Book Spotlight: The Stonekeeper – Kazu Kibuishi

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

The Stonekeeper, written and illustrated by Kazu Kibuishi, is the first in the Amulet graphic novel series and introduces us to Emily, a girl with the ability to wield a mysterious, powerful stone gifted to her by her great-grandfather.

Note: As of the writing of this post, I’ve read books 1-3 of this series. Instead of writing a post for each book, I’ll probably do a post with continued/wrap-up thoughts after I finish book 7 (latest release).

What I liked:

  • I’m still slightly in shock at how much I liked The Stonekeeper. Honestly, this book/series was on the ‘I’ll get to it when I get to it’ part of my TBR, and I picked it up because the bookstore didn’t have the title I really wanted that day. Now I’m seriously considering sending a copy to a cousin in Japan who loves manga.
  • Kibuishi draws fantastic settings. I’m not a huge fan of his character designs, except for maybe a few of the robots, but I love how he draws backgrounds and Silas’s house. Also, he’s a master of the epic panorama scene. I have a feeling his worldbuilding techniques are influenced by Miyazaki and other manga/anime creators, and I wonder why he didn’t model his characters the same way.* I also wonder how much editorial input he had to accept before the book reached its final form. If he ever publishes a book chronicling his personal artistic journey and the development process behind Amulet, I’ll definitely take a look.
  • SILAS’S HOUSE IS A GIANT ROBOT. HOUSE ROBOT. I didn’t check the dates, but the similarity to Miyazaki’s rendition of Howl’s moving castle (lowercase deliberate) is definitely present. (Or any of a number of characters from his other films – 風の谷のナウシカ or 天空の城ラピュタ anyone?) Kibuishi also hails from the culture which brought the world Gundam and other giant robot delights, so maybe it wasn’t Miyazaki. Either way, details like this from Kibuishi’s worldbuilding felt like small homages to our culture and absolutely made my reading experience more enjoyable.
  • Did any fellow JA/Nikkei readers look at Miskit’s first appearance (in disguise) and immediately see a signature Miyazaki character type and/or possibly also a very common manga/anime reference? I realize I might simply be projecting my very great desire to see US Japanese/Nikkei creators engaging with the awesomeness of our cultural artistic heritage, but I seriously doubt the greats like Miyazaki had zero influence on Kibuishi’s work.

What I learned:

  • This might be the first non-comic, non-manga graphic novel series to really capture my interest, and I credit Kibuishi’s masterful blend of gripping plot and beautiful artwork. I didn’t think I would ever find anything like Amulet outside of manga,** so it was a pleasant surprise to realize how much I was enjoying Kibuishi’s story. Now that I know I can appreciate this medium, I’m excited to look for similar works!

Questions I had:

  • Did Kibuishi ever consider making Emily and her family Asian/POC? From what I’ve read so far, the story would proceed in exactly the same way if Emily happened to be, say, an Asian American girl instead of a white one. Given the popularity of the Amulet series (not that Kibuishi could have predicted it), this would have been a great opportunity to normalize POC representation in US children’s media. I haven’t looked up any interviews with Kibuishi, but I wonder if other Asian/POC readers have asked him the same question.
  • On a related note, why did Kibuishi choose Emily’s dad’s death as the catalyst for their move to Silas’s house? I wonder if Kibuishi wants children who have lost a parent to see themselves in Emily and Navin, or if he had some other reason for constructing the plot this way. To return to my above point, I do think if Kibuishi wants readers to (re)consider what a ‘standard’ family can or should look like, making Emily and her family Asian/POC might have served the double purpose of normalizing single-parent POC households. After all, white people don’t need to be and shouldn’t be the only examples for teaching children about significant family events. I also can’t help thinking of how single-parent households are often stigmatized in Japanese culture, and how meaningful it could be if a high-profile Japanese/Nikkei creator like Kibuishi used his work to challenge this perception.
  • Is Kibuishi’s work available in Japanese? I think Japanese kids would enjoy the Amulet series, if perhaps more for the perceived foreign-ness of it than for the qualities Nikkei kids might notice. For that matter, does Kibuishi envision 日本人 as one of his target audiences?
  • Does Kibuishi identify as Japanese, Japanese American/Nikkei, or something else? From what little I’ve read about him, it sounds like he moved to the US from Japan at a young age. I’m assuming he grew up in a more Japanese than Nikkei household, if his parents are both Japanese. His background interests me because I’d like to know how he feels his personal experiences influence his art and writing. Given the history of colorism and anti-blackness in both Japanese and Nikkei communities, I paid particular attention to how Kibuishi created his fantasy/non-human races. As of now, I haven’t noticed any overt racism or cultural appropriation, and I hope the rest of the series bears this out. Part of me wonders if Kibuishi consciously populated his world with many non-human races to avoid the representational faux pas of works like ATLA. I guess I’ll have to wait and see if any kind of hierarchy emerges among the human, humanoid (like elves), and visually non-human (animals, robots) characters. I just hope we don’t discover white(-coded?) humans like Emily being held up as some kind of ideal race/species.

Follow-up:

  • As will be evident by the time this post goes up, I’ve already purchased the rest of the series through book 7. I’m not sure if book 7 is the final installment…I hope not.

*To be clear, I don’t think there can be any kind of ‘objective’ standard for categorizing manga/anime-style characters as ‘better’ than characters drawn in other styles. I also don’t mean to say Japanese artists should only draw in recognizably manga or anime styles. Instead, I mean my personal aesthetic preferences, as influenced by my background and experiences, tend toward manga/anime-influenced styles as opposed to styles more popularized in the US by white artists. For example, I deeply admire Sana Takeda’s artwork in Monstress, which, though not what I would call manga or anime style, certainly appears to be in dialogue with both.

**The closest thing I’ve read in terms of English-language graphic novels is probably Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. I enjoyed Yang’s work, of course, but the genre, narrative style, and art work were so different, I hesitate to even mention it as a comparison.

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Book Spotlight: Heroes – Ken Mochizuki

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Heroes, written by Ken Mochizuki and illustrated by Dom Lee, follows a day in the life of Donnie Okada as he navigates racism, friendships, and family history to discover the meaning of heroism.

What I liked:

  • I guessed what Donnie’s dad and uncle were going to do as soon as they said they would pick him up from school, but I still cheered inside my head when I flipped the page and saw them standing there. I don’t remember seeing any heroic representations of Japanese people in the non-Japan-sourced media I consumed as a kid. Even though I knew about the 442nd, I heard about them in the context of history, of a piece with the concentration camps, and never saw them valorized in literature or other cultural media. I wonder how much sooner I might have looked into JA/Nikkei history if I’d been introduced to Heroes and similar books as a kid.
  • The combination of underplaying achievements and badass reveals is so Japanese. さすが日本人。I also appreciate Mochizuki making a point to tell us Uncle Yosh never talks about the war or watches war-related television. I suspect most Japanese/Nikkei readers will note the subtle tension there and either take the implicit lesson from it or use it as a starting point for questioning the costs of war, decorated uniforms notwithstanding. I do wonder how many JA/Nikkei readers will follow the line of thinking all the way to discussions about the role of militarism in maintaining US/white hegemony and how utilizing this perspective to reflect on groups like the 442nd might result in conflicted representations of Japanese American history.
  • Dom Lee is an amazing artist! Looking at his hyper-realistic Asian portraits is just like leafing through a family album. Additionally, the detail with which he renders the facial features and body language of characters of different races suggests close observation of real-life scenarios. As I was reading, I found myself thinking, here is an artist who knows how it feels to experience racism and who has thought deeply about the visual aspects of those experiences. I would love to know what kind of references (photos or otherwise) he used to create these illustrations. To me, Donnie and his relatives look specifically Japanese – I can see bits of my own male relatives in their features – as opposed to the vaguely ‘Asian’-looking characters sometimes produced by non-Asian illustrators. Although I think there is a time and place for ‘generally Asian’-looking characters, as drawn by Asians, for a story deeply rooted in Japanese American history like Heroes, I very much appreciate Lee’s efforts to produce Japanese-looking characters. I would gift this book to any of my family members on the strength of the illustrations alone.

What I learned:

  • It sounds like Donnie’s dad owns a gas station. This isn’t exactly a common occupation among contemporary JA/Nikkei and it got me thinking about what other types of occupations Japanese Americans found themselves in after the camps closed. I feel like this could segue into a broader discussion about classism and the significance of one’s socioeconomic status in our community today, but I think I need to do some more reading first. If I recall correctly, a few of the books on my TBR focus on JA/Nikkei experiences in the immediate postwar years, so those might be a good place to start.

