2018 Reading Goals – Results

Last December, I posted a 2018 reading goals bingo card for myself. The original post can be viewed here. One year later, I am happy to say, I GOT BINGO! Below are my results.

The categories in bold represent books I read in 2018.

Novel in verse Translated work by POC Religion (fiction or nonfiction) Short story anthology Indigenous sovereignty
Holiday or cultural event Settler colonialism Book of poetry Decolonizing academia Book in Spanish
JA activism Reread childhood favorite Novel (any genre) Bilingual book Picture book w POC author and illustrator
YA or MG by POC Nikkei in Japan Historical fiction by Nikkei writer Graphic novel by non-Japanese POC Culinary history
Racism in medicine Sexuality or gender identity South or Southeast Asian writer Romance by POC Memoir by a Black activist

My 2018 bingo books:

  • JA activism – The Long Afterlife of Nikkei Wartime Incarceration
  • Reread childhood favorite – The Best Bad Thing
  • Novel (any genre) – Seesaw Girl
  • Bilingual book – A Place Where Sunflowers Grow
  • Picture book w POC author and illustrator – The Fog

Other books I read in 2018:

  • Novel in verse – Forest World
  • Indigenous sovereignty – Deer Woman
  • Book of poetry – My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter
  • YA or MG by POC – Hoodoo
  • Historical fiction by Nikkei writer – A Jar of Dreams
  • Graphic novel by non-Japanese POC – MFK
  • South or Southeast Asian writer – Pashmina
  • Memoir by a Black activist – When They Call You a Terrorist

I did not include any Japanese-language books I read this year. I also omitted books which did not fit any of the bingo categories.

Book Spotlight: Dust of Eden – Mariko Nagai

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Dust of Eden is the story-in-verse of Mina Tagawa, who is forcibly relocated from her home in Seattle to the Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho.

What I liked:

  • This book is extremely readable – Nagai has a talent for capturing details and establishing settings with just a few words. I almost wonder if the book’s format makes it a good choice for teaching Japanese students about Nikkei wartime experiences, while also honing reading comprehension skills.
  • Nagai gracefully combines Japanese and English in her poems, though I could do without the in-text translations. At the same time, because the Japanese in the book is so clearly written by a native* speaker, it gave the story a different, almost dreamlike feeling for me, in contrast to other Nikkei-written camp literature. I felt at times as though I was reading a 日本人 reimagining of Nikkei camp experiences, bolstered in part by the fact that Nagai does not appear to have a family connection to the camps. According to the note at the end, her family physician was in a camp.
  • The strong visuals of the story suggest it could be brilliantly adapted as manga or anime, by a dedicated and skilled team of Japanese/Nikkei artists. There are many visual adaptations of what happened at Hiroshima by 日本人 creators – I think it would be fitting to see some of them work with Nikkei creators, especially individuals with family connections to the camps, to create similar adaptations spotlighting this part of JA history. Weedflower would also be a good candidate for this type of adaptation.

What I learned:

  • Gary Kunieda’s story was very interesting to me. I know some Nikkei chose to leave the camps for Japan, but I have not yet read a work dedicated to their experiences. What happened to them when they reached Japan? Did any of them end up fighting for the Japanese army? I would be especially interested in reading a Nikkei-written adaptation, fiction or nonfiction, of a multigenerational story rooted in this part of JA history. Bonus points if the writer is inspired by their own family history!

Questions I had:

  • Why did Nagai decide to write this book? Was she personally interested in learning more about the camps? How does she conceptualize her own Japanese/Nikkei/other identity in relation to the topic of the book? What contribution did she envision making to the existing body of Nikkei-written camp literature?
  • I noticed multiple omitted words in the poems – were they editorial errors? Initially, I wondered if they were intentional, but since most of the book is written from Mina’s POV and she is Japanese American, there is no reason for her English not to be perfectly grammatically correct. I’m a bit disappointed if the omissions are editorial in nature, because the book was just reissued with a new cover and I would hope someone took the time to proofread the content as well.
  • The content of several of the poems was disturbing to me, primarily because I could not discern the purpose of including topics which, while perhaps historically “accurate,” might well be hurtful to certain readers. I’m thinking particularly of the scene where Nick and his friend ask which bathroom they should use. I cannot imagine a Black reader finding this scene particularly amusing. What sort of audience did Nagai envision when she drafted this portion?
  • As Nikkei readers and writers, how do we make sense of the intersections of settler colonialism and cultural attitudes regarding land? This question was often on my mind as I read the (many) sections where Mina ponders the meaning of being American, as well as the depictions of Grandpa and his roses. Grandpa’s personality, echoed and exemplified by his treatment of the land, felt in many ways quintessentially Japanese to me. I can see in him the bridge between Japan and JA gardeners. At the same time, we have lines such as, “We tame the land with our hands,” which is not particularly distinguishable from the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny or a sentence from the Little House series. I wonder if any indigenous/Native readers have read this book and if so, what they thought of this line and others like it. I also wonder about the effect of these lines on a Nikkei reader – what sort of image of being “American” is conveyed here?
  • Continuing from my last thought, what then is the responsibility of contemporary Nikkei writers and creators? What is the value of putting racism, anti-blackness, settler colonialism, etc., on the page unchallenged, especially in fiction, when doing so perpetuates ideas and practices which are harmful to living communities – and by extension, potential readers? Perhaps this is what Cynthia Kadohata wished to accomplish with Weedflower. For reprints or new editions, if writers and/or publishers do not wish to update the original text, they might advocate for an author’s note which explains why certain ideas or topics were included. It is also vital for writers to clearly identify their intended audiences. For example, if I knew a Black reader was preparing to read this book, I would let them know about the bathroom scene.
  • What sources did Nagai utilize when writing this book? I would be interested in taking a look at her bibliography. The suggested reading list at the back of the book seems primarily targeted to young white readers to give them a basic understanding of Nikkei wartime experiences. I’m glad to see some Nikkei-written books on the list, but I wish the ones written by white people could be replaced with additional Nikkei-created sources. For the camps, especially, there is more than enough material by JA/Nikkei to educate young readers, without sending the message (however implicit) that white people should always be involved in the chronicling of nonwhite experiences.

Follow-up:

  • I realize my lengthy comments above may make it seem I’m highly critical of this book, but I did genuinely enjoy reading it. I think it would be a useful example in any intracommunity discussion comparing and contrasting Nikkei-written camp literature.

*I can’t recall if there was dialogue online about utilizing the term “native” to describe people who have spoken a language since birth. I’m not overly fond of the term “mother tongue,” but I need to check back and see if other alternatives were discussed.

Book Spotlight: The Samurai’s Garden – Gail Tsukiyama

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

In The Samurai’s Garden, a young Chinese man named Stephen travels to wartime Japan to recover from tuberculosis and forms an unexpected friendship with his grandfather’s gardener, Matsu, and a beautiful, reclusive woman named Sachi.

What I liked:

  • For readers who prefer atmosphere over plot, I think Tsukiyama does the best job of establishing place and time of any Nikkei writer I’ve read thus far. Being more plot-oriented myself, it took longer for me to understand why the story seemed to move so slowly. Those of my friends who stick obstinately to “literary” works over genre fiction, this book is probably for you.
  • Tsukiyama’s technique of including letters from Stephen’s family and friends within the diary-like format of the book made the entire story feel extremely dreamlike to me, because none of it seemed to be happening in real time. A diary is something that can only be read after it is written, in the same way a letter takes time to reach its destination before the recipient knows its contents. Additionally, Tsukiyama’s use of trains to move her characters back and forth from Tarumi to other parts of Japan further exemplifies the surreal, fantasy-like nature of the story, as if Tarumi is a magical place far removed from the “real” world where the war is occurring. The final image of Stephen beginning to record his experiences on the train reminded me strongly of 千と千尋の神隠し, particularly the beginning and ending scenes when Chihiro uses a tunnel to access the spirit world. I was also struck by how Stephen takes leave of Matsu and Sachi, knowing he will most likely never learn what becomes of them. The haunting, nostalgic ending was one of the most powerful moments in the book for me.

