Book Spotlight: Fear Itself – Hana Chittenden Maruyama

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

“Fear Itself,” a short story by Hana Chittenden Maruyama, illuminates the intergenerational trauma(s) of camp history in Japanese American communities by alternating the memories of an incarcerated twelve-year-old girl with the post-9/11 reflections of her grandchild.

What I liked:

  • I bookmarked this story some months ago and forgot about it until a slow moment at work. When I finally hunted it out (note to self: reorganize bookmarks) and started reading, I got all the way to the end before remembering I had a job to do because THIS AUTHOR GETS IT. I’m not sure if this is what other readers mean when they talk about seeing themselves in a story, or feeling seen by a story, but I connected at a heartfelt level with Maruyama’s work and I highly recommend it to any fellow JA/Nikkei if the camps are part of your family’s history.
  • Reading the first paragraph, I definitely thought the story was historical fiction in the tradition of Weedflower or Farewell to Manzanar, and it was a pleasant “gotcha” when I hit the second paragraph and realized some type of cross-generational dialogue was about to take place. I have nothing against historical fiction, but as someone who often contemplates the different ways historical silence has shaped JA/Nikkei spaces and experiences, as well as how we as individuals and as a community can have these conversations before it’s too late, I’m especially excited whenever I come across a fellow JA/Nikkei writer who appears to be considering similar questions.
  • Maruyama pulls no punches when it comes to articulating the emotional and mental tolls of incarceration on her characters. According to one of her tweets, the story is based on her grandmother’s experiences, which, at least to me, explains the rawness of the emotions on the page. It’s difficult to put this next point into words, but I’d say the personal nature of the narrative also comes through in the Japanese-ness of her character portrayals. Lines spoken by Kiyo and Fudeko as they recall their experiences are straightforward and spare, with no sense of embellishment on behalf of the reader. Any fellow JA/Nikkei who have heard older JA relatives speaking English probably have an idea of what I mean.* In fact, I found myself thinking Maruyama’s style is very similar to my own when I try to write about (or around) the camps in my fiction.
  • A few times in the text, I wondered how Maruyama managed to write exactly what I’ve thought or felt about the camps and JA/Nikkei history any number of times, so I’ve decided to highlight them here. From paragraph four: “[…] a line firmly drawn by all that has gone unsaid.” This line is extremely relatable to my own family history, especially considering I have no memory of ever speaking to those surviving relatives who were formerly incarcerated. From paragraph six: “Instead we read the stories others set loose, and over time those stories have become our own.” Here, I was like, ‘Maruyama, are you WATCHING me?!’ But seriously, this is very much a part of what I’ve been doing with my attempt to read more JA/Nikkei literature over the past few years. I also considered it in relation to Nikkei perspectives on Japanese/homeland culture, specifically regarding Nikkei consumption of anime/manga and Nikkei retellings/recreations of Japanese mythology in books and other media. (I realize this latter bit is probably completely out of context relative to what Maruyama intended, but that’s how my mind works.)
  • Kats! Haha. Bilingual JA/Nikkei who remember being bewildered by this phenomenon when you first witnessed it in your own family, join me for a laugh.
  • Yay Kiyo and his friends for disrupting the pledge! I could see that scene making it into a picture book. I wonder if Maruyama is familiar with the Ken Mochizuki/Dom Lee collaborations.
  • The excerpts from the family’s incarceration records instantly reminded me of the records my dad looked up and sent to me about my grandfather. We also viewed them together after returning from the Manzanar pilgrimage last April. Did Maruyama include them in a nod to JA readers, or for some other reason?
  • Once or twice while reading, I lost track of whose perspective was on the page and had to backtrack a little. This is probably only because I was reading quickly out of excitement, but in retrospect I wonder if Maruyama also intended for there to be blurred lines to some extent. I tend to dislike narrative ambiguity, but in this case I think it works for the story by emphasizing how camp history impacts multiple generations in our community, and how familial bonds might simultaneously intensify and relieve the shared trauma.

