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!