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Kikou Yamata: Rediscovering the First Nisei Writer


Throughout the 20th century, Nikkei writers have dreamed of writing “the Great Nisei novel,” a work of literature that would express the Japanese/American experience and show off the writing talents of the second generation. Critics have meanwhile drawn attention to existing works as the “greatest”. Frank Abe, my friend and collaborator on the new anthology John Okada, claims the prize for Okada’s novel, No-No Boy (1957). I have several favorite candidates, including Gene Oishi’s remarkable work, Fox Drum Bebop (2014). Others have lauded Japanese Canadian author Joy Kogawa’s haunting novel, Obasan (1976).

These debates tend to be confined to North American Nisei writing, and do not touch on Latin America or Asia. Certainly, what is not much mentioned in these debates is the work of the first Nisei novelist, and one of the most remarkable: the French-born writer Kikou Yamata, who during her long career appealed to readers on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific, and who was alternately beloved and suspected in both her native countries.

Kikou Yamata was born in Lyon, France on March 15, 1897. She was the daughter of Tadazumi Yamada, a native of Nagasaki. After taking French courses in Japan with the scholar Léon Dury, to prepare him for foreign service, Tadazumi Yamada had been invited by the industrialist and collector Émile Guimet (future founder of the renowned Musée Guimet, a museum of Asian civilization in Paris) to come to Lyon, a center of silk manufacturing, and study at the prestigious La Martinière school. Yamada was ultimately appointed Japanese consul at Lyon by the Emperor Meiji. Kikou was the child of his love affair and marriage with Marguerite Varon, a French woman.

The young Kikou spent her first years in Lyon. However, in 1908, when she was 11 years old, her father brought the family to Japan, settling in Tokyo. There Kikou attended a French school, Sacré-Coeur de Tokyo. During these years, she began writing for newspapers, as well as for the French magazine, Extrême Orient.

In 1923, Tadazumi Yamada died and Kikou returned to France with her mother. She moved to Paris, where she began studies in Art History at the Sorbonne. Meanwhile, she began frequenting literary salons. Her Japanese manners—she dressed in a kimono and displayed a talent for ikebana—mixed with her fluent French made her a hit in Parisian society, where Japonisme had been a powerful force since at least the days of the impressionist painters (and of orientalist writers such as Pierre Loti). Yamata soon began attracting attention for her writings on Japan. Her first book, Sur des lèvres japonaises [On Japanese lips] was published in 1924, the year after her arrival in Paris. A volume of short tales, mixed with poetry and a Noh theater piece, it contained an endorsement in the form of an introduction by the famous French poet and critic Paul Valéry.

The next year, Yamata brought out the short novel Masako with the well-known French publisher Stock. The title character, Masako, is a young woman with modern ideas who moves into the house of her uncle after her beloved mother’s death. There she lives under the moral guaradianship of her two aunts. However, she meets a young man, Naoyoshi, whose kisses enchant her, and falls deeply in love. In the end, she must defy her aunts in order to marry for love. The novel was an enormous success, thanks in part to its publicity campagin: A portrait of Yamata in kimono was distributed to bookstores, and the author gave a demonstration of ikebana in the show window of the publisher’s offices. Since its initial publication, the novel has gone through some 22 editions. Masako also captivated the attention of Japanese American littérateurs. In 1931-32, Nisei writer Yasuo Sasaki would translate and publish excerpts from Masako in his early literary magazine Reimei.

Following the success of Masako, Yamata branched out into different literary forms. Her book of short stories about young Japanese women, entitled le Shoji (1927), was a minor success. It would appear in English translation with the Dial Press under the title The Shoji: Japanese Interiors and Silhouettes (1929).

Meanwhile, she published Vers l’occident, a slim volume of tales, and Les Huit renommés, [The Eight Renowned Ones] a travel book about Japan that she produced in collaboration with artwork by the celebrated Parisian post-impressionist artist Léonard Foujita (AKA Tsuguharu Fujita).

In 1928, she brought out a partial French translation of Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji—The first French edition of that classic Japanese novel. Saisons suisses, the author’s reflections on a visit to Neuchâtel, Switzerland, appeared in 1929. It fetured illustrations by Conrad Meili, a Swiss painter whom she met during her stay, and who became her husband shortly afterwards. Yamata also produced Shizoula, princesse tranquille, a slim volume that featured the story of a Geisha. It appeared with a portrait of the author by Foujita. Yamata’s second full-length novel, La Trame au milan d’or, [The Golden Kite Frame] appeared in 1930. It is the story of Tazoumi, a young Japanese man from a samurai family who leaves behind Japan, his family and fiancée, and migrates to France.

In 1929, Yamata was commissioned by the famous French publisher Gallimard to write a biography of General Nogi, and she spent a year in Japan researching and writing it, during which time she was based in Kamakura. As a result, in 1931 she produced two new books. One was the biography commissioned by Gallimard, which appeared as La Vie de Général Nogi. Meanwhile, Japon, dernière heure was a travellers guide to Japan.

