese families faced during the 19th century. Arranged marriages were challenging to both spouses as none knew the personality and traits of the other and most of these marriages were not based on love. However, women suffered more since they bore children into loveless families and they sometimes experienced domestic violence. This theme is relevant even in the modern society where some traditional ethnic groups practice arranged marriages and it underscores the weaknesses associated with this type of family union.

Clash in generational gap

Another dominant theme is the clash which is experienced between the ancient Japanese native population and the generation which has been socialized into the American way of life. There is an apparent clash between these two generations since the former practices the ancient Japanese way of life while the latter practices the modern American culture. The latter generation views the ancient one as backward and it ignores many essential aspects of culture which it is expected to experience. This theme is seen in Rosie who has limited knowledge of Japanese due to her socialization into the American way of life. She does not understand her mother’s interest in submitting articles on haiku, to a San Francisco Japanese language paper, weekly (Yamamoto 19-24). However, her mother views this to be an important aspect of the Japanese culture and she is finally rewarded by the editor of the paper who gives her a Hiroshige print due to her contributions. The generation clash is an aspect of society which is also experienced in the modern way of life especially with the immigration of different ethnic groupings into the United States. Many younger generations adopt the American culture and ignore their ancient culture; a practice which leads to fewer and fewer generations having basic knowledge of the culture of their oriental ethnic groupings. Gradually, such groups lose their culture and replace it with the American culture. This is a situation which Rosie’s mother tried to avoid by practicing her ancient Japanese culture of poetry.

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Family violence and dominance of males in society

Family violence is another theme which is explored in the story. This is seen in the part where Rosie’s husband burns her Hiroshige print which she receives as a reward from the San Francisco Japanese language paper editor due to her contributions. She is unable to protect her gift and watches it gradually burn as she is incapable of going against her husband’s wishes (Kim 55-63). This act shows that the society is patriarchic in nature and women have little control over decisions which are made in families. It also shows an aspect of family violence since the act of burning the print by her husband is a form of family violence. This theme is very relevant in the modern society where approximately half the families in the US have experienced violence at one point in time. Family violence is a very serious issue due to the frequency of its occurrence. The modern society can be said to be relatively patriarchic in nature although feminists are making efforts to reverse this practice. Yamamoto exposes a very important theme of family violence and male dominance to readers who should critically think about this issue affecting society.

Personal opinion

It is my personal pinion that the author captures many relevant themes which were applicable in the traditional society, which are still applicable in the modern one. She writes the story in a clear narration and with the use of simple words which can be understood by people of all ages. The message conveyed in the story is as relevant to the past generations as it is relevant to future generations. She uses her experiences as a prisoner of war to discuss issues which were facing Japanese women and ethnic group in general during the 19th century. These issues are issues which many other immigrant groups especially in the US can identify with. The issue of male dominance in society, women’s struggles in marriage, generation clash in immigrants and family violence are very important issues in society today. Society has faced pressure from feminists to accept the roles played by women in society and to end backward practices such as arranged marriages which rarely work effectively. Society ahs also experienced domestic violence which is an issue facing all parts of the world. The author ensures that readers are motivated to critically think and internalize these issues which are common in the modern society. It is important for other authors to imitate the approach used by Yamamoto and to give stories which have themes which not only discuss issues which were important in traditional societies, but those which also affect the modern society.


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