Upon Their Shoulders (book)

Title Upon Their Shoulders
Author Shelley Ayame Nishimura Ota; Miles E. Carey (foreword)
Original Publisher Exposition Press
Original Publication Date 1951
Media Type Hardcover
Pages 262
WorldCat Link http://www.worldcat.org/title/upon-their-shoulders-a-novel/oclc/5194561

Novel centering on a Japanese American family in Hawai'i that may have been the first English-language published novel by a Japanese American about the Japanese American experience. Beginning with immigration and sugar plantations , the novel ends in the World War II era, addressing issues of internment, loyalty, and multiculturalism.


The story follows the journey of Taro Sumida, an Issei from Yamaguchi prefecture who leaves Japan to start a new life in Hawai'i with his wife Haruko. The first section of the book, "The Awakening," takes place in a tradition-bound and barbaric Japanese fishing village in the late 1800s. Taro, an ambitious and feisty second son, feels he has no place there and longs to go the Hawaiian paradise ( gokuraku ) depicted in recruitment brochures. But in the second section, "Hawaii—Gokuraku," he and Haruko find themselves nearly slaves as sugar plantation laborers. Taro's activism gets him kicked off the plantation, which proves to be a positive. In the third section, "Nihonmachi—Japanese Town," Taro and Haruko live among other Japanese in a run-down part of Honolulu while Taro works as a houseboy for a friendly plantation owner named Chester Phillips. Soon, twin girls, Alice and Ruth, arrive. When Taro's efforts to buy a piece of land in Honolulu are thwarted by bigotry, Phillips gifts him a parcel. But vandals attack his efforts to develop the plot.

The last two sections of the book largely turn to the perspective of Alice. The "Honolulu Years" finds Taro now a successful restaurant owner and the girls as college graduates from the University of Hawaii. But each girl's choice of a husband stirs conflict. Ruth, who develops an interest in race relations, marries a fellow activist named Tom, who is of Chinese-Hawaiian descent. While the more liberal Taro accepts Tom, the more tradition-bound Haruko cannot. Alice marries Jerry Noda, a medical student who is the son of a rival family from the same village in Japan as Taro and Haruko. Their objection to Jerry stems from the disfunction they see in the Noda family. The final section, "The Onward Years," follows Alice and Jerry's deteriorating marriage and the impact of World War II. While both Taro and Jerry's father are arrested, the fiercely patriotic Taro is soon released, while the pro-Japanese Noda is interned for the duration. But Taro's war work as a liaison between local authorities and fellow Issei takes a toll on his health. Meanwhile, Jerry's mother finds solace in a kachigumi , an organization of Issei who believe Japan will win the war.

Background and Reception

Author Shelley Ayame Nishimura Ota (1911–87) was born in Waiakea on the Big Island of Hawai'i as the youngest of ten children. Her father, Shikazo Nishimura, came to Hawaii in 1894 as a contract laborer and his experiences, as well as those of his friends, shaped the Issei characters in the book. After adopting the Western name "Shelley," she graduated from the University of Hawaii with a sociology degree. She later married Robert K. Ota, a physician, and the couple—along with their two young children—moved to Wisconsin where Robert took a faculty position at Marquette University Medical School. Robert later was drafted into the army during World War II as a 1st Lieutenant M.D., but died in service leaving behind Shelley and four young children. She taught school to support the family, while writing the book that would become Upon Their Shoulders .

Ota completed the manuscript in 1948, but was unable to find a mainstream publisher just three years after the end of the war. It was eventually published by Exposition Press, a vanity press publisher in 1951, with the assistance of her father, who financed the publication. Thanks in large part to Ota's weekend speaking engagements before women's groups, all 5,000 copies of the print run were sold.

Ota later worked on a second novel that explored caste distinctions among Issei in Hawai'i, but never completed it.

The novel received only a few generally positive reviews when it was published and then largely faded into obscurity. Literary scholar Stephen H. Sumida restored the memory of the book in his 1991 book And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawai'i , calling it "... the first published novel in English based upon the story of Japanese American immigration." Sumida writes that Ota's "novel is about conflicts, struggles, violence, ambiguities, history, and heroism. It is a novel where the greatest joys are not material but idealistic." [1]

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

For More Information

Ota, Shelley Ayame Nishimura. Upon Their Shoulders . Foreword by Miles E. Carey. New York: Exposition Press, 1951.

Sumida, Stephen H. And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawai'i . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.

Tajiri, Larry. "Vagaries…: Does It Pay to Write?" Pacific Citizen , Nov. 20, 1953, 8.


"A Brave Story of a Brave People." Scene , May 1951, 22. ["She makes skillful use of the Japanese language and idiom, customs and religion."]

Hosokawa, Bill. "From the Frying Pan: A Novel About the Nisei." Pacific Citizen , Oct. 6, 1951, 5. ["… a moving novel, one that all Nisei as well as other Americans will find fascinating reading."]

The Nation , July 25, 1952, 76. ["Mrs. Ota is no novelist, but she has managed to infuse her tried and true subject with warmth and sincerity, aided by the exotic novelty of the Oriental immigrant's background, which contrasts with and yet parallels the experience of the great body of Americans who have come from Southern and Eastern Europe."]

M.T. [ Marion "Guyo" Tajiri ]. "Shelley Ota Writes the Saga of a Family in Hawaii." Pacific Citizen , Oct. 6, 1951, 2. ["Mrs. Ota... writes with sincerity and deep emotion. In addition she had the advantage of writing from years of trained observation, for much of the material for her novel was gathered during a study she made on cultural conflicts of the Japanese in Hawaii."]


  1. Stephen H. Sumida, And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawai'i (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991), 207, 209.

Last updated July 6, 2021, 9:29 p.m..