Book Spotlight: Thank You Very Mochi – Paul Matsushima

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Thank You Very Mochi, written by Paul Matsushima, Sophie Wang, and Craig Ishii, and illustrated by Jing Zheng, is a heartfelt story of mochitsuki as a Japanese American family tradition.

What I liked:

  • This book is published by Kizuna, an LA-based organization dedicated to supporting the JA/Nikkei community. Both the story and the multi-author team echo this collaborative, community-focused theme. I’d like to see more Nikkei publications in this vein, especially now when it often feels as if our community is fragmenting in certain respects. Kizuna itself is focused on JA/Nikkei residents of SoCal – as far as I know, no Bay Area JA/Nikkei organization has published a similar book, but I haven’t researched this as thoroughly as I should.
  • The warm, bright colors in Zheng’s illustrations feel incredibly family-friendly. In fact, the book as a whole felt very comfortable to me, even though the mochitsuki represented here differed in some ways from the one my parents host every year. I like to think someone – Zheng, maybe? – thought about the best way to make the story relatable to a wide range of Nikkei readers while knowing it centers a tradition which can vary greatly from family to family.
  • On a related note, the (more or less) grayscale illustrations depicting flashbacks to Grandpa’s time in camp were also very effective, particularly when juxtaposed with the full-color illustrations depicting present-day scenes. The visual contrast not only alerts the reader to a temporal change, but also evokes an emotional shift in the story. Even young Nikkei readers who may not know about the camps might ask about the change in color, which in turn could open important conversations about family history.
  • Did any fellow Nikkei readers notice how this book is basically a young readers’ edition of Debbi Michiko Florence’s Jasmine Toguchi series? Come to think of it, I would love to read a curated blog series featuring Nikkei writers from various backgrounds discussing how they choose to represent Japanese/Nikkei traditions in their work and why. I think of Nina Li Coomes’s article series on Japanese words (in Catapult?) – I’d like to see blog posts written with Coomes’s level of detail and insight, but maybe on a site run by Japanese/Nikkei staff?
  • Kimi has a multiracial family! I’m glad this element was included, especially for the sake of any young Nikkei readers with multiracial families.
  • The mochi-related illustrations on the inside of the cover are adorable – and also a simple, appealing way to educate the reader without making them consult a glossary.
  • Kimi’s bedroom is such a JA/Nikkei room! Even though my childhood bedroom didn’t look exactly like hers, I understand the context being referenced and I suspect many other JA/Nikkei readers will feel the same.

What I learned:

  • Furikake…on mochi? Is this an LA thing? A SoCal thing? Who does this?! I’m fascinated, but not quite enough to try it myself. Moments like this really make me wonder to what extent JA/Nikkei cuisine differs by region. Hawaii, yes, but within the continental US – what kinds of variations exist in dishes we might consider traditionally Japanese? Has any Nikkei scholar written about how the regional roots of Issei (and their respective local cuisines) subsequently shaped variations in Nikkei cuisine?

Questions I had:

  • Where is the kinako?! (And on top of this, why is there furikake??!!) I’m not criticizing, just befuddled.
  • I ask this question every time it comes up in a book – why did the authors choose to italicize the Japanese words in the text? Does italicization make reading easier for young audiences? At the same time, this presupposes an English-centric education – the more sustainable solution would be to normalize multilingual education from grade one. The challenge here is probably to normalize the non-Anglicized pronunciation of non-English words – after all, look what happened to the pronunciation of “Tokyo,” a word which I’ve noticed is rarely, if ever, italicized in English these days, but also never pronounced correctly.

Follow-up:

  • Now that I’m thinking about Nikkei organizations publishing books, it would be terrific to see a JA Buddhist temple produce a picture book about their annual mochitsuki. Also, I hope there are Nikkei picture book creators working on projects about Japanese schools, taiko groups, and Obon festivals affiliated with our temples.

Book Spotlight: Fred Korematsu Speaks Up – Stan Yogi

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, written by Stan Yogi and Laura Atkins, and illustrated by Yutaka Houlette, tells the story of Fred Korematsu’s fight to prove the wartime mass incarceration of Japanese Americans unconstitutional.

