Book Spotlight: Kenta and the Big Wave – Ruth Ohi

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Kenta and the Big Wave, written and illustrated by Ruth Ohi, is a quiet and touching account of the 3/11 tsunami in Japan.

What I liked:

  • Ohi’s illustrations and palette are full of soft edges and gentle colors, or, as I thought to myself while reading, 何かすごくおとなしくてやさしいようなお話だよね 。 The aesthetics felt perfect for telling a serious story without frightening young readers. Full-page illustrations with close-up perspective lend immediacy to the events of the story, as if the reader is in the same space as Kenta, viewing the tsunami and its devastating results in real time. The quiet, subtle style with which Ohi renders people and their surroundings keeps the story from becoming too graphic or grim.
  • Ohi’s writing is simple and straightforward without euphemizing the extent of the damage for those who weren’t there. On one page, Kenta’s mother weeps at the destruction of their home and Kenta’s father says they will need to start over because nothing can be salvaged – this scenario is true for many families who lived in the tsunami zone. Kenta and his family spend time living in a makeshift evacuation shelter, the details of which Ohi is careful to include in her illustration. At the same time, Ohi infuses her story with what I interpret as a spirit of みんなで頑張ろう! I imagine most Nikkei readers familiar with Japanese culture will notice this and it might also be a way to open intergenerational/transnational conversations about what this concept has meant to Japanese/Nikkei communities over time. On a side note, I’m not even sure this concept/phrase has the same significance in Canadian Nikkei history as it does in JA history with regard to each community’s respective experiences with the camps.

What I learned:

  • I knew a number of Nikkei creators responded to 3/11 by producing work, but I hadn’t really considered trying to track any of it down until I came across this book. (I also remember reading about several white people organizing/creating ‘charity’ work for 3/11, including white expats in Japan and white translators of Japanese literature, which made me not want to look too deeply into 3/11-related work for a long time.) Now that I have a better sense of ‘who’s who’ in the Nikkei literary and arts scene, I might try to find other works in which our community addresses what happened.

Questions I had:

  • Is the kid who finds Kenta’s soccer ball supposed to be white? I initially read him as white based on his appearance and the English-language signs behind him, but then I thought it would be fun if he was an Asian kid who decided to dye his hair blond. I’ve never lived in a majority-Nikkei/Asian diaspora community, but in my experience, not many Nikkei dye their hair the way Nihonjin do, and the same fashion culture around hair dyeing doesn’t exist in our communities outside Japan. I like to imagine the blond kid is either Nihonjin and happens to have recently moved overseas, or a Nikkei kid with very close ties to Japanese culture. Both fun story ideas, come to think of it. Anyway, I wonder what race/ethnicity Ohi intended this kid to be, and what she would think of other interpretations by her readers!
  • Is there a Japanese translation of this book? What did Nihonjin readers think, especially any who may have been directly impacted by 3/11?

Follow-up:

  • I enjoyed Ohi’s book and I’ll keep an eye out for any other Japan-related work she may produce. She is Japanese Canadian and I believe she has worked on a book by Joy Kogawa…
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Book Spotlight: Asian Settler Colonialism – Candace Fujikane & Jonathan Okamura (eds)

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Asian Settler Colonialism is a collection of academic essays by Native Hawaiian and (mostly) Asian settler writers outlining the impacts of the Asian settler presence on Native Hawaiian communities and lands.

Note: When discussing specific essays in this post, I focus on work by Japanese/Nikkei contributors, in keeping with the (current) purpose of Book Spotlight.

What I liked:

  • Somehow, I didn’t realize until the book arrived that it actually consists of two sections, one dedicated to Native Hawaiian* essays and the other to settler essays. I assumed the book consisted of Asian settlers in Hawaii addressing their complicity in and resistance to the historical and ongoing systemic oppression of Native Hawaiians. I absolutely appreciate the education I received from the Native Hawaiian half of the book; however, and maybe even because of the Native Hawaiian contributors’ powerful voices, I now feel the treatment of Asian settler colonialism by Asian settler writers was too light or brief by comparison.** Put another way, I could read an entire book or two written solely by Asian settlers on Asian settler colonialism. No, it’s not about creating the Asian version of ‘white guilt’ – I simply believe Asian settler colonialism needs to be addressed much more deeply and broadly by Asian settlers IN academia. As the Asian settler contributors suggest, the most effective way for all settlers to support Native Hawaiian sovereignty is to openly acknowledge their/our complicity in colonialism/US imperialism and follow the Native Hawaiian lead instead of coopting the movement. To echo Fujikane’s statement in the introduction, I hope this book serves as a starting point for impactful Asian settler support of Native Hawaiian sovereignty. I would love to see many more Asian settlers in academia not only openly acknowledge their complicity in settler colonialism, but also explicitly situate their scholarship within a living decolonization/Native Hawaiian sovereignty movement. I also hope to see more Native Hawaiian voices, along with all other indigenous voices, regularly featured on wide-reaching platforms without being distorted or silenced by pro-settler interests.
  • Fujikane openly acknowledges Haunani-Kay Trask’s critique of one of her past articles as part of the introduction. I interpret this inclusion as part of an effort to normalize productive dialogue rooted in constructive criticism of settler scholarship by Native activists. I note this only because I haven’t observed many instances of such exchanges in what I’ve read. As the intent seems to be normalizing decolonization in academia, I wouldn’t label Fujikane herself as exceptional or praiseworthy for the gesture, as this would be no different from lauding white people for including characters of color in their novels.

What I learned:

  • “The Militarizing of Hawaii” – Kyle Kajihiro
    • I appreciated the history lesson on the US military presence in Hawaii, not to mention I had no idea Japan utilized Hawaii for military exercises. That said, I wish I had more of a sense of Kajihiro’s personal investment in the issues covered. His bio describes him as “Hawaii Japanese,” a term I’ve never heard before. What do Native Hawaiians think of this label? Although Asian settler colonialism exists at all levels, from individual to systemic, I feel academic writing often highlights big-picture ideas in a way that allows individuals, particularly academics themselves, to elude personal accountability. I don’t know, of course, if Kajihiro intended this, but I feel it would be most responsible for every settler contributor in this book to acknowledge, however briefly, their awareness of their complicity as individuals in settler colonialism in Hawaii. Anyone writing so directly about settler colonialism ostensibly doesn’t buy into the fantasy of scholarly ‘objectivity’ in which academics’ personal backgrounds magically fail to shape their perspectives in any way. On the flip side, I can see how Kajihiro’s generalized study might illuminate the scope of US imperialism via militarization to readers unfamiliar with the topic.
  • “Sites of Erasure” – Karen Kosasa
    • This was one of my favorite settler essays in the book. I especially enjoyed Kosasa’s acknowledgment of her and Tomita’s ongoing self-examinations of their creative frameworks. I look forward to her book on the topic. If Kajihiro’s essay seemed to focus excessively on big-picture issues at the expense of personal accountability, Kosasa’s work is a well-balanced study of both systemic and individual issues, not to mention an analysis of how they intersect. I did think Kosasa might self-identify as a settler in her bio, but I guess not.
  • “Ideological Images” – Eiko Kosasa
    • Another of my favorite settler essays! Similar to how I felt after reading Between Two Empires and The Long Defeat, Kosasa’s essay explicitly addressed aspects of Japanese/Nikkei history which I had intuited but never considered at length. Also, my art history background gravitates to any scholarship involving visual analysis, and Kosasa’s examination of the Teragawachi photographs is no exception. I loved her discussion of the kanji pictured in Figure 4. Her analysis linking JA/Nikkei historical narratives to the ‘American Dream’ should be required reading for the next JA/Nikkei generation, not to mention of interest to any JA/Nikkei researching post-camp assimilation experiences and/or the politics of (performative?) patriotism as enacted in the creation and memorialization of the 442nd.
  • “Ethnic Boundary Construction in the Japanese American Community in Hawaii” – Jonathan Okamura
    • This essay really helped illuminate the extent of Japanese American power in Hawaii for me, as a JA/Nikkei who grew up in the Bay (in a part where Japanese/Asians were not the majority). It was difficult for me to read the essay with anything beyond a growing sense of confusion and indignation, since I’ve experienced the decidedly unpleasant consequences of non-Japanese dominating (or thinking they dominate) the dissemination of Japanese culture, but my own reaction showed me exactly how different it is to be JA/Nikkei in Hawaii as compared with my hometown. I’d definitely like to know if there is an anthology or book featuring JA/Nikkei from diverse areas of the diaspora in conversation with each other about our experiences.
  • “Colonial Amnesia” – Dean Itsuji Saranillio
    • I really appreciate Saranillio’s open acknowledgment of his personal background in the second paragraph of this essay. It is straightforward, yet brief, and enriches rather than diminishes his broader analysis of Filipino involvement in settler colonialism in Hawaii. He also cites US imperialism in the Philippines as grounds for Filipino solidarity with Native Hawaiians, an argument which I feel could easily be applied to many other diaspora groups in the US/Hawaii. I’m surprised Saranillio’s bio doesn’t include self-identification as a settler.
  • “Local Japanese Women for Justice Speak Out against Daniel Inouye and the JACL” – Ida Yoshinaga & Eiko Kosasa
    • Full disclosure – I had very little idea who Daniel Inouye was beyond his name and something about politics prior to reading this book. I’m glad this particular essay was my first opportunity to read about him in detail, since it sounds like he has been uncritically glorified by many in our community. Now I want to know what my JA friends in Hawaii think of him. I also haven’t read much about the JACL, though I do recall reading about their complicity in JA incarceration. I’ve been looking for a book chronicling the history of various JACL chapters, but I haven’t found one yet. If any fellow JA/Nikkei know of one, let me know!