What I learned:

  • Were high school students really recruited to build barracks? This is the first I’ve heard of such a thing, but it just reminds me I need to read some long-form nonfiction on the camps themselves, not just fiction, memoirs, and short pieces.
  • Was the Kiyokazu/Seiichi mix-up a common phenomenon during immigration? I was recently talking to my mom about why Japanese media writes even the all-Japanese names of Nikkeijin in katakana (if you guessed Ishiguro, congrats), and of course it was an “oh, duh!” moment when she explained about not knowing the correct kanji or hiragana. I wonder if there’s a JA/Nikkei-written book about the translation and evolution of Japanese names in diaspora spaces, with everything from the katakana thing to people altering/anglicizing their names for various reasons…and how such changes might be viewed in relation to how Nihonjin use katakana and non-Japanese words (especially English) for completely different reasons.

Questions I had:

  • If any Muslims and/or Middle Eastern people read this story, what did they think of the 9/11 reference toward the end? Personally, though I agree the JA community has absolute reason to speak against and oppose any kind of ‘camps’ targeting Muslim communities, I felt the insertion, coming as it did so late in the story, to be slightly gratuitous. I would have preferred if the final lines of the story provided a more definitive tie-in between JA history and the Muslim community’s present/possible future, rather than seemingly cycling back to an introspective moment on the narrator’s part. I almost wonder if the insertion was done at an editor’s request, or perhaps as a last-minute decision by Maruyama without taking the time to more thoroughly integrate it into the larger narrative. At any rate, I hope any Muslim and/or Middle Eastern readers who did read the story were not hurt by it.

Follow-up:

  • Is Maruyama planning to write a longer piece on JA history? I would love to read a novel or novella expanding on the characters and experiences chronicled in “Fear Itself.”
  • Apparently I’m just thinking a lot about silence now, but seeing as the other half of my lineage is Nihonjin/Shin-Nikkei, I wonder if any Japanese writers of any background have produced or considered a book about the silences between Nikkeijin and Nihonjin regarding not only the war,** which would surely be a focal point, but also notions of immigration, departures, diaspora, authenticity, language, etc. I have various books about Nikkei history and experiences on my TBR, but I don’t recall any of them having a particular focus on silence and what it means specifically in the context of being Japanese. Maybe such a book is untenable as a concept – it seems to me, though, that I can’t be the only JA/Nikkei who has ever experienced the many ways Japanese people utilize silence to define community boundaries. If this book doesn’t exist yet, a Japanese writer better jump on it before some non-Japanese person tries to twist it into yet another ‘look how quirky/exotic/fascinating Japanese culture is’ take because fuck that. Instead, I would love to read a collaborative work by Japanese writers of diverse backgrounds, through which process our communities find more inclusive ways of understanding each other’s Japanese-ness.
  • I need to try sukiyaki with daikon oroshi on top!

*It’s not an accent, exactly, but rather a direct, efficient use of words. I didn’t even realize there was a ‘JA English’ (distinct from the English spoken by Shin-Nikkei or Nihonjin) until a white (former) friend made fun of the way I spoke and I figured out it was because I learned English from my dad, who grew up in one of these older JA households.

**I guess another way to think of this hypothetical book is as a logical expansion of Akiko Hashimoto’s The Long Defeat, which I greatly admired for its astute meditations on topics often left unspoken or glossed over in Japanese spaces.

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Book Spotlight: The Wish Tree – Kyo Maclear

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

The Wish Tree, written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Chris Turnham, is the story of Charles and Boggan, two friends searching for the wish tree on a snowy day.

What I liked:

  • To be perfectly honest, I assumed Charles was a girl when I first saw the book cover. I purchased the book without ever reading a synopsis and I just assumed it was a story about a little girl. I’m still a bit disappointed it wasn’t, as I think it’s important for girls to be taught they can have outdoor adventures, whereas the premise of this book seems to reinforce the pro-gender-binary notion, “playing outdoors is for boys.” At the same time, the fact I did mistake Charles for a girl also strikes me as a good sign because it suggests boys can have a variety of appearances, which is not really something I saw in USian children’s books as a kid. I’m not sure if this visual ambiguity is deliberate on Turnham’s part – maybe I’m the only reader who thought Charles was a girl? – but I do think the fact of it might mean this book is a good choice for parents whose children choose their own gender identity. Also, it only occurred to me now (I definitely still have work to do in terms of understanding different forms of gender identity) – who says “Charles” needs to be a boy’s name? Why not just a name?
  • The scene where Charles and Boggan join the animals in a forest feast is so joyful and heartwarming! For some reason, I loved feast scenes as a kid, and I still do. I also kept thinking of the Johnny Depp* version of Alice in Wonderland while I was reading – maybe because of the Mad Hatter tea party scene? Anyway, it was an odd mental contrast.
  • Maclear’s writing is spare and graceful. I haven’t read any of her other books (yet), but I’d be interested in finding out if this style is characteristic of her novel-length work.

