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.

Book Spotlight: I Am an American – Brandon Shimoda

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

“I Am an American” is an essay contemplating the place of incarceration in the lives of past, present, and future Japanese Americans through an analysis of the Gambatte! photo exhibition at the Tucson Desert Art Museum.

What I liked:

  • As any followers of Book Spotlight know, I don’t generally discuss essays or shorter pieces on here, but Brandon’s essay was so thought-provoking I thought I’d give it a shot. Also, he’s a terrific writer and I always think it’s a good idea to study my role models.
  • If it seems like this section should be longer, well, I basically liked the entire essay – in the following sections, I’ve discussed in more detail the points I found especially interesting.

What I learned:

  • I’ve been reading various discussions of gaman and shikata ga nai in Nikkei/camp literature and while I don’t disagree with what I’ve read, I think I finally understand why I felt kind of detached from these topics. I learned these terms like I learned the majority of my Japanese – from my Shin-Issei mom, so they were just words to me for a long time. My dad’s side of the family endured incarceration, but my dad doesn’t speak Japanese, so these words never came up in conversation. Anyway, all of that to say, it’s fascinating to me to think about how our individual (diaspora) experiences with language can so meaningfully shape our understandings of what it means to be Japanese. I’m also interested in Brandon’s specific point – how the use of these particular Japanese words in the particular context of the camps and war history has determined the (partial?) shape of Japanese-ness in the US. I wonder if he has thoughts on the endurance (either independent of or connected to specific words) of Japanese people in the face of US military/government power in a transnational context…and yes, I’m once again heading toward Hashimoto’s The Long Defeat. To also pull in a thread from one of the ongoing discussions in Book Twitter, I feel this is somewhat of a sticking point, at least in the context of Japanese/Nikkei communities, in the argument, “diaspora is separate from non-diaspora.” Obviously, they are not the same, and nor does Twitter allow for nuance, but specifically in a Japanese context, I often think our existence and experiences as diaspora are in fact much more connected to Japan than some narratives might seem to indicate, not least because of the now-global popularity of Japanese pop culture and what it means to exist outside Japan as a Japanese person in the context of said culture. Then again, I might simply be inferring from my own experiences without sufficient context – I have a lot more reading to do.

Questions I had:

  • Who is Kitagaki’s intended audience? It seems he wants to memorialize Japanese Americans and incarceration in a respectful, enduring way, but does he wish to do so primarily for our community? I especially wonder what he expects Black audiences will think when they see the blackface photograph – or did he not imagine any Black people (including people of Black and Japanese descent) would view the exhibit? I am not suggesting the photograph necessarily be removed, since, as Brandon points out, the image testifies to, “the perverse psychosis that is settler colonialism,” which I believe our community absolutely needs to keep in mind and actively resist. However, whereas I feel Brandon’s essay is written in a way which makes room for Black readers to consider and respond to his discussion of antiblackness in the Japanese American community (if any Black people read this, please let me know if you think otherwise), I’m not sure the exhibit itself offers this space. I never viewed the actual exhibit, so I can’t be sure, but based on Brandon’s description of how the photograph was displayed, it doesn’t sound as if the blackface is being explicitly challenged or condemned. Although I don’t wish to erase the feelings of the relatives of those pictured, I believe our community can and needs to find ways to call out blackface and other instances of antiblackness without disrespecting the memories and experiences of our families.

Follow-up:

  • I looked up Paul Kitagaki’s website after reading the essay, which answered one of my original questions – he apparently did come up with the overall concept of the exhibit. My immediate thought when Brandon wrote of the blackface photograph, “It is probably not the moment Kitagaki imagined as the keystone,” was whether Kitagaki or someone else chose to include that particular moment from history and what this selection implied about the person behind it. I don’t know how the photographs were arranged in the space or if there was an intended centerpiece, but I feel the inclusion of the blackface photograph, as well as Brandon’s commentary on it, raises the question of what has been the focal point of camp memorialization for Japanese Americans (if indeed such a point can be identified – I don’t feel I know enough right now to make this determination). In this particular case, I also wonder why Brandon suggests this photograph was not Kitagaki’s intended keystone (oddly, I thought of Keystone, South Dakota – I suppose settler colonialism was/is on my mind) – does he know Kitagaki well enough that this is a personal observation? Kitagaki is quoted in the essay – perhaps Brandon’s statement arises from remarks Kitagaki made during the interview/whatever source material Brandon drew quotes from? Or is it an inference drawn from his broader studies of incarceration, a commentary on how antiblackness, model minority, settler colonialism, and a host of other essential issues are (often?) not discussed, much less directly addressed, by the larger Japanese American community. Or it could be something else altogether. If Kitagaki has read this essay, I wonder what he thought.
  • According to Kitagaki’s website (not sure how updated it is), he is hoping to publish a book containing the exhibit photographs. I hope he succeeds. I would be interested in reading any accompanying text.