Yamata encountered increasing difficulties upon her return to France in 1931, after her stay in Japan. First, the Great Depression had cut into book sales. More importantly, while Yamata had made her name as a representative (or symbol) of Japan, and had even collaborated in the formation of her orientalist image, she was buffeted by the growing hostility to Japan following the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and then in larger measure after 1937 as a result of the Japanese occupation of China. Yamata’s book Vies des Geishas (1934) a set of stories of Geishas, did not sell well. She completed Mille cœurs en Chine, [A Thousand Hearts in China] a novel set against the Japanese invasion of China, but did not publish it until many years later. As the Nichi Bei Shimbun reported in 1935, Yamata also suffered as a result of a plagiarism suit she filed against a Belgian diplomat who had lifted research from her. Not only did Yamata lose her case, but the accused plagiarist’s publisher then countersued over her blocking of the rival publication, and won damages from her.

In summer 1939, just one week before the outbreak of World War II in Europe, Yamata and her husband Conrad Meili left France, and moved to Japan. During World War II, she remained in Japan, where she was suspected because of her mixed-race heritage and French friends. In 1944, Yamata was imprisoned for a time by the wartime Japanese government. Interestingly, during this period, she would publish Au pays de la reine, [In the Queen’s Country] a study of women in Japanese culture, which was brought out by a firm in Hanoi, in the Japanese-occupied French colony of Indochina.

In the years after the end of World War II, Yamata remained in Japan. However, after living through the devastation of war and the trials of the U.S. Occupation, she returned to France at the outset of the 1950s. Her first postwar novel, Dame de Beauté, was published in 1951. It was a strange love story that takes place in the ruins of early postwar Japan, and centers on the relationship between a young woman, the daughter of rich banking family, and the husband with whom she has entered an arranged marriage. It would appear soon after in English translation, under the title Lady of Beauty, with an introduction by novelist-humanitarian Pearl S. Buck.

By chance, around that same time the Akira Kurosawa film, Rashoman had won the prize at the Venice Film Festival, and in the process had helped create (again) a vogue in France for things Japanese. After years of silence, Yamata was again sought after for lectures and writings.

In 1955, she produced the book le Japon des japonaises, a study of women in Japanese culture. Her next novel, Trois Geishas, likewise appeared in English translation, as Three Geishas (1956). She produced two more novels. The first was Le mois sans dieux [The Month Without Gods] (1956). A year later, her long-unpublished novel Mille cœurs en Chine was at last brought into print. In 1957, Yamata received a signal honor from the French government when she was named as a Chevalier
of the Legion of Honor. Three years later her final books appeared. L’art du Bouquet, an exploration of ikebana, was the culmination of her longtime involvement with that art. Deux amours cruelles [Two Cruel Loves] was a French translation of Junichiro Tanizaki’s book of stories, and it also boasted a preface by the American writer Henry Miller.

Kikou Yamata died in Geneva in March 1975, just days before her 78th birthday. Her work declined in popularity in the decades after her death—one source says that the author failed to make provision in her will for control of her author’s rights, and so they were frozen in Court. Ironically, during this time, there was ever-growing mainstream interest in the subjects of her work: the status of women in Japan, and particularly the lives of geishas (the latter gaining enormous popularity thanks to Arthur Golden’s 1997 novel Memoirs of a Geisha and its later screen adaptation). Still, Yamata remained a subject of interest to scholars into the new millenium. In 1997, the year of her 100th birthday, she was honored by the installation of a commemorative plaque on the wall of her birthplace in Lyon.

Photo by Otourly. (Wikipedia)


© 2019 Greg Robinson

authors fiction France hapa Japan Kikou Yamata novels racially mixed people World War II writers
About the Author

Greg Robinson, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at l'Université du Québec À Montréal, a French-language institution in Montreal, Canada. He is the author of the books By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Harvard University Press, 2001), A Tragedy of Democracy; Japanese Confinement in North America (Columbia University Press, 2009), After Camp: Portraits in Postwar Japanese Life and Politics (University of California Press, 2012), Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era (University of Illinois Press, 2012), and The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches (University Press of Colorado, 2016), as well as coeditor of the anthology Miné Okubo: Following Her Own Road (University of Washington Press, 2008). Robinson is also coeditor of the volume John Okada - The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy (University of Washington Press, 2018).

His historical column “The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great,” is a well-known feature of the Nichi Bei Weekly newspaper. Robinson’s latest book is an anthology of his Nichi Bei columns and stories published on Discover Nikkei, The Unsung Great: Portraits of Extraordinary Japanese Americans (University of Washington Press, 2020). It was recognized with an Association for Asian American Studies Book Award for Outstanding Achievement in History Honorable Mention in 2022. He can be reached at

Updated March 2022

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