Manzanar Reflections, etc.

Note to readers:

I’m not sure I know anyone whose family was incarcerated at Manzanar, but if any such person is reading this, you should know my family was not incarcerated at Manzanar, and I write only from the perspective of someone whose family was incarcerated at other camps.

On Saturday, April 29, my parents and I arrived at Manzanar for the 48th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage. My sister wanted to accompany us, but was unable to get time off from work. In the interests of preserving memories, I’ve tried to jot down some of my experiences and reflections here.

First, the logistics. Manzanar is about an eight-hour drive from my parents’ home in the Bay Area (less if you’re willing to drive over the speed limit and don’t get stuck in traffic). On Friday, we drove six hours to reach our hotel, in Mojave.* It was dusty and windy, but not as hot as we anticipated. When I wasn’t daydreaming, I was thinking about a recent conversation with Nikkei poet Brandon Shimoda** about concentration camps and the aftermath(s) of incarceration. I also wondered how different my experience of Manzanar would be/would have been if I hadn’t already been reading Nikkei writers and following Nikkei organizations on social media for some months prior to our trip.

Saturday morning, we drove two hours from Mojave to Manzanar (again, less if you’re willing to drive over the speed limit). The mountain desert landscape was (un)familiar, quite similar to what I’d see during our annual summer trips to Lee Vining and Mono Lake. Although I reread Farewell to Manzanar*** quite recently, for some reason I didn’t fully grasp Manzanar’s exact location until our visit. I was a little surprised to realize we spent so many summer weeks not far from a major landmark in Japanese American history. Even more surprisingly, during the drive my parents informed me this would technically be my second visit to Manzanar, since we once made a brief stop there when I was very young. According to my dad, the main entrance was located at Manzanar’s historic entrance, where a guardhouse still stands, and the visitors’ center had yet to come into existence. My mom recalled seeing the white memorial pillar, but not much else. Reconstruction and preservation work is ongoing at the site and I wonder how much will have changed by my next, as-yet-unplanned visit.

After parking in the front lot (there’s also parking near the cemetery and an unpaved loop for people taking the auto tour), we briefly toured the visitors’ center. My dad went to find the archaeologist currently leading one of the garden restorations, and my mom and I browsed the gift shop. Normally, archaeology interests me, but I believe the archaeologist on site that day was a white woman and I wasn’t in the mood to navigate a potentially othering conversation. It’s odd and not very pleasant to think of a white perspective dominating the restoration and reconstruction of physical elements of Japanese American history. To be fair, I don’t know if the white people on-site report to JA/Nikkei, but since Manzanar is a national historic site I assume at least some white people are involved in making the big decisions. Also, though I think this is true of US parks/historic sites in general, every ranger I saw was white. Even if the images and text of the exhibits are created and/or approved by JA/Nikkei – I mostly skimmed over the placards but I didn’t notice anything problematic, so I suspect JA/Nikkei were heavily involved behind the scenes – seeing only white faces in uniform is a reminder of who the gatekeepers really are, even or especially when it comes to (white-dominated) US government-sanctioned narratives of history. Note the ironic parallel of white people in uniform ‘guarding’ or gatekeeping sites like Manzanar in the present, and white people in uniform literally guarding incarcerated Japanese Americans at every concentration camp during the war. Some things never change? Or rather, haven’t changed yet even though they should…

Thanks to the long, slow-moving line, I had plenty of time to people-watch.**** Most of the people in the shop were either young Asian Americans or older Asian and white folks. There were also a fair number of young, non-Asian POC. Later, when I mentioned the demographics of the gift shop customers to my mom, especially my surprise at not seeing more JA/Nikkei folks, she suggested most probably didn’t feel a need or desire to purchase gifts at Manzanar. Her comment nudged me back to something I’d been pondering when we first decided to go to Manzanar – in what capacity were we making this trip?

I first learned about the Manzanar Pilgrimage when I started following the Manzanar Committee on Twitter. I’d been thinking it would be interesting to visit at least one of the camps, but I hadn’t given much thought to which one. At some point, I realized Manzanar might be my best bet because of its relative proximity to my parents’ place (when you don’t drive, these things matter). I floated the idea by my family and everybody agreed we should do it.

As the date of our departure approached, I began wondering what it meant for my family, specifically, to visit Manzanar. We were never incarcerated there and, as far as I knew, none of our relatives or friends had been incarcerated there, either. Did that make us tourists? I’m inclined to say yes and no, though I’m still thinking through it. On one hand, much of the experience felt similar to previous family road trips, where, for better or worse, our general goal was to visit places we thought might be interesting. On the other hand, Manzanar memorializes a life-changing era for thousands of JA/Nikkei (including us), a connection which sets it apart from our other family trips.

I kept, and keep, returning to the nature of this connection. I wouldn’t want any JA/Nikkei, either my own relatives, incarcerated (we think) at Topaz and Gila River,***** or those people who were incarcerated at Manzanar, to think I and other JA/Nikkei in my position who visit Manzanar are using it as a kind of stand-in for the other camps or attempting to lay some claim to the site which erases the experiences of those who were actually there. I suppose I shouldn’t speak for other JA/Nikkei, but to the rest of you who, like me, visited Manzanar but had no family there, I hope you’re all conscious and respectful of the distinction.

We eventually got to the front of the gift shop line, with just enough time to make our way to the event space. The meandering, unpaved trail reminded me of hiking through the desert brush near Mono Lake. (By the way, we found out later it’s about a mile from the visitors’ center to the event space, so if you plan to visit Manzanar and you have difficulty walking, I recommend driving the auto tour loop and parking along the road or in the back lot, if there’s space. The trail is not walker- or wheelchair-accessible.) By the time we arrived, a standing crowd was forming in a wide semicircle near the stage. There was seating under a canopy, as well as some unsheltered seating in front of the stage, and some people brought their own chairs. I assume some of the people seated had made prior arrangements, but I also saw some people in the unsheltered seating who looked like drop-in visitors, so I’m guessing there was a bit of first-come, first-served. (I highly recommend calling ahead about seating if you plan to attend the events but are unable to stand for long periods. I didn’t see any signage on site, or any notices on the Manzanar Committee website about disability accommodations, but I would hope accommodations would be made for anyone who needs them.)

Commemorative t-shirts were being sold at a couple of tables to the right of the “entrance” to the event space and my parents purchased a few for the family. I don’t recall if they paid via cash or card, but I believe each shirt was selling for ten or fifteen dollars. I also saw water coolers scattered around, and the website mentioned water would be provided, but I didn’t actually see anyone open a cooler. It kind of reminded me of those moments in Japanese socializing when someone offers something because that is the expected gesture, even though everyone also knows not to accept it. This event didn’t feel Nihonjin enough for such thinking, but it was what popped into my head.

Someone asked me later if I thought the pilgrimage felt well-organized. To me, it felt Japanese-American-organized, the same way Obon does, and in a different way from Nihonjin-organized or white-USian-organized. I suppose only JA/Nikkei whose event experiences are similar to mine will understand this statement, but I haven’t thought of a better way to phrase it.

People started talking on stage, but the first event I really paid attention to was UCLA Kyodo Taiko’s performance. By ‘paid attention to,’ I should specify, my attention caught, snagged, and throbbed uncomfortably at the sight of a white guy playing front and center. To be fair, he might have been an extremely white-looking, mixed-race JA/Nikkei, but since I know college taiko groups often allow anyone to join, I suspect he was just a plain old white guy. It was like coming across a microaggression in an otherwise enjoyable book – seeing the white guy kind of spoiled the performance for me. The only thing I ended up liking about that part of the pilgrimage was listening to my mom’s occasional commentary. She’s been part of a taiko class for about a year now, I think (maybe two?), and was able to assess the skills and experience of several players. Apparently, the performing groups were divided into a beginner set and an intermediate/advanced set, based on how and what they played. We also played a guessing game about which of them might be Japanese, and she recognized an uta called ‘Matsuri’ as one her own group played last year.

Kyodo Taiko left the stage, and some more people talked. At one point, a speaker asked if any Native people (I believe from the local Paiute people?) were present, but no one identified themselves. I hope they came later, or, if they chose not to attend, I hope it wasn’t because they had been made to feel unwelcome in previous years. I was glad to hear the official program acknowledge how Manzanar occupies Native land; I very rarely hear JA/Nikkei discussing settler colonialism in our spaces, so it’s good to know some people are aware.

The other two events I remember clearly are the camp flag procession and Ken Koshio’s performance. I didn’t realize each camp had its own flag until I saw the procession, but it immediately became an, ‘oh, あたりまえ’ moment. I spy a story in there, but first I need to finish my survey of camp literature to make sure no other JA/Nikkei has written it first (and if they have, I hope they are a former/current watcher of Japanese historical dramas).

Ken Koshio’s performance consisted of an original piece about EO 9066 and a rendition of ‘Sukiyaki.’ He also had a fellow performer, a former professional taiko player whose name I can’t recall. For ‘Sukiyaki,’ he invited the audience to sing along. My mom and I did – Sakamoto Kyu is a household name in our family****** – but I didn’t see very many others joining in. I’m no singer, but I tried to be as enthusiastic as possible in my efforts because I didn’t want Koshio-san to feel unappreciated. I mean, I doubt he would, since he’s a professional and all, but I didn’t want him to think everyone in the audience drew a blank since he picked a very well-known song.

After the taiko and musical performances, my mom and I reviewed the program and decided we were どうでもいい about the speakers (I know, I know, I missed Warren Furutani), so we took a quick look at the pillar, found my dad, and started walking back to the visitors’ center. (Before I actually got to Manzanar, I assumed the pillar would comprise a significant part of my write-up because, you know, it’s in all the photos on the website, but we couldn’t even get close to it because of the stuff arranged in front, so I don’t really have anything to say. Next time, I guess!) This walk ended up being one of my favorite parts of our Manzanar visit, though not for the reasons I might have told myself before I arrived.

