Book Spotlight: Grandfather’s Journey – Allen Say

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Grandfather’s Journey is a picture book chronicling the life of writer/illustrator Allen Say’s* grandfather from his youth in Japan to raising a family in San Francisco, to his eventual return to Japan.

What I liked:

  • Say’s beautiful watercolor illustrations draw on both Japanese and European artistic traditions and, I believe, will appeal equally to US-based and Japan-based audiences. The directness of his compositions, juxtaposed with his quiet colors, produces a cultural blend that to me reads as one example of the unique work created by Nikkeijin/Nihonjin who have spent significant time inside and outside Japan.
  • Say presents traumatic moments – in both his personal life and in Japanese history – directly but in an understated way typical of how I feel Nihonjin/Nikkeijin often express themselves. I can only speak to my personal experience, but I definitely relate to the idea of presenting a difficult topic honestly while avoiding extraneous chatter as much as possible. To me, this is also different from our tendency to handle heavy topics via subtle allusions and nuanced comments. I don’t expect all Nikkeijin/Nihonjin to share these views, but hopefully something of what I said will strike a chord.
  • The very first illustration in the book, the watercolor of a photograph of Say’s grandfather, grabbed my attention immediately because of its striking resemblance to the black-and-white photographs of my mother’s father and grandparents on display in my grandmother’s house in Japan. That house has since been demolished, according to my mother, to make way for road development, but seeing Say’s illustration instantly brought back memories of my many visits.

What I learned:

  • I knew there were Issei who returned to Japan, but after reading Grandfather’s Journey I’d like to learn more about the ones who, like Say’s grandfather, returned because they wanted to, not because they were deported or because they found the US unwelcoming after the war.

Questions I had:

  • I wonder if Say ever considered creating a bilingual version of this book? Or perhaps he proposed it but his agent/editor/publisher rejected it? I think Japanese text would add another layer of engagement to the story without taking away from the English text, by mirroring Say’s grandfather’s experience of living in two cultures.
  • How does Say self-identify? Nikkeijin or Nihonjin? Issei? The question of generation seems especially interesting in his case, since his grandfather might be considered Issei, making his US-born mother Nisei, but then he himself was born in Japan and later moved to the US so…Issei again? Can Issei be descended from Nisei? I’d be interested in hearing from any fellow Nikkeijin with backgrounds similar to Say’s – how do you self-identify?
  • Who does Say write and illustrate his books for? Does his work have a wide audience among Nihonjin? The complexities of Nikkeijin/Nihonjin relationships aside, Say’s background and artistic style seem like a combination that would appeal to Nihonjin.

Follow-up:

  • Read Say’s other books – at least, the ones I can acquire. It looks like some may be out of print or difficult to purchase, but I hope I can get most of them!
  • See if I can find bilingual books authored by Nikkeijin. So many of us are bilingual that I hope at least one of us found the experience worth representing in a book.

*Say is a Romanization of 清井, his real family name. I looked this up because I only recently realized he is Japanese and I couldn’t figure out what name was meant to be represented by “Say.” I wonder who decided on this Romanization – as my fellow Japanese-speaking Nikkeijin/Nihonjin know, the spelling isn’t phonetically intuitive.

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Book Spotlight: Cherry Blossoms in Twilight – Yaeko Sugama Weldon & Linda Austin

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Cherry Blossoms in Twilight recounts the life of Yaeko Sugama Weldon, first as a child growing up in wartime Japan, and then as a wife and mother in the United States.

What I liked:

