Onoto Watanna: Turning Japanese


Winnifred Eaton was born in Montreal, Quebec in 1875. Her father was an Englishman who met her mother, a Chinese native, while working as a silk merchant in Shanghai. Winnifred was the eighth of their fourteen children. This Asian heritage would provide the fuel for her numerous and largely successful short stories, novels, and screen plays often featuring relationships between Asian women and white men.


The Japanese Nightengale
(Harper and Brothers 1902)


Winnifred’s first story was published in a Montreal newspaper when she was only fourteen. She left home at age seventeen to work for a Canadian newspaper in Jamaica. A year later she moved to Chicago where her first novel, Miss Nume Of Japan (1898) was published, giving birth to her new identity as Onoto Watanna. Though Eaton was of English and Chinese decent, she assumed the persona of a Japanese noblewoman - creating this fictional pen name (which was not truly a Japanese name at all, but only Japanese-sounding) due to the overall more positive feelings associated with Japanese people over Chinese in Victorian America. Eaton/Watanna was one of the first people of Asian heritage to have writing published in the United States. Her sister, the writer Edith Maud Eaton, also adopted an exotic persona, but one of a Chinese woman, calling herself Sui Sin Far or Water Lily.

The Heart of the Hyacinth
(Harper and Brothers 1903)

After her successful first novel, Miss Nume of Japan (1898), Winnifred moved to New York. She found much success there publishing several more novels. One of these novels, A Japanese Nightingale, was produced as a Broadway play and then made into a motion picture. In New York she married Bertrand Babcock and had four children. The marriage ended in divorce and she was later remarried to Francis Fournier. She continued to write novels and short stories and even worked on some screen plays later moving back to Canada. She died in 1954 while travelling in the United States.

Winnifred and her sister Edith were among the first Asian women to publish in the United States. Winnifred Eaton as Onoto Watanna presented a new voice and explored situations foreign in her Victorian society.

Search the PBO database for books by Onoto Watanna

Dr. Edward Tang's lecture
"Turning Japanese: How Winnifred Eaton became Onoto Watanna in Victorian America"

Selected Bibliography:

Miss Nume Of Japan (1898)
The Wooing of Wistaria (1902)
A Japanese Nightengale (1902)
The Heart of Hyacinth (1903)
Daughters of Nijo (1904)
The Love of Azalea (1904)
A Japanese Blossom (1906)
Tama (1910)
The Honorable Miss Moonlight (1912)

Additional Resources:

Birchall, Diana. Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton. The Asian American Experience. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

The Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive, hosted at the University of Virginia's Electronic Text Center. http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/eaton/

Special thanks to Dr. John Crowley, UA Department of English for his inspiration and donation of Watanna books, and to Dr. Edward Tang, UA Department of American Studies for his insightful lecture.

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