What I liked:

  • I think this is an important book for all JAs to read, not just those of us whose families were incarcerated. In particular, the sections discussing how the JA community reacted to Korematsu’s actions during and after camp encourage us to consider how we, as a community, support and/or condemn our members. Additionally, as changes in technology enable 日系人 and 日本人 to interact in more and different ways, we begin to think of what it means to have a global Japanese community, and how such a community influences how we define Japanese-ness.
  • The authors were, at certain points (though not all, as I discuss below), very direct in identifying white people as the ones discriminating against JAs. Most of the textbooks I used in school followed the white-as-default style and hardly ever identified white people as white, so this is an encouraging step in the direction of decolonizing education.
  • Although I would expect no less when Yogi is a former ACLU employee, I appreciate the note on terminology regarding JA incarceration, on page 52.

What I learned:

  • Korematsu was in Topaz?! I think I knew this, but I wasn’t consciously thinking of it until I saw it in the text. I wonder if my grandfather knew Korematsu, or at least knew of his efforts.
  • Did Korematsu ever think back to the teacher who (re)named him “Fred” and feel any kind of anger or distress at the whiteness of this action? I know some JAs deliberately changed or shortened their Japanese names to adapt them to the English language, but there is a difference between an individual deciding to change their name on their own versus having a name from another culture imposed on them by someone else. I also think of US government boarding schools for indigenous/American Indian children, and how the imposition of English-language names was one way in which these children were forcibly assimilated into whiteness. Here, too, we might consider how some of the camps were built on reservation land, and how all of the camps were/are on indigenous lands. What do these shared but divergent histories mean in terms of current and future interactions between JA/Nikkei and indigenous communities?

Questions I had:

  • The use of “American” seems to be inconsistent in the text, or at least, it was not clear to me how the authors intended to define the term. For example, on page 3, JAs are defined as, “American[s] of Japanese ancestry.” In this case, “American” seems to be tied to nationality and/or place of birth, rather than being used synonymously with white, and “Japanese American” seems to be broadly defined as any US citizen (though citizenship is not actually cited, so perhaps “US resident” is more accurate here) with Japanese ancestry, whether mono-racial/-ethnic or mixed race. What assumptions is the reader expected to make about the definition of “American” and why did the authors opt for this open-ended wording?
  • By contrast, on page 4, the description of the racist, anti-Chinese cartoon first describes, “a White man attacking a Chinese immigrant,” but then references, “the anger many Americans felt toward Chinese people.” In this passage, is the reader expected to equate “Americans” with white people? If not, do the authors expect the reader to know enough about the history of people(s) of color in the US to identify the sociopolitical and economic tensions amongst them? Given my personal experiences in the US public education system, I doubt the latter, but I suppose education could have progressed drastically in the last twenty years.
  • On page 10, there is a similar example in the passage, “Americans were angry that Japanese people were moving to the United States.” Were non-white people living in the US at that time angry about Japanese immigration – and in a political position to do anything about it? Although these are relatively minor issues of terminology in the larger scheme of things, I find this ambiguity troubling if the overall goal of the book is to encourage young readers to question and eventually reevaluate their understanding of what it means to be “American.”
  • The blurb on Daniel Inouye* caused me to return, once again, to the question of how JA history is documented – who do we honor, and why? More specifically, when I read about figures like Korematsu, I think about what a JA history written specifically for our community would look like, free of any pressures exerted by the white gaze. What does it mean for us, as JA/Nikkei, as Japanese people, to respect and feel gratitude toward our prominent figures (感謝する, している), while simultaneously acknowledging what we owe to indigenous peoples and other peoples of color for the harm (being) inflicted upon them by these same figures? If we as JA/Nikkei claim ourselves as “American” as white people, how do we reconcile this claim with our complicity as non-indigenous occupants of indigenous lands?

Follow-up:

  • I’ve been meaning to read Lorraine Bannai’s book on Korematsu for several years – time to get moving!

*I recommend reading the essay about Inouye in Asian Settler Colonialism as a starting point for contemplating his place in JA history.

