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.


  • 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.