Questions I had:

  • Are the sunglasses references deliberate? In my post about another of Mochizuki’s picture books, Baseball Saved Us, I noted the appearance of sunglasses in the text and made some guesses about why they were so prominently featured. It seems funny to me how, in Heroes, we see our ‘heroes’ wearing sunglasses. Mochizuki even goes to the trouble of telling us in the text, through Donnie’s eyes, about their sunglasses, so I wonder if this is his subtle way of saying, ‘maybe the camp guards wore sunglasses back then, but look who wears them now!’
  • In the illustration showing Donnie’s friends leaving the gas station after chasing him there, Lee depicts the white boy turning to look back at Donnie and his dad and uncle, while the Black boy walks away, facing forward. Why did Lee make this compositional choice? I can think of several interpretations, but my favorite is imagining Lee wanted to capture several layers of racial tension as succinctly as possible. At no point does the text indicate Reggie sees any kind of shared racial experience between himself and Donnie. Instead, Reggie is shown as consistently siding with white kids in designating Donnie the ‘enemy’ because of his Asian features. Nevertheless, I like to think Lee drew Reggie facing forward because he accepts, on some level, why it is wrong to conflate Donnie with the ‘enemy’ because of his race, whereas the white boy (whose name, frankly, I don’t recall) is looking back in defiance because he can’t or won’t acknowledge the racism at the root of his actions. Of course, I don’t actually know why Lee composed the illustration this way, but I wonder if other POC/Asian readers, especially kids, will draw the same conclusion I did.

Follow-up:

  • I might read Passage to Freedom, Mochizuki’s third (I think) collaboration with Lee, though if I did, it would probably be mostly to enjoy more of Lee’s illustrations.

Book Spotlight: Jasmine Toguchi, Super Sleuth – Debbi Michiko Florence

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

In Jasmine Toguchi, Super Sleuth, Jasmine must solve several mysteries involving her family and close friends in order to achieve the perfect Hinamatsuri.

What I liked:

  • Jasmine is a super sleuth! As a kid, I was a huge fan of Nancy Drew – it was probably the first series I tackled as an independent reader. Although Jasmine and Nancy are nothing alike, I wonder what effect it would have had on me to see a JA girl as a detective on the page.
  • It was fun to read about Hinamatsuri in a non-didactic context, though Florence does weave explanatory details into the narrative. One of my archived stories features an enormous, over-the-top Hinamatsuri celebration in a secondary world fantasy setting – and I remember writing it because I was trying to think of what could make my story fresh and interesting, and I thought, ‘oh, nobody has written about Hinamatsuri because nobody knows what it is!’ I was past the target audience age for Jasmine Toguchi by then, but I still wonder how I would have felt knowing I wasn’t or wouldn’t be the only JA/Nikkei writer interested in adapting Hinamatsuri for fiction. I do remember looking up some faux-‘Asian’ themed work by white fantasy writers, trying to find a template for the story I wanted to tell, and being discouraged by what was clearly, even to kid-me, a blatant and deeply rooted ignorance of actual Asian cultures and aesthetics. (Ok, now I want to know what would happen if Florence wrote a middle-grade contemporary fantasy featuring JA characters and infused with Japanese culture.)
  • Dress-up is a central part of this book and I loved it. Before I was a reader, I was a dress-up fanatic. I especially loved going to my friends’ houses to play dress-up, though in retrospect I think it was more about the thrill of finding new clothes in their dress-up trunks than actually dressing up…I was kind of picky about wearing other people’s clothes. That said, I’m uncomfortable with how wearing kimono for Hinamatsuri is more or less equated with playing dress-up. I can see how the comparison provides a more understandable context for young readers, but at the same time, I know far too well how it feels to experience the ignorance which results from non-Japanese people’s lifelong exposure to inaccurate representations of Japanese culture. There are ways to contextualize unfamiliar cultural practices for young audiences without utilizing potentially misleading comparisons. The broader argument is beyond the scope of this post, but my fellow JA/Nikkei probably know we would have an easier time navigating US society if more attention was paid to how our culture is represented to outsiders. On a side note, I’m not saying Florence is necessarily writing for outsiders – I have no idea who her priority audience is – but I know just from browsing Twitter that many non-Japanese are already reading the series, and I doubt the dress-up/kimono comparison would be necessary in a book written primarily for Japanese readers.

What I learned:

  • Reading a contemporary JA story like Jasmine Toguchi, which contains almost no historical references, has expanded my approach to Nikkei literature in ways I didn’t anticipate, but do appreciate. Given the long, complicated, and ongoing history between Japan and the US, I wonder what implications this kind of ‘history-less’ literature has for the next generation of JA/Nikkei readers.

Questions I had:

  • Why did Florence use “kimonos” as the plural for kimono? I have seen multiple JA writers do this. In light of pressures to assimilate during the postwar/post-camp years, the historical precedent for this type of wording is obvious. I’m certainly not here to criticize non-Japanese-speaking JA/Nikkei for altering their usage of Japanese to better fit their circumstances; most of us know how it feels to be caught in cultural conflict. I have also seen JA writers who, I’m fairly certain, do know Japanese, romanizing the language in rather unexpected ways. (I’ll leave aside the bilingual Japanese/Nikkei writers whose dominant language is Japanese because their romanization choices, while interesting and related to the discussion at hand, are beyond the scope of this post.) Returning to the point, what are the implications of “kimonos” versus “kimono” and similar instances of Japanese romanization? As I mentioned above in my discussion re: dress-up, I’m interested in how representations of Japanese/Nikkei culture influence outsider perceptions of us. To be blunt, I think a time is coming when Japanese people, both Nihonjin and Nikkei, will need to deeply consider if we’re ok with white/Euro norms continuing to exert significant influence in the evolution of our culture(s). This is not a new idea for some of us, but nor is there what I would call widespread intracommunity awareness. Although Perry and his ‘gunboat diplomacy’ days are long past (for now, who knows with the Turnip in office), most of us know whiteness continues to insinuate itself into our cultural and community spaces in both blatant and subtle ways. One example of a subtle insinuation of whiteness into Japanese spaces is the (incorrect) anglicizing of Japanese words. Of course, it’s not so simple because not all JA/Nikkei are bothered by “kimonos” versus kimono, and some JA/Nikkei who don’t speak Japanese may not even realize this is incorrect. On the flip side, what kind of door does this open to non-Japanese and their already problematic accessorizing of our language? I don’t have the answer, but I think it’s a worthwhile issue for our community to consider as part of our long-term vision for what we want Japanese American-ness and Nikkei-ness to be.
  • If you read my previous post on Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen, you know I wasn’t thrilled with the choice of (white) illustrator for this series. To reiterate, why wasn’t a JA/Nikkei/Asian illustrator hired for this series? (This is not a critique directed at Florence, but rather at her editorial team and publisher.) Young JA/Nikkei readers deserve to see images of themselves through a familiar cultural lens. Given the extremely small number of JA/Nikkei creators currently working in the US children’s literature field, most images of Japanese people readily available to US-based JA/Nikkei will be the work of either Nihonjin or non-Japanese creators. As stated in my previous post, I don’t feel the illustrations in this series provide much of a “mirror” because the characters don’t look particularly Japanese or Asian to me. I realize this may not be true for all JA/Nikkei readers, since such perceptions are largely dependent on individual experiences with visual media. I also don’t mean to imply images of Japanese people as represented in Japanese media should be the sole lens through which JA/Nikkei see ourselves. At the same time, I think JA/Nikkei creators should be given priority in developing new/altered lenses through which we perceive ourselves and our experiences.* (Read the footnote for details.) Funny how non-Japanese consumers seem endlessly interested in JA/Nikkei stories of incarceration or the 442nd, but see very little need for JA/Nikkei participation in defining Japanese-ness in US mass media. Outside of war and camp stories, our primary usefulness is measured by how effectively we can serve as a conduit for non-Japanese consumption of ‘the only’ Japanese pop media, anime and manga. In order for this to change, for us to obtain better treatment by non-Japanese, we need to be the ones defining Japanese-ness in the diaspora, especially when it comes to visual representations of us and our culture.
  • On a rather irrelevant but interesting tangent, I’m given to understand Florence’s illustrator is based in Europe, which, ironically (except not, because I know why), Nihonjin would probably find appealing when seeking talent for some of their own projects.

Follow-up:

  • The third Jasmine Toguchi book isn’t out until 2018, but apparently it features taiko, so I’m looking forward to it!

