Book Spotlight: Journey Home – Yoshiko Uchida

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

In Journey Home, Yuki Sakane and her family have finally returned to California after being incarcerated at Topaz, where they struggle to rebuild their lives in the face of anti-Japanese bigotry and the troubled war memories of their oldest son, Ken.

What I liked:

  • I think I do like Yuki better now, after this second book. I’m starting to think the only reason I wasn’t such a fan of her before is because Journey to Topaz was (understandably) kind of depressing. Maybe I need to work on separating my opinion of a character from my opinion of their experiences.
  • Uncle Oka!!! Also, Grandma Kurihara!!! They both have what I think is the most realistic perspective on racism and what it means to be Japanese in the US of all the characters in the book, though I think Ken also understands this, especially after returning from the war. Interestingly, Uchida’s writing reflects a tension (maybe intentional?) between the (admittedly problematic) strong desire (and expectation?) of many JA/Nikkei to be seen as “American,” vis a vis characters like Yuki, and the more complicated motives of characters like Uncle Oka, Grandma Kurihara, and possibly Ken, who have varied perspectives on the US but are willing to do whatever is needed to protect those they care about. To me, this notion of self-sacrifice no matter the cost is a fascinating point of comparison between JA/Nikkei and 日本人 because it definitely exists among both groups. As I write this, I’m also thinking I’d love to read a Japanese/Nikkei-written comparative study of postwar rebuilding in JA/Nikkei and Japanese communities, perhaps organized around topics such as the camps and Hiroshima/Nagasaki. How much of our contemporary understandings (conscious or not) of what it means to be Japanese can be traced back to this era and what has been the role of the Shin-Nikkei generation(s) in terms of blurring/(re)defining transnational Japanese-ness? Also, what is the reverse of Shin-Nikkei – in other words, is there a term for Nikkei who returned to Japan after the war and is it distinct from the current (millennial might be too limiting a term) generations of Nikkei who move to Japan for education or employment? Shin-Kibei? I need to look into this…

What I learned:

  • I remember once doing some kind of research project on PTSD, but it was way back in middle or high school. Anyway, reading about Ken has reminded me to look into the experiences of returning Japanese American soldiers, as well as the (contrasting?) experiences of eligible JA men who chose not to enlist. How did losing so many young men affect larger JA communities? Is there any Nikkei-written literature on the intergenerational/long-term trauma or other psychological effects in their families, as distinct from the traumas experienced by families who endured the camps but not the loss of a family member to war?
  • On a related note, I didn’t expect Grandpa Kurihara’s body to be brought back to California for reburial. Was this a common practice? I know there is still a cemetery at Manzanar, for example. Were the majority of people who died in the camps reburied near where their surviving family members lived after the war? Lastly, I wonder if any kind of Obon or other ceremony honoring the dead has ever been held at the camps by their descendants or by JA organizations. I suppose this would take a great deal of planning – I understand the facilities at Manzanar to be fairly robust in comparison to other camps, but it would still be quite an undertaking to organize Obon there based on what I saw during my visit.

Questions I had:

  • Did Uchida have an older brother? I notice both Rinko and Yuki have older brothers to whom they feel very close. I remember really wanting an older brother when I was a kid (this has since diminished somewhat after hearing stories from friends with older brothers) and the MC of my first novel-length story had an extremely close relationship with her older brother, so it’s kind of fun to think maybe Uchida wrote Cal and Ken out of a similar idealized desire. Tangentially, it also made me think of the older brother/younger sister relationships in some of the manga I read, as well as the surrogate sibling role sometimes assumed by older children in a community on behalf of younger children. I don’t know if this particular form of intracommunity support made it across the ocean, since I’m not actively involved in majority-JA/Nikkei community spaces, but it’s something interesting to consider. Also, now that I think of it, I want to look into how Japanese communities have treated children over time. I wonder if western/white notions about “nuclear” families (um, I just realized this is an extremely loaded term to apply to Japanese culture, holy shit) in the postwar era were more or less influential in shaping contemporary Japanese notions of family than preexisting practices and beliefs.

Follow-up:

  • Uchida’s adult novel, Picture Bride, is sitting in my TBR somewhere, so I will probably read it eventually. For now, though, I’m taking a break to read some other Nikkei authors!

Book Spotlight: The Best Bad Thing – Yoshiko Uchida

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

In The Best Bad Thing, Rinko spends a month helping out at Auntie Hata’s cucumber farm, where she learns how to celebrate the good in a seemingly bad situation.