Book Spotlight: Flowers from Mariko – Rick Noguchi

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Flowers from Mariko, written by Rick Noguchi and Deneen Jenks, and illustrated by Michelle Reiko Kumata, is the story of one Japanese American family’s experiences in camp.

What I liked:

• I never know when I’ll come across a bit of my childhood while reading Nikkei literature. In this case, 春が来た was a pleasant surprise. I wonder if Noguchi knows this song from his own childhood, or if it popped up in his research – or maybe the illustrator, Kumata, knew of it? There is no information in the book (I read the paperback edition) about how the story was created, though two people are acknowledged on the back of the title page for their assistance with “historical accuracy.”
• Kumata’s illustrations are a perfect fit for this story. The simple lines and quiet colors feel very Japanese (or maybe Nikkei or even 日系アメリカ人 -esque is a better, more specific word – I actually think the aesthetic choices would be quite different if a 日本人 artist illustrated this story for a 日本人 audience), and also provide an appropriate visual representation of the sobering history being recounted.
• Several characters are drawn with thick, curly hair, a characteristic I rarely see even in Nikkei depictions of Japanese people. I’m not sure if Kumata intended to depict naturally curly-haired Japanese people, or if she is merely referencing hairstyles from that period. At any rate, as someone from a Japanese family with many curly/wavy-haired people, I appreciate these images!

What I learned:

• Did I know some Nikkei ended up in trailer homes after leaving the camps? I may have read this somewhere and then forgotten…my mind feels like a sieve lately. Come to think of it, my grandfather bought his Bay Area house in the 1960s, so where was he living right after he left Topaz?
• Along the same lines, I don’t recall previously knowing that some Nikkei chose to stay in the camps until they were forced out. I can see why this might not be a frequently discussed topic in our community…time to do some reading. Also, I think this particular aspect of our history could be told very effectively through film, especially if bilingual descendants of formerly incarcerated JAs partnered with someone like Miyazaki.

Questions I had:

• The author note at the end of the book uses a somewhat confusing mix of terminology. What is Noguchi’s preferred terminology when discussing the camps?
• Does Noguchi and/or Kumata have a personal connection to the camps? What motivated each of them to work on this project?
• I’m curious about Jenks’s role in the creation of this book. She appears to have an academic background in creative writing, so I imagine she assisted Noguchi with the scripting of the text. In particular, I wonder if Noguchi, her spouse, insisted her name be on the cover as a co-author, or if Jenks herself requested it. I raise this point because I’ve been considering the extent to which white people curate JA history, whether in the form of writing articles based on their interviews with Nikkei subjects in JA/Nikkei publications, or having their name listed as co-authors on works of Nikkei literature, or styling themselves as subject matter experts when they review or blurb work by Nikkei writers, and I’m concerned about who will shape the documentation of our stories moving forward.

Follow-up:

• It looks like Noguchi has also published a book of poetry – I’m looking forward to reading it, whenever I manage to get a copy.

Book Spotlight: Careful, Mama Says – Esumi Fujimoto

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

“Careful, Mama Says” chronicles the memories and experiences of one Japanese American family as the three surviving daughters clean out their parents’ former home.

I originally read this piece on the Asian American Writers Workshop (AAWW) website.

What I liked:

  • Fujimoto is a fellow Bay Area Nikkei writer! Well, sort of – the short bio on the AAWW website says “Central Valley of California,” but the landmarks in this piece are definitely Bay Area. I haven’t read much Bay Area-based Nikkei fiction outside of camp literature (the camps are mentioned, but I wouldn’t classify this piece as ‘camp literature’ in genre), so I was super excited when I saw references to Santa Clara County, 101, and San Jose. (On a side note, is this form of joy in familiarity of place divisible from the sense of ownership over place which, as it exists in the US, I believe has its roots in settler colonialism? I suppose a discussion about the role of place in the experiences/mentality of those of us who identify as diaspora could also be applied here, but again, not sure if it can be considered separately from [our] complicity in [USian] whiteness.)
  • Triangle-folded plastic bags! I have a feeling a lot of Nikkei households with an Issei/Shin-Issei member do this, but it’s never occurred to me to ask.
  • I recently read Margaret Dilloway’s piece on her childhood household and Marie Kondo and I kept thinking back to it as I read Fujimoto’s work. It seems to me the two pieces would make for an interesting comparative analysis in a Nikkei literature class.
  • Fujimoto’s romanization choices for both Japanese and Japanese-accented English make me wonder if she is second-generation and/or bilingual. She and I might in fact have very similar lived experiences, yet we make somewhat different romanization choices. I’m especially curious about the “Matta ne” because to say it this way in Japanese produces a completely different mood due to the changed inflection. まったね~ versus またね~, what do my fellow bilingual Nikkei readers think?
  • Mikan is one of those small but meaningful connections between 日本人 and 日系 sides of families, at least in my experience. I’m always happy to see them pop up in Nikkei literature.

What I learned:

  • I’m able to infer a lot between the lines of this piece because I have enough cultural touchstones in common with the characters – but this would not be the case for every Nikkei writer. It’s wonderful to become aware of this connection because it really solidifies my awareness of writing within (and in response to) a community of Nikkei writers. At the same time, this situation also highlights the importance of Nikkei writers from diverse backgrounds telling their (our) stories, so that every Nikkei reader and writer can feel this connection to the community.
  • Did most JA families take on English names after returning from camp? I’m not quite sure what is meant by this – I’ve read other instances in camp literature of Nikkei adopting English nicknames, and my mom knows a JA family who shortened their family name because they felt it was too long in English – but did any families perform a legal name change?
  • I’m not sure I’ve heard the term ‘countertranslation’ before, but it got me thinking about what an interesting project it would be for 日本人 and 日系 writers to translate each other’s work. I think everyone involved would gain significant insights into their (pre)conceptions of each other’s experiences and identities. Maybe a project like this has already been done – I wouldn’t be surprised. At any rate, such a project seems to me like an actually useful application and interrogation of the politics of translation.
  • Is this a Nikkei version of a Japanese ghost story? It didn’t occur to me until my second read-through, when I started to connect the title with all the times Mama appears in the story. I don’t find the story particularly scary, per se (though I think it could be made much more frightening if adapted as a short film), but the adaptation of experiences specific to Nikkei in the context of an existing Japanese storytelling tradition is a fascinating possibility.

Questions I had:

  • Does Fujimoto dislike umeboshi? I understand proving a point about intergenerational differences, but I still felt bad for all the wasted umeboshi, even if it’s only in fiction!
  • Any time I see “Mama” in a Japanese-language-related context, I automatically think ママ, but in this case it seems to be the English word. On a tangent, for 日本人 kids who move to the US with their parents, do they gradually switch from ママ to Mama as their language skills adapt?
  • Who is Fujimoto’s intended audience? I just reread the part about “Old Man Tanaka,” and while I don’t find it at all surprising as a portrayal of Japanese notions of fatherhood and masculinity, I would also like to know what prompted Fujimoto to include it.

Follow-up:

  • I’m looking forward to reading more of Fujimoto’s work!

Book Spotlight: They Say Blue – Jillian Tamaki

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

They Say Blue, written and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, beautifully captures the colors of the world as seen through a child’s eyes.

What I liked:

  • This is such a gorgeous book! I always try to select attractive picture books because I think at least half their value rests in the quality of the art, but They Say Blue is definitely in my top ten. Tamaki achieves wonderful effects with her use of color and line, and every page is a treat.
  • Although race is never mentioned in the book, the main character appears to be Asian. I really appreciate the effortless integration of a character of color in a story that is not about race and the fact it was done by an Asian creator.
  • The end page illustration of the braid is lovely! I always thought braids were so pretty to look at as a kid – I still do, though I’ve never figured out why I’m so drawn to them – and Tamaki’s illustration brought back that quirky piece of childhood.
  • According to the end page, the illustrations were created using paint and PhotoShop. The watery, flowing wash of colors on each page had me thinking constantly of 墨絵 while reading. I wonder if Tamaki would ever create a picture book using ink – I think she would do an excellent job. Speaking of ink, I would love to see a Nikkei author/illustrator create a picture book about learning 書道 in Japanese school. Oh…now I’m brainstorming a whole subgenre of picture books centered on Nikkei traditions. Some days I really wish I was a visual artist!