What I learned:

  • I chose this book because I wanted to read something by a Japanese Canadian author before the new year, but in the end, I’m not sure Maclear’s writing was the major draw. Funnily, I wanted The Fog instead because the illustrator is also Asian and I wasn’t sure of Turnham’s racial/ethnic background, but The Wish Tree was what was on sale at Powell’s that day, so here I am. I wouldn’t say I find Turnham’s art especially to my taste, but I do feel it was appropriate to the story. His compositions are admirable – he’s quite skillful at utilizing trees and snowy mounds to evoke the sights and sounds of a winter forest – and I wonder if he specializes in landscape art.

Questions I had:

  • How did this book come about? My assumption would be Maclear pitched the idea to her agent and the editorial team located an illustrator, but it could be Maclear and Turnham are friends or something. I did a very quick search to try to determine Turnham’s race (no mention on his website or Twitter, and no selfies, but I’m pretty sure he’s white) and noticed he is located in LA, which made me wonder about the book’s conception. As far as I know, Maclear is currently located in Canada.
  • Who is the intended audience of this book? Along with my initial assumption about Charles being a girl, I also half-wondered if he was a white illustrator’s attempt to draw an Asian kid. Judging by the blond sister, Charles is white. I did try to reimagine the characters as Asian for fun, but I have a hard time buying into the idea of parents letting their child dye her hair at such a young age. Still, it’s fun to think of a westernized Asian family having these adventures.
  • If Maclear did in fact pitch the initial concept, did she make any attempt to choose a POC/Asian illustrator? I also wonder if her agent and/or editorial team requested revisions to make the story more white-friendly. When I first saw the cover illustration, with the paper dangling from the branch, I briefly thought of 七夕, though the winter setting would be all wrong.
  • What was the purpose of including Charles’s repetitive humming in the text? I couldn’t figure out if I was supposed to recognize the tune. I feel these types of lines could be stumbling blocks for parents trying to read aloud to their kids, but on the flip side, it could be a fun readalong for kids who haven’t quite learned their words yet.

Follow-up:

  • In light of the sparsity of text, I wouldn’t consider The Wish Tree a great example of Maclear’s writing, so I’m looking forward to reading one of her novels next!

*This is not an endorsement of Johnny Depp. Although I would agree he is a talented actor, I think we all know by now that a good actor does not a good human make.

Book Spotlight: Kenta and the Big Wave – Ruth Ohi

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Kenta and the Big Wave, written and illustrated by Ruth Ohi, is a quiet and touching account of the 3/11 tsunami in Japan.

What I liked:

  • Ohi’s illustrations and palette are full of soft edges and gentle colors, or, as I thought to myself while reading, 何かすごくおとなしくてやさしいようなお話だよね 。 The aesthetics felt perfect for telling a serious story without frightening young readers. Full-page illustrations with close-up perspective lend immediacy to the events of the story, as if the reader is in the same space as Kenta, viewing the tsunami and its devastating results in real time. The quiet, subtle style with which Ohi renders people and their surroundings keeps the story from becoming too graphic or grim.
  • Ohi’s writing is simple and straightforward without euphemizing the extent of the damage for those who weren’t there. On one page, Kenta’s mother weeps at the destruction of their home and Kenta’s father says they will need to start over because nothing can be salvaged – this scenario is true for many families who lived in the tsunami zone. Kenta and his family spend time living in a makeshift evacuation shelter, the details of which Ohi is careful to include in her illustration. At the same time, Ohi infuses her story with what I interpret as a spirit of みんなで頑張ろう! I imagine most Nikkei readers familiar with Japanese culture will notice this and it might also be a way to open intergenerational/transnational conversations about what this concept has meant to Japanese/Nikkei communities over time. On a side note, I’m not even sure this concept/phrase has the same significance in Canadian Nikkei history as it does in JA history with regard to each community’s respective experiences with the camps.