Book Spotlight: A Jar of Dreams – Yoshiko Uchida

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

A Jar of Dreams follows the experiences of Rinko Tsujimura and her family as they struggle to make a living while fighting anti-Japanese racism in Depression-era California.

What I liked:

  • I first encountered Uchida’s books in middle school (as far as I remember) and as I was reading, memories I hadn’t considered in years came rushing back. In middle school, I spent a lot of time in the library during lunch and recess (wow, do they still call it recess?). I was mostly reading Robert Jordan, David Gemmell, and Dragonlance in those days, but I remember walking slowly along this one shelf, looking for books by Japanese authors. From what I can recall, the only ones I found were Uchida’s Rinko series and Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori, neither of which really stood a chance against the likes of Tenaka Khan and Raistlin. In retrospect, I wonder if this experience was what prevented me from seeking out more JA/Nikkei authors until college. I’m so glad I decided to pick up Uchida’s books again. A huge thank-you to my fellow JA/Nikkei writers for all the articles and blog posts they created on camp history, which was really what drew me back into JA/Nikkei literature so many years later.
  • THAT TAKUAN REFERENCE! I definitely know I’m reading a Japanese author.
  • When I started the first chapter, I wasn’t immediately certain whether the characters were speaking Japanese or English. Most of the other JA/Nikkei historical fiction I’ve read features characters who don’t speak or understand much Japanese, so it was super gratifying when I realized they were speaking Japanese for the most part. I especially appreciate how Uchida writes as if taking this for granted, i.e. the scene where Rinko realizes Aunt Waka can speak English.
  • So many layers and facets of Japanese/JA/Nikkei history are addressed in the text, with varying levels of detail, from the Japanese newspaper on the kitchen table at the very beginning, to references to Aunt Waka’s English education, to Kanda’s bachelor life in the Japanese church dormitory. The immersive feel of an insider perspective on our histories and communities reminded me so much of my own experiences and what I’ve heard from family members.
  • A ‘jar of dreams’ is a lovely concept. I immediately thought of a jar of fireflies – even though Rinko’s jar has money in it – and from there thought of the various images associated with Japanese summer culture, especially events involving family. I wonder what inspired Uchida to use this term and I’d also like to know what fellow JA/Nikkei readers thought of when they read it.

What I learned:

  • I’ve been reading bits and pieces of pre-war JA/Nikkei history, but I think the only work of notable length I’ve read on this era is Between Two Empires. I’ll have to review my TBR to see what else I’ve got on there. I don’t recall if Azuma addressed this in his book, but I wonder how many (if any) Japanese Americans returned to Japan during the Depression. I know some JAs returned to Japan for various reasons over the years, but was there a ‘mass exodus’-type movement at any point other than when many returned because of the war?

Questions I had:

  • At what age do other JA/Nikkei readers tend to encounter Uchida’s work and that of other historical/canon Japanese American authors? I wonder how many of us have shared the experience of finding these books super boring the first time around, but being very happy to return to them later. I also wonder in what sort of context other JA/Nikkei readers encounter our community’s literature. My mom pretty much only reads books in Japanese and I’ve never thought to ask my dad if he ever read JA/Nikkei authors because I never saw any of their books at home, so I had zero background information when I first came across names like Uchida and Mori. I wonder if JA kids growing up in heavily JA-influenced areas like Little Tokyo or those whose families are heavily involved in the community via Buddhist temples, Obon, etc., might have heard of these authors before ever picking up their books. I never really talked to anyone besides family and friends when I danced in Obon, but something tells me the name Yoshiko Uchida would not be unfamiliar to some of my fellow participants.
  • Based on the cover artist’s name and the age of the book, I’m assuming they are a white person. I don’t really expect better of books from so long ago, but considering Uchida’s work is relevant to today’s readers (and continues to be available via major retailers like Amazon), it would be nice to see new editions with covers by JA/Asian/POC artists. Did other JA/Nikkei readers feel like Rinko and Aunt Waka don’t exactly look like actual Asians? I can tell they are meant to be Asian, especially in contrast to the white characters in the background (I read a paperback edition; see my twitter for a photo of the cover), but to me they seem to represent a white/non-Asian person’s attempt to depict Asians, rather than being a recognizable image of actual Asians. In fact, the most visually similar representation of “Asians” I can recall is some depictions of Asian characters by non-Asian artists in Marvel/DC comics. Put another way, Rinko and Waka’s facial features make me think of white people dressed as Asians, or those terrible films featuring yellowface. I remember being puzzled by these depictions when I first read the Rinko series, but since I was also regularly exposed to media from Japan, I simply expected the ‘white American’ style of representing Asians to be somewhat off from the reality and didn’t consider it worth holding to the same standard.
  • A quick search indicates Uchida passed in 1992. Did she imagine or hope her books would remain in circulation more than twenty years later? If she knew how widely known she is today, what would she say? What advice would she have for today’s JA/Nikkei writers? Did she have any hopes for or concerns about the future of JA/Nikkei literature?
  • When Waka reminds Rinko to know she is always Japanese, even if she never wears a kimono again, I realized this particular conversation isn’t one I see very much during conversations about identity in Nikkei/diaspora/Asian American spaces. Rather, there seems to be a focus on diaspora Asians building community with each other through shared experiences or later generations expanding/reevaluating their identities when in conversation with earlier generations, i.e. second-gen child discussing family history with first-gen parent. This is not a critique of ongoing dialogues in diaspora Asian spaces, but rather an exploration of how to conceptualize the spaces inhabited by people like Waka. To put it specifically in JA/Nikkei terms, Rinko’s mother is obviously Issei, but I doubt any of us would use Issei to describe Waka because she isn’t an immigrant.* In my personal experience, visits from relatives like Waka, as well as being able to visit Japan, played a significant role in shaping my understanding of what it means to be Japanese, and I would love to hear thoughts on this topic from fellow JA/Nikkei with similar connections to Japan. I also wonder whether it is more or less common for families to visit each other internationally today than it was in Rinko’s time. On one hand, many families who are now at the Sansei, Yonsei, Gosei, etc., stage would (theoretically, assuming they stayed in contact) have had much closer ties to Japan in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century than they might have now, especially if connections were lost during the war; conversely, with today’s technological advancements and (relative/selective) ease of access via study abroad, overseas job recruitment, etc., even children can make the international journey. This is obviously a very simplified comparison – I hope some Japanese or Nikkei scholar has written a book on the topic.
  • Rinko draws a distinction between her ‘American’ and ‘Japanese’ parts. Although I wouldn’t expect otherwise from a child narrator, it would be nice if, along with a Nikkei/POC-illustrated cover, the publisher could update some of the text to be more inclusive, or maybe a JA/Nikkei author could be commissioned to write a foreword or afterword addressing aspects of the original text which have not “aged” well, per se. This is, of course, linked to an ongoing problem in US publishing and in US mainstream culture in general – the assumption of ‘American’ as white by default. In this particular case, the Tsujimura family (perhaps not unexpectedly) seems to uncritically endorse ‘American Dream’ rhetoric, which erases their role and the overall role of nonwhite people in perpetuating settler colonialism in the so-called US. Examples include some of their key ‘victories’ in the story, such as the establishment of the home laundry and the repair garage. To any JA/Nikkei reading this and getting angry at me, pointing out this aspect of the book does not undermine the difficulties and obstacles endured by our community and other nonwhite people in the US. I’m not trying to diminish our history or disrespect our ancestors – my own grandfather ran a laundry in my hometown after being released from Topaz. That said, it would be dishonest and disrespectful to our community’s values (at least as I understand them), if we fail to acknowledge our past and current roles in upholding settler colonialism and if we do not actively engage in decolonization work with both indigenous and settler communities.
  • To further clarify, I am not (necessarily) critiquing Uchida for the pro-settler representation discussed above. I have no way to confirm her beliefs regarding indigenous peoples – all I can really say is, nowhere does the text challenge the ‘right’ of Japanese and other nonwhite people to pursue the ‘American Dream,’ and because of this lack of a counter-narrative, I feel it is the responsibility of the non-indigenous reader to raise these questions.