What I learned:

  • They Say Blue reminded me picture books play by different “plot” rules than novels. In some ways, I don’t think text was needed at all – Tamaki’s art is so visually expressive, the reader’s interpretation and response is already happening without any textual guidance. At the same time, I do like the idea of an artist narrating her own work, especially if we compare this situation to a museum exhibit, where in most cases the artist is not on hand to provide commentary. I don’t mean to say artist commentary is always necessary to the audience experience, but I do think it’s interesting for the audience to know what the artist had in mind, and to compare it with their own thoughts.

Questions I had:

  • Is there a Japanese edition of this book? I was mentally translating some of the lines into Japanese while reading and I concluded this story would work very well in Japanese – it really reminds me of some of the books from my childhood. I think I may bring a copy or two on my next visit, since the English is probably simple enough for my cousin’s kids to understand.

Follow-up:

  • I would love, love, love to read more picture books by Jillian Tamaki! I’ll definitely be putting this book on my “Quick Recs by Nikkei Authors” list (one of these days I should write this list down instead of keeping it all in my head) because I think readers of all ages will enjoy it.

Book Spotlight: Ten Thousand Views of Rain – Terry Watada

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Ten Thousand Views of Rain is a three-part book of poetry exploring themes pertinent to Nikkei – particularly Japanese Canadian – history and culture.

What I liked:

  • Watada’s poetry is very readable – though I have a feeling I understood very little of it – and I plan to read more of his work!
  • This is the first book of poetry I’ve tried to discuss for Book Spotlight. I have a very limited knowledge of poetry, so we’ll see how this goes. That said, reading Watada’s poems really inspired me to learn more about Japanese Canadian history and Nikkei poetry.
  • Watada has a gift for creating a symphony of lights, sounds, and images in the mind through his poetry. I always enjoy visual writing, though I get bored with flowery descriptions. Watada’s vivid scenes, sketched in just a few choice words, felt particularly impressive to me as someone who has trouble writing concisely. The poem “Lushlife” is a great example and, oddly, put me in mind of 天空の城ラピュタ.
  • There is really a lot of rain in the first part, as to be expected from the title. After my time in Portland, and having also been in Japan during typhoon season, many of the poems felt extraordinarily familiar, even though Watada references places I have never been. I never expected to think of rain as a medium through which to understand other places and experiences – as the point of familiarity when everything else is unknown.
  • Watada included a poem about Obon! I always enjoy reading other Nikkei perspectives on Obon. I’m not sure I can un-see the puffer fish/提灯 comparison, though. One strange “risk” about reading other Nikkei writers on Nikkei topics familiar to me through personal experience is the possibility of disruption – certain impressions or sounds or words or colors which I associate with particular things may suddenly be jarred loose or turned upside-down by someone else’s impressions of that same thing. In one sense, I think this is a good thing because it prevents me from becoming too complacent, but on the other, it’s not always pleasant to have the veil of nostalgia ripped off a precious childhood memory.

What I learned:

  • I know almost nothing about the Canadian camps, but reading each of the poems in part three, with their individualized dedications, dates, and camp names, was a striking introduction. And the (presumably white) woman who leased land to the government for one of the camps…I never heard of this practice before, but I wonder if similar things happened in the US. Were any camps constructed on First Nations reserves? (As distinct from “First Nations lands” or “indigenous lands” because the entire continent fits this description.)