What I liked:

  • So, I definitely know I read this book multiple times while I was in middle school, but as I was reading it this time, I had zero recollection of the characters or plot or anything. It still felt very familiar, but I suspect this has more to do with how Uchida’s portrayal of everyday JA life reflects many of the stories I’ve heard from my family.
  • The moment where Rinko compares her facial features to Zenny’s really resonated with me, probably because I’ve heard so many non-Asians (especially white people) say, ‘all Asians look the same to me.’ I don’t know if Uchida included this scene for similar reasons, but I thought it was a beautifully concise encapsulation of the diversity of Japanese features.
  • I will never stop appreciating how Uchida calls white people white in the text instead of “Caucasian” or “American.”
  • I’m not sure if this is deliberate on Uchida’s part, but the way she constructs sentences and interjects character names in the text reminds me strongly of how I find myself writing when my characters are actually speaking Japanese but I’m translating their words into English as I go.
  • Uchida depicts the Berkeley JA community as fairly close-knit, with a strong support network and a focus on the Japanese church. I didn’t grow up around this kind of JA community, but I know my grandmother was active in the Japanese church and I wonder if this kind of representation of community would resonate with my older JA relatives. Has any JA/Nikkei writer examined the history of JA networks – especially the influences of churches, temples, Japanese schools, and J-towns – and how these networks have evolved over time? I would be especially interested in knowing if the arrival of the Shin-Nikkei generation had any significant impact on existing JA networks.

What I learned:

  • Until I read about Cal working in an Alaskan cannery over the summer, I didn’t know many Japanese laborers ever made it that far north. I wonder if any JA/Nikkei scholar has written a book about this…I would be especially interested in any close study of how the influx (if such it was) of Japanese labor affected economic conditions for the local indigenous populations.

Questions I had:

  • I’ve been thinking a lot about how concepts of ‘masculinity’ manifest in Japanese culture – probably another side effect of all those Shinsengumi manga – and after reading about Yamanaka Mankichi, I started to wonder if any Japanese/Nikkei scholar has examined the changing concept of ‘masculinity’ as linked to samurai culture and bushido, in the context of the bakumatsu/transition to Meiji, Japanese militarization and imperialism, and eventual defeat in the war. I don’t mean this strictly in regards to men, either, but rather how strong beliefs about war, honor, and defeat, among other things, were impacted by ongoing historical events and what this meant for Japanese people in both Japan and the US (and other places). This might be my JA/Nikkei bias showing, but I would also consider such a study incomplete without an examination of the othering (via racism, exotification, feminization, etc.) of Japanese bodies in the US and other white-dominant locations of Nikkei communities.* In particular, I wonder what it meant for JA/Nikkei (not just men) invested in a specific vision of Japanese ‘masculinity,’ to watch as the cultural roots of their vision underwent massive upheaval after Japan’s defeat…and how all of this connects to present-day USian/western/non-Japanese stereotypes and ignorant representations of Japan (especially re: samurai culture). Personally, I would be quite interested in a study conceptualizing the bakumatsu/early Meiji as another time of significant readjustments in Japanese thinking re: masculinity, taking into account factors such as the ongoing tension between “western” weapons (i.e. guns – putting aside for the moment how gunpowder is an Asian invention and focusing rather on how guns and other weapons were utilized by white militaries to further Euro/US imperialisms) versus Japanese weapons and what kinds of ideologies were espoused or assumed to be espoused by those who used each type of weapon, defeat of the pro-shogun forces and what this signified for the ways of living and thinking that predominated under the feudal system, and the increased flow of Euro/US products and culture into the everyday lives of Japanese people. Obviously, it is an oversimplification to do a mere either/or analysis here, but I definitely think this era bears examination in any long-ranging study of ‘masculinity’ in Japanese culture. Also, see: patriarchy in contemporary Japanese/Nikkei cultures.
  • Uchida seems very aware of both prominent and underlying issues in the JA community, judging by her work, but what is her stance on settler colonialism and the relationship between JA communities and indigenous peoples? I have raised this question in regards to her work before, but not having found any kind of resolution in what I’ve read since then, I will continue to ask it. A consistent theme in her books seems to be (re)affirming the ‘American-ness’ of Japanese Americans/Nikkei, which I can understand in the context of writing against the camps and racism and the many other ways USian systems oppress Japanese people, but I have yet to see any acknowledgment of how JA/Nikkei themselves participate in the ongoing project of US imperialism with regard to occupying indigenous lands. Based on subplots like the old man’s story, it’s clear Uchida understands the circumstances which caused many Japanese people to leave Japan in search of a better life in other places, but I believe it is possible to respect the struggles of these ancestors while acknowledging they benefited from the displacement, genocide, and oppression of indigenous populations in their adopted ‘homelands.’

Follow-up:

  • Ha…so I started reading Journey Home the same day I finished this book, thinking it was a continuation of Rinko’s adventures, and realized it’s actually a sequel to Journey to Topaz, which I read some time ago. I’m a little disappointed because I prefer Rinko to Yuki as a main character and I would have liked to know how Uchida portrayed Rinko enduring the war and camps, but who knows, maybe I’ll like Yuki a little more by the time I’m done. Also, I wonder why Uchida chose to set the Rinko series entirely in the prewar years. I suppose it might not have been her choice, if her agent or publisher refused to take on additional books in the series. Since the war seems to be the demarcation point between the Rinko and Yuki books, I wonder if Uchida deliberately created a different character for each period in order to highlight how conditions for the JA community changed before and after the war. This is all just speculation, though…I should really see if I can find a JA-written biography of Uchida to fill in some of these gaps. I also feel like she has a memoir or something…?

*I know there is some scholarship on how concepts of ‘masculinity’ shape the experiences of Asian men existing in western/non-Asian spaces, but I have not come across anything with a specific focus on the topics I discuss here.