Manzanar Reflections, etc.

Note to readers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Spotlight: Grandfather’s Journey – Allen Say

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Grandfather’s Journey is a picture book chronicling the life of writer/illustrator Allen Say’s* grandfather from his youth in Japan to raising a family in San Francisco, to his eventual return to Japan.

What I liked:

  • Say’s beautiful watercolor illustrations draw on both Japanese and European artistic traditions and, I believe, will appeal equally to US-based and Japan-based audiences. The directness of his compositions, juxtaposed with his quiet colors, produces a cultural blend that to me reads as one example of the unique work created by Nikkeijin/Nihonjin who have spent significant time inside and outside Japan.
  • Say presents traumatic moments – in both his personal life and in Japanese history – directly but in an understated way typical of how I feel Nihonjin/Nikkeijin often express themselves. I can only speak to my personal experience, but I definitely relate to the idea of presenting a difficult topic honestly while avoiding extraneous chatter as much as possible. To me, this is also different from our tendency to handle heavy topics via subtle allusions and nuanced comments. I don’t expect all Nikkeijin/Nihonjin to share these views, but hopefully something of what I said will strike a chord.
  • The very first illustration in the book, the watercolor of a photograph of Say’s grandfather, grabbed my attention immediately because of its striking resemblance to the black-and-white photographs of my mother’s father and grandparents on display in my grandmother’s house in Japan. That house has since been demolished, according to my mother, to make way for road development, but seeing Say’s illustration instantly brought back memories of my many visits.

What I learned:

  • I knew there were Issei who returned to Japan, but after reading Grandfather’s Journey I’d like to learn more about the ones who, like Say’s grandfather, returned because they wanted to, not because they were deported or because they found the US unwelcoming after the war.

Questions I had:

  • I wonder if Say ever considered creating a bilingual version of this book? Or perhaps he proposed it but his agent/editor/publisher rejected it? I think Japanese text would add another layer of engagement to the story without taking away from the English text, by mirroring Say’s grandfather’s experience of living in two cultures.
  • How does Say self-identify? Nikkeijin or Nihonjin? Issei? The question of generation seems especially interesting in his case, since his grandfather might be considered Issei, making his US-born mother Nisei, but then he himself was born in Japan and later moved to the US so…Issei again? Can Issei be descended from Nisei? I’d be interested in hearing from any fellow Nikkeijin with backgrounds similar to Say’s – how do you self-identify?
  • Who does Say write and illustrate his books for? Does his work have a wide audience among Nihonjin? The complexities of Nikkeijin/Nihonjin relationships aside, Say’s background and artistic style seem like a combination that would appeal to Nihonjin.

Follow-up:

  • Read Say’s other books – at least, the ones I can acquire. It looks like some may be out of print or difficult to purchase, but I hope I can get most of them!
  • See if I can find bilingual books authored by Nikkeijin. So many of us are bilingual that I hope at least one of us found the experience worth representing in a book.

*Say is a Romanization of 清井, his real family name. I looked this up because I only recently realized he is Japanese and I couldn’t figure out what name was meant to be represented by “Say.” I wonder who decided on this Romanization – as my fellow Japanese-speaking Nikkeijin/Nihonjin know, the spelling isn’t phonetically intuitive.

Book Spotlight: Cherry Blossoms in Twilight – Yaeko Sugama Weldon & Linda Austin

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Cherry Blossoms in Twilight recounts the life of Yaeko Sugama Weldon, first as a child growing up in wartime Japan, and then as a wife and mother in the United States.

What I liked:

  • The mini illustrations accompanying the chapters, hand-drawn by Yaeko-san,* are lovely. They enhance the book’s intimate, familial feeling without distracting from the narrative. Also, I’m always fascinated by writers who illustrate their own work, since I think the act of doing so is quite different from having someone else illustrate your work.
  • The writing is accessible but not juvenile. Naturally, not everything is shared with the reader, but it felt to me that the things left unsaid were selected for personal reasons rather than to sugarcoat the story. I would have enjoyed reading this as a kid and I definitely enjoyed it as an adult. Readers who appreciate the writing style (though perhaps not the problematic subject matter) in the Little House series will find a similar voice in Cherry Blossoms in Twilight.
  • The extensive descriptions of everyday life in wartime Japan are essential reading for those of us (including me) whose classroom education about Japanese involvement in World War II focused almost exclusively on atomic bombs and camps. Yaeko-san’s story also complements narratives such as those presented in Miyazaki’s 風立ちぬ and Takahata’s 火垂るの墓. (I would actually love to see Miyazaki tackle a film addressing the relationships between Nihonjin and Nikkeijin, but I kind of doubt he would ever do this.)
  • In what to me feels like true Japanese/Nikkei spirit, Yaeko-san presents her many experiences, her accomplishments and struggles, without moralizing or attempting to coerce the reader into feeling a certain way about her. This particular way in which Nihonjin/Nikkeijin express ourselves to the world is something I have always loved and admired.