*My argument for prioritizing JA/Nikkei creators is in no small part influenced by the growing platforms of non-Japanese creators and consumers of anime/manga – in other words, probably the most widely circulated visual representations of Japanese culture in the US – and the highly unpleasant accompanying results, such as the accessorizing of Japanese language and fetishizing of Japanese culture. I’ve also recently noticed a disturbing trend in which non-Japanese fans (and yes, I mean any and all non-Japanese people, not just white people) dominate the discourse on Japanese media/culture in online spaces. Although I would be interested, to an extent, in seeing how non-Japanese POC interpret Japanese media in empowering, community-building ways, much of what I currently see reflects disturbingly white/Eurocentric values, and too often seems to entirely disregard the context in which the actual work under scrutiny was created. I greatly admire much of the decolonizing work currently being done by non-Japanese POC in the US, but I would hesitate to apply their analytical frameworks to Japanese media without taking into account Japanese history, including Japan’s complicated history with US imperialism and global white supremacy. Too often, especially in discussions of the Pacific War/WWII, I see Japanese imperialism broadly equated with white/US/Euro imperialism, perhaps rooted in the mistaken perception Japanese imperialism can only be accurately analyzed through a white-dominant narrative of history. (See Akiko Hashimoto’s discussion in The Long Defeat re: how Asian nations formerly colonized by Japan tend to lean toward white/US-dominant narratives when it comes to Japanese imperialism, for their own purposes.) I have more to read on this topic myself, but from a cursory look at the extant POC-authored literature (including scholarship by non-Japanese POC with personal ties to Japanese colonization), it is clearly possible to examine Japanese imperialism without wholly subsuming one’s analytical framework to the so-called ‘accepted’ (read: white) scholarly approach to imperialism, while also NOT in any way excusing or justifying Japanese actions in Asia. Ok, but what do approaches to studying Japanese imperialism have to do with a discussion on visual representations of Japanese culture? Because, from what I’ve seen, many non-Japanese fans and self-styled ‘authorities’ on Japan seem to suffer from a gap in their perceived timelines of Japanese history, going straight from Japanese imperialism to anime/manga**, without taking into account how losing the war, US occupation, and subsequent ‘westernization’ affected Japanese people and our culture between then and now. (And no, acknowledging the ongoing effects of white/US imperialism in Japan in no way diminishes Japan’s accountability for its actions in Asia.) Based on the ways in which I see information about Japanese/Nikkei history being circulated by non-Japanese on social media, it’s fairly clear most don’t understand our history as well as they think they do. (The US education system can undoubtedly take a significant portion of the blame for this, since we are indoctrinated with an extremely white-lensed understanding of how to identify significant historical ‘facts’ versus unreliable and subjective ‘anecdotes.’) In conclusion, when non-Japanese assert ownership over visual representations of Japanese culture in the form of either creatorship or discourse, while limiting themselves to a historical context defined solely by white/USian interests, the end result is nothing more than a continuation of the white/US imperialism begun with Perry’s black ships (or, depending on your perspective, to even earlier interactions between Japanese and white Europeans).

**Anime and manga are not, of course, brand-new on the Japanese culture scene, but I’m not sure how many non-Japanese US-based consumers actually understand this in terms of the broader historical context. Again, I cite the tendency of whiteness to assign relevance to certain POC-related information as ‘fact’ (typically information which cannot be used to contradict or dismantle whiteness) while dismissing other information as ‘anecdotal’ or incidental (often information which can be used to challenge white dominance over both the historical narrative and current affairs). For examples, just look up any white-dominated anime/manga fan chat space (though, as previously stated, this type of harm can also be perpetuated by non-Japanese POC with whitewashed perspectives).

Book Spotlight: Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen – Debbi Michiko Florence

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen is the first in an early-reader series featuring eight-year-old Jasmine Toguchi, a Japanese American girl who wants nothing more than to participate in her family’s annual mochitsuki.

What I liked:

  • I think early-reader-me really could have used this book. Although I saw many depictions of mochitsuki and other Japanese holiday customs in media from Japan, the only English-language depiction of mochitsuki I remember finding in fiction is a scene from Lensey Namioka’s Village of the Vampire Cat. Now that Jasmine Toguchi is out on shelves, I hope aspiring young JA/Nikkei writers won’t hesitate to share their own mochitsuki stories.
  • What would younger-me have made of Florence’s depiction of mochitsuki? As I’ve stated elsewhere on this blog, JA/Nikkei communities are not monolithic, with Bay Area versus LA/SoCal communities being no exception. I don’t know if the differences I noted between my experiences and Jasmine’s are more reflective of regional community differences, or of differences between Florence’s and my experiences. For instance, the Toguchi family holds their mochitsuki almost entirely outdoors. At the one mochi-pounding mochitsuki I attended, at a Bay Area Buddhist temple, the pounding took place outside, but then the mochi was carried indoors where women and children waited in the temple kitchen. My family uses a mochi machine, so our mochitsuki is always indoors. In the same vein, I wonder if the difference in mochi-making technique explains why the Toguchi family doesn’t have an Oshogatsu spread laid out during mochitsuki itself. My mom always prepares oden, some osechi ryori, and, of course, various snacks with tea, which are out on the table for anyone to eat at any point during mochitsuki. The TV is usually on in the background, sometimes tuned to the NHK special. That said, once the mochigome is in the machine, there’s time to sit around and eat, whereas manually pounding the mochi doesn’t allow for as many breaks. I would be interested in knowing how closely the Toguchi mochitsuki parallels Florence’s own experiences, and if Florence’s family refrained from putting out food until after the main event. Food has always been an integral part of my mochitsuki experiences, so it’s interesting to think this may not be the case for all JA/Nikkei who host mochitsuki!
  • The sisterly bond between Sophie and Jasmine is so cute! (Side note: did any of my fellow Japanese-speaking JA/Nikkei keep reading Sophie’s name the way Howl pronounces it in Miyazaki’s film? I couldn’t seem to break myself of the habit and it was kind of distracting for the first few chapters.) To be honest, I was paying less attention to the progression of events and more to how Florence depicted various aspects of mochitsuki and Oshogatsu, so I was pretty surprised when Sophie defended Jasmine and later followed her to the tree. I enjoy reading nuanced sibling relationships and I’m looking forward to following Sophie and Jasmine’s adventures in the rest of the series. If I’d read Jasmine Toguchi as a kid, I wonder if the Sophie/Jasmine relationship would have caused me to reflect more deeply on my relationship with my sister. I’m the older sister, so I’m not sure I’d have found much to relate to in Jasmine’s character – I’m not particularly willful or adventurous, and I never felt any desire to question gender roles in Japanese culture. Still, I wonder if reading the final scenes with Sophie would have motivated me to be nicer to my sister!
  • I am really curious about Florence’s word choices when describing mochi, particularly when words such as “gooey” or “chewy” are used. Perhaps this is a result of growing up bilingual, but there were (and are) certain English words which I simply don’t use to describe Japanese foods. “Gooey” and “chewy” would definitely be on the list – to me, those are words for rice krispy treats, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, or fruit roll-ups. I’m not sure what role Japanese played in Florence’s childhood experiences, but I’m always interested in how fellow JA/Nikkei writers make linguistic choices in their work. I also see a potential tie-in to my ongoing interest in the relationship between language and generation/proximity to Japan in JA/Nikkei communities.
  • Even though we don’t see much of her, I really liked Obaachan’s character. I also appreciate Florence using the spelling “Obaachan” because I’ve definitely seen people spell it “Obachan,” which of course means something completely different in Japanese, unless you emphasize the long “a” sound. And the presents! 懐かしい right there. I wonder about Obaachan’s backstory. Although her English is fragmented, she speaks much more confidently than those of my Nihonjin relatives who never formally studied English, so I wonder if she had occasion to use it in her past. I was also somewhat surprised she didn’t prepare any osechi ryori for the family; nor was there any mention of her having done so in the past. My Nihonjin relatives never visited us specifically for holidays, so I’m not sure what other Oshogatsu visitors tend to do, but I’m surprised she didn’t bring any cooking traditions with her. Beef teriyaki and sushi are both briefly mentioned – maybe she contributes to those?

What I learned:

  • Reading Jasmine Toguchi has definitely made me think about what kinds of mirrors are important to JA/Nikkei readers of different generations. Although I didn’t find too many parallels to my own experiences in this book, I think it’s certainly a valuable read for JA/Nikkei kids whose experiences are similar to Jasmine’s. I also think it’s an important read in terms of diversifying the perspectives of JA/Nikkei who don’t necessarily relate to Jasmine’s experiences. Jasmine Toguchi is a refreshing, lighthearted, and contemporary addition to the shelves of anyone building a JA/Nikkei library.

Questions I had:

  • Did any Japanese/Asian illustrators submit portfolios to work on this series? The illustrations were cute, and I’m not blaming Florence at all (I don’t know what kind of input she had about choosing an illustrator), but honestly, without context, I would not have known Jasmine was Japanese by looking at her, and I’m not sure I would have guessed she was even Asian. I realize this next part is a sensitive topic for many, including probably some members of my own community, but personally, I am not a fan of “Asian” characters drawn by artists who don’t seem to know how to draw non-white-looking Asians.* I remember how jarring it was when I first saw the cover for this book. I couldn’t believe the girl was supposed to be Japanese, unless she was mixed-race. From the information we’re given in this first book, I don’t think Jasmine is mixed-race; her dad appears to be Japanese, even though this hasn’t been explicitly stated yet, and her last name is Japanese. Speaking of her dad, I really felt the illustration where he is sitting at the table for spaghetti dinner was offensive in its resemblance to stereotypical images which have been weaponized against Asians in the past. His slanted eyes and somewhat wavy-looking hands reminded me instantly of the dancing mushrooms in Fantasia. I have to wonder what sort of reference images the illustrator used. Again, this is a statement of my personal opinion, not a critique of Florence, and if she is happy with the illustrations, I have no problem with that.
  • The final illustration, while visually somewhat reflective of Oshogatsu traditions, felt misleading when juxtaposed with the text. In the last scene, Jasmine is preparing to eat her cinnamon-and-sugar-covered mochi, but the illustration seems to show kagamimochi, which is more symbolic than edible in my experience, and kadomatsu, which isn’t actually mentioned in the text. Maybe in Florence’s family, they do eat kagamimochi? I don’t know any JA/Nikkei who put together their own – it’s pretty easy to buy at the store. I wish the text and illustration were a better match because I’m concerned this particular juxtaposition will confuse non-Japanese readers who aren’t familiar with Oshogatsu traditions.
  • I wonder why Florence chose to portray mochi almost exclusively as a “dessert.” Mochi is not a dessert, at least not in my family or in any of my other experiences with it, either here or in Japan. Marketing to non-Asian kids, maybe? (I have to say, I’m glad mochi ice cream wasn’t referenced.) The microwave mochi recipe included at the end is technically a microwave daifuku recipe (coincidentally, my mom showed me a very similar recipe a few months ago; apparently, our cousin found it online and passed it along). I’m concerned people will assume mochi and daifuku are the same. Anko mochi, mochi with shoyu and sugar, kinako mochi – in my family, these are meals or snacks, but not really a dessert. Mochi is filling – in order for it to be a dessert, one would have to eat very little of the preceding meal, or be eating a very, very small mochi. I’m curious about how mochi functions in Florence’s family. Maybe they do actually treat it as a dessert?
  • Who is Florence’s intended audience? In particular, did she ever envision any readers in Japan? Personally, I think Jasmine Toguchi could be useful to Japanese kids learning to read in English. It’s written in a simpler style than most of the other JA/Nikkei children’s novels out there (such as the ones I’ve already posted about on this blog), and reminds me of the chapter books used by a girl I once tutored. From what I’ve seen, Nihonjin don’t know too much about everyday JA/Nikkei experiences, so Florence’s book could be a resource in multiple ways. This series could also be a point of connection for JA/Nikkei with young relatives in Japan. I’m thinking of sending the first book to some of my cousins’ kids, just to hear their thoughts.

Follow-up:

  • I have book two of the series, Jasmine Toguchi, Super Sleuth, sitting in my TBR, so I expect to have a post about it in the near(ish) future.

*If you don’t understand what I mean, check out the comics Kingsway West by Greg Pak, and certain issues of New Super-Man by Gene Luen Yang. Both of these comics feature (East) Asian characters who, to me at least, were at times not at all visually recognizable as Asian.

Book Spotlight: Nikkei Detective – Naomi Hirahara

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

In Nikkei Detective, private investigator Kevin Shirota races against the clock to solve a murder so he can save his kidnapped daughter.

What I liked:

  • Kevin and Maddy’s up-and-down relationship is sensitively and heartwarmingly centered without coming across as unrealistic. If Nikkei Detective was ever expanded into a book, I would enjoy reading chapters alternating between Kevin’s and Maddy’s POVs. I still haven’t read one of Hirahara’s full-length novels, but just from reading her serials, I’d say she certainly has a talent for creating diverse and convincing POVs. Also, Kevin’s portrayal feels very honest, flaws and all. The more I think about how Kevin perceives his own flaws, the more I want to read the story from Maddy’s POV to see whether she notices and/or responds to those same flaws, or other ones.
  • Now I’m on a roll regarding POV, but thinking about Kevin’s POV in relation to both himself and Maddy led me to compare this story with よつばと! Obviously, POV works a little differently in manga, but my interest is in how the rendering of certain POVs shapes our understanding of character relationships, which can be considered in the context of any medium featuring characters. Also, I wonder if any 日本人/日系人 writer has discussed the meanings and manifestations of fatherhood in Japanese versus JA/Nikkei communities. I’d especially be interested in discussions around immediate families composed of both 日本人 and 日系人 members. I don’t think I have such a book on my TBR, but I find it hard to believe no JA/Nikkei writer has tackled this topic. Maybe I need to look more carefully, or expand my search to articles and not just books.
  • I’ve never been to Little Tokyo, but I imagine the details Hirahara sketches for us make local JA/Nikkei readers go, ああ, そうそう! I really enjoy reading work set in places obviously well-known to the writer. I’m not a fan of reading pages and pages of setting description, so I appreciate writers who can set a scene with a few words, letting readers either fill in or not, without hampering our understanding of the story. If I don’t fully understand something because I don’t share the writer’s experience of that thing, I’m ok with that.
  • Am I the only one who thought Harumi has the perfect persona for a blond lady/foreign-lady manga character? For example, that character in 暗殺教室 comes to mind…or the mother from ましろのおと and I think Kevin and Maddy could both be drawn well by the right artist.

What I learned:

  • I didn’t realize JA/Nikkei communities celebrated 七夕. I remember seeing the decorated streets one time while visiting my aunt, but in my head, 七夕 was one of those, didn’t-make-it-across-the-ocean type practices. Now I wonder if Bay Area Nikkei communities also celebrate it. The only ‘community’ event we’ve ever really participated in is Obon, so I’m not sure what other events the temples put on during the rest of the year. I’ve heard they do mochitsuki and I believe San Jose J-town and/or Mountain View does something called the Cherry Blossom Festival. At any rate, I’m assuming Hirahara is familiar with quite a few Nikkei intracommunity events, and it’s very interesting to read about a JA/Nikkei experience so different from my own.

Questions I had:

  • How does Kevin get into Maddy’s phone to check her texts? They’re obviously close, but I don’t know any kid who would willingly give their parent the passcode to their phone.
  • How did Hirahara decide on Satoko Fujii’s connection to Fukushima? Since we never get to know Satoko, I’m not sure it’s as straightforward as, ‘honor and support the people affected by 3/11, and remember their struggles are ongoing today,’ or if there is some other meaning I missed. I wonder if Satoko – represented to the reader in hindsight as people reflect on her life and death, but never in the present – somehow symbolizes the treatment of memory in the JA/Nikkei community, especially with regard to traumatic events like 3/11. The first installment of this story is dated August 14, 2014, over three years since 3/11, which makes me think remembering and forgetting might be key. I was away at college when 3/11 happened, so I don’t know how my local JA/Nikkei community responded, but I know 3/11 continues to be deeply significant to both the people affected and Japan as a whole.

Follow-up:

  • There’s one more completed serial to read, plus the one Hirahara is currently writing. I don’t think I read them in chronological order, but I might go back and try to examine how her serial-writing style changes over time.

Book Spotlight: The Long Defeat – Akiko Hashimoto

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

In The Long Defeat, Akiko Hashimoto examines the origins and manifestations of war memory in Japan, and its implications for the country’s future.

What I liked:

  • I think every Nikkei reader who has ever felt conflicted or curious about how the war affects their identity will find The Long Defeat an interesting and relevant book. Although Hashimoto focuses on what war memory means to Japanese nationals, I personally think Nikkei identity exists on a continuum with Japan at one end and non-Japan places at the other (or maybe a Venn diagram; I think the shape probably depends on the topic being discussed). In other words, our (Nikkei) understandings of how the war affects us are incomplete without taking into account how our families and ancestors in Japan were/are affected.
  • Hashimoto’s work verified and validated much of what I previously suspected or inferred about war memory in Japan. It’s difficult to put this into words, but I think any Nikkeijin with close ties to Japan will understand when I say it’s part of the known but not really discussed aspect of being Japanese. I don’t know if other Nikkei readers will experience the same feeling from this book, but personally it’s very comforting to know Japanese/Nikkei in various fields are thinking deeply about these topics.
  • Several times in the book, most notably in the final section on moral recovery and reconciliation, Hashimoto notes how so-called “global” methods of postwar recovery are actually heavily Euro/US/western/white-centric, with Germany as the base model, and raises the question of whether and/or how effectively such methods can be applied to peoples and nations whose cultural ideologies are non-Euro/US/western/white-centric. She also includes a (deliberately provocative?) one-liner, in which she observes China and South Korea are increasingly utilizing the so-called “global” framework to demand war reparations from Japan, but refrain from casting their own histories through the same lens. Hashimoto’s observations were particularly interesting to me insofar as they highlight yet another way white/Eurocentric/western influences create tension in Japanese culture, and the degree(s) to which these influences and tensions are/aren’t acknowledged by Japanese people.
  • Hashimoto’s writing is relatively accessible, though I think the format of the information might need to be changed to appeal to pre-college readers. Comprehensibility and accessibility are, I think, sometimes undervalued in academia, with its self-perpetuating aura of exclusivity. Readers outside academia should know scholars come with their own backgrounds, biases, opinions, etc., none of which should be automatically negated simply because someone has a doctorate or two. (This seems really self-evident to me, but I’ve learned “PhD” intimidates a lot of people into thinking they can’t or shouldn’t argue. That’s bullshit – having a degree does not make anyone immune to being wrong.) Likewise, those within academia should, if they really wish to change how people think, consistently gauge the needs and knowledge of their audiences. Just because someone doesn’t have the educational background or linguistic capability to wade through a dense volume on critical theory, doesn’t mean they are less worthy of being exposed to that knowledge. Is decolonization only for the privileged? I suppose this seems like a tangent, but Hashimoto’s book feels extremely relevant to any JA/Nikkei interested in identity formation, and I would hate to see any fellow readers miss out because of accessibility issues. To clarify, I’m not criticizing Hashimoto directly; I would be interested in knowing what she thinks about making her work more readily accessible to Japanese/Nikkei audiences outside academia.