What I learned:

  • I knew a number of Nikkei creators responded to 3/11 by producing work, but I hadn’t really considered trying to track any of it down until I came across this book. (I also remember reading about several white people organizing/creating ‘charity’ work for 3/11, including white expats in Japan and white translators of Japanese literature, which made me not want to look too deeply into 3/11-related work for a long time.) Now that I have a better sense of ‘who’s who’ in the Nikkei literary and arts scene, I might try to find other works in which our community addresses what happened.

Questions I had:

  • Is the kid who finds Kenta’s soccer ball supposed to be white? I initially read him as white based on his appearance and the English-language signs behind him, but then I thought it would be fun if he was an Asian kid who decided to dye his hair blond. I’ve never lived in a majority-Nikkei/Asian diaspora community, but in my experience, not many Nikkei dye their hair the way Nihonjin do, and the same fashion culture around hair dyeing doesn’t exist in our communities outside Japan. I like to imagine the blond kid is either Nihonjin and happens to have recently moved overseas, or a Nikkei kid with very close ties to Japanese culture. Both fun story ideas, come to think of it. Anyway, I wonder what race/ethnicity Ohi intended this kid to be, and what she would think of other interpretations by her readers!
  • Is there a Japanese translation of this book? What did Nihonjin readers think, especially any who may have been directly impacted by 3/11?

Follow-up:

  • I enjoyed Ohi’s book and I’ll keep an eye out for any other Japan-related work she may produce. She is Japanese Canadian and I believe she has worked on a book by Joy Kogawa…

Book Spotlight: Asian Settler Colonialism – Candace Fujikane & Jonathan Okamura (eds)

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Asian Settler Colonialism is a collection of academic essays by Native Hawaiian and (mostly) Asian settler writers outlining the impacts of the Asian settler presence on Native Hawaiian communities and lands.

Note: When discussing specific essays in this post, I focus on work by Japanese/Nikkei contributors, in keeping with the (current) purpose of Book Spotlight.

What I liked:

  • Somehow, I didn’t realize until the book arrived that it actually consists of two sections, one dedicated to Native Hawaiian* essays and the other to settler essays. I assumed the book consisted of Asian settlers in Hawaii addressing their complicity in and resistance to the historical and ongoing systemic oppression of Native Hawaiians. I absolutely appreciate the education I received from the Native Hawaiian half of the book; however, and maybe even because of the Native Hawaiian contributors’ powerful voices, I now feel the treatment of Asian settler colonialism by Asian settler writers was too light or brief by comparison.** Put another way, I could read an entire book or two written solely by Asian settlers on Asian settler colonialism. No, it’s not about creating the Asian version of ‘white guilt’ – I simply believe Asian settler colonialism needs to be addressed much more deeply and broadly by Asian settlers IN academia. As the Asian settler contributors suggest, the most effective way for all settlers to support Native Hawaiian sovereignty is to openly acknowledge their/our complicity in colonialism/US imperialism and follow the Native Hawaiian lead instead of coopting the movement. To echo Fujikane’s statement in the introduction, I hope this book serves as a starting point for impactful Asian settler support of Native Hawaiian sovereignty. I would love to see many more Asian settlers in academia not only openly acknowledge their complicity in settler colonialism, but also explicitly situate their scholarship within a living decolonization/Native Hawaiian sovereignty movement. I also hope to see more Native Hawaiian voices, along with all other indigenous voices, regularly featured on wide-reaching platforms without being distorted or silenced by pro-settler interests.
  • Fujikane openly acknowledges Haunani-Kay Trask’s critique of one of her past articles as part of the introduction. I interpret this inclusion as part of an effort to normalize productive dialogue rooted in constructive criticism of settler scholarship by Native activists. I note this only because I haven’t observed many instances of such exchanges in what I’ve read. As the intent seems to be normalizing decolonization in academia, I wouldn’t label Fujikane herself as exceptional or praiseworthy for the gesture, as this would be no different from lauding white people for including characters of color in their novels.

