Book Spotlight: The Nihongo Papers – Naomi Hirahara

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

The Nihongo Papers tells the multigenerational story of the Shishido and Hamakawa families when they are brought together by a rare and deadly species of strawberry.

What I liked:

  • Sayuri’s character felt very familiar to me in some ways, probably because my mom is also Shin-Issei. It would be interesting to read a Japanese version of the parts of the story told from Sayuri’s POV, since personally I feel the Japanese-to-English shift often causes Nihonjin characters to lose some of their essence. Fellow JA/Nikkei who have witnessed a Nihonjin/Shin-Issei relative or friend communicating their thoughts in a language other than Japanese probably understand what I mean.
  • As an addendum, I also appreciate Sayuri’s mother – or what we learn of her via Sayuri’s thoughts. Hirahara’s portrayal of 日本人にとってアメリカ人は___ felt spot-on relative to my own experiences of how my Nihonjin family and friends perceive Japanese Americans and white people. So many intracommunity vibes!!
  • This story is a page-turner! (Metaphorically, anyway – it’s an e-serial.) I was a little surprised to see it described as a bio-thriller because from what little I know of Hirahara’s writing, it didn’t seem like her style – in fact, I can’t think of a nonwhite USian writer who specializes in what I’d consider a bio-thriller – but I very much enjoyed reading it. The focus on family ties and what people will – or won’t – do on behalf of their loved ones was, to me, much more compelling than the sci-fi-esque plot implied by the description. Although I dislike books pitched as, ‘it’s a good story where the characters just HAPPEN to be POC,’ because it seems to imply stories more focused on POC identities are somehow lesser, and I wouldn’t describe this story as such, I appreciate how Hirahara normalizes both the commonalities and diversities of JA/Nikkei experiences. The family dynamic among Bob, Greg, and Sayuri was especially interesting, since the generational/linguistic diversity reminded me of my own family.
  • Haru is one of my favorite characters – I wish she had more page time. The MC of 一の食卓, currently one of my favorite manga, is also Haru, so it was kind of fun to be reading Hirahara’s Haru while having this other Haru in the back of my mind. More specifically, I wonder if there’s a JA/Nikkei-written novel featuring a character like Hirahara’s Haru – a young Nikkei girl coming of age in early-twentieth-century California, in a farming family caught amidst cultural, racial, and economic turmoil.
  • I’m quite curious about Juanita…what’s her backstory?? I don’t believe we ever learn what her exact racial/ethnic background is, but there aren’t so many Okinawan Latinx(?) characters in English-language fiction that I can just glaze over her appearance without stopping to wonder. If Hirahara ever expanded The Nihongo Papers into a novella or even a novel, I would definitely want to learn more about Juanita. I didn’t get much of a sense of her character from the story, other than her competency as a PI, but I assume this is because she is a secondary character relative to characters like Sayuri or Carlos.
  • Saburo’s motives made sense to me. Of course, no one should be going around kidnapping or attempting to shoot people, and I suspect what Saburo needed was counseling and treatment for depression, but I can see why he did what he did. The only loose end here is the gap between how Haru and her parents view him, and the insight we receive into his thoughts toward the end of the story. In other words, I would have less sympathy for him if he actually mistreated his wife, but since this is never confirmed, I’m operating on the assumption he did not. Also, I wonder what was written in Japanese on Itsuko’s papers…and I wonder how the story ends for Phyllis. Anyway, to return to my original point, I prefer ‘villains’ whose actions are a response to some past injury done them, especially if said injury was inflicted by one of the ‘good’ characters, because it feels more realistic to remember everyone has done good and bad things in their lives. Enishi from るろうに剣心 is another example of this type of ‘villain’…at least, to some extent. Again, this doesn’t excuse the harm they inflict, but it does make for more balanced storytelling, in my opinion.

What I learned:

  • I’m not sure if this counts as learning, since I don’t know how true to life it is, but it was very interesting to consider international exchange among Nikkei farmers as depicted in Jorge’s journey to Shishido Farms. This is likely my Bay-Area-JA-bubble-experience speaking, but none of the JA/Nikkei I grew up around ever mentioned connections to JA/Nikkei in countries other than the US and Japan. I finally met a Nikkei woman from Brazil in college, at which point I realized there were long-established Nikkei communities outside the US. Currently, I have a book or two about Nikkei exchange between Japan and Latin America on my TBR, and I remember seeing a few more titles on Amazon which were only available in Spanish or Portuguese. I’d really like to find a book co-written from Nikkei, indigenous, and/or Latinx perspectives on the historical and ongoing relationships among Nikkei, indigenous, and/or Latinx communities in the so-called Americas. I think the closest I have right now are a few books on Asian settler colonialism, but considering the complex nature of indigenous/Latinx connections, it would be great to find a book with a more specific focus. Also, in general I feel indigenous and/or Latinx Nikkei are often erased from broader discussions of Nikkei history, so I would like to learn more about these communities from an ownvoices perspective.

Questions I had:

  • What was Hirahara’s inspiration for this story? It’s not every day I read about deliberately bred lethal strawberries.
  • Who is the intended audience for this story? I noticed every Japanese word is either followed by a translation or defined via context. In my own writing, I’m not a fan of providing in-text translations, but I also think providing some kind of translation is the most equitable way to anticipate non-Japanese-speaking Nikkei readers. Since Hirahara is also an established author, perhaps the translations are included for her non-Japanese readers as well. I’ll have to take a look when I start her Mas Arai series, which I plan to do later this summer.
  • To be honest, before we learned Bisabuelo was Saburo, I was concerned the ‘villain’ of the story would end up being someone associated with Latinx communities and/or Spanish speakers. I’m unclear on whether Jorge and Carlos are mixed-race – after all, Carlos’s mother was Japanese, and Jorge’s family name is Yamashita – or if, like many Japanese Americans, they are monoracial Nikkei with first names adopted from the dominant culture of their home communities. At any rate, because colorism and ethnic/cultural bias are ongoing issues in JA/Nikkei communities, and because Nikkei from Latin America often report experiencing inferior treatment in Japan relative to Japanese Americans, I feel it’s prudent for JA/Nikkei writers to tread carefully when depicting Nikkei communities outside the US.
  • What was the purpose of including Japanese Canadian characters like Phyllis Hamakawa? Maybe I’m missing a piece of history here – perhaps there was a significant movement of Nikkei agricultural workers from the US to Canada at some point – but I don’t see how Itsuko ending up in Canada as opposed to some other part of California or the US made a difference to the plot. It could also be Hirahara has some connection to Canadian Nikkei which made the inclusion of Hamakawa’s character significant to her for personal reasons. At any rate, while I know Nikkei in Latin America have a long history of being involved in agricultural work, as with Nikkei in the US, which to me provides the logic behind the Shishido and Yamashita characters, I don’t know why Phyllis had to be a politician in Toronto/Canada, specifically. To be clear, I don’t think Hamakawa’s presence weakened the story – I just feel I didn’t fully understand the reasoning behind her background.
  • Once or twice in the text, I felt the term ‘American’ was being interchanged with ‘white,’ particularly in passages describing Alex. I can’t tell if this reflects Hirahara’s perspective or if it was meant to show how many JA/Nikkei do this without thinking…or it could be something else!

Follow-up:

  • Hirahara has written several other serialized stories for Discover Nikkei, so I’ll be checking those out next!
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