What I learned:

  • Memory, specifically war and postwar memory, is significant to both Japanese and Nikkei writers. I suppose this is self-evident if one stops to think about it, but even though I’ve been reading up on camp memory in Nikkei communities, and I vaguely knew about the ongoing impacts of the war in Japan, I hadn’t connected the dots. I would love to see Hashimoto co-write a companion volume about war memory in Nikkei communities with one or more Nikkei scholars who specialize in camp memory. What would that be, transnational memory studies? As Eiichiro Azuma demonstrated in Between Two Empires (see my post here), Japanese and Nikkei history are not mutually exclusive.

Questions I had:

  • What is Hashimoto’s background and how did it shape the writing of this book? Based on her CV, it looks like she is probably 日系 (as opposed to 日本人), but I’m not sure. Fiction writers are often asked about the inspiration behind a particular book, but I don’t see this asked of academic writers nearly as often, even though I feel the question applies to any writer. Too often, I think, academic writers’ backgrounds go unexamined because of how academia conflates itself with a myth of omniscience, so to speak, and readers outside academia (or even within it) assume citing an academic source is tantamount to having the final ‘authoritative’ word on something. To me, it’s more useful to situate academic texts, like any book, within a broader context of materials dealing with the topic in question, as well as relative to the writer’s background, and to not be complacent (or complicit) in reading solely through the institutional hierarchy. (I would especially remind fellow USian readers and anyone else whose formative education was based in Eurocentric academia to keep this in mind. Forest versus the trees, right?) This isn’t a criticism of Hashimoto, by the way – rather, as a Nikkei reader interested in Nikkei writing across genres and forms, I always want to know why individual Nikkei writers choose to explore Nikkei-ness, or Japanese-ness, or whatnot, via a particular medium or field. In this case, since I’m uncertain of Hashimoto’s background, I mostly focused on what I perceived as the strengths and limitations of her analysis, and I tried to avoid interpreting the text based on assumptions about her ties to Japan. Her CV lists her languages as English, Japanese, and German, so I’m reasonably confident of some cultural and linguistic breadth to the sources she drew upon for this book (this is also supported by the notes and bibliography sections).
  • How would Hashimoto apply her analysis to the Shin-Nikkei generations? In community spaces, I often see lines (whether solid or dotted) drawn between 日本人 and 日系人, and while these distinctions are certainly real and important, I think sometimes they result in unnecessarily narrowly bounded definitions of each term. As I’ve noted previously on this blog, a Yonsei whose family came to the US before the war and had relatives incarcerated in concentration camps will have different experiences and understandings of Japanese-ness and Nikkei-ness than a Shin-Issei or Shin-Nisei whose family history doesn’t include the camps at all, yet both could technically claim the term 日系人 if they wished. That said, a Shin-Issei who came to the US in the 80s will theoretically have grown up absorbing the various forms of (post)war memory Hashimoto identifies in Japanese textbooks, pop culture, and national media…and it therefore follows that they will in some capacity be affected by the ambivalence Hashimoto observes to be the overarching Japanese approach to remembering the war. They will, of course, also be subject to the same forms of racism experienced by JA/Nikkei who have been in the US for much longer. Additionally, depending on the spaces they choose to occupy, they may or may not begin to perceive topics like history and social justice from a 日系 rather than a 日本 perspective, insofar as the two can be differentiated. I wonder, then, what Hashimoto might infer about the nature of transnational war memory in this case?
  • I read the paperback edition of the book, and as far as I can tell, the blurbs on the back are all by white people. I’m not sure how blurbs are acquired for academic texts, but I can’t help wondering why Hashimoto and/or her editor/publisher couldn’t find any POC, much less Japanese or Nikkei scholars, to blurb the book. In fiction, I know the bigger the blurb writer’s reputation, the better it is for the book from a marketing perspective, but I’m not sure the considerations are the same in academia. I suppose white supremacy’s continuing stranglehold on academia might also be the answer – I imagine the support of white men is useful and maybe even indispensable to WOC/POC in the ivory tower. At any rate, as someone who could easily never again hear a white-person-with-degree’s Opinion on Japan (and don’t get me started on the expats, much less the degreed expats), I’m disappointed not to see at least one Japanese name on the back cover.

Follow-up:

  • I hope Hashimoto continues to study and write about war memory in Japan. The holistic feel of this book is, I think, an extremely solid foundation for ongoing work on the nature of war memory in Japan, especially as successive generations in Japan are affected by increasing chronological distance from the war and changes in East Asian geopolitics.
  • I wonder if any non-Japanese Asian writers living in Japan, particularly Chinese or Korean writers, have produced a similar book. It would be interesting to read a Chinese or Korean perspective on war memory in Japan, especially from a writer who has grown up surrounded by the references to war memory in Japanese culture which Hashimoto identifies.

Book Spotlight: Baishakunin, Inc. – Naomi Hirahara

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Baishakunin, Inc. chronicles the (mis)adventures of Caroline Mameda as she struggles to start her own Little Tokyo matchmaking business after unexpectedly losing her job.

What I liked:

  • This story is hilarious! I forgot how much I enjoy the occasional romantic comedy until I picked this up during some downtime at work. I had to make myself stop grinning so my colleagues wouldn’t ask what I was doing. Also, I think this would make a terrific manga because there are so many scenes which could be visually rendered. A good mangaka could probably do wonders drawing Jake, Oizumi-san, and Kyle, and I can just imagine Michele’s bitchiness in Japanese.
  • The Bean/Mameda thing made me think about other unique or unusual nicknames JA/Nikkei have created for themselves, and what sort of cultural space such names occupy. I’m thinking of other JA nicknames I’ve seen in literature, like Shig and Tak, and how these names embody a kind of ‘Japanese’ (or ‘English,’ depending on your perspective) which, paradoxically, is more intelligible to Nikkei than to Nihonjin. When I first saw the name Tak, I thought it was a weird English name until its origins were explained later in the text. Of course, then it seemed self-evident, but I think the reason I missed it is because my Japanese has been almost entirely lensed through my mom’s Nihonjin sensibilities, rather than through a JA/Nikkei or USian academic perspective. I could go on a tangent here about how my difficulty reading romanized Japanese probably stems from a similar place, but I’m getting off-topic!
  • Ginnie’s character is very interesting. I know there are non-Japanese Asians in Japan, but I’ve never met one who grew up in the US. The scene when Caroline notes Ginnie is ‘showing off’ her Japanese is such a concise, spot-on portrayal of imposter syndrome. Later in the story, when Caroline thinks Ginnie could almost be Japanese because of her wedding gift organizational system, I started thinking about the (uneasy?) balance between imposter syndrome and inclusivity. Considering the high (and maybe rising) rates of interracial/interethnic relationships among JA/Nikkei, I suspect this topic will be increasingly of interest to our community in the years ahead.

What I learned:

  • I’m a Bay Area JA rather than an LA/Little Tokyo/SoCal JA, but I also didn’t participate in many Nikkei community events growing up, so I’m not sure if the things I noticed in this story are SoCal-specific or JA/Nikkei-specific. For example, Caroline notes what generation the JAs around her are, which is something I don’t really think about beyond, ‘do they know Japanese or not?’ She also seems to view Yonsei in a less-than-flattering light, and I’m not sure if this is a commentary on intergenerational tensions or a quirk specific to her. At Ginnie’s wedding, she notes the presence of a Nisei couple, even though she doesn’t seem to know them personally, which was an interesting observation to me. I can usually distinguish Nihonjin/Issei/Shin-Issei from Nisei-and-later Nikkei by listening to how they speak, but I don’t think I could tell someone was Nisei just by looking at them. I wonder if Little Tokyo Nisei exhibit certain traits which make them easy to identify to other community members? I suppose Caroline might also be guessing based on the couple’s age…after all, while a Nihonjin/Shin-Issei couple could be similar in age to a Nisei couple, they would likely have different styles of dress…though this may depend on how long the former have been in the US. Fellow Nikkei who have observed the evolving fashion choices/behavioral patterns of a group of Nihonjin exchange students over the course of a semester or a year in the US might also know what I mean, ね?

Questions I had:

  • What happens to Oizumi-san? Elderly mentors are some of my favorite character types in Japanese/Nikkei stories and if Hirahara were to continue this story, I would definitely want to see how Oizumi-san’s arc progresses.
  • Are there other JA/Nikkei-written stories in the new adult/romance/contemporary genres? I can’t think of any offhand…all the ones coming to mind are mystery, historical fiction, or some type of YA/children’s lit…and of course there’s plenty of memoir and nonfiction out there.

Follow-up:

  • Hirahara has written two other serialized stories for Discover Nikkei and has a third in progress, so I have no doubt I’ll be reading those soon.

Book Spotlight: The Nihongo Papers – Naomi Hirahara

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

The Nihongo Papers tells the multigenerational story of the Shishido and Hamakawa families when they are brought together by a rare and deadly species of strawberry.