What I learned:

  • “The Militarizing of Hawaii” – Kyle Kajihiro
    • I appreciated the history lesson on the US military presence in Hawaii, not to mention I had no idea Japan utilized Hawaii for military exercises. That said, I wish I had more of a sense of Kajihiro’s personal investment in the issues covered. His bio describes him as “Hawaii Japanese,” a term I’ve never heard before. What do Native Hawaiians think of this label? Although Asian settler colonialism exists at all levels, from individual to systemic, I feel academic writing often highlights big-picture ideas in a way that allows individuals, particularly academics themselves, to elude personal accountability. I don’t know, of course, if Kajihiro intended this, but I feel it would be most responsible for every settler contributor in this book to acknowledge, however briefly, their awareness of their complicity as individuals in settler colonialism in Hawaii. Anyone writing so directly about settler colonialism ostensibly doesn’t buy into the fantasy of scholarly ‘objectivity’ in which academics’ personal backgrounds magically fail to shape their perspectives in any way. On the flip side, I can see how Kajihiro’s generalized study might illuminate the scope of US imperialism via militarization to readers unfamiliar with the topic.
  • “Sites of Erasure” – Karen Kosasa
    • This was one of my favorite settler essays in the book. I especially enjoyed Kosasa’s acknowledgment of her and Tomita’s ongoing self-examinations of their creative frameworks. I look forward to her book on the topic. If Kajihiro’s essay seemed to focus excessively on big-picture issues at the expense of personal accountability, Kosasa’s work is a well-balanced study of both systemic and individual issues, not to mention an analysis of how they intersect. I did think Kosasa might self-identify as a settler in her bio, but I guess not.
  • “Ideological Images” – Eiko Kosasa
    • Another of my favorite settler essays! Similar to how I felt after reading Between Two Empires and The Long Defeat, Kosasa’s essay explicitly addressed aspects of Japanese/Nikkei history which I had intuited but never considered at length. Also, my art history background gravitates to any scholarship involving visual analysis, and Kosasa’s examination of the Teragawachi photographs is no exception. I loved her discussion of the kanji pictured in Figure 4. Her analysis linking JA/Nikkei historical narratives to the ‘American Dream’ should be required reading for the next JA/Nikkei generation, not to mention of interest to any JA/Nikkei researching post-camp assimilation experiences and/or the politics of (performative?) patriotism as enacted in the creation and memorialization of the 442nd.
  • “Ethnic Boundary Construction in the Japanese American Community in Hawaii” – Jonathan Okamura
    • This essay really helped illuminate the extent of Japanese American power in Hawaii for me, as a JA/Nikkei who grew up in the Bay (in a part where Japanese/Asians were not the majority). It was difficult for me to read the essay with anything beyond a growing sense of confusion and indignation, since I’ve experienced the decidedly unpleasant consequences of non-Japanese dominating (or thinking they dominate) the dissemination of Japanese culture, but my own reaction showed me exactly how different it is to be JA/Nikkei in Hawaii as compared with my hometown. I’d definitely like to know if there is an anthology or book featuring JA/Nikkei from diverse areas of the diaspora in conversation with each other about our experiences.
  • “Colonial Amnesia” – Dean Itsuji Saranillio
    • I really appreciate Saranillio’s open acknowledgment of his personal background in the second paragraph of this essay. It is straightforward, yet brief, and enriches rather than diminishes his broader analysis of Filipino involvement in settler colonialism in Hawaii. He also cites US imperialism in the Philippines as grounds for Filipino solidarity with Native Hawaiians, an argument which I feel could easily be applied to many other diaspora groups in the US/Hawaii. I’m surprised Saranillio’s bio doesn’t include self-identification as a settler.
  • “Local Japanese Women for Justice Speak Out against Daniel Inouye and the JACL” – Ida Yoshinaga & Eiko Kosasa
    • Full disclosure – I had very little idea who Daniel Inouye was beyond his name and something about politics prior to reading this book. I’m glad this particular essay was my first opportunity to read about him in detail, since it sounds like he has been uncritically glorified by many in our community. Now I want to know what my JA friends in Hawaii think of him. I also haven’t read much about the JACL, though I do recall reading about their complicity in JA incarceration. I’ve been looking for a book chronicling the history of various JACL chapters, but I haven’t found one yet. If any fellow JA/Nikkei know of one, let me know!

