Book Spotlight: Jasmine Toguchi, Super Sleuth – Debbi Michiko Florence

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

In Jasmine Toguchi, Super Sleuth, Jasmine must solve several mysteries involving her family and close friends in order to achieve the perfect Hinamatsuri.

What I liked:

  • Jasmine is a super sleuth! As a kid, I was a huge fan of Nancy Drew – it was probably the first series I tackled as an independent reader. Although Jasmine and Nancy are nothing alike, I wonder what effect it would have had on me to see a JA girl as a detective on the page.
  • It was fun to read about Hinamatsuri in a non-didactic context, though Florence does weave explanatory details into the narrative. One of my archived stories features an enormous, over-the-top Hinamatsuri celebration in a secondary world fantasy setting – and I remember writing it because I was trying to think of what could make my story fresh and interesting, and I thought, ‘oh, nobody has written about Hinamatsuri because nobody knows what it is!’ I was past the target audience age for Jasmine Toguchi by then, but I still wonder how I would have felt knowing I wasn’t or wouldn’t be the only JA/Nikkei writer interested in adapting Hinamatsuri for fiction. I do remember looking up some faux-‘Asian’ themed work by white fantasy writers, trying to find a template for the story I wanted to tell, and being discouraged by what was clearly, even to kid-me, a blatant and deeply rooted ignorance of actual Asian cultures and aesthetics. (Ok, now I want to know what would happen if Florence wrote a middle-grade contemporary fantasy featuring JA characters and infused with Japanese culture.)
  • Dress-up is a central part of this book and I loved it. Before I was a reader, I was a dress-up fanatic. I especially loved going to my friends’ houses to play dress-up, though in retrospect I think it was more about the thrill of finding new clothes in their dress-up trunks than actually dressing up…I was kind of picky about wearing other people’s clothes. That said, I’m uncomfortable with how wearing kimono for Hinamatsuri is more or less equated with playing dress-up. I can see how the comparison provides a more understandable context for young readers, but at the same time, I know far too well how it feels to experience the ignorance which results from non-Japanese people’s lifelong exposure to inaccurate representations of Japanese culture. There are ways to contextualize unfamiliar cultural practices for young audiences without utilizing potentially misleading comparisons. The broader argument is beyond the scope of this post, but my fellow JA/Nikkei probably know we would have an easier time navigating US society if more attention was paid to how our culture is represented to outsiders. On a side note, I’m not saying Florence is necessarily writing for outsiders – I have no idea who her priority audience is – but I know just from browsing Twitter that many non-Japanese are already reading the series, and I doubt the dress-up/kimono comparison would be necessary in a book written primarily for Japanese readers.

What I learned:

  • Reading a contemporary JA story like Jasmine Toguchi, which contains almost no historical references, has expanded my approach to Nikkei literature in ways I didn’t anticipate, but do appreciate. Given the long, complicated, and ongoing history between Japan and the US, I wonder what implications this kind of ‘history-less’ literature has for the next generation of JA/Nikkei readers.

Questions I had:

  • Why did Florence use “kimonos” as the plural for kimono? I have seen multiple JA writers do this. In light of pressures to assimilate during the postwar/post-camp years, the historical precedent for this type of wording is obvious. I’m certainly not here to criticize non-Japanese-speaking JA/Nikkei for altering their usage of Japanese to better fit their circumstances; most of us know how it feels to be caught in cultural conflict. I have also seen JA writers who, I’m fairly certain, do know Japanese, romanizing the language in rather unexpected ways. (I’ll leave aside the bilingual Japanese/Nikkei writers whose dominant language is Japanese because their romanization choices, while interesting and related to the discussion at hand, are beyond the scope of this post.) Returning to the point, what are the implications of “kimonos” versus “kimono” and similar instances of Japanese romanization? As I mentioned above in my discussion re: dress-up, I’m interested in how representations of Japanese/Nikkei culture influence outsider perceptions of us. To be blunt, I think a time is coming when Japanese people, both Nihonjin and Nikkei, will need to deeply consider if we’re ok with white/Euro norms continuing to exert significant influence in the evolution of our culture(s). This is not a new idea for some of us, but nor is there what I would call widespread intracommunity awareness. Although Perry and his ‘gunboat diplomacy’ days are long past (for now, who knows with the Turnip in office), most of us know whiteness continues to insinuate itself into our cultural and community spaces in both blatant and subtle ways. One example of a subtle insinuation of whiteness into Japanese spaces is the (incorrect) anglicizing of Japanese words. Of course, it’s not so simple because not all JA/Nikkei are bothered by “kimonos” versus kimono, and some JA/Nikkei who don’t speak Japanese may not even realize this is incorrect. On the flip side, what kind of door does this open to non-Japanese and their already problematic accessorizing of our language? I don’t have the answer, but I think it’s a worthwhile issue for our community to consider as part of our long-term vision for what we want Japanese American-ness and Nikkei-ness to be.
  • If you read my previous post on Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen, you know I wasn’t thrilled with the choice of (white) illustrator for this series. To reiterate, why wasn’t a JA/Nikkei/Asian illustrator hired for this series? (This is not a critique directed at Florence, but rather at her editorial team and publisher.) Young JA/Nikkei readers deserve to see images of themselves through a familiar cultural lens. Given the extremely small number of JA/Nikkei creators currently working in the US children’s literature field, most images of Japanese people readily available to US-based JA/Nikkei will be the work of either Nihonjin or non-Japanese creators. As stated in my previous post, I don’t feel the illustrations in this series provide much of a “mirror” because the characters don’t look particularly Japanese or Asian to me. I realize this may not be true for all JA/Nikkei readers, since such perceptions are largely dependent on individual experiences with visual media. I also don’t mean to imply images of Japanese people as represented in Japanese media should be the sole lens through which JA/Nikkei see ourselves. At the same time, I think JA/Nikkei creators should be given priority in developing new/altered lenses through which we perceive ourselves and our experiences.* (Read the footnote for details.) Funny how non-Japanese consumers seem endlessly interested in JA/Nikkei stories of incarceration or the 442nd, but see very little need for JA/Nikkei participation in defining Japanese-ness in US mass media. Outside of war and camp stories, our primary usefulness is measured by how effectively we can serve as a conduit for non-Japanese consumption of ‘the only’ Japanese pop media, anime and manga. In order for this to change, for us to obtain better treatment by non-Japanese, we need to be the ones defining Japanese-ness in the diaspora, especially when it comes to visual representations of us and our culture.
  • On a rather irrelevant but interesting tangent, I’m given to understand Florence’s illustrator is based in Europe, which, ironically (except not, because I know why), Nihonjin would probably find appealing when seeking talent for some of their own projects.