What I liked:

  • Sayuri’s character felt very familiar to me in some ways, probably because my mom is also Shin-Issei. It would be interesting to read a Japanese version of the parts of the story told from Sayuri’s POV, since personally I feel the Japanese-to-English shift often causes Nihonjin characters to lose some of their essence. Fellow JA/Nikkei who have witnessed a Nihonjin/Shin-Issei relative or friend communicating their thoughts in a language other than Japanese probably understand what I mean.
  • As an addendum, I also appreciate Sayuri’s mother – or what we learn of her via Sayuri’s thoughts. Hirahara’s portrayal of 日本人にとってアメリカ人は___ felt spot-on relative to my own experiences of how my Nihonjin family and friends perceive Japanese Americans and white people. So many intracommunity vibes!!
  • This story is a page-turner! (Metaphorically, anyway – it’s an e-serial.) I was a little surprised to see it described as a bio-thriller because from what little I know of Hirahara’s writing, it didn’t seem like her style – in fact, I can’t think of a nonwhite USian writer who specializes in what I’d consider a bio-thriller – but I very much enjoyed reading it. The focus on family ties and what people will – or won’t – do on behalf of their loved ones was, to me, much more compelling than the sci-fi-esque plot implied by the description. Although I dislike books pitched as, ‘it’s a good story where the characters just HAPPEN to be POC,’ because it seems to imply stories more focused on POC identities are somehow lesser, and I wouldn’t describe this story as such, I appreciate how Hirahara normalizes both the commonalities and diversities of JA/Nikkei experiences. The family dynamic among Bob, Greg, and Sayuri was especially interesting, since the generational/linguistic diversity reminded me of my own family.
  • Haru is one of my favorite characters – I wish she had more page time. The MC of 一の食卓, currently one of my favorite manga, is also Haru, so it was kind of fun to be reading Hirahara’s Haru while having this other Haru in the back of my mind. More specifically, I wonder if there’s a JA/Nikkei-written novel featuring a character like Hirahara’s Haru – a young Nikkei girl coming of age in early-twentieth-century California, in a farming family caught amidst cultural, racial, and economic turmoil.
  • I’m quite curious about Juanita…what’s her backstory?? I don’t believe we ever learn what her exact racial/ethnic background is, but there aren’t so many Okinawan Latinx(?) characters in English-language fiction that I can just glaze over her appearance without stopping to wonder. If Hirahara ever expanded The Nihongo Papers into a novella or even a novel, I would definitely want to learn more about Juanita. I didn’t get much of a sense of her character from the story, other than her competency as a PI, but I assume this is because she is a secondary character relative to characters like Sayuri or Carlos.
  • Saburo’s motives made sense to me. Of course, no one should be going around kidnapping or attempting to shoot people, and I suspect what Saburo needed was counseling and treatment for depression, but I can see why he did what he did. The only loose end here is the gap between how Haru and her parents view him, and the insight we receive into his thoughts toward the end of the story. In other words, I would have less sympathy for him if he actually mistreated his wife, but since this is never confirmed, I’m operating on the assumption he did not. Also, I wonder what was written in Japanese on Itsuko’s papers…and I wonder how the story ends for Phyllis. Anyway, to return to my original point, I prefer ‘villains’ whose actions are a response to some past injury done them, especially if said injury was inflicted by one of the ‘good’ characters, because it feels more realistic to remember everyone has done good and bad things in their lives. Enishi from るろうに剣心 is another example of this type of ‘villain’…at least, to some extent. Again, this doesn’t excuse the harm they inflict, but it does make for more balanced storytelling, in my opinion.

What I learned:

  • I’m not sure if this counts as learning, since I don’t know how true to life it is, but it was very interesting to consider international exchange among Nikkei farmers as depicted in Jorge’s journey to Shishido Farms. This is likely my Bay-Area-JA-bubble-experience speaking, but none of the JA/Nikkei I grew up around ever mentioned connections to JA/Nikkei in countries other than the US and Japan. I finally met a Nikkei woman from Brazil in college, at which point I realized there were long-established Nikkei communities outside the US. Currently, I have a book or two about Nikkei exchange between Japan and Latin America on my TBR, and I remember seeing a few more titles on Amazon which were only available in Spanish or Portuguese. I’d really like to find a book co-written from Nikkei, indigenous, and/or Latinx perspectives on the historical and ongoing relationships among Nikkei, indigenous, and/or Latinx communities in the so-called Americas. I think the closest I have right now are a few books on Asian settler colonialism, but considering the complex nature of indigenous/Latinx connections, it would be great to find a book with a more specific focus. Also, in general I feel indigenous and/or Latinx Nikkei are often erased from broader discussions of Nikkei history, so I would like to learn more about these communities from an ownvoices perspective.

Questions I had:

  • What was Hirahara’s inspiration for this story? It’s not every day I read about deliberately bred lethal strawberries.
  • Who is the intended audience for this story? I noticed every Japanese word is either followed by a translation or defined via context. In my own writing, I’m not a fan of providing in-text translations, but I also think providing some kind of translation is the most equitable way to anticipate non-Japanese-speaking Nikkei readers. Since Hirahara is also an established author, perhaps the translations are included for her non-Japanese readers as well. I’ll have to take a look when I start her Mas Arai series, which I plan to do later this summer.
  • To be honest, before we learned Bisabuelo was Saburo, I was concerned the ‘villain’ of the story would end up being someone associated with Latinx communities and/or Spanish speakers. I’m unclear on whether Jorge and Carlos are mixed-race – after all, Carlos’s mother was Japanese, and Jorge’s family name is Yamashita – or if, like many Japanese Americans, they are monoracial Nikkei with first names adopted from the dominant culture of their home communities. At any rate, because colorism and ethnic/cultural bias are ongoing issues in JA/Nikkei communities, and because Nikkei from Latin America often report experiencing inferior treatment in Japan relative to Japanese Americans, I feel it’s prudent for JA/Nikkei writers to tread carefully when depicting Nikkei communities outside the US.
  • What was the purpose of including Japanese Canadian characters like Phyllis Hamakawa? Maybe I’m missing a piece of history here – perhaps there was a significant movement of Nikkei agricultural workers from the US to Canada at some point – but I don’t see how Itsuko ending up in Canada as opposed to some other part of California or the US made a difference to the plot. It could also be Hirahara has some connection to Canadian Nikkei which made the inclusion of Hamakawa’s character significant to her for personal reasons. At any rate, while I know Nikkei in Latin America have a long history of being involved in agricultural work, as with Nikkei in the US, which to me provides the logic behind the Shishido and Yamashita characters, I don’t know why Phyllis had to be a politician in Toronto/Canada, specifically. To be clear, I don’t think Hamakawa’s presence weakened the story – I just feel I didn’t fully understand the reasoning behind her background.
  • Once or twice in the text, I felt the term ‘American’ was being interchanged with ‘white,’ particularly in passages describing Alex. I can’t tell if this reflects Hirahara’s perspective or if it was meant to show how many JA/Nikkei do this without thinking…or it could be something else!

Follow-up:

  • Hirahara has written several other serialized stories for Discover Nikkei, so I’ll be checking those out next!

Book Spotlight: Journey to Topaz – Yoshiko Uchida

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Journey to Topaz is a semi-autobiographical novel chronicling the experiences of Yuki Sakane and her family when they are forcibly relocated from their Berkeley, CA home to the concentration camp at Topaz, UT.

What I liked:

  • Uchida’s prose reads very smoothly. The other two camp novels I’ve read thus far, Cynthia Kadohata’s Weedflower and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar, proceeded much more slowly for me. I’m not sure if the difference is solely attributable to Uchida’s writing style, or if I’ve simply become accustomed to reading fiction about the camps. I guess I’ll have to read a fourth camp novel by a different author and see what happens. I don’t remember enjoying Uchida’s prose quite this much when I read her other novels in middle school, but since they’re sitting in my TBR pile, I should be able to do a comparison in a future post.
  • The ending felt much more…honest…than, for example, the ending of Uchida’s The Bracelet, which I wrote about in a previous post. I assume the target audience of each book determined the difference – The Bracelet is a picture book, whereas Journey to Topaz is in a short-chapter format suitable for independent and middle school readers. Although Yuki expresses relief at being released from camp, her trepidation about going to Salt Lake City indicates she is aware their post-camp lives may not be easy. I didn’t see any acknowledgment of the difficulties JA/Nikkei faced in ‘reintegrating’ after the war in The Bracelet, so I’m glad to see it here. Uchida also tailors each character’s closing arc to their circumstances – the uncertainty Yuki’s father expresses about his employment prospects in Salt Lake City, Mrs. Kurihara’s struggle to learn English, and Mr. Toda’s bitterness and resignation at being left behind. It’s important for today’s JA/Nikkei readers to understand the variety of situations in which JA/Nikkei found themselves after the camps closed. Personally, I think I’ll be moving Karen Inouye’s book a little farther up on my TBR, since the unknown fates of Uchida’s characters motivated me to learn more about JA/Nikkei experiences in the immediate postwar years.