What I learned:

  • Was it common for affluent Chinese families to maintain summer homes in Japan prior to the war? I know Korean laborers lived in Japan during the war, but I’ve never heard of anything like the arrangement Stephen’s family has in Tarumi. It’s a topic worth looking into – I’ll have to keep an eye out for other novels or scholarly works with a more detailed overview.

Questions I had:

  • Who supervised the romanization of Japanese in this book? Someone previously told me they had noticed errors in Tsukiyama’s novels and unfortunately I have to agree. I do hope publishers are more careful these days, as I believe this book was released a number of years ago.
  • Why did Tsukiyama decide to put “samurai” in the title of the book? I wonder if this aspect of the book was a marketing decision, or if she intended to explore the concept of samurai from the start. That said, if the linking of samurai ideals to certain characters was intended to demonstrate how samurai culture has persisted in Japan over time, it seems like an odd topic to juxtapose with Stephen’s constant awareness of Japanese atrocities in China. To me, the book felt like an attempt to illustrate the nuances of Japanese culture with respect to interpersonal interactions and family relationships. Although the story could have been an opportunity to thoroughly explore the gap between Japanese reality and stereotype, I felt it relied a bit too heavily on concepts like samurai and honor, which are already heavily distorted in outsider perceptions of Japan. How did other Nikkei readers feel about the portrayal of Japanese culture in this book?
  • What is the significance of including leprosy in the story? I initially wondered if Yamaguchi was based on a real village, but if so, I like to think there would have been an author’s note somewhere in the book explaining the historical significance of how Japanese people with leprosy were treated during this time. If the experiences of Sachi and the other inhabitants of Yamaguchi are based on those of real people, I feel it would have been a mark of respect to acknowledge this on the page. That said, I also wonder if Tsukiyama originally asked to include a note and the publisher refused. If any Japanese readers with leprosy have read this book, what did they think?

Follow-up:

  • I know Tsukiyama has written a number of other novels and I was thinking it might be interesting to read one of her historical novels on China, for instance, since she is also of Chinese descent.

Book Spotlight: A Place Where Sunflowers Grow – Amy Lee-Tai

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, written by Amy Lee-Tai and illustrated by Felicia Hoshino, depicts snapshots of life in Topaz, as seen through the eyes of Mari, a young Nikkei girl.

What I liked:

  • I added this book to my TBR as soon as I learned it was bilingual. As someone with relatives inside and outside Japan, I know firsthand how important it is for 日本人 to learn about 日系 experiences, and vice versa. I also think it’s important for these exchanges to begin happening early, which is why it’s so exciting to find bilingual children’s books by Japanese authors.
  • Felicia Hoshino’s illustrations are charming. To me, they also feel as if they were created with true affection for and knowledge of Japanese faces. I appreciate how Hoshino and Lee-Tai both have family connections to the camps, which makes this book stand apart from the recent influx of non-Japanese-written content on the camps. Did Lee-Tai approach Hoshino about doing the illustrations, or was Hoshino hired by the publisher after the manuscript was sold? At any rate, kudos to the person who understood the importance of hiring a Japanese, and especially Nikkei, illustrator for this book.
  • The dominance of yellow in the illustrations was very interesting. As a child, I learned to think of yellow – well, some shades of yellow – as a very おとなしい color, influenced largely in part by the Japanese children’s books my mother read to me. Also, ひまわり is a common motif in Japan, especially for things targeted at children, so my general impression of yellow is more positive than negative. At the same time, in the context of the camps, yellow can be associated with the hot, dry sand, the endless desert, the piercing sunlight, and many other natural elements which made life miserable for incarcerated Nikkei. I would love to know if 日本人 versus 日系 children interpreted the color scheme differently, based on their personal and/or cultural associations with yellow. In my case, I don’t think I would have fully grasped the mental, emotional, and physical toll of being in the camps if I had read this book as a child, because the illustrations do not strike me as particularly unhappy or unpleasant. That said, I also wonder if Hoshino selected her color scheme in order to lighten the mood, since the overall theme of the book is one of hope and resilience in the face of oppression and injustice.
  • I remember giant sunflowers growing in my parents’ yard when I was a child. Reading the author’s note about sunflowers at the end of the book brought the memory back, and I wondered if my grandfather and his family ever saw those sunflowers during their time in Topaz.