  • The mini illustrations accompanying the chapters, hand-drawn by Yaeko-san,* are lovely. They enhance the book’s intimate, familial feeling without distracting from the narrative. Also, I’m always fascinated by writers who illustrate their own work, since I think the act of doing so is quite different from having someone else illustrate your work.
  • The writing is accessible but not juvenile. Naturally, not everything is shared with the reader, but it felt to me that the things left unsaid were selected for personal reasons rather than to sugarcoat the story. I would have enjoyed reading this as a kid and I definitely enjoyed it as an adult. Readers who appreciate the writing style (though perhaps not the problematic subject matter) in the Little House series will find a similar voice in Cherry Blossoms in Twilight.
  • The extensive descriptions of everyday life in wartime Japan are essential reading for those of us (including me) whose classroom education about Japanese involvement in World War II focused almost exclusively on atomic bombs and camps. Yaeko-san’s story also complements narratives such as those presented in Miyazaki’s 風立ちぬ and Takahata’s 火垂るの墓. (I would actually love to see Miyazaki tackle a film addressing the relationships between Nihonjin and Nikkeijin, but I kind of doubt he would ever do this.)
  • In what to me feels like true Japanese/Nikkei spirit, Yaeko-san presents her many experiences, her accomplishments and struggles, without moralizing or attempting to coerce the reader into feeling a certain way about her. This particular way in which Nihonjin/Nikkeijin express ourselves to the world is something I have always loved and admired.

What I learned:

  • I knew there were Japanese women who married US servicemen (of all races) and immigrated to the US, but I think this is the first book I’ve read that centers on these experiences. I’m not sure if these women self-identified as Shin-Issei, but I’m interested in how they might have interacted with Nikkeijin who had already been living in the US for a generation or two.

Questions I had:

  • Did Yaeko-san ever consider creating a bilingual version of her memoir? It might just be my own bilingual Nikkei perspective, but I’m always interested to see how bilingual Japanese/Nikkeijin express themselves differently in English versus Japanese.**
  • How have other Japanese/Nikkei readers responded to Cherry Blossoms in Twilight?

Follow-up:

  • Read more Japanese/Nikkei memoirs!
  • Read more Japanese/Nikkei authors writing on wartime Japan in both fiction and nonfiction. (There are a ton on my TBR, I just need to get to them!)
  • See if I can find a comparative work on the experiences of Shin-Issei who came to the US at different times after the war. This would ideally be an anthology of writings by Shin-Issei themselves, as opposed to a topical piece by one person, but so far I haven’t come across such a work.

*I have never met Yaeko-san, but the impression I have of her after reading the book is very similar to how I feel around some of my older female relatives and family friends, whom my mother (and, learning from her, my sister and I) often refer to as [first name]-san, so I hope it’s all right if I call her Yaeko-san here.

**Or Japanese versus another language, especially for Nikkeijin who are not based in the US. The articles on Discover Nikkei about the evolution of the Japanese language among Brazilian Nikkeijin are particularly interesting in this regard.

Book Spotlight: Kira-Kira – Cynthia Kadohata

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Kira-Kira is a coming-of-age novel chronicling the adventures of Katie Takeshima as she adjusts to a new home in Georgia and confronts her beloved older sister’s terminal illness.

Things I liked:

  • The Takeshima family moves from Iowa to Georgia and the majority of the story takes place in Georgia. This might just be a deficiency in my reading list, but this is the first book about Nikkeijin set in the South that I’ve read. Even in spaces supposedly dedicated to sharing stories about the greater US-based Nikkei experience, I don’t hear from many Nikkeijin living in the South, compared to, say, Nikkeijin based in California.
  • Kadohata normalizes Nikkei practices by presenting them as taken-for-granted. For example, the Takeshima kids eat rice balls at their picnic and while waiting for their mom at the factory. It’s not depicted as odd or special – it simply is. While Nikkeijin are far from monolithic, I love seeing a fellow Nikkeijin take for granted what I myself also consider “the norm.” (For family road trips, my mom makes furikake musubi in plastic sushi containers saved from the store – because mottainai!)
  • Katie’s simultaneous awareness and ignorance of social issues, from noticing how some white women won’t acknowledge her mother, to not understanding why Uncle Katsuhisa can’t get a job as a land surveyor, feels painfully familiar. I suppose it’s odd to list something painful as something I liked, but it really means a lot to know I wasn’t the only Nikkei kid navigating a weird balance of, “I think that’s bad” and “I don’t understand this but it doesn’t seem quite right.” In hindsight, as my fellow Nikkeijin can probably attest to, most of those things we didn’t understand as kids turned out to be bad, too.
  • The portrayal of Katie’s parents feels very aligned with Nikkei/Japanese parenting values. For example, Katie’s mother’s tendency to harp on “little” things is very reminiscent of how my own mother and other Japanese mothers I’ve met often behave. I can imagine non-Japanese readers not understanding this or thinking Katie’s mother is too nitpicky, but it makes perfect sense to me in the context of Nikkei/Japanese values. The same goes for Katie’s dad – fellow Nikkeijin, did you notice anything familiar about his work ethic and perseverance, not to mention the quiet way he interacts with his family? This aspect of the book is definitely one of the “insider” qualities that I look for and love to find in the work of Nikkei authors. Not something an outsider could achieve!