Questions I had:

  • What was the selection process for the essays? According to the editorial notes, at least some of the essays are reprints. Who had the most influence in selecting contributors? The Asian settler editors? The Native Hawaiian contributors? The people whose names appear in the acknowledgments? Were all the essays solicited from their writers? If not, what was the application process? Who was rejected and why? I didn’t expect this information to be transparently presented in the book, but it would be interesting to read an interview with Fujikane, Okamura, and the other key players in the selection process.
  • On a related note, what exactly were the motivations of the individual settler contributors regarding inclusion in this book? What kind of commitment do each of them hold with respect to Native Hawaiian sovereignty, decolonization, and resisting US imperialism? How do they reconcile their respective privileges with their belief (or not) in indigenous self-determination? In what ways do they implement resistance and solidarity in their professional practices as educators, scholars, creators, and activists? What do the Native Hawaiian contributors think of each of the settler contributors? Did the contributors ever come together as a group? If so, what kind of dynamic existed amongst them?
  • As far as I can tell, David Stannard is a white guy. Why does a book on ASIAN settler colonialism need a white perspective, particularly when his essay slot could have gone to a Native Hawaiian contributor? There is no aspect of settler colonialism in which an indigenous person or person of color can’t offer a perspective equally or more profound than what a white person has to say. I didn’t bother reading his essay, but if any Native Hawaiian or Asian readers did, what are your thoughts?
  • Did anyone else notice the varied wording of the contributors’ bios?*** I’m not sure whether the contributors and/or editors have any input on the wording of the bios, or if someone at the publishing house copy-pastes them from various sources, but I immediately thought of how some academics present themselves well on the surface (i.e. their scholarship), but less so in more personal contexts. Of all the settler contributors, only Eiko Kosasa self-identifies as a settler in her bio. I’m not an academic, but I wonder if there’s any actual career risk to self-identifying as a settler in one’s professional bio, especially if said bio is part of a book of pointed essays on settler colonialism. The settler contributors may also have other reasons I’m unaware of, yet it seems like a step backwards after their (mostly) excellent and straightforward essays. If any indigenous/POC academics are reading this and can offer clarification, let me know!

Follow-up:

  • Read more work by Native Hawaiian activists – Haunani-Kay Trask seems especially interesting – as well as Iyko Day’s Alien Capital and any other indigenous- or Asian-written work on Asian settler colonialism. Also, read up on Okinawa, global indigenous activism, and Japan’s militarization.

*I use “Native Hawaiian” in this post to refer to the indigenous people of Hawaii. The contributors utilize Native Hawaiian, Hawaiian, and Kanaka Maoli at various points, for reasons many of them explain in text or in their notes. As a non-indigenous person with no ties to Hawaii, I felt “Native Hawaiian” was the most appropriate term for me to use because it acknowledges their unique status as indigenous people, which might not be as clear (to non-indigenous readers) if I simply used “Hawaiian,” while avoiding what seems like a presumptive use of their language as an outsider if I wrote “Kanaka Maoli.” Considering the diverse terminology in the book, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on the most widely accepted term to use as an outsider/settler, so I have based my decision off of my personal background only.

**To clarify, I’m not critiquing the structure of the book. Fujikane clearly explains the reasoning behind the division in the introduction and it makes perfect sense to me.

***In the paperback edition, they are located after the final essay.

Book Spotlight: Firelight – Kazu Kibuishi

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

In Firelight, Emily and her companions journey to Algos Island to decipher Max’s final, cryptic message about Trellis’s lost childhood memories.

Note: This post compiles my thoughts on various volumes of this series, with a focus on the events of books 6 and 7.

What I liked:

  • THIS ISN’T THE LAST BOOK! I haven’t found any information on when book 8 will be released, but I’m just relieved to know the story continues. Kibuishi left us on one hell of a cliffhanger, so I hope the next book is on its way soon…
  • Emily and Trellis might actually become friends? I’m a big fan of main characters being close friends, especially when the development of the friendship is laid out on the page. Same with other types of relationships, actually…any book featuring a slowly developing, intense relationship between main characters is probably going to pique my interest. I’m really looking forward to finding out how Emily being a giant fire bird impacts her burgeoning friendship with Trellis. On a side note, Trellis’s relationship with his dad is eerily similar to Zuko’s father/son relationship in ATLA, including the facial scarring. I don’t know which came first, Amulet or ATLA, but I’d be interested to know if Kibuishi is a fan of the show. Also, now I’m wondering how much better ATLA would have been if Kibuishi and other actual Asians had written and directed it…
  • The elves’ eyes really creeped me out in the first few books, but by the time I got to this one, I hardly noticed them. I’m fairly visual and I usually stop reading a series if I can’t handle the images (進撃の巨人, I’m looking at you*), but kudos to Kibuishi for taking me on such an entertaining story ride that I stopped noticing what bothered me.