There’s not much left of Manzanar. In archaeological terms, maybe, yes, but to the casual eye, no, not really. I’m very visual, so all the mountains, trees, sky, and brush I saw, instead of flat sand, barracks, and guard towers, made me feel very far from the people who were incarcerated there. Looking at the green – really, unexpectedly green – growth in the open space behind the signs reading, ‘such-and-such’s quarters,’ the disappearance is clear, but not so much the emotion. It was easier (weird way of putting it, right?) to find the feeling when we looked at the overgrown parks and gardens. The rocks in the garden, especially – I have photos, but WordPress allots only so much space to media files – but as to the why, there could be a lot of reasons. My parents’ and relatives’ yards, in California and Sagamihara and Miyazaki, my art history background, my dad’s stories about my grandfather…and おはか参り, the non sequitur, maybe, but it makes sense in my head. The rocks say, there were people here, and they cared, and they put us here. Kind of like ほこら, ね? I need practice at the bilingual writing flow, but hopefully fellow bilingual JA/Nikkei readers sort of understand what I’m trying to say.

I saw the toilets. I thought, even before arriving, to take a photo, but when I actually saw them, it felt wrong. Plus, there was an article on the website about the toilets…it’s weird and kind of uncomfortable to think of them used as a tourist selling point.

We made a more thorough circuit of the visitors’ center (though I still couldn’t find anything about Farewell to Manzanar). I started flipping through the records of incarcerated names – incarcerees, or something, but I also think of stolen, stifled, silenced language, so names, too – and a ranger, a white woman, approached to ask if I was looking for a particular person. My dad gave her the details and she went to search the electronic records to see if she had anything we didn’t already know. I sat on a nearby folding chair (yes, I checked first to make sure nobody who looked more in need of a chair was in the vicinity) and looked at the camp flag display across the way. My mom sat next to me. I don’t remember what we talked about. Eventually, I saw Ken Koshio in the crowd, stopping now and then to photograph exhibits. He came to the flags and stepped around my chair for a better angle. I thought, Japanese or English?, picked Japanese, and asked if he wanted me to move, though of course, having picked the language, I sort of knew the answer already. It was half-selfish, I wanted to see what sort of 日本人/日系人 he chose to be or had become or currently was, and his response was, as mostly expected, 日本人. But he also didn’t seem surprised, to hear it from me, a very un-日本人 dressed person, but of course, he must meet all kinds of us in his line of work. (Speaking of which, has anyone else looked at his website? The collaborations with Native musicians are interesting…I feel iffy about the way he’s attired in some of the photos, even if his collaborators ‘approved’ it.) Anyway, it was very cool to talk to someone like him, if only for a second.

There’s a lot I’m forgetting, or already forgot, but I think I jotted down the things I told myself to remember. I learned, after the fact, that Naomi Hirahara was there, somewhere. NAOMI HIRAHARA. And I missed her! My only major regret for this first trip, as far as I know. I have Bachi and Cranes in my pile, and hope to get to one or both sometime this summer.

For any fellow JA/Nikkei reading this, feel free to @ me on Twitter if you have questions, or if you were there, too! I look forward to chatting with you.

P.S. If this post feels truncated in places, or disjointed, it’s because there’s a lot more in my head which, for one reason or other, I didn’t include in the text. Rather than writing myself out, I tried to cover the first iteration of what I consider ‘salient points’ of my experience, with the expectation there will be additional iterations inspired (or not) by the first.

*The towns of Lone Pine and Independence are both closer to Manzanar, but my dad wasn’t able to find a room to accommodate all of us by the time he made the reservation.

**I don’t usually promote writers outside of my book-related posts, but Brandon is someone I admire a lot, so check out his poetry if you have a chance.

***I didn’t see any reference to Farewell to Manzanar in the visitor center exhibits. To my fellow JA/Nikkei who have visited Manzanar, did you notice any reference to the book? Considering how well-known it is, I expected to see at least a placard acknowledging its existence. Maybe I just missed that particular exhibit?

****They have a pretty decent selection of JA/Nikkei works on their shelves, for any fellow JA/Nikkei readers planning a visit.

*****On Twitter (and maybe on this blog), I previously stated my relatives were incarcerated at Poston. During this trip, I learned they were apparently at Topaz and Gila River, so I apologize to any JA/Nikkei confused by the discrepancy.

******Full disclosure: Sukiyaki is also an Obon staple – it was our kachi-kachi dance every year, so I can both sing and dance to it. Luckily, most people who read this probably won’t witness either one.

Book Spotlight: Farewell to Manzanar – Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Farewell to Manzanar recounts the experiences of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and her family during their incarceration in the Manzanar concentration camp.

What I liked:

  • I first read Farewell to Manzanar when I was in grade school. My recollection is very fuzzy, but I remember finding it super boring. I may even have DNFed* it because I have no memory of reading the second half of the book. I’m happy to report it was much more interesting the second time around, probably because I’m older and know more about JA incarceration now.
  • I appreciate Houston’s decision to share her story. The camps were and are a sensitive topic in the JA community, and not everyone agrees about whether or how these experiences should be shared. I wonder what kind of responses Houston has received from JA readers over the years. In the afterword, the authors tell us responses have varied over time, but they don’t specifically detail how the JA community, especially different generations, have reacted to the story. I also wonder what postwar Japanese immigrants with no personal ties to the camps think of the story. I suppose I could ask my mom, but I doubt she’s read the book.
  • Houston’s first-person descriptions of camp life and how her family members, especially her father, responded to incarceration, are a deeply personal window into this era of Japanese American history. Although I’m sure Houston omitted or changed certain things to protect her privacy, the overall story felt much grittier and more painful than, for example, Cynthia Kadohata’s Weedflower. I don’t know enough about the creative processes behind either Houston’s or Kadohata’s book to attribute the difference solely to Houston’s book being a product of personal experience while Kadohata’s is not – I would imagine there are many more reasons contributing to the differences between the books – but I do wonder if the ‘less censored’ feel I get from reading Houston’s book has to do with it being a firsthand account. In other words, Houston didn’t need to imagine the difficulties of camp life because she experienced them and knew exactly how it felt. As fellow JA/Nikkei readers may note, Kadohata’s comparatively “restrained” approach to depicting camp life seems to engage with the value we (as Japanese people) place on the relationship between personal familiarity and use of familiar language. Personally, I would be rather taken aback if Sumiko (Kadohata’s POV character) was presented through a lens as intimate as what we see in Farewell to Manzanar, since, as far as I know, Sumiko’s fictional experiences are not based on Kadohata’s personal life. I imagine this may sound like splitting hairs to outsiders, but I think my fellow JA/Nikkeijin will understand the importance of the distinction I’m trying to make here. Keeping these points in mind, I’ll be paying close attention to first- versus secondhand accounts of camp life in the Nikkei books I read next.
  • Several times in the text, Houston compares Ko to samurai. Each time I wondered how the cultural conflicts experienced by Japanese immigrants (whether Issei or the more recent Shin-Issei) compared with the conflicts experienced by Nihonjin as more aspects of Eurocentric cultures found their way to Japan. I’ve found academic texts by Japanese/Nikkei writers which tackle each of these topics independently, but I’ve yet to find a work which considers these processes from a comparative perspective. Obviously, many differences exist in what was (and is) experienced by Nihonjin versus Nikkeijin with regard to Eurocentric influences, but since neither group exists wholly apart from the other, I’d be very interested in what Japanese/Nikkei scholars have made of these contemporaneous issues.**

What I learned:

  • According to the information provided at the end of the book, the Houstons didn’t originally conceive of Farewell to Manzanar as a children’s book. I wonder if this is part of why I found it so boring as a kid. At any rate, I do think US students, especially Japanese American students, should be educated about JA incarceration as part of the required curriculum. Given that the JA community has produced a ton of material about the camps, if I was an educator I would probably teach Farewell to Manzanar in conversation with other works, including multimedia works, to make the information more accessible to students. As I explain below, I don’t think Farewell to Manzanar should be students’ ONLY classroom exposure to JA incarceration because the text contains a number of issues which, if not critically examined and refuted, might lead to misguided perceptions of how World War II impacted the JA community.

Questions I had:

  • I wonder if the Japanese translation of Farewell to Manzanar has a wide readership in Japan. Based on my personal experiences, Nihonjin don’t generally know much about JA incarceration, so I’d be curious to know by what avenues Nihonjin have come to this book.
  • Houston utilizes terms such as “Oriental” and “Caucasian” throughout the text. There are occasional uses of the words “Asian” and “white,” but overall many more uses of Oriental and Caucasian. I’m well aware these terms would have been widely used by older Asian Americans, but given Farewell to Manzanar’s continuing circulation in contemporary classrooms, I think it would be highly advisable to include a note at the beginning or end of the text on the relative obsolescence of these terms among today’s Asian Americans. It would be unfortunate for students to believe it is still acceptable to refer to Asians as “Orientals” simply because it is never refuted or questioned in the text. I also noticed multiple editions of the book have been published since its original release in 1972 – do any of the other editions include an explanation/critique of the language used in the text? I find it odd the authors/publishing team saw fit to update the afterword with references to 9/11 and Islamophobia, but didn’t see the problem with leaving words like “Oriental” unchallenged.
  • “American” is used interchangeably with “white” and “Eurocentric” many times in the text. I noticed this especially in the final few chapters, when Houston discusses her struggles to reconcile her family’s Japanese values with what she describes as “American” culture. I don’t have an issue with Houston making this association as a child, of course – I’m sure many JAs/other POC have done this and continue to do so – but I do think it should be challenged in the author’s note. The US education system already reinforces the fiction of American = white in many ways, and students reading Farewell to Manzanar will absorb this fiction yet again if no one contradicts it. I also think a critical analysis of Houston’s use of “American,” as well as similar instances in other texts, is a useful introductory point for teaching students about settler colonialism. From my own conversations with fellow JAs, it seems not many often consider how the US is a settler colonialist nation/state. I think Japanese American students in particular should learn to be conscious of how we benefit from and participate in settler colonialism specifically, since most of the critical discussions I see in our community spaces seem to center on unpacking our complicity in the model minority myth.*** For example, the camps are often described as being in “middle-of-nowhere” type locations, which seems to indicate the lack of a human presence and erases the indigenous peoples who occupied (and continue to occupy) these spaces long before settlers came along with their colonialist notions of what is or isn’t “nowhere.”
  • Houston chooses to use terms such as, “internment” and “evacuation” – I don’t know whose decision this was, or if it was ever challenged, but as I’ll explain at length in an upcoming post about Yoshiko Uchida’s Journey to Topaz, I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised to learn this is Houston’s own word choice. That said, I do think the author’s note should include an explanation distinguishing the reasons formerly incarcerated JA/Nikkei might use “internment” from the problems arising when non-incarcerated JA/Nikkei and non-Japanese people try to euphemize history by using such terms. Just as terms such as genocide and settler colonialism should not be skipped over when teaching students about the ongoing violence toward and displacement of indigenous peoples on this continent, so too should Japanese American incarceration be named for what it was.
  • How much of the actual writing is in Houston’s own words? What exactly was her husband’s role in crafting the book? The afterword notes how the story began as a series of tape recordings of Jeanne recounting her experiences to her husband, but what happened after that? To be clear, I am not criticizing Houston’s decision to co-write the book with her husband. Between the story and the afterword, it seems Houston spent many years coming to terms with her experiences, and in deciding even to share her story, she took a step many camp survivors chose not to. It seems natural she would enlist the support of someone close to her in taking on what was likely a stressful project. I do, however, feel it’s equally important for readers to know whether any of the content being presented is through a white lens. Although Farewell to Manzanar is often touted as a “true” story and a firsthand account, I feel a book with such a wide readership inside and outside classrooms should contain a more transparent explanation of its creation.

