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.

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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.