Book Spotlight: Fish for Jimmy – Katie Yamasaki

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In Fish for Jimmy, written and illustrated by Katie Yamasaki, brothers Taro and Jimmy adjust to the realities of life in a US concentration camp by finding ways to maintain their identities and core values as a Japanese family.

What I liked:

  • Katie Yamasaki’s art is beautiful! It’s unusual for me to read books immediately after purchase, but as soon as I saw the cover, I knew I had to read it that night. Her color choices and soft-edged illustrations feel equally appropriate for Japanese (both 日本人 and 日系人) and non-Japanese audiences. I’d be interested in knowing who/what her artistic influences are. At times, her style reminded me of certain books from my childhood and I thought how cool it would be if she grew up with those same books, or similar ones. As I’m sure fellow JA/Nikkei with close ties to family in Japan can attest, there’s something so special and magical about those childhood books, toys, videos, clothes, etc. which your relatives would send or bring to you when they visited. I remember waiting anxiously for the お荷物 to show up whenever my mom got off the phone with one aunt or other and said it was on its way. Anyway, I digress…
  • I really, really appreciate how Yamasaki depicted the Japanese characters. They all look Japanese, but not “Japanese” or “Asian” or “Oriental” or “white-but-added-dark-hair-and-small-eyes-because-that-equals Asian” which I see from so many white artists. Yamasaki’s characters look Japanese in a way which feels like home. I enjoyed the story too, but for me, her art is definitely the highlight.
  • Did any fellow JA/Nikkei start wondering if たい焼き would be referenced anywhere in the story after seeing the repeated fish motif? I couldn’t imagine what the connection could be to the camps – I don’t know when these types of Japanese sweets made it to the US but I’ve never seen any mention of them in war-era JA/Nikkei writing (according to J-wiki, they date from the Meiji era, so they did exist by this time, at least) – but I was super excited for a few pages before realizing the fish meant something else.
  • On a related note, the small illustration of the place setting on the title page is quite possibly one of my favorites in the book. The bowl of rice and the way the salmon looks on the plate – wow, it was like looking at one of my mom’s dinners. She uses different vegetables so those threw me off for a second, but our community isn’t a monolith by any means. Also, I wondered briefly if the vegetables were sort of an allusion to the USian food served in the camps (in retrospect, I doubt this is the case). At any rate, the placement of this illustration, right at the front of the book, was like a “welcome home” signal to me and definitely shaped my overall experience of the book as a familiar, homecoming-type space of engagement. (See how much difference one small illustration can make? This is why it’s important for #ownvoices artists to illustrate culturally specific stories.)
  • The double-page illustration depicting the family at dinner and the FBI at the door was so striking, thanks to Yamasaki’s use of steam from the tea as a visual transition from inside to outside. Not only was the depiction of evening tea itself a very Japanese moment, but I also interpreted Yamasaki’s choice of steam/smoke as an allusion to multiple major events in Japanese/Nikkei history. Interestingly, the first thing I thought of was the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, which in retrospect I wondered about because it is not directly part of the story. I also thought of photographs showing smoke rising from bombed US ships at Pearl Harbor, which seems rather more fitting because this is also the historical moment captured in the illustration. It would be cool to read a Nikkei writer interviewing Yamasaki about the imagery selected for this book and whether she envisioned particular interpretations or emotions on the part of the audience.
  • I’m not sure whose decision it was to use “Japanese” instead of “Japanese American” to describe the people targeted by EO9066. I think the use of “Japanese” has both potentially positive and negative effects in this case, but overall I found it refreshing. Historically (and sometimes presently), the conflation of Japanese (I mean 日本人) and JA/Nikkei has been largely harmful to Nikkei communities, with the camps themselves being a glaring example. I would always encourage everyone to remember 日本人 and 日系人 are not the same – nor is each group monolithic within itself. That said, in this particular case (and this is an extremely subjective opinion), I felt the use of “Japanese” rather than “Japanese American” worked well for the message I think Yamasaki wanted to convey. For one thing, I’ve often felt “Japanese American” is not necessarily a good fit to reflect the diverse identities of Japanese people who were put into camps. In particular, I think of the Issei, including my own grandfather, and how ambivalent (or even opposed) they may have felt about adopting any kind of “Japanese American” identity. I also think of how often, especially in recent discussions about media representation, the voices of JA/Nikkei are dismissed as not being “real Japanese.” By normalizing the interchangeability of “Japanese” and “Japanese American” in English where appropriate, I think English-speaking JA/Nikkei can begin to effectively write back against this false “authenticity” metric.

What I learned:

  • I honestly thought Taro sneaking out of camp in the middle of the night was a fanciful, child-friendly addition on Yamasaki’s part until I read the author’s note at the end. Maybe I need to pay closer attention, but I don’t recall hearing much about JAs successfully sneaking out in the other camp literature (both fiction and nonfiction) I’ve read. BADASS. But seriously, was this common? Who was sneaking out and why? How did other camp inmates* react?

Questions I had:

  • Why did Yamasaki choose not to specify the camp name? According to the author’s note, it appears her family was incarcerated at Granada. I suppose it’s a case of equally valid arguments – on one hand, not specifying the camp might help young readers understand there were multiple camps across the US and JA incarceration was not an isolated or small-scale event. On the flip side, if the readers are not already familiar with the historical context, or, in the case of children, if someone is not there to provide further explanation, this lack of specificity might make the events of the story feel less “real.” Hopefully the direct mention of the bombing of Pearl Harbor (and a kid-accessible geographical identifier, Hawaii) as well as Yamasaki’s renderings of the “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry” signs will prevent young readers from thinking this is a made-up story. To clarify, I’m not critiquing Yamasaki’s choices (though if her editorial team pushed for a lack of specificity, it might be a different story). I like to highlight these moments in the JA/Nikkei works I read because I imagine they are some of the most useful jumping-off points to facilitate intracommunity discussions about how we represent our histories.
  • I need to speak to the person who decided to go with “Taro” and not “Tarō” because even though I read it in Japanese in my head, just seeing it on the page kept jolting me out of the story’s flow. Come on people, ろ versus ろう! That said, I wonder if JA/Nikkei who do not speak Japanese have a different opinion. I’m not sure who Yamasaki’s primary audience is, but it’s also possible this was a conscious choice made on behalf of an imagined non-Japanese-speaking readership. Does Yamasaki speak Japanese?

Follow-up:

  • As far as I know, this is Yamasaki’s only solo book, but I’ll be looking forward to her next one!
  • Total tangent, but I’ve been mildly obsessed with the articles I read (on Discover Nikkei?) about samurai swords being forged in the camps (and also in the JA community before the war? I can’t recall), and I would love, love, love to see Yamasaki write and illustrate a picture book on this topic. Considering how “samurai” and “katana” and other related aspects of Japanese culture are misunderstood, misused, and misrepresented by non-Japanese creators and consumers in the US (yes, this includes non-Japanese POC), I strongly feel a Japanese/Nikkei team should own all aspects of any project on this topic and I think Yamasaki’s storytelling and artistic styles would make her a great candidate. Hmm, I suddenly thought of Usagi Yojimbo and now I wonder if Stan Sakai would also be a good choice for this project…I need to read Usagi Yojimbo…

*I’m still uncertain about the use of prison terminology in relation to the camps because of the contemporary discourse on mass incarceration and its direct repercussions for visibly Black and Brown bodies, but I haven’t yet read about or come up with a set of satisfactory alternatives.