Follow-up:

  • Houston has also written a novel, The Legend of Fire Horse Woman, which I forgot about until I saw it mentioned in the interview at the end of the book. As far as I know, the novel is her work alone, so it’ll be interesting to see if and how her writing style changes when she isn’t working with her husband.

*DNF = did not finish.

**I couldn’t think of a word which would reflect the non-contemporaneous aspects of this, namely that Eurocentric cultures were, as far as I know, having significant impacts on Nihonjin long before any JA/Nikkei communities were firmly established in Euro/white-dominant countries.

***Of course, the model minority myth is an important issue for the JA community to address, but even a discussion of model minority is incomplete without unpacking its connections to settler colonialism.

Book Spotlight: Between Two Empires – Eiichiro Azuma

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

In Between Two Empires, Eiichiro Azuma utilizes a transnational framework to chronicle how Issei and Nisei came to view themselves in terms of racial(ized) identities formulated out of their interactions with Japan and the US in the years before World War II.

What I liked:

  • When I started reading Between Two Empires, I immediately thought, “oh shit, this is way too complicated for my first book-length foray into Japanese American history,” but I’m very glad I kept going. Azuma’s writing is clear and concise, especially given the complexity of his chosen topic, and his arguments seem well-reasoned and nuanced without stretching the veracity of his sources.* In other words, if you’re a JA/Nikkei/Japanese reader with an interest in Japanese American history and you like reading academic work for fun, I think you’ll enjoy Azuma’s book.
  • I am so glad Azuma decided to focus on this period in Japanese American history. As stated above, this is the first nonfiction book I’ve read about our history, but from the other works on my TBR, I can see the years during and after World War II seem to receive more attention from JA/Nikkei/Japanese writers. My list does include a few works on Issei/Nisei history, which I look forward to comparing with Azuma’s book. I can’t help wondering how much of the narrative presented here reflects the experiences of my paternal grandparents, both of whom were in the US during the prewar years. They were both gone before I was born, so I’ve only ever heard bits and pieces of their stories via my dad and other relatives.
  • For the most part, Azuma is straightforward about the scope of his work. Although his argument relies on certain generalizations, he is clear about who he has omitted from the text, as well as underrepresented groups in his sources, like Japanese women who were often prevented or discouraged from contributing to Issei and Nisei narratives. Azuma’s identification of the limits of his work, in combination with his closing argument for applying transnationalism to Japanese American studies, suggests he sees his work as one possible foundation for an area he hopes future scholarship will expand upon.**
  • Azuma provides one of the more thorough overviews of Kibei experiences I’ve seen in accounts of Japanese American history, though to be sure, I’m far from having a complete grasp of the existing scholarship. I’ve been fascinated by Kibei experiences ever since reading the part in Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira-Kira where we learn some of Katie’s relatives went to Japan to learn chicken sexing. (I have to say, I’m glad Azuma’s work broadens the discussion, since chicken sexing isn’t my preferred lens for learning about Kibei history.) The idea of Nikkeijin having the fluidity to move between Japan and other places is important to me, since my own visits to family and friends have been an integral part of my life experiences. I wonder too if Azuma’s own apparent proximity to Japan (discussed in more detail below) influenced his decision to include Kibei in his analysis of Japanese American identity formations.
  • In the epilogue (or maybe it was in one of the chapters), Azuma notes how previous “master narratives” of Japanese American history are “mononational” in approach, as part of his argument for why a transnational/not-exclusively-US-centric approach to JA/Nikkei studies is more suitable to the subject matter. I appreciate his reference to “master narratives” (historiography ostensibly demonstrates how there is no one true account of “history,” but scholars and non-academics alike sometimes seem to forget this if it doesn’t serve their purposes) because it suggests he writes with an awareness of his own role in constructing a narrative instead of the narrative.
  • This final point is difficult to articulate, in part because it’s highly subjective, but one of the reasons I started my informal study of Japanese American history with this book is because it appeared to be a detailed examination of Japanese American identity formation, written by a Japanese (probably Nikkei) scholar with full access to sources in both Japanese and English. In other words, academia’s version of #ownvoices. As I’m writing this post, I still don’t know what Azuma’s exact background is (Nikkeijin v. Nihonjin, what generation he is, if applicable), but after reading his book I feel assured his conclusions about how Issei/Nisei formed racial(ized) identities were crafted by someone who, as an insider, knows how Japanese people think and act, as well as someone familiar with the ins and outs of being bilingual and moving between Japan and the US. Obviously, we aren’t a monolith, but I generally trust JA/Nikkei/Japanese writers to be attuned to nuances of behavior and culture, and, if they choose to omit or distort certain things, to do so with complete awareness of (and willingness to be held accountable for) how their actions affect our community’s understanding of itself.

What I learned:

  • There is a lot of agricultural history in this book. A lot. I see exactly why Azuma dedicated so many pages to it, but it did make for slow going at times. I’m not exactly entranced by crop statistics. I wonder if Azuma likes agricultural history, or if he inwardly groaned when he realized he couldn’t possibly complete the book without extensively discussing it.
  • This idea of “transnationalism” seems to hold interesting possibilities for Japanese American/Nikkei studies. I wonder if Azuma’s particular application of a transnational framework to Issei/Nisei history can also, with some adjustments, be utilized in studying postwar Japanese immigrant experiences. Since Japanese American/Nikkei studies still seems to be an emerging field, there are many gaps to be filled, but one I hope JA/Nikkei scholars take into account is how one’s proximity to Japan (obviously some parameters would need to be defined re: “proximity”) affects one’s real-life, real-time experiences in the US or other non-Japan country. In other words, someone with my background, or that of my haafu friend who grew up on Okinawa and moved to the US less than ten years ago, might be similar in age to JAs who self-identify as Yonsei/Gosei and might be familiar with some of the same aspects of Japanese culture, but will also have some experiences utterly different from those of someone whose family has been in the US for three or four or five generations already. As I read more JA/Nikkei nonfiction work on our histories and experiences, I’ll be looking for how and when these distinctions are explored.

Questions I had:

  • This is probably just my lack of familiarity with transnational studies, but I really didn’t see where Azuma was going in terms of his final argument until I read the epilogue. I wasn’t shocked by his conclusion, though – his emphasis on how Issei and Nisei existed in the interstitial spaces between the Japanese and US empires makes a strong case for expanding/revising the analytical frameworks applied to Japanese American history. It was a very, “what? – oh, duh!” moment for me.
  • I wonder how Azuma came to academia and, more specifically, to this field of study. Based on the brief reference to his parents at the beginning, I’m guessing he is either Shin-Nisei or a Japanese citizen. If I’m correct, I wonder what he thinks of himself, as part of the postwar Japanese immigrant community in the US, writing about the experiences of Issei and Nisei.*** I will say, my perception of Azuma’s proximity to Japan based on this information reassured me of his ability to access and interpret Japanese-language sources. I wonder if JA/Nikkei scholars ever convene to discuss their relationships with the Japanese language – especially those for whom Japanese is a native language and those who first learned it in school.
  • Who was Azuma’s intended audience? His closing argument suggests he is writing at least in part to fellow scholars of Japanese American and immigrant history, but was he also thinking of non-academic readers? In particular, I wonder if he hopes Japanese readers outside academia will engage with his work. I can definitely see non-academic JA/Nikkei readers with an interest in family/cultural history viewing his work as a useful resource, and I can only hope he would be receptive if such readers ever wished to interact with him. I would assume he understands how important these narratives are, not just for the purpose of expanding the body of scholarship, but also to the people whose personal stories are being (re)told.
  • Are there plans to translate Between Two Empires into Japanese? I didn’t check; it’s possible a translation has already been done. I wonder if Azuma was/hopes to be involved in any translation process. In light of the research he conducted in Japan, I assume he is well capable of navigating Japanese academic spaces and I wonder if he was/is interested in translating his own work. Considering the relative lack of knowledge of JA/Nikkei history among Japanese nationals, I feel it should be a priority to make JA/Nikkei scholarship accessible to Japanese readers of all backgrounds.**** Conversely, I would like to see more Japanese scholarship made accessible to non-Japanese-knowing Nikkei readers.

Follow-up:

  • Azuma’s extensive endnotes occupy almost half the book’s page count. I was too intellectually drained to read them after finishing the epilogue, but I’ll probably go back to them when I’ve had some time to reflect on his analysis.
  • I have no idea what Azuma is currently working on, but I hope I can read it when he’s done. His first book gives me confidence in his ability to construct sensitive, thorough narratives of Japanese American history.

