Literature or Not Literature: That's the question

Toshio Mori, a realistic and multidimensional Japanese American Nisei writer

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

12 Pages, Grade: A-


Literature or Not Literature ? – That’s the Question ...

Toshio Mori – a realistic and multidimensional Japanese American Nisei writer

What is Literature ? According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the term Literature is defined as

“Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value: “Literature must be an analysis of experience and a synthesis of the findings into a unity” (Rebecca West).” i

The Collins English Dictionary describes it as

“written material such as poetry, novels, essays, etc., esp. works of imagination characterized by excellence of style and expression and by themes of general or enduring interest.”ii

The emphasis in the first definition lies in the words “of recognized artistic value.” However, in my opinion, what makes literature in the sense of “printed material”iii Literature is not necessarily the recognition of its artistic value. As far as the second definition is concerned, “by excellence of style and expression and by themes of general or enduring interest” seems of primary importance. In opposition to this view, I believe that neither excellence of style and expression nor themes of general interest are necessarily characteristic for what should be considered Literature. In my understanding, everything that addresses our emotions, that makes us feel for one moment with a situation described is of “artistic value,” and that things that are not of general interest and may not excel in style and expression can still be equal to the “Great Literature” recognized by the academic and literary world.

Critics have long considered Toshio Mori’s work

“overly sentimental and poorly plotted [... and] full of grammatical errors.” iv

It is only recently that his works have begun to be

“acclaimed for successfully blending Japanese and American cultural influenced and are admired for their compassionate but realistic depictions of the issei and nissei [sic], first-and second-generation Japanese Americans.”v

This judgment is only half of the story though. There is so much more to Toshio Mori’s stylistically simple works than realism and compassion. Realism is a major aspect when looking at his works but, beyond that, he portrays a multidimensional world. He oscillates between historical, autobiographical, symbolic, universal, spiritual and transcendental, artistic and cultural, paradoxical, linguistic, pedagogical, political and prophetic spheres, trying to describe his and his contemporary Japanese Americans’ position in between Japanese and American culture and their unique way of life as Americans of Japanese ancestry in the United States.

After this introduction I will mention major facts about the author’s life that have shaped his work, and I am going to give an overview over his work as a whole. Then, I will describe some of the dimensions that can be frequently found in his stories, but I will also mention other dimensions that can be found in only some of his stories. For most of the dimensions I will cite one or several stories to illustrate my point. In the conclusion I will sum up and point out aspects that I have not been able to include in this paper but that are worth looking at a little more in detail.

Toshio Mori was the first Japanese American writer. He was born, raised and he died in San Leandro, California. His upbringing was typically Japanese, as far as language, customs, social ethics, spiritual values, and cultural aesthetics were concerned. At the same time, he was also typically American by his high school education, because he loved baseball, and because he rose from humble origins to be a businessman and self-taught published author.

He was

“a creation of his community [... and] created art of his

As an observer of his own community he was able to develop and convey a keen understanding of the experience of the Japanese who immigrated to the US. Despite the fact that he was never considered a successful writer and despite the fact that, during World War Two, he was sent to one of the ten internment camps along with 110.000 fellow Japanese Americans – both Issei and Nisei – he

“was never cynical or bitter in his writing or in person.”vii

Actually, he, as a camp historian, found camp life fascinating because each of the many internees had his own personal history to tell. Mori regretted the end of the war because he saw that it would undermine the continuity of the until then close knit Japanese American community. Even though Toshio Mori was ignored even by the very people he wrote for and about and was never widely reviewed, he continued to write. He was influenced by thinkers such as Thoreau and Emerson, and by writers like Sherwood Anderson. Moreover, he believed in satori, the Zen belief in an intuitive inner light. viii

During his lifetime, Toshio Mori wrote many short stories and novels. His major stories were published in two collections: Yokohama, California (1949) and The Chauvinist and Other Stories (1979). Moreover, with Woman from Hiroshima his first novel was published in 1978.

His short stories are not

“‘minority stories’ in the negative sense but ‘majority stories’ told from the perspective of the full self and self-determining community.ix


Excerpt out of 12 pages


Literature or Not Literature: That's the question
Toshio Mori, a realistic and multidimensional Japanese American Nisei writer
San Francisco State University  (Ethnic Studies)
Asian American Literature and the Arts
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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439 KB
Literature, That, Toshio, Mori, Japanese, American, Nisei
Quote paper
B.A. Stephanie Wössner (Author), 2003, Literature or Not Literature: That's the question , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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