Questions I had:

  • What is the purpose of setting several of the poems in cities around the world? I interpreted this choice as a reference to the global migrations of Nikkei and other people of color, but I wasn’t really sure why this was pointed out. To showcase the many faces of jazz? Also, is Watada a jazz fan or musician?
  • Why did Watada italicize his Japanese words? Given the nature of poetry, I assume it was his decision, not something imposed by the publisher.
  • The excerpts from Paradise Lost in the poem about the LA race riots – I haven’t read Paradise Lost, but I’m quite curious as to why lines from this white classic are included in a poem about race. I’m not criticizing the inclusion; I just don’t understand it. I haven’t read much about the LA race riots beyond what I’ve seen people discussing online, so it’s entirely possible I’m missing the point, but it did strike me as a discordant note, along with the reference to MLK as an angel. Should a religion predominantly associated with white people play such a prominent role in a poem like this? Was that Watada’s intention – and if so, why?
  • Many people flit in and out of these poems, some named, others merely described by their respective role in a family or community. Are they the ghosts of Watada’s personal life? In spite of the geographical and topical range of the poems, they all struck me as exceedingly personal in terms of perspective.
  • Along the same lines, why do so many of the poems reference Hawaii? Does Watada have family there?
  • How did Watada select the individuals named in part three? Were they simply names he came across while researching the camps, or is there more of a personal connection? Did any of Watada’s family spend time in the camps?

Follow-up:

  • I’d like to know more about Watada’s personal background. The brief biography on the back of the book focuses mostly on his bibliography. What sort of position does he occupy in relation to other Nikkei Canadian writers?

2019 Reading Goals

Below is my 2019 reading goals bingo card. I created the categories based on gaps in representation I noticed from my 2018 reading list and with an eye to my ongoing commitment to reading Nikkei literature. Although my card is far from fully representative, I hope it will push me to continue expanding my understanding of peoples and cultures different from my own.

To my fellow Nikkei readers embarking on 2019 reading challenges of your own, good luck! Let me know if you come across any new Japanese/Nikkei writers, please!

Indigenous writer Asian American activism Novel in verse YA or MG fantasy Black woman scholar
Bilingual book Magical realism Black SFF writer History of music or art Novella (any genre)
Hist fic in Asia First book in a series Novel (any genre) Muslim writer Graphic novel
Memoir by WOC Anthology Nikkei scholar Poetry Middle Eastern writer
African writer Independent press US-Mexico border Disabled POC writer Mystery

 

2018 Reading Goals – Results

Last December, I posted a 2018 reading goals bingo card for myself. The original post can be viewed here. One year later, I am happy to say, I GOT BINGO! Below are my results.

The categories in bold represent books I read in 2018.

Novel in verse Translated work by POC Religion (fiction or nonfiction) Short story anthology Indigenous sovereignty
Holiday or cultural event Settler colonialism Book of poetry Decolonizing academia Book in Spanish
JA activism Reread childhood favorite Novel (any genre) Bilingual book Picture book w POC author and illustrator
YA or MG by POC Nikkei in Japan Historical fiction by Nikkei writer Graphic novel by non-Japanese POC Culinary history
Racism in medicine Sexuality or gender identity South or Southeast Asian writer Romance by POC Memoir by a Black activist

My 2018 bingo books:

  • JA activism – The Long Afterlife of Nikkei Wartime Incarceration
  • Reread childhood favorite – The Best Bad Thing
  • Novel (any genre) – Seesaw Girl
  • Bilingual book – A Place Where Sunflowers Grow
  • Picture book w POC author and illustrator – The Fog

Other books I read in 2018:

  • Novel in verse – Forest World
  • Indigenous sovereignty – Deer Woman
  • Book of poetry – My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter
  • YA or MG by POC – Hoodoo
  • Historical fiction by Nikkei writer – A Jar of Dreams
  • Graphic novel by non-Japanese POC – MFK
  • South or Southeast Asian writer – Pashmina
  • Memoir by a Black activist – When They Call You a Terrorist

I did not include any Japanese-language books I read this year. I also omitted books which did not fit any of the bingo categories.

Book Spotlight: Dust of Eden – Mariko Nagai

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Dust of Eden is the story-in-verse of Mina Tagawa, who is forcibly relocated from her home in Seattle to the Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho.