*I think I’ve made this clear in other places on this blog, but for any new folks, I approach all of my book analyses as an “average” reader, i.e. someone not associated with academia or seeking to contribute to scholarship. I’m always interested in what JA/Nikkei/Japanese scholars have to say about each other’s work, but I’m also highly cognizant of the fact your average JA/Nikkei/Japanese reader is NOT going to have a PhD or be otherwise associated with academia. I reject the notion academic “credentials” are a prerequisite for having a “valid” opinion on a book because this argument equates “value” with the privileges required to be a part of academia. If you don’t see where I’m going by this point, google is right over there. I recommend starting with POC scholarship on decolonizing academia.

**In the course of reading Between Two Empires, I started wondering if JA/Nikkei scholars have tackled certain other aspects of Issei/Nisei history, particularly non-west-coast-based Japanese American agricultural history and the history of Japanese colonialism in relation to indigenous peoples. This isn’t a comment on Azuma’s scholarship – it’s clear both of these topics are well beyond the scope of his book – but rather my personal interest in elements of Japanese/Nikkei history which few people seem to discuss. I noticed Azuma’s analysis relies heavily on case studies of Japanese American agriculture in California, with occasional references to Oregon and Washington. All of my farmer relatives (as far as I know), currently live in Colorado and Nebraska, but I don’t know how long they’ve been there. I’m not sure when Issei first started living and working in parts of the US other than the west coast and Hawaii, but I’d be interested in reading any JA/Nikkei scholarship on the topic. I’ve also been wondering for a while if any collaborative Nikkeijin/Nihonjin scholarship exists on how Japanese people have interacted with indigenous peoples around the world, from the Ainu on Hokkaido to indigenous peoples in North America (US/Canada/Mexico), Peru, and Brazil. I’m pretty sure my TBR includes a couple of works on Japanese/Asian settler colonialism in Hawaii, but I haven’t seen much discussion about other areas. I do wish Azuma had included some discussion of the indigenous peoples displaced from the lands where Issei and Nisei took up farming. Perhaps they’re mentioned in the endnotes (shouldn’t they be given space in the actual text, though?) – I’ll have to keep an eye out. I assume most of the actual displacing (land stealing, genocide, etc.) occurred before Issei and Nisei arrived, since in most cases they were working land “owned” by white people, but I imagine there were still everyday interactions between Japanese immigrants and indigenous peoples in some areas. Where did indigenous peoples rank in Issei/Nisei perceptions of the racial hierarchy?

***I’m in an odd position to be assessing his standpoint, since I’m Shin-Nisei on one side and Sansei-Yonsei on the other. Would a scholar with a background similar to mine approach Issei/Nisei history in a way significantly different from Azuma’s method?

****I don’t think simply making JA/Nikkei history accessible to Japanese nationals would resolve tensions between Nihonjin and Nikkejin when it comes to matters like racism, but I do think it’s a step toward an eventual mutual resistance to global white supremacy. Although I think Japanese nationals should be made more aware of the everyday realities of being Japanese outside Japan, particularly in white-dominant spaces, I also hope diaspora Japanese make an effort to understand all the factors which shape Japanese nationals’ relationship with and response to white supremacy and other outside forces.

Book Spotlight: Baseball Saved Us – Ken Mochizuki

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Baseball Saved Us, written by Ken Mochizuki and illustrated by Dom Lee, tells the story of an unnamed Japanese American boy who finds strength in baseball during and after his time in a US concentration camp.

What I liked:

  • Mochizuki never uses “concentration camp” or “incarceration” in the text – which makes sense, since young readers might not know what those words mean, but he does use the capitalized “Camp” throughout the story and the MC* tells us early on how “Camp” is not the same as summer camp. If I had read this book as a kid, I’d probably have gone to my dad and asked him to tell me more about why “Camp” is capitalized, and I can imagine other JA/Nikkei kids doing the same. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but I appreciate Mochizuki creating the space for these conversations via a single terminology choice.
  • The MC is never named in the text.** I actually read the entire book without realizing it and only noticed as I was reviewing details in preparation for this post. I’m not sure why Mochizuki left the MC nameless, but I think it worked for this story (also, I believe this is more common in picture books than in novels). First, while many formerly incarcerated JAs have shared their experiences, others have either passed away or chosen to keep their memories private. Mochizuki’s nameless MC could thus be read as a stand-in for the many JAs whose stories we will never hear. I also wonder if Mochizuki intended the story to be an homage/testament to everyone who endured the camps, a way of saying, ‘regardless of whether you shared your story, your experiences were/are valid and we will remember you.’ Second, the story’s first-person POV combined with the MC’s unknown name might help draw young readers into the narrative. Although I’m not usually a fan of nameless MCs, in this case I imagine my younger self easily ‘stepping’ into the MC’s shoes and seeing the camp through his eyes. Encouraging empathy is key, especially for young readers whose first exposure to camp history might very well be this book.
  • Dom Lee’s illustrations are perfect for the story and subject matter. (Side note: I recommend reading the note at the beginning, which details how the illustrations were created; it’s listed after the acknowledgments on the back of the title page.) Lee’s mostly-brown palette simultaneously evokes old photographs (not surprising, since some of the illustrations were apparently inspired by Lange’s camp photos), dusty baseball diamonds, and camps in the desert. Message: these camps were historic and being in them involved dust and dirt. It’s quite a contrast from Joanna Yardley’s brightly colored illustrations in Yoshiko Uchida’s camp narrative, The Bracelet.*** At the same time, Lee’s dynamic compositions and multiple double-page spreads keep the visual narrative active and interesting. The many baseball-playing scenes probably help with the pacing – Lee is a master at rendering active poses and animated facial expressions.
  • One of my favorite illustrations is the scene when Teddy defies their father’s request for a cup of water. I’ve heard multiple JAs comment on how some of the worst aspects of the camps have been glossed over or omitted in firsthand accounts, for various reasons. Similarly, as I’m sure my fellow JAs know, the choices we make about how much we reveal when telling our stories can change how our community views and treats us. Knowing all this, I’m glad whenever I see a fellow JA take a straightforward, non-euphemistic approach to portraying certain conditions in the camps. For example, I didn’t know about non-partitioned toilets until recently, when I saw a photo on the Manzanar Committee website. Granted, I’ve barely brushed the surface of camp-related media and literature, but I’m surprised I didn’t know this until now.
  • This has nothing whatsoever to do with camps, but did any fellow JA/Nikkei readers connect the ‘glinting glasses’ to the same motif often found in manga and anime? Lee is Korean and, I imagine, has some knowledge of Japanese drawing styles, so when I saw the first reference to the glasses of the man in the tower, I immediately wondered if Lee and/or Mochizuki was intentionally engaging in dialogue with Japanese art. I’ve personally always found the use of ‘glinting glasses’ by Japanese artists hilarious (fellow JA/Nikkei readers, ask me about my love of signature manga style quirks sometime), so I’d like to imagine the connection exists, but I might be totally wrong. I don’t even know if Mochizuki reads manga or watches anime!
  • Mochizuki is straightforward about the difficulties of reintegration for Japanese Americans after the camps closed. (If you read my post about Uchida’s The Bracelet, you’ll see I was critical of the omission in that case.) For any JA kids reading this book, I think this brief reference toward the end creates another space for conversations about our family histories, much like Mochizuki’s use of “Camp,” discussed above.

What I learned:

  • I vaguely knew sports were one of the pastimes Japanese Americans had access to in the camps, but this is the first book I’ve read dedicated solely to the topic. I don’t personally know any Japanese Americans who play baseball and I’m not sure if it continues to be a significant activity in the JA community. I think I’ll add ‘history of baseball in Japanese America’ to my TBR. I’d really like to know if it continued to be a source of community building after the war, or if it petered out as formerly incarcerated JAs went their separate ways.

Questions I had:

  • Per the points raised above, I’d also like to know what kind of role, if any, baseball played in the Japanese American community prior to the war. The MC in Baseball Saved Us tells us he played some sports before being incarcerated, but it sounds like he did so in predominantly white/non-Japanese spaces, like P.E. or after-school teams. I wonder if any JA/Nikkei teams existed before the war, and if so, how and why they formed.
  • Is there a connection between JAs playing baseball and the history of baseball in Japan? My knowledge of sports history is approximately zero, so I’m not even sure which came first – baseball in Japan or baseball in JA communities. I’ve been thinking a bit about Kibei Nisei because I’m currently also reading Eiichiro Azuma’s Between Two Empires,**** and I wonder if they played any kind of role in introducing/mediating aspects of US/white culture to Japan. To tangent on a tangent, I’d love to see Nikkei/Nihonjin collaborate on a manga about the experiences of Kibei Nisei in pre-war/wartime Japan. (I know, I know, too many roads lead to manga in my world.) Interactions between diaspora Japanese and Japanese nationals have always fascinated me, probably because they’re a formative part of my own experiences, and I wish there was more Japanese-produced popular media on the topic.
  • What was the creation process of this book? Lee & Low Books, the publisher, has been one of the more vocal parties on the industry side in terms of advocating for marginalized writers and respectful representation. What was it like for Mochizuki to work with them? Were any major changes made to the story before publication?
  • What kind of preparation did Mochizuki do before writing this story? I believe his family was incarcerated (or perhaps interned, if they were Issei) at Minidoka. Did he rely mostly on family history and anecdotes, or did he also interview other formerly incarcerated JAs and consult JA/Nikkei-produced nonfiction sources? I’m not challenging the veracity of the story at all – I just have a personal interest in knowing how fellow JAs/Nikkeijin go about creating and telling our stories.
  • Who was Mochizuki’s intended audience? I mean, kids, sure, but I wonder if he was writing specifically for JA/Nikkei kids, or for non-Japanese audiences, or both? I didn’t see much of what I would label ‘pandering to whiteness’ in the text, except for omission of the word “white,” and this could have as much to do with the age of the audience as with their racial/cultural backgrounds.

