Book Spotlight: The Long Afterlife of Nikkei Wartime Incarceration – Karen Inouye

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

In The Long Afterlife of Nikkei Wartime Incarceration, Inouye examines how formerly incarcerated/interned Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians and their descendants have simultaneously constructed and responded to what she conceptualizes as the “afterlife” of US and Canadian wartime concentration camps.

What I liked:

  • I suppose this is the type of book people think of when they use the term “interdisciplinary” in academia. Either that, or I’m just projecting my own assumptions based on my experience of reading the book, which was not exactly what I expected. The first two chapters were very, very difficult to get through – initially, I felt like Inouye’s sentences were long and wordy, and I kept wondering why none of her draft readers or editors told her to be more concise. By the end of the book, either I was accustomed to her writing style or I started to like it – I’m still not sure which – but regardless, I was able to read more quickly and fluidly from chapter three onward. Anyway, I bring all this up because I started to wonder if Inouye’s writing style is a mark of the nature of the book – specifically, as someone who is most accustomed to reading history books, I wondered if her writing style is more standard for other academic disciplines, such as sociology. Since I did feel by the end that her writing style worked well for the information she was trying to convey, I’ll do my best not to let my initial reaction unduly influence my other impressions of the book. (I realize this doesn’t really fit the category “What I liked” but it seemed important to put it at the beginning of the post.)
  • Mary Kitagawa is a hero! Like, seriously, holy shit. Also, I had no idea the redress movements in the US and Canada were so different. I would say, wtf is wrong with the Canadian government, but considering all the critiques I’ve been reading by indigenous/First Nations activists on Twitter, I guess most of us have a pretty good idea by this point. On a side note, I really need to read a manga about Kitagawa. What an awesome potential project for a kickass Japanese/Nikkei team to tackle!
  • Inouye’s analysis of Tamotsu Shibutani is so interesting. I can’t tell if she’s saying, in fancy academic language, basically, look how badass he was by Japanese standards, but that was the feeling I came away with. Also, I’d like to see more Nikkei scholars analyzing their predecessors’ scholarship through the lens of how-do-their-books-reflect-their-individual-growth-over-time. I’ve seen some discussion of this type of analysis in fiction circles, but not so much in academia (except for maybe the careers of several prominent Black scholars?), and I think such analyses could be useful to both scholars and non-academic readers with an interest in the intersections of activism and higher ed. In general, I would like to read more biographies and/or memoirs on the lives of POC scholars, especially the ones whose work can be interpreted (directly or indirectly) as a response to their personal experiences with race. As I’ve stated elsewhere on this blog, having an advanced degree does not prevent someone’s personal biases from influencing their work, no matter how removed from ‘the real world’ it may seem, and while it can be very insightful to read POC scholarship, we should remember the people who created it are human and participate in/are subject to the same power systems as the rest of us.

What I learned:

  • Ok, embarrassing confession time: I basically didn’t know anything about Warren Furutani before reading this book. He was one of the speakers at the 2017 Manzanar Pilgrimage, and I think if I’d known more about him at the time, I would have stayed to listen to his speech instead of walking off to look around the site (read my post on Manzanar here). I appreciated Inouye’s discussion of his work in the broader context of JA activist history and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more books about him.

Questions I had:

  • I’d seen the term “mass incarceration” used in reference to the camps a few times before reading this book, and certainly the term “incarcerated” as a verb to describe, more accurately than “interned,” the experiences of Nikkei communities during the war, and also the term “mass imprisonment” as a replacement for “internment.” Since my only other major exposure to the concept of “mass incarceration” has been from reading The New Jim Crow and following prison abolitionists (mainly Black people) online, I did wonder once or twice if we as Nikkei should either be more specific in our use of terms like “mass incarceration,” or perhaps find a different term altogether. I think when most USians (especially POC) consider the idea of mass incarceration, they relate it most immediately to the school-to-prison pipeline and other institutional systems specifically targeted at Black (and brown/dark-skinned) bodies. Although anti-Blackness in the US is certainly integral to upholding the racism which justified putting Japanese Americans into camps, it didn’t and doesn’t affect our community in the same way it affects visibly Black and (darker-skinned) Brown people.* Since there already exists a history of non-Black POC, including non-Black Asians, co-opting the labor of Black people in social justice movements, at the very least I think it would be useful for the Nikkei community to publicly differentiate its use of “mass incarceration” in the specific context of the camps from how it is used by other POC. If our community decides to move away from the use of “mass incarceration” altogether, I personally would support the use of a new term over returning to “internment,” since the way “internment” has been utilized by white/USian institutions tends to euphemize and downplay the extent of Nikkei camp experiences and the resulting historical/intergenerational trauma. I suspect this discussion is going to become more widespread in Nikkei spaces, so I’ll be watching to see what happens.
  • Coincidentally, around the same time I was having these thoughts, I saw Tamara Nopper tweet something very similar expressing her doubts about using “mass incarceration” to refer to the camps. I believe she is Asian, but I’m not sure of her specific background – I don’t believe she is Japanese. At any rate, after seeing her tweet, I started wondering how many non-Japanese POC scholars – especially, perhaps, Black scholars studying mass incarceration – are having similar thoughts, and if any sort of dialogue already exists between them and Nikkei activist/cultural organizations around the use of “mass incarceration.” It seems like the sort of topic Densho or a similar Nikkei outlet would issue a statement on, but I haven’t seen one yet. If any fellow Nikkei know otherwise, please send me a link!

Follow-up:

  • This is completely tangential, but while I was reading the last few chapters of the book, I came across two things online which, combined with Inouye’s discussion of Canadian redress and Kitagawa’s work on retroactive diplomas, really motivated me to learn more about Canadian Nikkei history. The first was an article on Discover Nikkei (oddly, I saw it there one morning, but when I looked again that evening so I could repost the link to Twitter, it had been taken down) about some Issei graves in Canada. The second was a photo Brandon Shimoda posted on his Twitter, of a Japanese baby’s grave (I think somewhere in Washington?). Both items really got me thinking about how and why certain pieces of history are “forgotten,” deliberately or not, and I realized Canadian Nikkei history has been something of a “forgotten” topic for me, in that while I’m constantly aware of its existence, it tends to hover in the background as I focus on material more directly related to Japanese American and Japanese experiences. The same could be said, of course, of all Nikkei communities and histories outside of North America. I haven’t been able to find much English-language material on, for example, the giant Nikkei community in Brazil, and I’m starting to wonder if I’ll have to study some Portuguese, or if I can get by with Japanese and the small bit of Spanish I remember from school. If any fellow Nikkei have resources to suggest, I welcome your input!!!

*To be clear, I know there are Black members of the Nikkei community as well. I draw this distinction because, as far as I know, there were not a significant number of visibly Black Nikkei sent to the camps (in fact, I have not heard of any, but I would not go on the record with this because I’m sure there were some), and the racism experienced by most Nikkei who were sent to camps was not rooted in being visibly perceived as Black, unlike the racism experienced by Black (and Brown) people most targeted by present-day mass incarceration.