What I liked:

  • This book is extremely readable – Nagai has a talent for capturing details and establishing settings with just a few words. I almost wonder if the book’s format makes it a good choice for teaching Japanese students about Nikkei wartime experiences, while also honing reading comprehension skills.
  • Nagai gracefully combines Japanese and English in her poems, though I could do without the in-text translations. At the same time, because the Japanese in the book is so clearly written by a native* speaker, it gave the story a different, almost dreamlike feeling for me, in contrast to other Nikkei-written camp literature. I felt at times as though I was reading a 日本人 reimagining of Nikkei camp experiences, bolstered in part by the fact that Nagai does not appear to have a family connection to the camps. According to the note at the end, her family physician was in a camp.
  • The strong visuals of the story suggest it could be brilliantly adapted as manga or anime, by a dedicated and skilled team of Japanese/Nikkei artists. There are many visual adaptations of what happened at Hiroshima by 日本人 creators – I think it would be fitting to see some of them work with Nikkei creators, especially individuals with family connections to the camps, to create similar adaptations spotlighting this part of JA history. Weedflower would also be a good candidate for this type of adaptation.

What I learned:

  • Gary Kunieda’s story was very interesting to me. I know some Nikkei chose to leave the camps for Japan, but I have not yet read a work dedicated to their experiences. What happened to them when they reached Japan? Did any of them end up fighting for the Japanese army? I would be especially interested in reading a Nikkei-written adaptation, fiction or nonfiction, of a multigenerational story rooted in this part of JA history. Bonus points if the writer is inspired by their own family history!

Questions I had:

  • Why did Nagai decide to write this book? Was she personally interested in learning more about the camps? How does she conceptualize her own Japanese/Nikkei/other identity in relation to the topic of the book? What contribution did she envision making to the existing body of Nikkei-written camp literature?
  • I noticed multiple omitted words in the poems – were they editorial errors? Initially, I wondered if they were intentional, but since most of the book is written from Mina’s POV and she is Japanese American, there is no reason for her English not to be perfectly grammatically correct. I’m a bit disappointed if the omissions are editorial in nature, because the book was just reissued with a new cover and I would hope someone took the time to proofread the content as well.
  • The content of several of the poems was disturbing to me, primarily because I could not discern the purpose of including topics which, while perhaps historically “accurate,” might well be hurtful to certain readers. I’m thinking particularly of the scene where Nick and his friend ask which bathroom they should use. I cannot imagine a Black reader finding this scene particularly amusing. What sort of audience did Nagai envision when she drafted this portion?
  • As Nikkei readers and writers, how do we make sense of the intersections of settler colonialism and cultural attitudes regarding land? This question was often on my mind as I read the (many) sections where Mina ponders the meaning of being American, as well as the depictions of Grandpa and his roses. Grandpa’s personality, echoed and exemplified by his treatment of the land, felt in many ways quintessentially Japanese to me. I can see in him the bridge between Japan and JA gardeners. At the same time, we have lines such as, “We tame the land with our hands,” which is not particularly distinguishable from the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny or a sentence from the Little House series. I wonder if any indigenous/Native readers have read this book and if so, what they thought of this line and others like it. I also wonder about the effect of these lines on a Nikkei reader – what sort of image of being “American” is conveyed here?
  • Continuing from my last thought, what then is the responsibility of contemporary Nikkei writers and creators? What is the value of putting racism, anti-blackness, settler colonialism, etc., on the page unchallenged, especially in fiction, when doing so perpetuates ideas and practices which are harmful to living communities – and by extension, potential readers? Perhaps this is what Cynthia Kadohata wished to accomplish with Weedflower. For reprints or new editions, if writers and/or publishers do not wish to update the original text, they might advocate for an author’s note which explains why certain ideas or topics were included. It is also vital for writers to clearly identify their intended audiences. For example, if I knew a Black reader was preparing to read this book, I would let them know about the bathroom scene.
  • What sources did Nagai utilize when writing this book? I would be interested in taking a look at her bibliography. The suggested reading list at the back of the book seems primarily targeted to young white readers to give them a basic understanding of Nikkei wartime experiences. I’m glad to see some Nikkei-written books on the list, but I wish the ones written by white people could be replaced with additional Nikkei-created sources. For the camps, especially, there is more than enough material by JA/Nikkei to educate young readers, without sending the message (however implicit) that white people should always be involved in the chronicling of nonwhite experiences.

