Book Spotlight: I Am an American – Brandon Shimoda

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

“I Am an American” is an essay contemplating the place of incarceration in the lives of past, present, and future Japanese Americans through an analysis of the Gambatte! photo exhibition at the Tucson Desert Art Museum.

What I liked:

  • As any followers of Book Spotlight know, I don’t generally discuss essays or shorter pieces on here, but Brandon’s essay was so thought-provoking I thought I’d give it a shot. Also, he’s a terrific writer and I always think it’s a good idea to study my role models.
  • If it seems like this section should be longer, well, I basically liked the entire essay – in the following sections, I’ve discussed in more detail the points I found especially interesting.

What I learned:

  • I’ve been reading various discussions of gaman and shikata ga nai in Nikkei/camp literature and while I don’t disagree with what I’ve read, I think I finally understand why I felt kind of detached from these topics. I learned these terms like I learned the majority of my Japanese – from my Shin-Issei mom, so they were just words to me for a long time. My dad’s side of the family endured incarceration, but my dad doesn’t speak Japanese, so these words never came up in conversation. Anyway, all of that to say, it’s fascinating to me to think about how our individual (diaspora) experiences with language can so meaningfully shape our understandings of what it means to be Japanese. I’m also interested in Brandon’s specific point – how the use of these particular Japanese words in the particular context of the camps and war history has determined the (partial?) shape of Japanese-ness in the US. I wonder if he has thoughts on the endurance (either independent of or connected to specific words) of Japanese people in the face of US military/government power in a transnational context…and yes, I’m once again heading toward Hashimoto’s The Long Defeat. To also pull in a thread from one of the ongoing discussions in Book Twitter, I feel this is somewhat of a sticking point, at least in the context of Japanese/Nikkei communities, in the argument, “diaspora is separate from non-diaspora.” Obviously, they are not the same, and nor does Twitter allow for nuance, but specifically in a Japanese context, I often think our existence and experiences as diaspora are in fact much more connected to Japan than some narratives might seem to indicate, not least because of the now-global popularity of Japanese pop culture and what it means to exist outside Japan as a Japanese person in the context of said culture. Then again, I might simply be inferring from my own experiences without sufficient context – I have a lot more reading to do.

Questions I had:

  • Who is Kitagaki’s intended audience? It seems he wants to memorialize Japanese Americans and incarceration in a respectful, enduring way, but does he wish to do so primarily for our community? I especially wonder what he expects Black audiences will think when they see the blackface photograph – or did he not imagine any Black people (including people of Black and Japanese descent) would view the exhibit? I am not suggesting the photograph necessarily be removed, since, as Brandon points out, the image testifies to, “the perverse psychosis that is settler colonialism,” which I believe our community absolutely needs to keep in mind and actively resist. However, whereas I feel Brandon’s essay is written in a way which makes room for Black readers to consider and respond to his discussion of antiblackness in the Japanese American community (if any Black people read this, please let me know if you think otherwise), I’m not sure the exhibit itself offers this space. I never viewed the actual exhibit, so I can’t be sure, but based on Brandon’s description of how the photograph was displayed, it doesn’t sound as if the blackface is being explicitly challenged or condemned. Although I don’t wish to erase the feelings of the relatives of those pictured, I believe our community can and needs to find ways to call out blackface and other instances of antiblackness without disrespecting the memories and experiences of our families.

Follow-up:

  • I looked up Paul Kitagaki’s website after reading the essay, which answered one of my original questions – he apparently did come up with the overall concept of the exhibit. My immediate thought when Brandon wrote of the blackface photograph, “It is probably not the moment Kitagaki imagined as the keystone,” was whether Kitagaki or someone else chose to include that particular moment from history and what this selection implied about the person behind it. I don’t know how the photographs were arranged in the space or if there was an intended centerpiece, but I feel the inclusion of the blackface photograph, as well as Brandon’s commentary on it, raises the question of what has been the focal point of camp memorialization for Japanese Americans (if indeed such a point can be identified – I don’t feel I know enough right now to make this determination). In this particular case, I also wonder why Brandon suggests this photograph was not Kitagaki’s intended keystone (oddly, I thought of Keystone, South Dakota – I suppose settler colonialism was/is on my mind) – does he know Kitagaki well enough that this is a personal observation? Kitagaki is quoted in the essay – perhaps Brandon’s statement arises from remarks Kitagaki made during the interview/whatever source material Brandon drew quotes from? Or is it an inference drawn from his broader studies of incarceration, a commentary on how antiblackness, model minority, settler colonialism, and a host of other essential issues are (often?) not discussed, much less directly addressed, by the larger Japanese American community. Or it could be something else altogether. If Kitagaki has read this essay, I wonder what he thought.
  • According to Kitagaki’s website (not sure how updated it is), he is hoping to publish a book containing the exhibit photographs. I hope he succeeds. I would be interested in reading any accompanying text.