Follow-up:

  • Mochizuki has written at least two other picture books, which I plan to purchase and read as finances allow. I also really need to finish his novel, Beacon Hill Boys, which I read about a third of before getting distracted by other books.
  • I should probably start reading some adult-focused JA/Nikkei fiction about the camps. My reading block for long-form, English-language prose fiction hasn’t gone away yet, so I’ve been sticking to children’s books, graphic novels, and a bit of nonfiction, but hopefully one of these days I feel like picking up a novel again. I have so many novels by Nikkei writers, both historical and contemporary, on my TBR!

*Main character, for anyone unfamiliar with book community lingo.

**His nickname is “Shorty,” but as a fellow short person, I find this way of referring to someone extremely dehumanizing and I won’t be using it in reference to him.

***See my post on The Bracelet for some concerns I raised about Yardley’s artistic choices.

****Eventually I’ll have a post about this book, but first I have to finish it. The sheer amount of information packed into each page is kind of destroying my brain right now.

Book Spotlight: Yellow Peril – Jamie Noguchi

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Yellow Peril is a comic drawn and written by Jamie Noguchi, and follows the adventures of nerdy designer Kane Takeshi Hongo and his misfit friends in work, life, and love.

What I liked:

  • I believe this is the first Nikkei-produced work I’ve come across starring a Nikkei (I assume Kane is Japanese American, but I need to revisit Noguchi’s commentary – included at the bottom of each strip in the webcomic version – to see if he ever confirms this) character in a contemporary US setting, with a focus on the day-to-day lives of young adults. Although the timeframe is slightly different from my own – Noguchi’s characters are probably about ten years older than I am because they reference things like the 80s – the representations of working life and complicated relationships (and how these things sometimes intertwine) felt completely relatable. In short, Yellow Peril is the perfect thing to read while sitting at my desk waiting for the day to be over.
  • The non-romantic relationships in this comic are so fun to follow. Family relationships are often the ones I find most compelling when reading, and while only Kane and Lance are (apparently) related by blood, I enjoy the various techniques Noguchi uses to portray his characters’ close bonds. Some of my favorites, apart from Kane and Lance, are Julie and Kane (the high school flashbacks are so cute), and Bodie and Kane (so many comics/anime references!).
  • Noguchi comments on numerous issues without making the comic an explicit social justice work. I actually enjoy work centered on activism, but I appreciate how Noguchi leaves the level of engagement open-ended for the reader – it would be relatively easy to glaze over the social commentary if one was so inclined, but it’s definitely there if you look for it.
  • The Pit Lords! I hope we see more of them as Noguchi continues the comic. iRate and Killer Queen are hilarious – and I really want to know what Doctor No looks like. Killer Queen is one of my favorite characters, even though we haven’t seen a whole lot of her. I often gravitate toward characters who are so skilled at something not only do they kick ass, but they can literally become a fearsome enemy because of their skill, as in her case. The whole part about what it means to “owe” Killer Queen was THE BEST.
  • Yellow Peril is set in Maryland – I’ve never read a Nikkei work set in Maryland. I wonder if there’s a substantial Nikkei community there. It sounds like the location is based on Noguchi’s own life experiences. I’d like to know if there are other Nikkei creators producing autobiographical or semi-autobiographical work about being Nikkei on the east coast.
  • The Apocalypse Belles! I’ve never heard of a metal band composed exclusively of Black women in real life – does anyone know if this is a thing? I wonder what Black readers – especially Black women – thought of the Apocalypse Belles, not to mention Noguchi’s portrayal of Jezzi. I really liked seeing Jezzi as Lance’s mentor and maternal/parental figure, as well as Lance admitting he should have been there for Jezzi much sooner than he actually showed up. To me, their relationship evokes some of the historic (and ongoing) patterns of interactions between Black and Asian American social justice activists – Asian Americans owe a great deal to Black people, especially Black women, for leading and shaping our engagements with social justice, and we haven’t always been great at showing up for Black people in return. I’m probably reading way too deeply into the subplot at this point, but in line with my interpretation, I appreciate how Lance owns his failure without saying or acting as if he can “undo” what he did. (In other words, you can apologize and commit to doing better next time, but none of that actually undoes the harm you caused in the first place.)
  • Asian men who feel like real people! Ok, this is not exactly “novel” to me because I read plenty of manga depicting believable men, but in light of recent US discussions about representations of Asian masculinity, I thought I’d point this out. One of my favorite things about Kane and Lance is their unapologetic love of video games (and comics and anime). At one point, Kane mentions Julie was the only other kid in school who liked giant robot anime, which brought back memories of how being an Asian who enjoys Asian things in a predominantly white classroom often results in ridicule and exclusion*, but in general the Asians in Yellow Peril own their love of Asian things and are accepted by the non-Asians around them. In other words, even though Kane’s interests could be read as a “stereotype,” this isn’t how he is presented and it isn’t how his peers treat him. Along the same lines, even though I find it weird how race is mostly not discussed in the comic (is Noguchi a proponent of “colorblind” practices?), I’m glad none of the men (and none of the characters, as far as I saw) are fetishized for their race/appearance. I do wonder about the motives of some of Lance’s audiences (do they like him because he’s Asian?)…but so far this hasn’t been addressed.

What I learned:

  • There are a lot of comics/anime references I don’t know! Haha, I already knew this, but I don’t usually read work so laden with references that not knowing them starts to impede my understanding of the content. Not that I missed anything vital – I don’t think – but I have a feeling I skipped over a few jokes because I didn’t know the context. For example, I didn’t realize all the characters on the train were comic/anime characters until I read Noguchi’s commentary about that panel. I still don’t know who all those characters are, but I imagine the panel is a lot funnier to someone who does know. Anyway, I hope some comics- and anime-loving Nikkei reader comes across Yellow Peril – I bet they’ll love it.

Questions I had:

  • What is Lance’s ethnicity? I believe we’re told his surname is Li, which is definitely not Japanese and sounds rather Chinese to me. I’d really like to know more about the familial connections between Lance and Kane. I’ve met a few Japanese/Chinese people and my cousin’s kids are Japanese/Chinese (in other words, it’s possible for Kane to be Japanese and to have a Chinese cousin – seems self-evident, but in my experience, outsiders get really confused about this), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “mainstream” Japanese/Chinese character. Also, if Noguchi himself isn’t Japanese/Chinese, I’d be interested in why he created a (potentially) Japanese/Chinese character.
  • Will the female characters be getting more fully developed storylines as the comic progresses? Up to this point, Ally has gotten significantly more panel space than the other women and while I do find her an entertaining character, it’d be nice to see a WOC receive the same amount of attention. (Side note: I feel ok discussing this comic in the context of US conversations on gender because Noguchi seems much more in dialogue with US social values than, say, Japanese ones.)
  • Why did Noguchi make Ally, the (initial) love interest, a white woman? I’m not sure this was a conscious choice – in the same way many POC writers start out writing white characters without really realizing they’re doing it – but if so, why? Sure, white women are marginalized relative to white men in US society, but I’ve never been a fan of “POC has white love interest” storylines because I feel too many of them cater to white audiences, much like the symbolic “biracial” MC. I’m not saying Noguchi made Ally white in order to attract white readers, but it’s definitely something I always wonder when a POC creator chooses to include a prominent white character in a mostly-POC cast. For that matter, it would have been interesting if Noguchi had made Ally, say, half-Japanese and half-white. From what I’ve heard, JAs have high rates of interracial marriage, so mixed race Nikkeijin definitely have a place in contemporary and future Nikkei narratives. I do like where Kane’s relationship with Tara seems to be headed…
  • On the flip side of my previous point, it’s true a fair number of JAs marry white people, so I suppose Noguchi might have made Ally white to reflect reality. I suspect it’s outside the scope of this work to examine how interracial marriages with white people relate to the role of assimilation in JA history, but I would love it if Noguchi addressed this later in the comic, especially if Kane and Ally actually end up together at some point.
  • What was the purpose of the cooking competition subplot? It felt like an attempt to give Julie more on-page time, but I didn’t think it added much to the overall narrative. I do like the idea of dueling with kitchenware – in fact, Noguchi seems to have many quirky ideas which he drops in at intervals and I admire his creativity.
  • What is Kane’s relationship to his heritage? I’m not sure if he’s bilingual or if he just knows a few words of Japanese, but from what I recall of Noguchi’s commentary, we really aren’t told much about Kane’s connections to Japan outside of his interest in anime. This isn’t a criticism – I have met JAs who are far removed from Japan either because of a generational gap or for other reasons – I’m just curious about how Kane came to be as a character and if there will be any in-depth discussion of his heritage in later parts of the comic.
  • On a related note, do non-Japanese people often get Kane’s name wrong? I know many fellow Nikkeijin (and Asian Americans with Asian names in general) have encountered this problem in real life, but I didn’t notice it ever being mentioned in the comic.
  • Ally’s growing relationship with Annie gets a lot of page time – unsurprising, since Ally is one of the main characters – but I couldn’t help notice Killer Queen’s having a girlfriend was very much glossed over by comparison and seemed mostly to serve as comic relief in the story of how Kane can’t successfully land a date. This is another reason I hope we see more of Killer Queen as the comic progresses – white women aren’t the only women who get to date women.

Follow-up:

  • I’ve read the webcomic in its entirety and hope Noguchi keeps updating because I’m now very invested in some of the characters. I ordered volume 1 of the physical copy for an easier reread in preparation for this post, and I plan to order the other volumes soon.
  • I was skimming Noguchi’s website while writing this post and saw a passing reference to Stan Sakai, which reminds me – Sakai has been on my TBR forever, so I should probably get reading soon! I wonder if there’s a “secret” group of Nikkei creators where they talk shit about industry problems, etc. I say “secret” because I haven’t found many Nikkei creators in online activist spaces like Twitter, but I find it hard to believe nobody is saying anything. Since most of the Nikkei creators I know of are older, I imagine they communicate via other means. I wonder if there’s a non-physical space where Nikkei creators of varying ages and backgrounds can exchange ideas.

*Thanks to Soojin (@skimlines) for frequently discussing this topic on Twitter. I hadn’t thought much about how to articulate my off-and-on relationship with certain aspects of Japanese culture growing up until I read her tweets about Asians being marginalized simply for trying to enjoy our own things on our own terms.