What I learned:

  • When I was about halfway through Journey to Topaz, I went to California for a few days to visit Manzanar with my parents. I’ve written about my experiences in this post. During that trip, I learned my grandfather, whom I’d previously been told was incarcerated at Poston, AZ, was actually sent to Tanforan and Topaz, just like the Sakane family. When I returned to Portland and picked up Journey to Topaz again, I felt my relationship to the book should have changed, or had changed, but didn’t know exactly how. After all, my grandfather passed away before I was born and I’ve never spoken to the two uncles who were incarcerated with him, so it wasn’t as if I could compare my family’s experiences with those of the Sakanes. Our Manzanar visit motivated my dad and me to dig into our family history, so maybe one day I’ll read this book with more than a vague feeling of connections lost.
  • In my post on The Bracelet, I critiqued the uncritical portrayal of white people, which I felt erased their complicity in Japanese American incarceration. I still believe my critique is valid, but after reading Journey to Topaz, I wonder if Uchida’s portrayal of white people in The Bracelet was influenced by the support her family received from white friends during their incarceration. I know Journey to Topaz is autobiographical to some extent, but I don’t know if the Sakane family’s friendships with white characters like the Nelsons and Mrs. Jamieson are based on actual white people in Uchida’s life. At any rate, if my assumption is true, I can see why Uchida might focus on positively portraying her white characters.

Questions I had:

  • Uchida primarily uses terms like “internment” and “evacuation” in the book. I also noticed this in Farewell to Manzanar, and in older camp-related works written by JA/Nikkei. As a JA/Nikkei who was never actually incarcerated, I’m certainly not here to police the language my predecessors chose and choose to utilize in describing their own experiences. At the same time, I always wonder if the word choices of older generations have more to do with adapting the language of the times – we know, of course, that white people historically used “internment” and “evacuation” to euphemize the incarceration – than with individual agency. In other words, if those who were incarcerated were asked to decide, on their own terms, how they wanted to describe their experiences, would they still use “internment” or would they choose something like incarceration? At the risk of overgeneralizing – to be honest, I don’t think I am, since I am Japanese, too – the tendency of older generations to use “internment” and other such terms makes sense to me if I interpret it from a Japanese mentality. I don’t just mean 仕方がない (shikata ga nai) and 我慢 (gaman), which, I think, are sometimes utilized in rather reductive ways to describe our community’s response to incarceration – but also the many other terms, ideas, practices, etc., which come together in myriad ways to form our mentalities as Japanese people. It feels like I’m doing a poor job of putting my thought process into words…at any rate, I think fellow JA/Nikkei, maybe especially those who maintain close ties to Japan-based family and friends, will understand what I mean. Somewhere in my TBR, I’m sure there’s a book by a Nikkei writer analyzing the ways in which JA/Nikkei relationships to and understandings of Japan and Japanese culture have changed over time, the scope of which includes such major turning points like incarceration (those who were and weren’t), and the postwar immigrant (Shin) generation(s). Suffice to say, if we hypothesize the nature of the mentalities the Issei/Nisei (the bulk of those who were incarcerated, I believe) grew up with – which should not be wholly conflated with allegiance to Japan – it isn’t hard to see why they might make certain choices regarding terminology and other public-facing forms of memory. Alternatively, if we hypothesize in terms of a bloodline continuum, I could also see formerly incarcerated Issei/Nisei choosing non-euphemistic terms in the present if their Sansei/Yonsei/Gosei descendants encourage them to do so. There are interesting possibilities here for a discussion about the ways Japanese-ness is (re)made outside Japan, by Nikkeijin and Nihonjin of various backgrounds…maybe one of my fellow JA/Nikkei from Twitter will drop me a line and we can talk about it?

Follow-up:

  • I have plenty of Nikkei-written nonfiction about the camps on my TBR, but I’ll have to double-check for any books specifically about Topaz. Ditto for the fiction and memoir sections of my TBR – I’m sure I have at least one or two books written by or about JAs who were incarcerated there.
  • I’d like to visit Topaz one day, with my family…

If any fellow JA/Nikkei reading this have or had family and/or friends incarcerated at Topaz, I would love to chat with you. @ me on Twitter or send me an email!

Manzanar Reflections, etc.

Note to readers:

I’m not sure I know anyone whose family was incarcerated at Manzanar, but if any such person is reading this, you should know my family was not incarcerated at Manzanar, and I write only from the perspective of someone whose family was incarcerated at other camps.

On Saturday, April 29, my parents and I arrived at Manzanar for the 48th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage. My sister wanted to accompany us, but was unable to get time off from work. In the interests of preserving memories, I’ve tried to jot down some of my experiences and reflections here.

First, the logistics. Manzanar is about an eight-hour drive from my parents’ home in the Bay Area (less if you’re willing to drive over the speed limit and don’t get stuck in traffic). On Friday, we drove six hours to reach our hotel, in Mojave.* It was dusty and windy, but not as hot as we anticipated. When I wasn’t daydreaming, I was thinking about a recent conversation with Nikkei poet Brandon Shimoda** about concentration camps and the aftermath(s) of incarceration. I also wondered how different my experience of Manzanar would be/would have been if I hadn’t already been reading Nikkei writers and following Nikkei organizations on social media for some months prior to our trip.

Saturday morning, we drove two hours from Mojave to Manzanar (again, less if you’re willing to drive over the speed limit). The mountain desert landscape was (un)familiar, quite similar to what I’d see during our annual summer trips to Lee Vining and Mono Lake. Although I reread Farewell to Manzanar*** quite recently, for some reason I didn’t fully grasp Manzanar’s exact location until our visit. I was a little surprised to realize we spent so many summer weeks not far from a major landmark in Japanese American history. Even more surprisingly, during the drive my parents informed me this would technically be my second visit to Manzanar, since we once made a brief stop there when I was very young. According to my dad, the main entrance was located at Manzanar’s historic entrance, where a guardhouse still stands, and the visitors’ center had yet to come into existence. My mom recalled seeing the white memorial pillar, but not much else. Reconstruction and preservation work is ongoing at the site and I wonder how much will have changed by my next, as-yet-unplanned visit.

After parking in the front lot (there’s also parking near the cemetery and an unpaved loop for people taking the auto tour), we briefly toured the visitors’ center. My dad went to find the archaeologist currently leading one of the garden restorations, and my mom and I browsed the gift shop. Normally, archaeology interests me, but I believe the archaeologist on site that day was a white woman and I wasn’t in the mood to navigate a potentially othering conversation. It’s odd and not very pleasant to think of a white perspective dominating the restoration and reconstruction of physical elements of Japanese American history. To be fair, I don’t know if the white people on-site report to JA/Nikkei, but since Manzanar is a national historic site I assume at least some white people are involved in making the big decisions. Also, though I think this is true of US parks/historic sites in general, every ranger I saw was white. Even if the images and text of the exhibits are created and/or approved by JA/Nikkei – I mostly skimmed over the placards but I didn’t notice anything problematic, so I suspect JA/Nikkei were heavily involved behind the scenes – seeing only white faces in uniform is a reminder of who the gatekeepers really are, even or especially when it comes to (white-dominated) US government-sanctioned narratives of history. Note the ironic parallel of white people in uniform ‘guarding’ or gatekeeping sites like Manzanar in the present, and white people in uniform literally guarding incarcerated Japanese Americans at every concentration camp during the war. Some things never change? Or rather, haven’t changed yet even though they should…

Thanks to the long, slow-moving line, I had plenty of time to people-watch.**** Most of the people in the shop were either young Asian Americans or older Asian and white folks. There were also a fair number of young, non-Asian POC. Later, when I mentioned the demographics of the gift shop customers to my mom, especially my surprise at not seeing more JA/Nikkei folks, she suggested most probably didn’t feel a need or desire to purchase gifts at Manzanar. Her comment nudged me back to something I’d been pondering when we first decided to go to Manzanar – in what capacity were we making this trip?

I first learned about the Manzanar Pilgrimage when I started following the Manzanar Committee on Twitter. I’d been thinking it would be interesting to visit at least one of the camps, but I hadn’t given much thought to which one. At some point, I realized Manzanar might be my best bet because of its relative proximity to my parents’ place (when you don’t drive, these things matter). I floated the idea by my family and everybody agreed we should do it.

As the date of our departure approached, I began wondering what it meant for my family, specifically, to visit Manzanar. We were never incarcerated there and, as far as I knew, none of our relatives or friends had been incarcerated there, either. Did that make us tourists? I’m inclined to say yes and no, though I’m still thinking through it. On one hand, much of the experience felt similar to previous family road trips, where, for better or worse, our general goal was to visit places we thought might be interesting. On the other hand, Manzanar memorializes a life-changing era for thousands of JA/Nikkei (including us), a connection which sets it apart from our other family trips.

I kept, and keep, returning to the nature of this connection. I wouldn’t want any JA/Nikkei, either my own relatives, incarcerated (we think) at Topaz and Gila River,***** or those people who were incarcerated at Manzanar, to think I and other JA/Nikkei in my position who visit Manzanar are using it as a kind of stand-in for the other camps or attempting to lay some claim to the site which erases the experiences of those who were actually there. I suppose I shouldn’t speak for other JA/Nikkei, but to the rest of you who, like me, visited Manzanar but had no family there, I hope you’re all conscious and respectful of the distinction.