What I learned:

  • At one point, Mari’s father is still teaching a class while the rest of his family lines up for dinner. I seem to recall mealtimes were strictly observed in the camps, so I wonder what this meant for camp inmates with overlapping commitments. Did they all have families like Mari’s father does to hold their places in line? Were there so many classes being held that some of them absolutely had to overlap with mealtimes? I realize I’ve read a fair amount on how people felt at being in the camps, but less about daily camp routines and the systems Nikkei created to organize their lives.

Questions I had:

  • Does Lee-Tai read or write Japanese? According to the credits at the end of the book, the translation was done by Marc Akio Lee, with assistance from others. I ask because I felt the closing line in Japanese was more powerful and emotionally resonant than the same line in English, though the overall sentiment seemed essentially identical.
  • Did Hoshino’s initial sketches include any images of the fully-grown sunflowers? The title evokes such a vivid image, I was a little surprised when no corresponding illustration appeared in the book. This is not a criticism of the book, but I would be interested in knowing if other Japanese/Nikkei readers felt the same. Also, the final illustration instantly reminded me of トトロ – was this a deliberate allusion on Hoshino’s part? It seems like a somewhat whimsical comparison to draw, especially in light of the serious subject matter, but I can also see Hoshino wanting to demonstrate how hopeful and triumphant Mari and her companions are after finding ways to make life in camp bearable, in the same way Satsuki and Mei celebrate when they see the shoots in the garden. 夢だけど、夢じゃなかった!

Follow-up:

  • I think I have a book about Chiura Obata and his time in Topaz, which seems like a fitting follow-up to this story.

Book Spotlight: When the Emperor Was Divine – Julie Otsuka

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

When the Emperor Was Divine is told from the perspectives of a Japanese (American) family before, during, and after their incarceration in Topaz.

What I liked:

  • As one of the more “mainstream” JA/Nikkei authors (meaning, non-Japanese readers have mentioned her books to me), Otsuka has been on my TBR for years, and I’m glad to finally read her work.
  • Wow, the final chapter is sharp! I actually read most of the book out loud to myself and I could feel the rage and despair and so many other emotions pulsing beneath the father’s words. If anyone who coordinates JA history activities is reading this post, I highly recommend doing a reading of the final chapter in your group, especially if your audience is primarily non-Japanese people unfamiliar with the impact of the camps. (I was going to write ‘aftermath’ instead of ‘impact,’ but whenever I see the word aftermath I think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the comparison/conflation feels disrespectful.)
  • One aspect of JA/Nikkei history and culture which I feel Otsuka captured extraordinarily well is the origins of assimilation. Of course, JA/Nikkei had already made efforts to assimilate to varying degrees before the war, but the slowed-down, almost frame-by-frame depiction of the children’s thoughts in the second and third chapters provides a searing insight into how, stripped of nearly all traces of their former lives, incarcerated JA/Nikkei gradually found themselves with no option but to assimilate (or should I say anglicize), even if it meant distancing themselves from their familial roots and learning to refer to their 日本人 friends and relatives as ‘the enemy.’ Although I don’t know if Otsuka consciously included this, the children also (continue to) internalize white supremacy, as shown in fleeting glimpses of their thoughts and feelings toward Black and indigenous people. At one point, the boy counts the Black people he sees on the street, in what seems to be an example of returning to ‘normal’ life post-camp, but which also, at least to me, exemplified how non-Black USian POC have adopted longstanding white USian practices of treating Black people as a source of entertainment rather than humans deserving of equal respect.*

What I learned:

  • Did camp residents really salute the Japanese emperor? To what extent was Japanese – reading, writing, speaking – used in the camps? I’ve read many mentions of Japanese language and culture being curtailed outside the camps, before and after incarceration, but I didn’t think much about how it continued to be used inside. What about the Issei with virtually nonexistent English skills who were imprisoned? Did their English improve while they were in camp? How did the Nisei, with their more fluent English, feel about their bilingual elders?
  • What proportion of JA/Nikkei at the time revered the emperor in a way similar to their 日本人 counterparts? I understood the title in a historical sense before actually reading the book, but at the same time, as a JA/Nikkei who grew up hearing about the emperor from my 日本人 relatives without actually feeling any kind of personal connection or allegiance, and being mostly surrounded by JA/Nikkei with similar views, it was difficult to imagine myself into a different, but still Nikkei, mentality in which the emperor holds more significance. It would be interesting to read the wartime reflections of Issei and Nisei on the topic of the emperor, though I haven’t come across any book with such a specific focus. I suspect my best bet is to read the anthologies of camp writings…

Questions I had:

  • Why did Otsuka go with anonymous POVs for her main characters? I wonder if she wanted Japanese/Nikkei readers whose family history includes the camps to imagine their own families experiencing the things she describes, by creating generalized characters and letting readers see through their eyes, rather than very specific characters to be viewed from the outside. Perhaps the characters’ anonymity also emphasizes the scale of Nikkei wartime incarceration. As far as I recall, the book never mentions the total number of JA/Nikkei who were incarcerated during the war, or any other wartime statistic, but I can see how creating a JA/Nikkei ‘everyman’ might cause readers to think more deeply about just how many people had their lives torn apart by being sent to camp. It’s an interesting strategy to consider, particularly in comparison to the opposite technique of using one very specific individual’s story (such as Anne Frank) to illuminate a much broader narrative. Most of the other camp literature I’ve read thus far utilizes the latter technique – I haven’t compared publication dates, but I wonder if Otsuka also chose her POVs in deliberate contrast to the existing literature. Lastly, I’d like to know if Otsuka’s agent or editor encouraged this type of POV, or if it was part of the original draft.
  • Does Otsuka have a personal/familial connection to the camps? I might look this up on her website later, if I remember. Why did she choose to write a novel about the camps? I believe this is her debut and I wonder if the war/camps is one of those topics which helps emerging Nikkei writers get their foot in the door. How many Nikkei writers query with a book unrelated to the war, only to have their agent/editor suggest they might have better luck landing the first deal if they write about the war (or samurai)? That said, most of the JA/Nikkei writers I’ve come across who write historical fiction appear to have a fairly personal connection to their material (myself included, though I write SFF), so I certainly don’t want to suggest anyone is exploiting traumatic narratives for personal gain. It looks like Otsuka’s second novel is also historical fiction, but set in a different period, and I wonder if her background is in history or a related field.
  • How does Otsuka see this work fitting into the existing body of camp literature? I haven’t read everything out there, by any means, but while I was reading her book I had a feeling it would have made more of an impression on me if I wasn’t already fairly knowledgeable about the camps. As it was, I finished the book wondering if anything really set it apart from the other novels I’ve read. To be clear, I am not critiquing Otsuka. The writing was spare and elegant, the choice of POV striking, and I can easily imagine how the book appeals to fans of ‘literary’ fiction. Maybe my genre bias is just getting in the way.

Follow-up:

  • I’ve been told Otsuka’s second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, is quite good, so expect to see a post about it in the future!

*The dehumanization of slavery (Black people quantified and used as currency), the history of minstrelsy/blackface, and Jim Crow are some of the more prominent examples of racist USian institutions and practices which render this scene much more disturbing than it may initially appear. Yes, this is for anyone who read the post and wanted to say, ‘he’s just playing’ or something similar.

Book Spotlight: Outside Beauty – Cynthia Kadohata

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

In Outside Beauty, Shelby and her three sisters struggle to reunite after being sent to live with their respective fathers in the wake of their mother’s accident.