Book Spotlight: The Bracelet – Yoshiko Uchida

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

The Bracelet follows the story of Emi, a Japanese American second-grader who is sent to a concentration camp with her mother and sister.

What I liked:

  • Uchida is (was) one of the best-known Nikkei authors writing about JA incarceration, but before coming across The Bracelet I thought she had only written middle-grade historical fiction. It’s nice to see she also produced work for younger readers.
  • Joanna Yardley’s artist note at the beginning of the book states she used a Japanese American model, presumably for her depictions of Emi. My initial impression of the cover illustration was, ‘wow, this girl actually looks Japanese,’ so it’s great to hear the artist put in the work of finding a model. Sometimes, I see white artists creating very white-looking Asians and other POC – I’m glad that wasn’t the case with Yardley.
  • Uchida’s narrative style reminds me of Cynthia Kadohata’s Weedflower – clear, honest, and concise. The reader is not spared Emi’s distress and confusion at being incarcerated, nor the harsh conditions of the Tanforan Racetrack. As Kadohata does with Sumiko in Weedflower, Uchida filters the information provided to the reader via the lens of Emi’s youth. I did find the ending a little too tidy – Emi’s faith in her friend Laurie was hard to view as realistic, given the difficulties Japanese Americans faced reintegrating into society after their release. I can see why Uchida and/or her editor might want to close on a hopeful note – the target audience is children, after all – but when I compare this ending to Allen Say’s books where he depicts his experiences with racism head-on, I don’t think it would be too “adult” to imply Emi’s postwar future might hold obstacles. Kadohata also doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of post-camp life in Weedflower.
  • Yardley’s illustrations are vividly colorful. Aesthetically, I found them wonderful. In light of the book’s subject matter, not so much. Color often sets the mood of a picture book and in this case, the brightness of Yardley’s palette is difficult to read as anything but happy and joyful. It’s difficult to reconcile these subliminal (or overt, depending on your interpretation) messages with the serious content being presented. If Yardley’s intent was to convey the strength and hope of Japanese Americans in the face of racism and incarceration – well, I still think it could have been done with a subtler palette. One illustration, probably my least favorite in the book, depicts the buses carrying Emi and other JAs to Tanforan as they cross the Bay Bridge. The scene is sunny, the colors warm and vibrant. Take this illustration and plunk it into a picture book about some kids going on a field trip and it wouldn’t look out of place at all. Although some JAs who went to camp at a very young age recollect not knowing what was going on and thinking they were on a field trip, in The Bracelet we already know from the previous scenes that Emi is very aware this is not a field trip. Who, then, are the colors for? Why the false optimism? On whose behalf, exactly, is the narrative being softened?

What I learned:

  • Emi and her family live in Berkeley before their forced removal. I don’t know the history of Berkeley, but now I wonder if there was a significant JA community there before the war. It’s not a location I’ve seen mentioned in discussions of historic JA communities, so I’ll have to do a bit of digging.

Questions I had:

  • Words like “incarceration” and “concentration camp” are never used in the book – instead, we have “internment,” “relocation,” and “evacuation.” Did Uchida use this terminology in her original draft, or was it an editorial decision? This terminology also appears in Uchida’s afterword. I’ll have to take a look at her other books to see which words she uses there. I’m always curious about the word choices Nikkeijin make when discussing the camps. I personally favor the more straightforward “incarceration,” but given the emotional history of the era, as well as the subsequent pressures (internal and external) to conform to “model minority” standards, I can see why other Nikkeijin might lean toward the softer terminology (or prefer not to discuss their experiences at all).
  • Who was Uchida’s intended audience? Although the history of incarceration continues to be a sensitive topic in the JA community, I think most Japanese American children reading this book would already know the aftermath of incarceration doesn’t match the tone of the book’s ending. Additionally, Uchida’s portrayal of white characters like Laurie and Mrs. Simpson seems to let white Americans completely off the hook regarding incarceration. Yes, there were white people who looked after their Japanese neighbors’ properties and belongings during the incarceration, but there were also plenty of white people who supported incarceration and openly expressed anti-Japanese sentiments. None of the latter type of white people are shown in the book, which to me is a dishonest omission. (It should also be noted, white people who did/said nothing about incarceration were complicit in anti-Japanese racism. There is no ‘neutral.’) Children shouldn’t be shielded from racism – instead, authors and other media creators should be finding ways to present race and other complicated topics in ways children will understand.

Follow-up:

  • I have a bunch of Uchida’s other books sitting in my TBR pile, so I will be reading those for comparison, hopefully in the near future. I want to say I also have a biography or autobiography of Uchida on my list somewhere, but I might just be making that up.*

*If no such book exists yet, I would love to see a Nikkei writer tackle this project!

Book Spotlight: When Blossoms Fall – Masako Fukui

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

When Blossoms Fall is a novella chronicling the lives of kamikaze pilot Hajime, his wife, Michiko, and his daughter, Yuri, after they relocate to Australia in the postwar era.

What I liked:

  • I think this might be the first fiction piece I’ve read about 神風特別攻撃隊 – certainly the first I’ve read highlighting postwar memory and family experiences. I know very little about this era of Japanese history, but as far as introductions go, When Blossoms Fall definitely motivated me to read up. Several of the works by Japanese scholars on my TBR focus on wartime and postwar Japan, so I might give this novella a second read after I have a broader understanding of the historical context.
  • The alternating POVs – Hajime, Michiko, and Yuri – are integral to the overall shape and flow of the narrative. It seemed to me the differences in the three characters’ perspectives functioned partly to counter any external presumptions of a monolithic, fanatic Japanese nationalism during this period. To be sure, I’m a US-based Nikkei reader commenting on the fictionalized experiences of Australia-based Nikkeijin/Nihonjin, but I remember my white classmates yelling, “COMMA-CAUSE-E” when running into the opposing team’s zone during our P.E. sessions of Capture the Flag.* I had to ask my white friend what she was yelling because it was unintelligible by Japanese pronunciation standards. These incidents no doubt stemmed from the negligent coverage of Japanese wartime experiences in our textbooks, which for many of my white classmates were likely their only exposure to non-US/European aspects of the war. All that to say, I’m so glad Fukui’s novella complicates this portrait of Japanese people during/after the war.
  • FUKUI IS A BILINGUAL NIKKEI WRITER!! (Yes, I’ll probably react this way for every bilingual Nikkei writer whose work I feature on here.) I’ve stated in other places on this blog, as well as on Twitter, why I think Nihonjin/Nikkeijin need to retain ownership over our stories, and I deeply appreciate Fukui telling this story. It means so much to see a bilingual Nikkei writer depicting bilingual Nikkei experiences.**
  • In dialogue with my previous point, the macro- and microaggressions (and experiences of assimilation) are spot-on. Hajime’s transformation into “Jim” thanks to Don, Ally’s white-lensed portrayal of Japanese culture being prioritized over Yuri’s #ownvoices perspective – I’ve experienced variations of both of these and reading these scenes I thought, YES THIS IS IT SHE GETS IT.
  • Fukui also doesn’t gloss over Yuri’s difficulty fitting into school when the family returns to Japan for the first time since moving to Australia. I always love to see Nikkei writers tackling the ever-present question, “what does it mean to be Japanese?” with regard to our experiences.
  • Manga, Japanese feminism, and memory – three topics which particularly interest me – play significant roles in the story. I haven’t done much nonfiction reading on any of them, though, so it was also a good reminder to revisit my TBR. One of my favorite aspects of the story is how Fukui intertwines these topics – Yuri’s use of drawing as a way of reconstructing/recollecting/reshaping her memories and Tokugawa’s nationalistic war manga are a few notable examples.
  • There are two female narrators – Michiko and Yuri, compared to one male narrator, Hajime, but overall there are more male characters. I wonder if this is Fukui’s acknowledgment of the gender imbalances/prejudices of Japanese society. Interestingly, while Hajime’s POV shifts between second- and third-person throughout the story, Michiko’s and Yuri’s POVs remain in third-person until the very end, when Yuri’s POV shifts into first-person. Perhaps this is a nod to the changing generation – Hajime has passed and it is Yuri’s turn to be the “head” of the family – and makes me wonder if generation terminology is as important to Australia-based Nikkeijin as it sometimes is to US-based Nikkeijin. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard non-US-based Nikkeijin utilize terms like Issei, Nisei, Sansei, etc.
  • Michiko reminds me of many of the Japanese mothers I’ve met – those meticulously crafted dishes! I could see non-Japanese readers perceiving her as too compliant, too quiet, but it makes perfect sense in the context of Japanese maternal values. She also embodies the spirit of hardworking immigrant parents who sacrifice on behalf of their children, which I think many fellow Nikkeijin and other diaspora folks will find familiar. Fukui even makes a point of telling us, through Hajime’s eyes I believe, how Michiko cleaves to custom on the surface but grooms Yuri for a different path.
  • Hajime! I really liked Hajime (“Majime Hajime” lol). Fukui gives him many of the “quintessential” traits of Japanese men, which is interesting – and I imagine, deliberate – in light of his rather unusual relationship to the war. Even though he isn’t the most straightforward person, the straightforward narrative presentation of his personality and motives make him interesting rather than unlikeable. On a personal side note, I’ve also been reading several manga featuring 斎藤一 of 新選組 fame, so it was funny to read about such a different character with the same (given) name.
  • “When Blossoms Fall” is such a visual title. I’m a very visual reader (hence all the manga) and as I was reading, I was thinking about the ways in which I’ve seen falling blossoms utilized as a motif in Japanese media. Two examples that stood out were the song, 千本桜, and the parts in 風光る where connections are drawn between warriors and sakura. These comparisons, along with the role of sakura – and other flowers – in Japanese culture/nationalism, made me wonder just how many layers of symbolism Fukui intended when she chose the title. Flowers appear in various parts of the novella, too, but this isn’t really unusual in context and I’m not sure if they were integrated for symbolic effect or simply to help set the scene (or both). I’m also not entirely convinced the title isn’t drawn from a real-life inspiration, but I don’t have the background knowledge yet to confirm this.
  • It’s kind of mind-blowing to read a war-related Nikkei story where JA incarceration doesn’t play a role. Now I’m quite curious about the history of Nikkei communities in Australia – when did the first Japanese people arrive? How were they affected by the war?
  • I briefly addressed this point above, but Fukui humanizes her characters without letting the story become a literary apology for or rosy-hued portrait of Japanese imperialism. None of them are let off the hook – Fukui makes it clear they each proceed through life imperfectly – but she also makes clear they weren’t all Tokugawa Kens.*** I especially enjoy Fukui’s attention to the effects of generation on shaping perspectives of the war (very relevant for those of us familiar with JA incarceration) and her diverse representations of Nikkei experiences. It might be I’m spending too much time on Twitter lately, but I often feel discussions of the Asian diaspora, particularly Asian Americans, fall into “us versus them” models without accounting for nuances on both sides. In other words, even though we as Nikkeijin may share many experiences and in some cases histories, we aren’t monolithic – and the same goes for Nihonjin.