We eventually got to the front of the gift shop line, with just enough time to make our way to the event space. The meandering, unpaved trail reminded me of hiking through the desert brush near Mono Lake. (By the way, we found out later it’s about a mile from the visitors’ center to the event space, so if you plan to visit Manzanar and you have difficulty walking, I recommend driving the auto tour loop and parking along the road or in the back lot, if there’s space. The trail is not walker- or wheelchair-accessible.) By the time we arrived, a standing crowd was forming in a wide semicircle near the stage. There was seating under a canopy, as well as some unsheltered seating in front of the stage, and some people brought their own chairs. I assume some of the people seated had made prior arrangements, but I also saw some people in the unsheltered seating who looked like drop-in visitors, so I’m guessing there was a bit of first-come, first-served. (I highly recommend calling ahead about seating if you plan to attend the events but are unable to stand for long periods. I didn’t see any signage on site, or any notices on the Manzanar Committee website about disability accommodations, but I would hope accommodations would be made for anyone who needs them.)

Commemorative t-shirts were being sold at a couple of tables to the right of the “entrance” to the event space and my parents purchased a few for the family. I don’t recall if they paid via cash or card, but I believe each shirt was selling for ten or fifteen dollars. I also saw water coolers scattered around, and the website mentioned water would be provided, but I didn’t actually see anyone open a cooler. It kind of reminded me of those moments in Japanese socializing when someone offers something because that is the expected gesture, even though everyone also knows not to accept it. This event didn’t feel Nihonjin enough for such thinking, but it was what popped into my head.

Someone asked me later if I thought the pilgrimage felt well-organized. To me, it felt Japanese-American-organized, the same way Obon does, and in a different way from Nihonjin-organized or white-USian-organized. I suppose only JA/Nikkei whose event experiences are similar to mine will understand this statement, but I haven’t thought of a better way to phrase it.

People started talking on stage, but the first event I really paid attention to was UCLA Kyodo Taiko’s performance. By ‘paid attention to,’ I should specify, my attention caught, snagged, and throbbed uncomfortably at the sight of a white guy playing front and center. To be fair, he might have been an extremely white-looking, mixed-race JA/Nikkei, but since I know college taiko groups often allow anyone to join, I suspect he was just a plain old white guy. It was like coming across a microaggression in an otherwise enjoyable book – seeing the white guy kind of spoiled the performance for me. The only thing I ended up liking about that part of the pilgrimage was listening to my mom’s occasional commentary. She’s been part of a taiko class for about a year now, I think (maybe two?), and was able to assess the skills and experience of several players. Apparently, the performing groups were divided into a beginner set and an intermediate/advanced set, based on how and what they played. We also played a guessing game about which of them might be Japanese, and she recognized an uta called ‘Matsuri’ as one her own group played last year.

Kyodo Taiko left the stage, and some more people talked. At one point, a speaker asked if any Native people (I believe from the local Paiute people?) were present, but no one identified themselves. I hope they came later, or, if they chose not to attend, I hope it wasn’t because they had been made to feel unwelcome in previous years. I was glad to hear the official program acknowledge how Manzanar occupies Native land; I very rarely hear JA/Nikkei discussing settler colonialism in our spaces, so it’s good to know some people are aware.

The other two events I remember clearly are the camp flag procession and Ken Koshio’s performance. I didn’t realize each camp had its own flag until I saw the procession, but it immediately became an, ‘oh, あたりまえ’ moment. I spy a story in there, but first I need to finish my survey of camp literature to make sure no other JA/Nikkei has written it first (and if they have, I hope they are a former/current watcher of Japanese historical dramas).

Ken Koshio’s performance consisted of an original piece about EO 9066 and a rendition of ‘Sukiyaki.’ He also had a fellow performer, a former professional taiko player whose name I can’t recall. For ‘Sukiyaki,’ he invited the audience to sing along. My mom and I did – Sakamoto Kyu is a household name in our family****** – but I didn’t see very many others joining in. I’m no singer, but I tried to be as enthusiastic as possible in my efforts because I didn’t want Koshio-san to feel unappreciated. I mean, I doubt he would, since he’s a professional and all, but I didn’t want him to think everyone in the audience drew a blank since he picked a very well-known song.

After the taiko and musical performances, my mom and I reviewed the program and decided we were どうでもいい about the speakers (I know, I know, I missed Warren Furutani), so we took a quick look at the pillar, found my dad, and started walking back to the visitors’ center. (Before I actually got to Manzanar, I assumed the pillar would comprise a significant part of my write-up because, you know, it’s in all the photos on the website, but we couldn’t even get close to it because of the stuff arranged in front, so I don’t really have anything to say. Next time, I guess!) This walk ended up being one of my favorite parts of our Manzanar visit, though not for the reasons I might have told myself before I arrived.

There’s not much left of Manzanar. In archaeological terms, maybe, yes, but to the casual eye, no, not really. I’m very visual, so all the mountains, trees, sky, and brush I saw, instead of flat sand, barracks, and guard towers, made me feel very far from the people who were incarcerated there. Looking at the green – really, unexpectedly green – growth in the open space behind the signs reading, ‘such-and-such’s quarters,’ the disappearance is clear, but not so much the emotion. It was easier (weird way of putting it, right?) to find the feeling when we looked at the overgrown parks and gardens. The rocks in the garden, especially – I have photos, but WordPress allots only so much space to media files – but as to the why, there could be a lot of reasons. My parents’ and relatives’ yards, in California and Sagamihara and Miyazaki, my art history background, my dad’s stories about my grandfather…and おはか参り, the non sequitur, maybe, but it makes sense in my head. The rocks say, there were people here, and they cared, and they put us here. Kind of like ほこら, ね? I need practice at the bilingual writing flow, but hopefully fellow bilingual JA/Nikkei readers sort of understand what I’m trying to say.

I saw the toilets. I thought, even before arriving, to take a photo, but when I actually saw them, it felt wrong. Plus, there was an article on the website about the toilets…it’s weird and kind of uncomfortable to think of them used as a tourist selling point.

We made a more thorough circuit of the visitors’ center (though I still couldn’t find anything about Farewell to Manzanar). I started flipping through the records of incarcerated names – incarcerees, or something, but I also think of stolen, stifled, silenced language, so names, too – and a ranger, a white woman, approached to ask if I was looking for a particular person. My dad gave her the details and she went to search the electronic records to see if she had anything we didn’t already know. I sat on a nearby folding chair (yes, I checked first to make sure nobody who looked more in need of a chair was in the vicinity) and looked at the camp flag display across the way. My mom sat next to me. I don’t remember what we talked about. Eventually, I saw Ken Koshio in the crowd, stopping now and then to photograph exhibits. He came to the flags and stepped around my chair for a better angle. I thought, Japanese or English?, picked Japanese, and asked if he wanted me to move, though of course, having picked the language, I sort of knew the answer already. It was half-selfish, I wanted to see what sort of 日本人/日系人 he chose to be or had become or currently was, and his response was, as mostly expected, 日本人. But he also didn’t seem surprised, to hear it from me, a very un-日本人 dressed person, but of course, he must meet all kinds of us in his line of work. (Speaking of which, has anyone else looked at his website? The collaborations with Native musicians are interesting…I feel iffy about the way he’s attired in some of the photos, even if his collaborators ‘approved’ it.) Anyway, it was very cool to talk to someone like him, if only for a second.

There’s a lot I’m forgetting, or already forgot, but I think I jotted down the things I told myself to remember. I learned, after the fact, that Naomi Hirahara was there, somewhere. NAOMI HIRAHARA. And I missed her! My only major regret for this first trip, as far as I know. I have Bachi and Cranes in my pile, and hope to get to one or both sometime this summer.

For any fellow JA/Nikkei reading this, feel free to @ me on Twitter if you have questions, or if you were there, too! I look forward to chatting with you.

P.S. If this post feels truncated in places, or disjointed, it’s because there’s a lot more in my head which, for one reason or other, I didn’t include in the text. Rather than writing myself out, I tried to cover the first iteration of what I consider ‘salient points’ of my experience, with the expectation there will be additional iterations inspired (or not) by the first.

*The towns of Lone Pine and Independence are both closer to Manzanar, but my dad wasn’t able to find a room to accommodate all of us by the time he made the reservation.

**I don’t usually promote writers outside of my book-related posts, but Brandon is someone I admire a lot, so check out his poetry if you have a chance.

***I didn’t see any reference to Farewell to Manzanar in the visitor center exhibits. To my fellow JA/Nikkei who have visited Manzanar, did you notice any reference to the book? Considering how well-known it is, I expected to see at least a placard acknowledging its existence. Maybe I just missed that particular exhibit?

****They have a pretty decent selection of JA/Nikkei works on their shelves, for any fellow JA/Nikkei readers planning a visit.

*****On Twitter (and maybe on this blog), I previously stated my relatives were incarcerated at Poston. During this trip, I learned they were apparently at Topaz and Gila River, so I apologize to any JA/Nikkei confused by the discrepancy.

******Full disclosure: Sukiyaki is also an Obon staple – it was our kachi-kachi dance every year, so I can both sing and dance to it. Luckily, most people who read this probably won’t witness either one.