What I liked:

  • Kadohata does an amazing job of capturing the thoughts and feelings of children and tweens. Contemporary MG and YA tend to be the most difficult books for me to get through, since I often get bored before I can finish reading, but in this case, Shelby’s voice and perspective were so entertaining and relatable, I was at the last chapter before I knew it. I am not much like Shelby as a person, but reading from her perspective sent me straight back to my elementary and middle school days. Although I was mostly into fantasy back then, I wonder if I would have enjoyed this book regardless, or if I would not have been able to see past the absence of dragons and flashy magic.
  • Jiro was such an interesting character to read. I almost felt like I could picture him more clearly than Shelby, probably because she spends so much time focused on him. I’m not sure how I feel about this contrast…on one hand, it demonstrates how effectively Kadohata situates her reader inside the narrative, but on the other, by the end of the book I still had very little of an external image of Shelby because I had spent the entire story inside her head. That said, I’m not sure Kadohata really intended the reader to have an external image of Shelby, so maybe my reading experience went exactly as planned.
  • To continue on the topic of Jiro…did fellow JA/Nikkei readers literally hear his accent every time they read his dialogue? The words, the small snatches of Japanese interspersed with English, the pauses and omissions in his speech…all of it was true to my experiences of hearing 日本人 speak English. Also, Shelby’s slowly evolving perception of Jiro, from feeling awkward about his ‘otherness’ to gradually understanding more of how and why he is who he is, felt extremely relatable to me as someone with an ever-changing understanding of my various family members’ relationships to Japanese-ness. I’m not sure I would have caught this particular nuance if I had read the book in middle school because I was definitely not thinking so critically about Japanese things as I am now. I wonder how different my experience of reading the book would have been back then – one thing I’ve been thinking about as I read my way through my backlog of JA/Nikkei children’s literature is, to what extent is all of the background knowledge I currently have obscuring my reading of the text? Of course, every reader brings a body of knowledge to what they read, but I’ve been wondering lately if it is possible to ‘overthink’ or ‘overanalyze’ certain works, in the sense that the author might go, ‘chill out and just enjoy, I wanted you to take a break by reading this!’ I realize assigning too much value to authorial intent can be limiting in and of itself, but as far as JA/Nikkei works, I like to at least acknowledge the presence of said intent because I think, for many of us, being Japanese creators means working with intent, to make the best thing you can, to evoke a particular response or range of responses from your target audience. Ehh…trying to explain this in English is not going well. For any fellow Japanese people reading this, I suppose you either get it or you don’t! Let’s move on…

What I learned:

  • Japanese gum manufacturers? In Arkansas? Is that a thing? I have thus far failed to complete my follow-up from Kira-Kira, which was to look into the history of Japanese communities in the southern US. Something tells me this will still be on my TBR the next time I come across this topic in Nikkei fiction, but at some point having to repeatedly acknowledge this particular failure on this blog will goad me into actually looking up the information, so there is that. I’m just glad none of my relatives in Japan have the time or interest in reading this blog, since, as I’m sure some of my fellow JA/Nikkei know, being a failure in Nikkei spaces is one thing, but being a failure as 日系人 in 日本人 spaces is quite another (and in my experience, somewhat worse than the first).

Questions I had:

  • Have any indigenous/Native readers ever approached Kadohata about her use of “powwow” in this book? Since it was published some time ago, I’m not sure if new editions are still being printed, but if so, I think this particular word choice should be updated to something that is not anti-indigenous. (I’m also still curious about indigenous/Native reader responses to Weedflower, but I have not found any verified ownvoices reviews so far. My original post on Weedflower can be read here.)

Follow-up:

  • I actually meant to read The Thing About Luck before I read this book, but clearly that didn’t happen. June will be full of move-related things, so I’m not sure when I’ll next read anything for Book Spotlight…hopefully soon, though!

Book Spotlight: Fish for Jimmy – Katie Yamasaki

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

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.

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

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

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

What I liked:

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

What I learned:

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

Questions I had:

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

Follow-up:

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

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

Book Spotlight: Journey Home – Yoshiko Uchida

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

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

What I liked:

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

What I learned:

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

Questions I had:

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

Follow-up:

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

Book Spotlight: The Best Bad Thing – Yoshiko Uchida

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

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

What I liked:

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

What I learned:

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

Questions I had:

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

Follow-up:

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

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