Toshio Mori

Toshio Mori, one of the first Japanese American writers to publish a book of fiction in the United States, was born March 3, 1910 in Oakland, California. His family ran a Japanese bathhouse and nursery, and later relocated to the San Leandro valley. As a young man, Mori dreamed of becoming a baseball player, an artist or a Buddhist missionary, but soon turned to fiction after becoming enamored with the works of Chekhov, Stephen Crane, Balzac and Sherwood Anderson. 

Nisei, Mori grew up speaking Japanese at home, and felt that his Japanese language abilities hampered his writing style in English; to increase his vocabulary, Mori decided to memorize the first 40,000 words in his English dictionary. “My language,” he said in one interview, “was awkward and, as a whole, I believe I was a typical Nisei without high education.” Mori’s early stories were populated with Japanese American characters who often reflected the charged political debates Japanese Americans were currently having around citizenship, racism and national loyalty before World War II. Regardless of his self-consciousness about his writing style, Mori’s subject matter intrigued editors, and his stories were soon published in the pages of Common GroundNew Directions, and Writer’s Forum, among others. 

In 1943, Mori’s family was forcibly relocated to the Tanforan temporary prison camp in San Bruno, California, then transferred again to the Topaz War Relocation Center. There Mori worked as a writer for the Topaz Times newspaper and later edited Trek, the camp’s arts and literature magazine. Mori’s first, and best-known work of fiction, Yokohama, California, had been slated for publication in 1942, but because of the war, the collection of short fiction was delayed to 1949. Yokohama, California shows the strong influence of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio on Mori’s work, as the stories take a largely satiric look at residents of a small-town Japanese American community. But other stories in the collection, such as “Slant-Eyed American,” paint a darker picture of the racism and psychological conflicts Japanese Americans faced in the U.S. after Pearl Harbor. 

After the war, Mori returned to the Bay Area where he continued to write and to run his own family nursery in Oakland. He married Hisayo Yoshiwara in 1947 with whom he had one son, Steven. Mori published a novel, Woman from Hiroshima, in 1978, and a second collection of short stories, The Chauvinist and Other Stories, was published  the following year. The publication of these new works drew renewed interest in Mori, and brought him into closer contact with a younger generation of Asian American writers during his final years.

Toshio Mori died of a heart attack in 1980, aged seventy. 

Bibliography

Yokohama, California, The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1949
Woman from Hiroshima, Isthmus Press, 1978
The Chauvinist and Other Stories, Asian American Studies Center of University of California, Los Angeles, 1979