Follow-up:

  • I realize my lengthy comments above may make it seem I’m highly critical of this book, but I did genuinely enjoy reading it. I think it would be a useful example in any intracommunity discussion comparing and contrasting Nikkei-written camp literature.

*I can’t recall if there was dialogue online about utilizing the term “native” to describe people who have spoken a language since birth. I’m not overly fond of the term “mother tongue,” but I need to check back and see if other alternatives were discussed.

Book Spotlight: The Samurai’s Garden – Gail Tsukiyama

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

In The Samurai’s Garden, a young Chinese man named Stephen travels to wartime Japan to recover from tuberculosis and forms an unexpected friendship with his grandfather’s gardener, Matsu, and a beautiful, reclusive woman named Sachi.

What I liked:

  • For readers who prefer atmosphere over plot, I think Tsukiyama does the best job of establishing place and time of any Nikkei writer I’ve read thus far. Being more plot-oriented myself, it took longer for me to understand why the story seemed to move so slowly. Those of my friends who stick obstinately to “literary” works over genre fiction, this book is probably for you.
  • Tsukiyama’s technique of including letters from Stephen’s family and friends within the diary-like format of the book made the entire story feel extremely dreamlike to me, because none of it seemed to be happening in real time. A diary is something that can only be read after it is written, in the same way a letter takes time to reach its destination before the recipient knows its contents. Additionally, Tsukiyama’s use of trains to move her characters back and forth from Tarumi to other parts of Japan further exemplifies the surreal, fantasy-like nature of the story, as if Tarumi is a magical place far removed from the “real” world where the war is occurring. The final image of Stephen beginning to record his experiences on the train reminded me strongly of 千と千尋の神隠し, particularly the beginning and ending scenes when Chihiro uses a tunnel to access the spirit world. I was also struck by how Stephen takes leave of Matsu and Sachi, knowing he will most likely never learn what becomes of them. The haunting, nostalgic ending was one of the most powerful moments in the book for me.

What I learned:

  • Was it common for affluent Chinese families to maintain summer homes in Japan prior to the war? I know Korean laborers lived in Japan during the war, but I’ve never heard of anything like the arrangement Stephen’s family has in Tarumi. It’s a topic worth looking into – I’ll have to keep an eye out for other novels or scholarly works with a more detailed overview.

Questions I had:

  • Who supervised the romanization of Japanese in this book? Someone previously told me they had noticed errors in Tsukiyama’s novels and unfortunately I have to agree. I do hope publishers are more careful these days, as I believe this book was released a number of years ago.
  • Why did Tsukiyama decide to put “samurai” in the title of the book? I wonder if this aspect of the book was a marketing decision, or if she intended to explore the concept of samurai from the start. That said, if the linking of samurai ideals to certain characters was intended to demonstrate how samurai culture has persisted in Japan over time, it seems like an odd topic to juxtapose with Stephen’s constant awareness of Japanese atrocities in China. To me, the book felt like an attempt to illustrate the nuances of Japanese culture with respect to interpersonal interactions and family relationships. Although the story could have been an opportunity to thoroughly explore the gap between Japanese reality and stereotype, I felt it relied a bit too heavily on concepts like samurai and honor, which are already heavily distorted in outsider perceptions of Japan. How did other Nikkei readers feel about the portrayal of Japanese culture in this book?
  • What is the significance of including leprosy in the story? I initially wondered if Yamaguchi was based on a real village, but if so, I like to think there would have been an author’s note somewhere in the book explaining the historical significance of how Japanese people with leprosy were treated during this time. If the experiences of Sachi and the other inhabitants of Yamaguchi are based on those of real people, I feel it would have been a mark of respect to acknowledge this on the page. That said, I also wonder if Tsukiyama originally asked to include a note and the publisher refused. If any Japanese readers with leprosy have read this book, what did they think?

Follow-up:

  • I know Tsukiyama has written a number of other novels and I was thinking it might be interesting to read one of her historical novels on China, for instance, since she is also of Chinese descent.