What I learned:

  • As mentioned in my post on The Stonekeeper, I’m paying close attention to Kibuishi’s secondary-world/fantasy races and any latent colorism, racism, or other indications of internalized white supremacy. So far, apart from my previously expressed concern about the ‘good’ main character being a white girl, I haven’t noticed any red flags. It does feel as if much of Kibuishi’s worldbuilding, especially architecture and clothing, are modeled after Eurocentric/white aesthetics rather than non-Eurocentric/POC aesthetics, but considering Kibuishi’s background, I’m not sure if this should be interpreted as (un)conscious bias in favor of ‘western’ culture, as Nikkei/diaspora POC might demonstrate, or something closer to how Miyazaki and other 日本人 artists utilize Eurocentric references in their work. There may also be an entirely different explanation; I don’t know Kibuishi personally, so I can only speculate.

Questions I had:

  • Why did Kibuishi make Navin the commander of the Resistance? I find it implausible that the experienced fighters would simply accept an outsider and a child as their leader, without putting up more of a fuss than is shown on the page. Prophecy or not, it just doesn’t strike me as good military strategy. Although I’m all for empowering young readers by presenting them with strong characters, with both Emily and Navin immediately assuming leadership roles while being visibly white and the nonhuman (though, arguably, white-coded) characters more or less acting subordinate to them, I wonder what kind of subliminal messages are being conveyed about who gets to be a ‘savior.’ This aspect of the series reminds me of the Magic Treehouse books (and not in a good way).
  • Hayes seems rather passive about having to stay in a fantasy world while her children risk their lives to save it – are we going to learn why? I’m also not clear on what she’s doing while Emily and Navin are having adventures. Is she helping the Resistance? Is she sitting around in somebody’s house? I assumed she would have a more active role in the story, given that her kidnapping was what got her children into this situation. I’d be interested in knowing more about Kibuishi’s logic when he designed the Hayes family dynamics.
  • Does Trisha survive her encounter with the shadows? I really hope Kibuishi didn’t eliminate her because there aren’t any Black-coded/dark-skinned human characters currently included in the main cast and I would love to see her story develop. Also, somebody needs to give her credit for actually activating the distress beacon!
  • Did any fellow Asian/POC readers think Max looks Asian? His personality and behavior read as white-coded/very-assimilated-Asian-American to me, but his spiky black hair made me wonder. I did find his backstory compelling – I have a soft spot for ‘villains’ driven by personal grief – but I also hope Kibuishi introduces other ‘Asian’ looking characters who survive.

Follow-up:

  • I guess I’m just waiting for book 8? Fortunately, I have at least two hundred other books by Nikkei writers on my TBR, not to mention even more books by non-Japanese POC writers, so there’s plenty to occupy me in the meantime.

*To be fair, the graphic images in 進撃の巨人 are central to the story and I’m not saying it’s “bad” (if this term can even be applied with any measurable meaning to any media) to depict violence on the page; it’s just not for me.

Book Spotlight: The Stonekeeper – Kazu Kibuishi

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

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

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

What I liked:

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

What I learned:

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

Questions I had:

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

Follow-up:

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

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

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

Book Spotlight: Heroes – Ken Mochizuki

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

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

What I liked:

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

What I learned:

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

Questions I had:

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

Follow-up:

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

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

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

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

What I liked:

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

What I learned:

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

Questions I had:

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

Follow-up:

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

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

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

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

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

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

What I liked:

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

What I learned:

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

Questions I had:

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

Follow-up:

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

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

Book Spotlight: Nikkei Detective – Naomi Hirahara

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

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

What I liked:

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

What I learned:

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

Questions I had:

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

Follow-up:

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