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Teruko Kumei - Transformation of Japanese Immigrants in Senryu Poems

Teruko Kumei - Transformation of Japanese Immigrants in Senryu Poems

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The Japanese Journal of American Studies
, No. 16 (2005)
Crossing the Ocean, Dreaming of America,Dreaming of Japan:Transpacific Transformation of JapaneseImmigrants in Senryu Poems; 1929–1941
Teruko K 
Thirty years have passed since
 Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers
was published in 1974.
Today no one dares to “refuseto recognize Asian-American literature as ‘American’ literature.”
Yet,the rich heritage of the immigrant literature written in Japanese remainslittle explored in literary scholarship and criticism, and thoroughly ex-cluded from the literary histories of both the United States and Japan.
The editors of 
excluded Asian immigrant writers like LinYutang, C.Y Lee, Yone Noguchi and Sadakichi Hartman because, theyconsidered, those writers did not share Asian American sensibilities—their sense of distinctness as well as wounded feelings of having beenignored and excluded.
If the editors had reached out for immigrant lit-erary works in Japanese, however, they might have had different atti-tudes. On the west side of the Pacific, “Japanese literature” seems to beinterpreted as literary works by Japanese people in Japan.
Japanese-lan-guage immigrant literature seems to have been suspended over the Pa-cific, unable to find a landing place either in the United States or Japan.This paper explores Japanese immigrants’ senryu as historical docu-ments in an attempt to shed some light on the transformation of Japanese
*Professor, Shirayuri College
Copyright © 2005 Teruko Kumei. All rights reserved. This work may be used,with this notice included, for noncommercial purposes. No copies of this workmay be distributed, electronically or otherwise, in whole or in part, withoutpermission from the author.
immigrants from “birds of passage” to the Issei, the first generation of Japanese Americans.
In order to place the immigrant senryu in literaryperspective, this essay will discuss what the Japanese immigrant writersadvocated for their literature, followed by a brief history of senryu in theUnited States, and examples of senryu poems to see how the immigrantspersonalized their life in the United States.IIJ
Kaigai hoji shimbun hattenshi
(A History of Overseas Japanese-Lan-guage Newspapers) lists 56 Japanese language newspapers and maga-zines published in the United States during the period between 1886 and1900.
Taking into consideration the Japanese population in those days,
the number of the publications is remarkable. Having lost almost all of them, we know little more about them than their names. Howeversketchy the information is, it suggests that those newspapers and maga-zines commonly carried a literature section like
Shinonome Zasshi
(Dawn: A Journal) in San Francisco, one of the oldest journals, publishedin 1886.
Even in a remote lumbering mill camp like Eatonville,Washington, the Japanese community managed to publish a coterieliterary magazine,
It is safe to say that Japaneseimmigrants were quite active in literary endeavors.From the early stages of settlement, those participating in literary ac-tivities were aware that they had to create a new distinct literature reflect-ing the new life in the new environment. In 1909, Kyuin Okina, then anaspiring immigrant worker-writer, advocated for
imin-chi bungei
(immi-grant land literature), his own coinage, in an effort to encourage youngwould-be “litterateurs” in and around Seattle to form a literary circle.
He assumed that “[literature] should be a flower grown naturally fromthe deep of the soil, from the heart of life.”
To his eye the immigrants,“under a strained unnatural setting,” looked “the most miserable peopleamong the first class nation of Japan.”
As immigrants living in theUnited States they felt they were not a part of the nation of Japan. Yetthey could not reconstruct their old home life in the United States. Asimmigrants from Japan, they were not welcomed in the United States;they were deprived aliens. They belonged neither to the United Statesnor to Japan. This sense of non-belonging suppressed their life in the“strained unnatural setting.” However strained and miserable this lifemay be, Okina thought, it was an unprecedented experiences for the
Japanese people, and should be recorded. He maintained that “the goalof immigrant land literature is to record or narrate what happened in theimmigrant land”. He argued:
in the future our descendants will grow naturally in America. We have to tellhow their ancestors had struggled, what kind of life and thought they had.Immigrant land literature has significant meaning in this sense.
Okina argued that immigrant writers should capture this “strained unnat-ural setting,” this suspended non-belonging in literature, so that futuregenerations would have a better understanding of the immigrant life andsentiments. He foresaw that the United States and Japanese cultureswould collide in immigrant homes as the immigrants rooted deeper inthe United States and their children grew up as American citizens. Even-tually, he “[dreamed] a new stage of the union of the East and the West:a union which is conceived in the conflicts between the two races.” Hehoped that the immigrants’ non-belonging would evolve into a rich unionof Japanese and U.S. cultures.
Other immigrant writers shared the same sense of unnatural suspen-sion and unprecedented experience. Isshin Yamasaki compiled
 Horo noshi
(Poetry of Wandering) in 1925, and three Japanese immigrant liter-ature anthologies,
 Hokubei bungei senshu
(Selected Works in NorthAmerica, 1927),
 Amerika bungeishu
(Collection of Literary Works inAmerica, 1930), and
 Amerika bungakushu
(Collection of American Lit-erature, 1937).
Yamasaki wrote in a postscript of 
 Horo no shi
that 25wandering poets brought forth “this infant” [immigrant poems] whichwould “remain in this immigrant land, even after our bodies become soilfor the weeds in an alien land.”
He was very proud and hopeful for thefuture development of immigrant literature. In the first anthology, hewrote:
Wandering in this vast alien land, but still longing for arts and literature ...we created literary works, materials of which we draw on the lives of our fel-low [Japanese] people in the peculiar immigrant land; even if our works areunrefined and poor, they should be regarded as precious records of human beings; the records of the life every author had experienced; the records of the unprecedented environment our people created and lived in.
Yamasaki admitted that quality of their works was still crude; yet hemaintained that the immigrant life was worth recording in a literary form because of its unique unprecedented nature.
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