What I learned:

  • I think the other parts of this post make abundantly clear what I learned – which mostly consists of realizing how much I don’t know yet – so I won’t write anything else here.

Questions I had:

  • Before reading the novella, I knew there were pilots who never flew their missions, but I hadn’t thought much about what happened to them after the war. I wonder how many of them left Japan (whether because they were relocated for work, like Hajime, or for other reasons) and what their destinations were, apart from Australia. I wonder especially if any of them made it to the US, considering JA incarceration and anti-Japanese sentiment were fresh in the minds of the US population. Clearly, I have a lot of reading ahead of me!
  • I’m not sure what the rights situation is with this novella, but I would love to see it reissued one day in a standalone volume, a la Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti. If it does get reissued, it would be awesome to see some accompanying illustrations by a Japanese artist. There are many moments I feel could be beautifully captured in a spare, black-and-white sketch – or possibly quiet watercolors or 墨絵, especially the final scene and the part about Michiko’s persimmons.
  • Is Fukui planning to write another novella or a novel? I would love to see a novel about this topic, whether it expands on the existing novella or employs a whole new cast. Along similar lines, does Fukui plan to write a Japanese version of the novella? From the bio page on her website, it appears she has the linguistic qualifications to do so. It would be so interesting to see how the characters’ voices change when rendered in Japanese!
  • How did Fukui come to write this story? Did she have an intended audience in mind? I think my fellow Nikkeijin will find much to relate to in this work, but perhaps we weren’t the audience Fukui envisioned. I could also see it being of interest to Nihonjin, though I’m not sure how many would read it if there is no Japanese version.
  • Is the Tokugawa/Ms M controversy based on a true event? I couldn’t help but wonder about Fukui’s choice in naming Tokugawa, considering the logical historical association and the trajectory Tokugawa himself follows over the course of the story. Maybe I’ve been reading too many 幕末 and 新選組 manga!
  • What is the Australian Nikkei community like? I’ve met a few Australia-based Nikkeijin on Twitter, but none in real life. I wonder if there’s a novel or novella or short story out there, by an Australia-based Nikkei writer, about Australian Nikkei interactions with POC/indigenous communities in Australia. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I’ve seen a US-based Nikkei writer center a work on interactions between US Nikkeijin and other POC/indigenous communities in the US (with the exception of scholarship on the connections between Asian American civil rights movements and Black civil rights movements, i.e. Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X)…but maybe I need to look harder…
  • This novella made me think about a lot of different things, but as I’m writing this super long post, I also wonder if all my assumptions about the text are off the mark. After all, I did read from a very specific and personal perspective, which is no doubt very different from the lens Fukui brought to bear when writing the novella. It would be interesting to hear how my reflections compare with Fukui’s thoughts, but I doubt she’ll ever read this!

Follow-up:

  • Reading this novella exposed so many knowledge gaps for me! I’m super motivated to add to my shelf of nonfiction books on Japan, though it’ll take some time (and money).
  • I’ll be keeping an eye out for Fukui’s future work!

There’s a lot more I could say about When Blossoms Fall and I’m sure my post has some glaring omissions which I’ll notice right after publishing it, but I’ll wrap up here for the sake of word count. I’d love to know if any Nikkei writers or scholars, particularly anyone specializing in wartime or postwar Japan (or Australia-based Nikkei), have looked at this novella – fellow Nikkeijin, if you come across anything, please let me know!

*I don’t suppose this sentence will make sense to anyone who grew up outside the US education system, and maybe not even to some of my fellow US-based Nikkeijin!

**Come to think of it, I’m not sure how Hajime, Michiko, and Yuri self-identify by the end of the story, since they do move back and forth between Japan and Australia. I don’t mean the label itself is particularly important, but I wonder if the characters themselves feel more affinity with Nihonjin or with Nikkeijin – or maybe both. A friend of mine who lived in Japan and Okinawa until high school recently told me he “now” identifies as Japanese American, making me wonder if Hajime, Michiko, and Yuri also experience shifting understandings of their selves over time.

***I know Fukui writes him into the text as Ken Tokugawa, but his nationalistic inclinations make him very much Tokugawa Ken in my mind. I wonder if any Nikkei writers have tackled the connections between Nikkei/Nihonjin status and name order – and code-switching, and…yup, that’ll have to be a separate post.

Book Spotlight: Yuko-chan and the Daruma Doll – Sunny Seki

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Yuko-chan and the Daruma Doll follows the adventures of Yuko-chan, who saves her village from poverty by inventing handmade daruma dolls.

What I liked:

  • THIS BOOK IS BILINGUAL!!! Granted, I haven’t read many books by Nikkeijin yet, but of the books I’ve read or added to my TBR, this is the first bilingual work I’ve come across. As a kid, all the Japan-related books and media I consumed were in either Japanese or English. Although some of these works were created by bilingual Nikkeijin or Nihonjin, for whatever reason they were never actually produced as bilingual. Needless to say, the bilingual aspect is my favorite thing about this book!*
  • Sunny Seki is one talented guy. From what I can tell, he wrote and illustrated the entirety of Yuko-chan and the Daruma Doll himself. The illustrations aren’t as manga-esque as those in the Japanese children’s books I grew up with, but I definitely noticed some similarities. I especially enjoyed the calligraphic quality of Seki’s illustrations – for example, the image of daruma-san on the back cover contains visible brushstrokes. The Japanese version of the story also mirrors the language, tone, and flow of Japanese children’s books.

What I learned:

  • I’m familiar with daruma-san as we know him in everyday life, but this is my first time reading any kind of origin story about him. I wonder if Yuko-chan’s story is Seki’s invention entirely, or if it is a retelling of an existing origin story. How many versions of daruma-san’s origin story exist in Japan? I’d love to visit Takasaki/Gunma-ken one day and see for myself.

Questions I had:

  • Did Seki write both versions of the story himself? If so, did he have much difficulty deciding how each version should be written, knowing they would appear side-by-side on the page? Fellow bilingual Nikkei readers will note the two versions are not a “literal” translation of each other. Personally, I preferred the Japanese version – the characters feel more vivid and individualized than in the English version. (Also, was I the only Nikkei reader who thought the end of the story would be an excellent jumping-off point for a manga? The part of Yuko-chan’s story told in this book would probably also be a good manga, especially if it focused on daily village life and the experience of being a child adopted by a temple.)
  • Whom did Seki envision as the audience for this book? What are the demographics of the people who have actually read this book? Do the two match up?
  • Why is the cover not bilingual? My version of the book shows only the English title. Before purchasing the book, I read in the description that it was bilingual, but it is not immediately obvious just from looking at the cover. Did the publisher feel an English-only title was better for marketing? Did Seki himself have any input on the cover? How does he feel about it?
  • How do other Nikkei readers approach this book? In my case, I read each page in both languages before moving on to the next, rather than reading the entire story through in one language and then returning for a second pass in the other. My focus was on comparing both versions of the text, but it did make for a rather disjointed reading of the story as a whole. I’d love to hear how bilingual Nikkeijin/Nihonjin read the text, compared to Nikkeijin or Nihonjin who can read only one version.
  • Is Yuko-chan’s blindness part of some existing origin story about daruma-san, or something Seki added? As noted above, I don’t know how much, if any, of this story is Seki’s original idea versus a retelling. In Seki’s book, Yuko-chan’s blindness explains why daruma-san’s eyes aren’t painted in, which is something I’ve always wondered about. What would the people of Takasaki say if asked why daruma-san’s eyes aren’t painted in? Also, if we assume Yuko-chan’s blindness was part of an existing origin story, could Seki have found a way to execute his retelling without making her blindness the pivot point?
  • In the context of US discussions about disability representation in literature, I imagine some of my fellow Nikkeijin might read Yuko-chan’s story as a, “accomplished THIS in spite of [insert disability]” narrative. How have disabled Nikkeijin/Nihonjin responded to this story, especially any who self-identify as blind or visually impaired?
  • What inspired Seki to write this book? Does he self-identify as Nikkeijin or Nihonjin? I realize I’ve been assuming he is Nikkeijin because I first heard of him through Nikkei resources, but I may very well be wrong. If he is Nikkeijin, how do Nihonjin feel about his creation of this book? Do they even know it exists?** I especially wonder if any Takasaki residents know of this book. I imagine Seki visited Takasaki at least once while preparing to write the book – I wonder if he or they ever followed up once it was published?

Follow-up:

  • Yuko-chan’s story reminded me I have several nonfiction works about disability in Japan on my TBR. I’m not sure if any of them directly address being blind in Japan – I think they may focus on other disabilities – but I’ll keep Yuko-chan’s story in mind as I read them.
  • I don’t think I’ve come across a single Nikkei-written nonfiction work about the intersections of disability and being Nikkeijin in the US or other parts of the diaspora. I’ll review my TBR to be sure, but if you’re a fellow Nikkeijin/Nihonjin reading this and you have any suggestions, let me know!

*I’m using “bilingual” here to refer to Nikkeijin/Nihonjin who are bilingual in Japanese and English. There are of course Nikkeijin/Nihonjin who are bilingual in other combinations of languages, as well as Nikkeijin/Nihonjin who know more than two languages.

