The Fascinating—and Harrowing—Tale of the First Japanese American to Publish a Book of Fiction

After his incarceration during WWII, Toshio Mori released a collection of short stories based on his experiences as a second generation Asian immigrant

Mori in his office working
Toshio Mori's Yokohama, California was slated for publication in fall 1942. Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor—and Mori's incarceration under Executive Order 9066—delayed the short story collection's release until 1949. Courtesy of Steven Y. Mori under CC BY-SA

Eighty years ago, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the forced removal of more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry into incarceration camps.

At the time, Toshio Mori, an American citizen with Japanese parents, was an aspiring writer who had a contract to publish a collection of his short stories. Due to the executive order, however, he was sent to one of the camps, and his publisher delayed the book’s release.

As an archivist and scholar studying publishing in the western United States, I’ve found unpublished and unreported archives that detail Mori’s difficulty getting his book, Yokohama, California, published in a country roiled by prejudice against Asian Americans. Today, amid an unprecedented uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes across the U.S., his story holds renewed resonance.

Perseverance pays off

Mori was born in Oakland, California, in 1910. As he recounted in an interview, he wanted to be a “serious writer”—which, to him, meant getting published. He took his neighborhood as his subject and wrote about his majority Japanese community.

Mori turned Oakland into the fictionalized town of “Yokohama” and described the lives of the issei, or first generation Japanese immigrants, and their children, the second generation, known as nisei.

But Mori had little time to write. He worked full time at his family’s garden nursery, with workdays often stretching to 16 hours. Starting when he was 22 years old, Mori adhered to a disciplined daily schedule in which he would work all day, return home and write from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m.

In this 1949 photograph, Mori works in his family’s nursery in San Leandro, California
In this 1949 photograph, Mori is seen working at his family’s nursery in San Leandro, California. Courtesy of Steven Y. Mori under CC BY-SA

After receiving dozens of rejection letters—“enough to paper a room,” he later quipped—28-year-old Mori finally had his first story, “The Brothers,” published in the Coast magazine in 1938.

Mori found a champion of his writing in Armenian American author William Saroyan, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award. Saroyan read “The Brothers,” liked it, and began encouraging and promoting Mori as a writer, even helping him find a publisher for his short stories.

After being rejected by several New York book publishers, Mori submitted his collection of stories to the Caxton Printers, a small publishing company in Idaho. In his submission letter, Mori made the case for his book:

I believe that the time has come for someone in our little world to be articulate. … In our present national crisis I believe that the American public would be interested to look into the lives of Japanese Americans living in their communities.

Caxton accepted the manuscript for publication. James H. Gipson, Caxton’s founder, liked Mori’s collection of stories and recognized its uniqueness.

“It is what you would call a good book,” Gipson wrote in an internal memo, “and it is rather important as it is the first writing dealing with Americans born of Japanese parents, and tells in simple, understandable and unvarnished language, the problems of the Japanese.”

Saroyan wrote an introduction for the book in which he called Mori “one of the most important new writers in the country.” On December 2, 1941, Caxton Printers set a tentative publication date for the following autumn.

Five days later, Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor. The U.S. declared war on Japan on December 8.

A dream deferred

Even after the attack, Gipson proposed moving ahead with publication as scheduled.

But Roosevelt’s executive order, which forced Mori and his family from their home in San Leandro, California, halted these plans. First, the family was sent to Tanforan Racetrack, a temporary assembly center in nearby San Bruno. Next, they were incarcerated at the Topaz War Relocation Center in the Utah desert, where they remained for three years.

Mori (front row, far left) poses with other detainees in front of the Topaz War Relocation Center’s newspaper building.
Mori (front row, far left) poses with other detainees in front of the Topaz War Relocation Center’s newspaper building. Courtesy of Steven Y. Mori under CC BY-SA

In May 1942, Gipson decided to indefinitely delay publication of Yokohama, California. He’d been counting on strong sales to Japanese Americans, but as he reasoned in an internal memo, “[the Japanese] are now gathered in concentration camps, ... and it is doubtful that they’ll have any money with which to buy books.”

Another member of Caxton’s editorial staff noted in reply to Gipson that “people are blindly averse” to Japanese Americans. “It may be that there is so much bitterness that it would not sell. One of the most shocking manifestations up to date is the immense growth in racial and religious prejudices.”