Follow-up:

  • I think I’ll read The Best Bad Thing next – or at least, the next time I’m in the mood for another JA historical novel. When I was younger, I could read my way through an entire series without stopping, but these days, I find I have to break it up by reading a book or two by a different author in between. Sometimes I really do wonder what happened to my attention span…

For anyone who may have been following Book Spotlight and thinks I am singling out Uchida, I am not. Just like many of you, I’m learning as I go, meaning that over time, my posts will contain more nuanced discussions of how Nikkei books approach decolonization and other social justice topics. If I were to rewrite some of my older posts, I would doubtless have much more to say about how other JA/Nikkei authors have endorsed/opposed/questioned the relationship between ‘Japanese American’ identity and settler colonialism. This blog and Book Spotlight as a series were never meant to be static, consistent representations of a particular way of thinking. If you are looking for JA/Nikkei who have more of their shit together, I recommend checking out some of the people on my JA Reading List. Happy reading!

*I suspect this situation isn’t more widely discussed in general diaspora Asian spaces because not every diaspora Asian family maintains ties to relatives in the cultural/ethnic homeland. I’m not sure if it’s accurate to label this as a kind of privilege – I think it can be a privilege or a means of oppression depending on the situation, much like fluency in non-English languages can be for people in English-dominant countries – but nevertheless, it isn’t something which can be discussed without, I imagine, making large groups of people feel excluded or less-than.

Book Spotlight: The Fog – Kyo Maclear and Kenard Pak

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

The Fog, written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Kenard Pak, follows the adventures of a girl and a bird as they fight to free their home from a mysterious fog.

What I liked:

  • Kenard Pak is a fantastic artist. In fact, I really think his use of colors and composition is what made the book, even more so than the story itself. It looks like his background is in animation, which would explain how his images function so perfectly as storytelling devices. I almost feel he could have created this book solo, without any words.
  • There is no mention of race in the text, but I never imagined the main human character as anything but Asian. I wonder if other POC/Asian readers felt the same way.
  • I feel this book would do well if translated into Japanese. When I consider possible translations in my head, the story almost flows better in Japanese – maybe because, to me, there is more linguistic latitude (does that even make sense?) for leisurely storytelling in Japanese as opposed to English. This is probably an extremely subjective point, since I’ve noticed I can read slower-paced stories in Japanese, but I quickly get bored with them in English. Also, I think the quiet underlying message about environmentalism would fit in well with the subgenre of Japanese children’s literature which I think of as, ‘make the world better.’

What I learned:

  • Quite frankly, I found the story a bit slow, though the cinematic effects of some of the illustrations reminded me of the movie Happy Feet, with its strong visuals and message about environmentalism. I don’t think kid-me would have found the story particularly appealing, either. Apparently, I like my picture books to be a bit more attention-grabbing in terms of plot.

Questions I had:

  • Whose idea was it to caption the human characters? I thought this was the most effective device in terms of conveying the bird-rather-than-human perspective.
  • Did Maclear or Pak come up with the initial concept of this book? What was their collaboration process like? Did one deliberately seek out the other as a fellow POC in the children’s literature field?
  • How have Asian kids responded to this book? Do many of them automatically see themselves in the main human character? Do their parents and/or other supervising adults make a point of drawing their attention to the Asian author AND illustrator?
  • How many young readers pick up on the book’s environmental themes? Do their parents and/or other supervising adults make a point of discussing these themes with them?

Follow-up:

  • Pak has written and illustrated several picture books of his own, so I’ll be checking those out!
  • I haven’t gotten much of a sense of Maclear’s writing style from her picture books, so it looks like I’ll be reading one of her novels sometime.