Things I learned:

  • There were and are Japanese Americans living in the South! (Ok, technically I knew this before reading Kira-Kira, but not too much before…probably only since college?) Considering that I have relatives in Colorado and Nebraska, this probably shouldn’t have come as such a surprise – if Nikkeijin live in the Midwest, why not the South? – but it did. Books like this inspire me to seek out information about Nikkei communities beyond my Bay Area/California bubble. I also wonder to what extent regional privilege shapes dominant Nikkei narratives. Same goes for bilingual/multilingual privilege and proximity to Japan via generation. Fellow Nikkeijin, you know what I’m talking about, even though it seems few of us ever actually talk about these things. 言い過ぎかもしれないけど何にも言わないとどうにもならないからちょっとだけでも聞いて下さい。
  • Chicken sexing is a not-insignificant part of both Japanese and Nikkei history. I saw an article about chicken sexers on Discover Nikkei while I was reading Kira-Kira, but that’s the only other place I’ve seen it referenced so far. In Kira-Kira, it’s noted that some Nikkeijin went to Japan to learn chicken sexing before returning to the US to work. Seems like an interesting lens through which to examine Nikkeijin/Nihonjin interactions. Time to read up!

Questions I had:

  • According to Kadohata’s website, she grew up in Georgia and Arkansas, so, as with Weedflower*, I can see how personal history might have shaped the writing of Kira-Kira. At the same time, I’d like to know what other factors, if any, contributed to Kadohata’s decisions regarding the character arcs and setting of Kira-Kira. For example, why does Lynn die and why specifically from leukemia? I’m not aware of any historical ties between the Nikkei community and leukemia, other than people with relatives who may have contracted it after Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
  • Is Katie really referring to Uncle Katsuhisa as “Uncle Katsuhisa” in real life, or something more like “Katsuhisa-ojichan?” or “Ojichan?” Considering Sumiko uses “Jiichan” in Weedflower, I would assume the former, but I’m curious. Fellow Nikkeijin can probably relate to the weirdness (or funniness, in my opinion) of using different honorifics depending on whether the relative in question is Nikkeijin or Nihonjin. Also, I wonder how many of us break down honorifics along linguistic lines? Sumiko is described as not speaking Japanese, but still uses the word Jiichan. My non-Japanese-speaking relatives don’t use Japanese honorifics, so I’m curious to know how other Nikkei families determine this.
  • At first I wasn’t sure what to make of the portrayal of Uncle Katsuhisa’s family. It seems like they get a lot of screen (page?) time even though their respective storylines don’t progress much. But when I compare them to, say, the island folks in ばらかもん, it makes more sense. Their presence enhances the atmosphere – or what I think of as the Nikkei-ness – of the story. In fact, I think Kira-Kira could be adapted into an excellent manga, especially with a mixed Nikkeijin/Nihonjin creative team. The deliberate pacing and nuanced moments would translate beautifully into images. I know US novels are sometimes adapted into graphic novels – I wonder if any Nikkei authors, including Kadohata, have ever considered pursuing manga adaptations of their work?

Follow-up:

  • See if I can find any more books by Nikkeijin, especially fiction and/or memoirs, set in the South.
  • Try to find some Nikkei sources on the history of chicken sexing in Japanese and Nikkei communities.
  • Try to shock someone by casually dropping the term, “chicken sexing” into a conversation.

*Some of Kadohata’s family members were sent to the Poston camp during World War II, according to her website.