Analysis of Hisaye Yamamoto’s The Legend of Miss Sasagawara

Originally published in the Kenyon Review (December 1, 1950), this story depicts conflicts among cultures, genders, and generations. Miss Mari Sasagawara, the 33-year-old unmarried daughter of a Buddhist priest, is a famous Nisei ballerina who suffers the indignities of living with six families in Block 33 of a World War II Arizona internment camp. Sensitive and reticent by nature, she must live with little privacy among 15,000 other Japanese Americans. When Miss Sasagawara displays her outrage through several acts of unconventional behavior, she is sent to a Phoenix sanitarium for several months. When she returns, she talks to others in a more relaxed manner and offers a ballet class to the children in the camp. Her previous unorthodox behavior resumes, however, and when her nocturnal wandering frightens a family in her compound, she is sent to a California institution.

Hisaye Yamamoto/The Sun

The “Legend” is constructed by Kiku, a woman writer able to escape the camp by attending college in Philadelphia but unable to escape the haunting image of Sasagarawa, the imprisoned woman artist. Kiku’s tale dismantles notions of American justice, artistic freedom, and gender equity. It indicts Sasagarawa’s physical and patriarchal imprisonment when it argues that her father’s dedication to meditation supersedes his ability to relate to his daughter. The narrative culls impressions received from a variety of sources: Kiku’s friend Elsie, hospital workers, and, finally, a poetry journal in which Kiku reads a poem by the displaced ballerina. Concluding the story, Miss Sasagarawa’s poem contrasts gender and generational responses to imprisonment. It juxtaposes an Issei man (first-generation Japanese American) who gains freedom to seek Nirvana when he is released from the constraints of providing for his family against a Nisei woman (second-generation Japanese American), who, unable to express her passions and frustrations, endures a painful existence that she attributes to the man’s madness.

Cheung, King-Kok. “Double-Telling: Intertextual Silence in Hisaye Yamamoto’s Fiction.” American Literary History 3, no. 2 (1991): 96–113.
———. “Thrice Muted Tale: Interplay of Art and Politics in Hisaye Yamamoto’s ‘The Legend of Miss Sasagawara.’ ” MELUS 173 (1991–92): 109–125.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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