**A Nikkei author – Naomi Hirahara, I think (?) – once stated Nihonjin are not necessarily interested in work produced by Nikkeijin, specifically Japanese Americans, in the context of being asked if her books were translated into Japanese. I reflect on this every time I come across work by Nikkei writers that seems to engage, directly or indirectly, with themes pertinent to Nihonjin and/or Japan itself…but that’s a topic for another post.

Book Spotlight: Drawing from Memory – Allen Say

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Drawing from Memory recounts, in picture book/graphic novel format, Say’s journey to becoming an artist, from his childhood fascination with drawing to his apprenticeship with the mangaka Noro Shinpei and eventual transition to the US.

What I liked:

  • To date, I’ve read three other books by Say – Grandfather’s Journey, Kamishibai Man, and Tea with Milk. While I loved all three of these books and thought Say did a marvelous job writing and illustrating each one, I think Drawing from Memory best showcases the range of his skills as both an author and an artist. In what might appear to be a deceptively “simple” picture book, Say’s narrative interweaves the everyday experiences of Nihonjin during and after the war with his personal experiences as a student and apprentice. I say “interweave” rather than “uses as a backdrop” to refer to his depictions of wartime Japan because the essence of Say’s story is inextricable from its historical context. As in his other work, Say’s outstanding ability to convey nuance through his illustrations and spare writing style steals the show. さすが日本人!
  • The number and variety of images (photographs, Say’s artwork in various styles ranging from sketches to paintings, etc.) enhances and balances the text. Drawing from Memory seems to have a higher word count than Say’s other picture books (not surprising, given the nature of the story being told), but the arrangement of text and image prevents the reader from being overwhelmed.
  • Say tailors his art style according to content and meaning – for example, compare the illustrations depicting Say as a child and apprentice, to the panorama of the bay (Yokohama, I wonder?) on the page describing the US occupation of Japan, to the black-and-white drawing of the riot police. His watercolors are my favorite – the quiet aesthetics of everyday Japan, the liveliness and vitality of the people evoked by his color choices, the attention to details like shop signs – but I also loved seeing the many other styles he is capable of working in.
  • Significant people in Say’s life – Noro-sensei, Tokida, Orito-san, his mother – are presented in brief but vivid snapshots. I especially love the intimate illustrations of Say working in Noro-sensei’s studio and drawing with Orito-san in the art room. These illustrations, juxtaposed with actual photographs of the people involved, infuse the work with a feeling of nostalgia. As the title itself indicates, this book is a collection of Say’s memories, pieced together from true events and imagination. At times, I felt a bit intrusive, as if I was leafing through Say’s family album, and I had to remind myself Say would not have included anything he wished to keep private. Looking back, I realize this feeling is yet another indicator of how successfully Say executed his, “drawing from memory.”
  • Say expertly distills long passages of time into a few images and lines of text, highlighting key moments in his life without making the story feel disjointed. For example, the time he spent studying for the Aoyama entrance exam is captured in a single illustration of him lying belly-down on his futon, his schoolbooks spread out above the pillow. Numerous versions of this image can be found in contemporary Japanese media, alongside stories, both fictional and true, of the rigors of exam preparation. Between this image and the subsequent one showing the exam results board, exists the entirety of the effort Say invested in gaining admission to Aoyama. It’s interesting to compare Say’s framing of this portion of his life to the culture of consumption around school-themed manga and anime that exists in contemporary Japan (but that’s really a discussion for another post). Long story short, I really admire Say’s talent for economy!
  • Kyushu gets a little screen (page?) time, however briefly. I always get excited when I encounter other Nikkeijin/Nihonjin with ties to Kyushu, even if they aren’t from the same area as my family. Represent!

What I learned:

  • This is the first book I’ve read focusing on how mangaka/artists trained in wartime and postwar Japan. I think it’s only the second book I’ve read about the behind-the-scenes work of mangaka, the first being バクマン.
  • I’d never heard of Noro Shinpei before reading this book. It sounds like not much of his work might be extant today, but I might poke around to see what I can find. Maybe I’ll also ask my mom if she’s familiar with him, since she grew up in postwar Japan and read a lot of manga as a kid.
  • I wasn’t expecting to learn that Say’s foundational training occurred under a mangaka, since he isn’t one now. Time to look for some Nikkeijin/Nihonjin-written work on how the history of manga intersects with the history of other art forms in Japan.
  • As readers of Tea with Milk know, Say’s mother was raised in San Francisco for a time before her parents chose to move the family to Japan, and she found a job as a department store interpreter thanks to her bilingual skills. In Drawing from Memory, Say mentions several times that after his parents separated, his mother supported herself, Say, his sister, and his grandmother on her income. I wonder what sort of work she did – I imagine her bilingual ability would have been even more useful during wartime and the postwar period. I’ve never thought much about how Nikkeijin – especially women – made a living if they were in Japan during the war, but now I’m motivated to find out!

Questions I had:

  • Where have Allen Say’s books been all my life?! No, serious question. Maybe it’s because I grew up with books and media created by Nihonjin, not Nikkeijin, but I find it incredible I haven’t come across Say before now. Fellow Nikkeijin, are you familiar with Say’s work? When and how were you introduced to it?
  • I wonder why Say chose not to become a mangaka? I hope reading his other work will offer some clues!
  • How much input did Say have on the layout of this book? The photographs, illustrations, and text seamlessly unite to form the narrative – not a single piece feels out of place. Considering Say probably provided most of the content, with the possible exception of a few of the images, I would assume he also had the final-ish say (pun unintentional) on how everything came together. Anyway, kudos to whomever was responsible! It’s a beautiful production.
  • Now that I know Say trained under a mangaka – has he ever considered creating manga? I think his background and skill set perfectly position him to execute a “first” of sorts – a manga exploring the relationships between Nikkeijin and Nihonjin (I would also love to see more Nikkeijin and Nihonjin creating other types of work around this subject, especially if it involved a transnational collaboration a la Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda for Monstress).*

Follow-up:

  • I just purchased Say’s The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice, which I understand to be the novelization of the story told in Drawing from Memory. I believe the story also continues in picture book format, so I’ll be looking for those as well.
  • Look for more fiction and nonfiction by Nikkeijin and/or Nihonjin on the history of manga, as well as the general history of Japanese art.

*Saw a recent call for an artist for a graphic novel about Japanese American incarceration, but I’m not sure if the creative team will end up being all Nikkeijin/Nihonjin. I hope so – I think Nikkeijin need to retain ownership over stories about the camps. I also saw an agent list “Japanese American internment” as an area of interest for manuscripts which – hmm. Unless the agent is specifically seeking #ownvoices work, it reads a little too much like, “here’s a trending topic, work by anyone (read: white people, outsiders) is welcome!” I’m 100% positive I don’t ever want to read anything written by a white person/non-Japanese person about JA/Nikkei incarceration.

Book Spotlight: Kamishibai Man – Allen Say

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Kamishibai Man follows Jiichan’s recollections of performing kamishibai as he retraces his old route from village to town.

What I liked:

  • Say’s illustrations are, as always, delightful. I especially like the opening scene showing Jiichan and Baachan in their home, and the scenes where Jiichan is wheeling his bicycle through town. Say’s attention to detail in depicting the signage for different types of shops and eateries made me so nostalgic for Japan – and I also wonder if he has much interest in 書道 or other types of writing/lettering. The opening illustration reminds me of the homes depicted in the children’s books my mother read to me before I learned to read on my own. Even now, my immediate visual association with the idea of a Japanese home is an image like this one.* The illustration at the end of the book, depicting Jiichan and Baachan sitting at the dinner table, really reminds me of the scene in one of my favorite childhood books, かさじぞう, where they have what looks like a dinner of hot water and 沢庵 (たくあん). I tried to copy that meal once and discovered it wasn’t very filling. 懐かしい!
  • I think we had a children’s book about kamishibai once, but I don’t know if my parents still have it. It wasn’t one we read a lot and I remember thinking it was rather boring because the pictures were black and white. Reading Kamishibai Man made me remember the existence of this book – time to see if my sister can find it.
  • Say’s use of Jiichan read to me as the perfect balance of specific and general. In not naming Jiichan, Say allows him to stand in for the many kamishibai performers whose life stories have been erased or ignored by subsequent historical developments. The dignity with which Say depicts Jiichan – his love for kamishibai, his nostalgia for the Japan of his youth, his perseverance and eventual reconnection to his old listeners – is an homage to kamishibai and its practitioners. At the same time, choosing to refer to him as Jiichan feels like an intimate choice to me because of the situations in which we (Japanese speakers) use Jiichan. I love how Say’s language choices enhance the story’s treatment of changes in Japanese society, particularly with regard to the shift from small-scale, familial activities like kamishibai in villages to more impartial mass media like television in developing cities.
  • Baachan’s homemade candies! I have to ask my mom about this – I think it’s something I’m too far removed from generationally and geographically, though I do remember my mom and maybe some of my aunts making a syrupy, stringy sugar candy on the stove. 水飴かな? I wonder if this is the candy on a stick that Jiichan gives out.

What I learned:

  • Nikkei authors have written about kamishibai in fiction! So far, this is the only example I’ve seen, but I hope to find more.

Questions I had:

  • Why did Say decide to write a book about kamishibai? I’ve made many assumptions and interpretations of his motives above, but these are all guesses. It would be nice to hear about the origins of the book in the author’s own words.

Follow-up:

  • The scholar’s note at the end of the book (not by Say) presents kamishibai as a predecessor to manga. Since I’m currently on something of a manga-reading kick, I guess it’s time to read up on the histories of both to see where and how they intersect. I hope I can find some Nikkei/Japanese sources!

*On a side note, I see Say worked on an English version of 三年寝太郎 (さんねんねたろう), written by someone else, which is interesting. I wonder if translating/retelling Japanese stories doesn’t appeal to him, since his own work seems to deal with more personal and/or historical narratives. Personally, I think it would be wonderful to see a Nikkei/Japanese author produce a bilingual version of this story for Nikkei kids learning about their heritage and Japanese kids learning English. Maybe a Nikkei author could collaborate with a Japanese artist – super cool!