Book Spotlight: A Jar of Dreams – Yoshiko Uchida

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

A Jar of Dreams follows the experiences of Rinko Tsujimura and her family as they struggle to make a living while fighting anti-Japanese racism in Depression-era California.

What I liked:

  • I first encountered Uchida’s books in middle school (as far as I remember) and as I was reading, memories I hadn’t considered in years came rushing back. In middle school, I spent a lot of time in the library during lunch and recess (wow, do they still call it recess?). I was mostly reading Robert Jordan, David Gemmell, and Dragonlance in those days, but I remember walking slowly along this one shelf, looking for books by Japanese authors. From what I can recall, the only ones I found were Uchida’s Rinko series and Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori, neither of which really stood a chance against the likes of Tenaka Khan and Raistlin. In retrospect, I wonder if this experience was what prevented me from seeking out more JA/Nikkei authors until college. I’m so glad I decided to pick up Uchida’s books again. A huge thank-you to my fellow JA/Nikkei writers for all the articles and blog posts they created on camp history, which was really what drew me back into JA/Nikkei literature so many years later.
  • THAT TAKUAN REFERENCE! I definitely know I’m reading a Japanese author.
  • When I started the first chapter, I wasn’t immediately certain whether the characters were speaking Japanese or English. Most of the other JA/Nikkei historical fiction I’ve read features characters who don’t speak or understand much Japanese, so it was super gratifying when I realized they were speaking Japanese for the most part. I especially appreciate how Uchida writes as if taking this for granted, i.e. the scene where Rinko realizes Aunt Waka can speak English.
  • So many layers and facets of Japanese/JA/Nikkei history are addressed in the text, with varying levels of detail, from the Japanese newspaper on the kitchen table at the very beginning, to references to Aunt Waka’s English education, to Kanda’s bachelor life in the Japanese church dormitory. The immersive feel of an insider perspective on our histories and communities reminded me so much of my own experiences and what I’ve heard from family members.
  • A ‘jar of dreams’ is a lovely concept. I immediately thought of a jar of fireflies – even though Rinko’s jar has money in it – and from there thought of the various images associated with Japanese summer culture, especially events involving family. I wonder what inspired Uchida to use this term and I’d also like to know what fellow JA/Nikkei readers thought of when they read it.

What I learned:

  • I’ve been reading bits and pieces of pre-war JA/Nikkei history, but I think the only work of notable length I’ve read on this era is Between Two Empires. I’ll have to review my TBR to see what else I’ve got on there. I don’t recall if Azuma addressed this in his book, but I wonder how many (if any) Japanese Americans returned to Japan during the Depression. I know some JAs returned to Japan for various reasons over the years, but was there a ‘mass exodus’-type movement at any point other than when many returned because of the war?

Questions I had:

  • At what age do other JA/Nikkei readers tend to encounter Uchida’s work and that of other historical/canon Japanese American authors? I wonder how many of us have shared the experience of finding these books super boring the first time around, but being very happy to return to them later. I also wonder in what sort of context other JA/Nikkei readers encounter our community’s literature. My mom pretty much only reads books in Japanese and I’ve never thought to ask my dad if he ever read JA/Nikkei authors because I never saw any of their books at home, so I had zero background information when I first came across names like Uchida and Mori. I wonder if JA kids growing up in heavily JA-influenced areas like Little Tokyo or those whose families are heavily involved in the community via Buddhist temples, Obon, etc., might have heard of these authors before ever picking up their books. I never really talked to anyone besides family and friends when I danced in Obon, but something tells me the name Yoshiko Uchida would not be unfamiliar to some of my fellow participants.
  • Based on the cover artist’s name and the age of the book, I’m assuming they are a white person. I don’t really expect better of books from so long ago, but considering Uchida’s work is relevant to today’s readers (and continues to be available via major retailers like Amazon), it would be nice to see new editions with covers by JA/Asian/POC artists. Did other JA/Nikkei readers feel like Rinko and Aunt Waka don’t exactly look like actual Asians? I can tell they are meant to be Asian, especially in contrast to the white characters in the background (I read a paperback edition; see my twitter for a photo of the cover), but to me they seem to represent a white/non-Asian person’s attempt to depict Asians, rather than being a recognizable image of actual Asians. In fact, the most visually similar representation of “Asians” I can recall is some depictions of Asian characters by non-Asian artists in Marvel/DC comics. Put another way, Rinko and Waka’s facial features make me think of white people dressed as Asians, or those terrible films featuring yellowface. I remember being puzzled by these depictions when I first read the Rinko series, but since I was also regularly exposed to media from Japan, I simply expected the ‘white American’ style of representing Asians to be somewhat off from the reality and didn’t consider it worth holding to the same standard.
  • A quick search indicates Uchida passed in 1992. Did she imagine or hope her books would remain in circulation more than twenty years later? If she knew how widely known she is today, what would she say? What advice would she have for today’s JA/Nikkei writers? Did she have any hopes for or concerns about the future of JA/Nikkei literature?
  • When Waka reminds Rinko to know she is always Japanese, even if she never wears a kimono again, I realized this particular conversation isn’t one I see very much during conversations about identity in Nikkei/diaspora/Asian American spaces. Rather, there seems to be a focus on diaspora Asians building community with each other through shared experiences or later generations expanding/reevaluating their identities when in conversation with earlier generations, i.e. second-gen child discussing family history with first-gen parent. This is not a critique of ongoing dialogues in diaspora Asian spaces, but rather an exploration of how to conceptualize the spaces inhabited by people like Waka. To put it specifically in JA/Nikkei terms, Rinko’s mother is obviously Issei, but I doubt any of us would use Issei to describe Waka because she isn’t an immigrant.* In my personal experience, visits from relatives like Waka, as well as being able to visit Japan, played a significant role in shaping my understanding of what it means to be Japanese, and I would love to hear thoughts on this topic from fellow JA/Nikkei with similar connections to Japan. I also wonder whether it is more or less common for families to visit each other internationally today than it was in Rinko’s time. On one hand, many families who are now at the Sansei, Yonsei, Gosei, etc., stage would (theoretically, assuming they stayed in contact) have had much closer ties to Japan in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century than they might have now, especially if connections were lost during the war; conversely, with today’s technological advancements and (relative/selective) ease of access via study abroad, overseas job recruitment, etc., even children can make the international journey. This is obviously a very simplified comparison – I hope some Japanese or Nikkei scholar has written a book on the topic.
  • Rinko draws a distinction between her ‘American’ and ‘Japanese’ parts. Although I wouldn’t expect otherwise from a child narrator, it would be nice if, along with a Nikkei/POC-illustrated cover, the publisher could update some of the text to be more inclusive, or maybe a JA/Nikkei author could be commissioned to write a foreword or afterword addressing aspects of the original text which have not “aged” well, per se. This is, of course, linked to an ongoing problem in US publishing and in US mainstream culture in general – the assumption of ‘American’ as white by default. In this particular case, the Tsujimura family (perhaps not unexpectedly) seems to uncritically endorse ‘American Dream’ rhetoric, which erases their role and the overall role of nonwhite people in perpetuating settler colonialism in the so-called US. Examples include some of their key ‘victories’ in the story, such as the establishment of the home laundry and the repair garage. To any JA/Nikkei reading this and getting angry at me, pointing out this aspect of the book does not undermine the difficulties and obstacles endured by our community and other nonwhite people in the US. I’m not trying to diminish our history or disrespect our ancestors – my own grandfather ran a laundry in my hometown after being released from Topaz. That said, it would be dishonest and disrespectful to our community’s values (at least as I understand them), if we fail to acknowledge our past and current roles in upholding settler colonialism and if we do not actively engage in decolonization work with both indigenous and settler communities.
  • To further clarify, I am not (necessarily) critiquing Uchida for the pro-settler representation discussed above. I have no way to confirm her beliefs regarding indigenous peoples – all I can really say is, nowhere does the text challenge the ‘right’ of Japanese and other nonwhite people to pursue the ‘American Dream,’ and because of this lack of a counter-narrative, I feel it is the responsibility of the non-indigenous reader to raise these questions.

Follow-up:

  • I think I’ll read The Best Bad Thing next – or at least, the next time I’m in the mood for another JA historical novel. When I was younger, I could read my way through an entire series without stopping, but these days, I find I have to break it up by reading a book or two by a different author in between. Sometimes I really do wonder what happened to my attention span…

For anyone who may have been following Book Spotlight and thinks I am singling out Uchida, I am not. Just like many of you, I’m learning as I go, meaning that over time, my posts will contain more nuanced discussions of how Nikkei books approach decolonization and other social justice topics. If I were to rewrite some of my older posts, I would doubtless have much more to say about how other JA/Nikkei authors have endorsed/opposed/questioned the relationship between ‘Japanese American’ identity and settler colonialism. This blog and Book Spotlight as a series were never meant to be static, consistent representations of a particular way of thinking. If you are looking for JA/Nikkei who have more of their shit together, I recommend checking out some of the people on my JA Reading List. Happy reading!

*I suspect this situation isn’t more widely discussed in general diaspora Asian spaces because not every diaspora Asian family maintains ties to relatives in the cultural/ethnic homeland. I’m not sure if it’s accurate to label this as a kind of privilege – I think it can be a privilege or a means of oppression depending on the situation, much like fluency in non-English languages can be for people in English-dominant countries – but nevertheless, it isn’t something which can be discussed without, I imagine, making large groups of people feel excluded or less-than.