More broadly, Gipson explained in a letter to Mori that selling books was a difficult prospect during wartime: “I’m of the opinion that it would be far wiser, for you and for us, if we’d set the date of publication for your book forward to some time in the future. … To bring it out now will mean failure for it in every way.”

Saroyan protested the postponement strongly and urged Gipson to forge ahead with the book’s publication: “Now, more than ever, Yokohama, California, should be published.” Mori, too, requested that the book appear as scheduled but ultimately accepted Caxton’s decision.

In a letter to Mori, Saroyan implored him to keep writing: “You must write a story or two, or eventually a whole short novel about you and your friends, and people, at Tanforan. That is going to be something people are going to want to read. … In short, keep busy; there is more than ever an urgency for you to write.”

At Topaz, Mori served as the camp historian, working to document major and minor events. Despite the restrictive conditions, he continued writing and reported to Saroyan that he had “enough material to keep me busy for a long time.” Mori completed a draft of a novel about the internment experience, and several of his new short stories appeared in Trek, the Topaz literary magazine.

After the war ended in 1945, Mori returned to California and worked in the nursery full-time. He married in 1947 and later had a son, Steven.

A flash of recognition

The manuscript for Yokohama, California lay dormant for the duration of the war. But in 1946, Caxton’s editors revived it and resumed correspondence with Mori. The writer contributed two new stories to the collection, both about the Japanese American experience after America’s entry into the war.

The Japanese American Mochida family waits for a bus to an incarceration camp in Hayward, California, on May 8, 1942.
The Japanese American Mochida family waits for a bus to an incarceration camp in Hayward, California, on May 8, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images

Yokohama, California was finally released in March 1949, making Mori the first Japanese American to publish a book of fiction. Saroyan’s introduction appeared at the beginning of the work, with a brief addendum in which the writer noted that the book had been “postponed” due to the war—a simplification of the complicated history of the preceding years.

Despite receiving favorable reviews in the national press—Mori was variously described as “a natural-born writer,” a “fresh voice” and “spontaneous”—the book did not sell well, and the majority of the copies were eventually discarded. As poet Lawson Fusao Inada put it in a later introduction to Mori’s work, the story collection “slid into oblivion.”

The birth of a movement

For the next two decades, Mori continued to write but struggled to find publishers and an audience for his fiction. It wasn’t until the next generation of Japanese Americans—the sansei, or third generation—came of age that Mori finally began receiving recognition for his trailblazing work.

The nascent Japanese American literary movement coalesced in 1975 with the first meeting of the Nisei Writers’ Symposium in San Francisco. Mori was one of four authors featured at the conference. The following year, the University of Washington hosted a similar conference where Mori was again an honored guest.

These groups’ efforts brought renewed attention both to Mori and to other nisei Japanese American writers. Inspired by the new spotlight, Mori published a novel, Woman From Hiroshima, in 1978, and a second collection of short stories, The Chauvinist and Other Stories, in 1979. He died the following year at age 70.

Yokohama, California

Set in a fictional community, these linked stories are alive with the people, gossip, humor and legends of Japanese America in the 1930s and 1940s.

Mori wasn’t the only Japanese American author to receive recognition years after his work first appeared. The publishing saga of No-No Boy, by Mori’s contemporary John Okada, is fraught with sadness. Okada died before his novel—first published in 1957—received critical acclaim; his widow couldn’t find an archive that wanted his papers, so she destroyed them.

Yokohama, California remained out of print for 35 years, until the University of Washington Press added the book to its “Classics of Asian American Literature” series and reprinted it in 1985. Another edition of the short story collection was released in 2015.

Decades after he was held at Topaz, Mori visited the site of another internment camp and noted that “many people in my generation are reluctant to discuss those events, because they are ashamed they were suspected of disloyalty.”

He, however, pushed back against this impulse, saying, “I feel a reminder is important to prevent this from happening again.”

Alessandro Meregaglia is an archivist and assistant professor at Boise State University's Special Collections and Archives, where he has worked since 2016. He earned a Master of Library Science from Indiana University specializing in archives and records management as well as a Master of Arts in History focusing on 20th-century American history.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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