The Sensei (short story)

Short story by Wakako Yamauchi centering on a former Buddhist priest whose gambling addiction has turned him into a beggar in the early postwar years. Told in the first person by a Nisei woman named Utako, the story begins with the outbreak of war and the then seventeen-year-old Utako's incarceration with her family in an Arizona concentration camp. The loyalty questionnaire divides the family, as her brother Toshio becomes a "no-no boy" and gets sent alone to Tule Lake. There, he becomes friends with Jim Morita, a fellow "no-no." After the war, the family returns to Los Angeles, and Utako ends up marrying Jim; she works as a painter of shower curtains, while he attends college. A couple of years later, Jim and Utako visit Las Vegas. On their way out, they run into the title character, a former Buddhist priest who had been a powerful inmate leader in post-segregation Tule Lake, who has now obviously fallen on hard times. The story follows the couple's two subsequent—and increasingly unsettling—interactions with him over the next few years, which take place as they struggle to establish themselves in the postwar economy.

"The Sensei" was first published in Yardbird Reader 3, a multi-ethnic literary magazine, in 1974. According to its co-editor Shawn Wong, Yamauchi had first written the story in around 1963 before revising it for publication.[1] The Moritas in the story bear a strong external resemblance to the author and her husband at the time, and in a 1998 interview, Yamauchi indicates that the story was based on something that really happened to her and her husband.[2] In a 2010 article about using "The Sensei" as a teaching tool, Lane Ryo Hirabayashi writes of reading it as an allegory for the resettlement period, with the Sensei serving as an unwelcome and uncomfortable reminder of the incarceration for the seemingly more well adjusted Nisei couple, as well as for the reader.[3]

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information

Yamauchi, Wakako. "The Sensei." Yardbird Reader 3 (Fall 1977): 245–54. Reprinted in Wakako Yamauchi, Songs My Mother Taught Me: Stories, Plays, and Memoir, edited and with an introduction by Garrett Hongo, afterword by Valerie Milner (New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1994): 101–08.

Hirabayashi, Lane Ryo. "Wakako Yamauchi's 'The Sensei': Exploring the Ethos of Japanese American Resettlement." Journal of American Ethnic History 29.2 (Winter 2010): 55-61.


  1. Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, "Wakako Yamauchi's 'The Sensei': Exploring the Ethos of Japanese American Resettlement," Journal of American Ethnic History 29.2 (Winter 2010), 60n6.
  2. William P. Osborn, and Sylvia A. Watanabe, "A MELUS Interview: Wakako Yamauchi," MELUS 23.2 (Summer 1998), 103.
  3. Hirabayashi, "Wakako Yamauchi's 'The Sensei.'"