Questions I had:

  • What was the selection process for the essays? According to the editorial notes, at least some of the essays are reprints. Who had the most influence in selecting contributors? The Asian settler editors? The Native Hawaiian contributors? The people whose names appear in the acknowledgments? Were all the essays solicited from their writers? If not, what was the application process? Who was rejected and why? I didn’t expect this information to be transparently presented in the book, but it would be interesting to read an interview with Fujikane, Okamura, and the other key players in the selection process.
  • On a related note, what exactly were the motivations of the individual settler contributors regarding inclusion in this book? What kind of commitment do each of them hold with respect to Native Hawaiian sovereignty, decolonization, and resisting US imperialism? How do they reconcile their respective privileges with their belief (or not) in indigenous self-determination? In what ways do they implement resistance and solidarity in their professional practices as educators, scholars, creators, and activists? What do the Native Hawaiian contributors think of each of the settler contributors? Did the contributors ever come together as a group? If so, what kind of dynamic existed amongst them?
  • As far as I can tell, David Stannard is a white guy. Why does a book on ASIAN settler colonialism need a white perspective, particularly when his essay slot could have gone to a Native Hawaiian contributor? There is no aspect of settler colonialism in which an indigenous person or person of color can’t offer a perspective equally or more profound than what a white person has to say. I didn’t bother reading his essay, but if any Native Hawaiian or Asian readers did, what are your thoughts?
  • Did anyone else notice the varied wording of the contributors’ bios?*** I’m not sure whether the contributors and/or editors have any input on the wording of the bios, or if someone at the publishing house copy-pastes them from various sources, but I immediately thought of how some academics present themselves well on the surface (i.e. their scholarship), but less so in more personal contexts. Of all the settler contributors, only Eiko Kosasa self-identifies as a settler in her bio. I’m not an academic, but I wonder if there’s any actual career risk to self-identifying as a settler in one’s professional bio, especially if said bio is part of a book of pointed essays on settler colonialism. The settler contributors may also have other reasons I’m unaware of, yet it seems like a step backwards after their (mostly) excellent and straightforward essays. If any indigenous/POC academics are reading this and can offer clarification, let me know!

Follow-up:

  • Read more work by Native Hawaiian activists – Haunani-Kay Trask seems especially interesting – as well as Iyko Day’s Alien Capital and any other indigenous- or Asian-written work on Asian settler colonialism. Also, read up on Okinawa, global indigenous activism, and Japan’s militarization.

*I use “Native Hawaiian” in this post to refer to the indigenous people of Hawaii. The contributors utilize Native Hawaiian, Hawaiian, and Kanaka Maoli at various points, for reasons many of them explain in text or in their notes. As a non-indigenous person with no ties to Hawaii, I felt “Native Hawaiian” was the most appropriate term for me to use because it acknowledges their unique status as indigenous people, which might not be as clear (to non-indigenous readers) if I simply used “Hawaiian,” while avoiding what seems like a presumptive use of their language as an outsider if I wrote “Kanaka Maoli.” Considering the diverse terminology in the book, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on the most widely accepted term to use as an outsider/settler, so I have based my decision off of my personal background only.

**To clarify, I’m not critiquing the structure of the book. Fujikane clearly explains the reasoning behind the division in the introduction and it makes perfect sense to me.

***In the paperback edition, they are located after the final essay.