Follow-up:

  • The third Jasmine Toguchi book isn’t out until 2018, but apparently it features taiko, so I’m looking forward to it!

*My argument for prioritizing JA/Nikkei creators is in no small part influenced by the growing platforms of non-Japanese creators and consumers of anime/manga – in other words, probably the most widely circulated visual representations of Japanese culture in the US – and the highly unpleasant accompanying results, such as the accessorizing of Japanese language and fetishizing of Japanese culture. I’ve also recently noticed a disturbing trend in which non-Japanese fans (and yes, I mean any and all non-Japanese people, not just white people) dominate the discourse on Japanese media/culture in online spaces. Although I would be interested, to an extent, in seeing how non-Japanese POC interpret Japanese media in empowering, community-building ways, much of what I currently see reflects disturbingly white/Eurocentric values, and too often seems to entirely disregard the context in which the actual work under scrutiny was created. I greatly admire much of the decolonizing work currently being done by non-Japanese POC in the US, but I would hesitate to apply their analytical frameworks to Japanese media without taking into account Japanese history, including Japan’s complicated history with US imperialism and global white supremacy. Too often, especially in discussions of the Pacific War/WWII, I see Japanese imperialism broadly equated with white/US/Euro imperialism, perhaps rooted in the mistaken perception Japanese imperialism can only be accurately analyzed through a white-dominant narrative of history. (See Akiko Hashimoto’s discussion in The Long Defeat re: how Asian nations formerly colonized by Japan tend to lean toward white/US-dominant narratives when it comes to Japanese imperialism, for their own purposes.) I have more to read on this topic myself, but from a cursory look at the extant POC-authored literature (including scholarship by non-Japanese POC with personal ties to Japanese colonization), it is clearly possible to examine Japanese imperialism without wholly subsuming one’s analytical framework to the so-called ‘accepted’ (read: white) scholarly approach to imperialism, while also NOT in any way excusing or justifying Japanese actions in Asia. Ok, but what do approaches to studying Japanese imperialism have to do with a discussion on visual representations of Japanese culture? Because, from what I’ve seen, many non-Japanese fans and self-styled ‘authorities’ on Japan seem to suffer from a gap in their perceived timelines of Japanese history, going straight from Japanese imperialism to anime/manga**, without taking into account how losing the war, US occupation, and subsequent ‘westernization’ affected Japanese people and our culture between then and now. (And no, acknowledging the ongoing effects of white/US imperialism in Japan in no way diminishes Japan’s accountability for its actions in Asia.) Based on the ways in which I see information about Japanese/Nikkei history being circulated by non-Japanese on social media, it’s fairly clear most don’t understand our history as well as they think they do. (The US education system can undoubtedly take a significant portion of the blame for this, since we are indoctrinated with an extremely white-lensed understanding of how to identify significant historical ‘facts’ versus unreliable and subjective ‘anecdotes.’) In conclusion, when non-Japanese assert ownership over visual representations of Japanese culture in the form of either creatorship or discourse, while limiting themselves to a historical context defined solely by white/USian interests, the end result is nothing more than a continuation of the white/US imperialism begun with Perry’s black ships (or, depending on your perspective, to even earlier interactions between Japanese and white Europeans).

**Anime and manga are not, of course, brand-new on the Japanese culture scene, but I’m not sure how many non-Japanese US-based consumers actually understand this in terms of the broader historical context. Again, I cite the tendency of whiteness to assign relevance to certain POC-related information as ‘fact’ (typically information which cannot be used to contradict or dismantle whiteness) while dismissing other information as ‘anecdotal’ or incidental (often information which can be used to challenge white dominance over both the historical narrative and current affairs). For examples, just look up any white-dominated anime/manga fan chat space (though, as previously stated, this type of harm can also be perpetuated by non-Japanese POC with whitewashed perspectives).

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