What I learned:

  • I knew there were Japanese women who married US servicemen (of all races) and immigrated to the US, but I think this is the first book I’ve read that centers on these experiences. I’m not sure if these women self-identified as Shin-Issei, but I’m interested in how they might have interacted with Nikkeijin who had already been living in the US for a generation or two.

Questions I had:

  • Did Yaeko-san ever consider creating a bilingual version of her memoir? It might just be my own bilingual Nikkei perspective, but I’m always interested to see how bilingual Japanese/Nikkeijin express themselves differently in English versus Japanese.**
  • How have other Japanese/Nikkei readers responded to Cherry Blossoms in Twilight?

Follow-up:

  • Read more Japanese/Nikkei memoirs!
  • Read more Japanese/Nikkei authors writing on wartime Japan in both fiction and nonfiction. (There are a ton on my TBR, I just need to get to them!)
  • See if I can find a comparative work on the experiences of Shin-Issei who came to the US at different times after the war. This would ideally be an anthology of writings by Shin-Issei themselves, as opposed to a topical piece by one person, but so far I haven’t come across such a work.

*I have never met Yaeko-san, but the impression I have of her after reading the book is very similar to how I feel around some of my older female relatives and family friends, whom my mother (and, learning from her, my sister and I) often refer to as [first name]-san, so I hope it’s all right if I call her Yaeko-san here.

**Or Japanese versus another language, especially for Nikkeijin who are not based in the US. The articles on Discover Nikkei about the evolution of the Japanese language among Brazilian Nikkeijin are particularly interesting in this regard.

Book Spotlight: Kira-Kira – Cynthia Kadohata

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Kira-Kira is a coming-of-age novel chronicling the adventures of Katie Takeshima as she adjusts to a new home in Georgia and confronts her beloved older sister’s terminal illness.

Things I liked:

  • The Takeshima family moves from Iowa to Georgia and the majority of the story takes place in Georgia. This might just be a deficiency in my reading list, but this is the first book about Nikkeijin set in the South that I’ve read. Even in spaces supposedly dedicated to sharing stories about the greater US-based Nikkei experience, I don’t hear from many Nikkeijin living in the South, compared to, say, Nikkeijin based in California.
  • Kadohata normalizes Nikkei practices by presenting them as taken-for-granted. For example, the Takeshima kids eat rice balls at their picnic and while waiting for their mom at the factory. It’s not depicted as odd or special – it simply is. While Nikkeijin are far from monolithic, I love seeing a fellow Nikkeijin take for granted what I myself also consider “the norm.” (For family road trips, my mom makes furikake musubi in plastic sushi containers saved from the store – because mottainai!)
  • Katie’s simultaneous awareness and ignorance of social issues, from noticing how some white women won’t acknowledge her mother, to not understanding why Uncle Katsuhisa can’t get a job as a land surveyor, feels painfully familiar. I suppose it’s odd to list something painful as something I liked, but it really means a lot to know I wasn’t the only Nikkei kid navigating a weird balance of, “I think that’s bad” and “I don’t understand this but it doesn’t seem quite right.” In hindsight, as my fellow Nikkeijin can probably attest to, most of those things we didn’t understand as kids turned out to be bad, too.
  • The portrayal of Katie’s parents feels very aligned with Nikkei/Japanese parenting values. For example, Katie’s mother’s tendency to harp on “little” things is very reminiscent of how my own mother and other Japanese mothers I’ve met often behave. I can imagine non-Japanese readers not understanding this or thinking Katie’s mother is too nitpicky, but it makes perfect sense to me in the context of Nikkei/Japanese values. The same goes for Katie’s dad – fellow Nikkeijin, did you notice anything familiar about his work ethic and perseverance, not to mention the quiet way he interacts with his family? This aspect of the book is definitely one of the “insider” qualities that I look for and love to find in the work of Nikkei authors. Not something an outsider could achieve!

Things I learned:

  • There were and are Japanese Americans living in the South! (Ok, technically I knew this before reading Kira-Kira, but not too much before…probably only since college?) Considering that I have relatives in Colorado and Nebraska, this probably shouldn’t have come as such a surprise – if Nikkeijin live in the Midwest, why not the South? – but it did. Books like this inspire me to seek out information about Nikkei communities beyond my Bay Area/California bubble. I also wonder to what extent regional privilege shapes dominant Nikkei narratives. Same goes for bilingual/multilingual privilege and proximity to Japan via generation. Fellow Nikkeijin, you know what I’m talking about, even though it seems few of us ever actually talk about these things. 言い過ぎかもしれないけど何にも言わないとどうにもならないからちょっとだけでも聞いて下さい。
  • Chicken sexing is a not-insignificant part of both Japanese and Nikkei history. I saw an article about chicken sexers on Discover Nikkei while I was reading Kira-Kira, but that’s the only other place I’ve seen it referenced so far. In Kira-Kira, it’s noted that some Nikkeijin went to Japan to learn chicken sexing before returning to the US to work. Seems like an interesting lens through which to examine Nikkeijin/Nihonjin interactions. Time to read up!

Questions I had:

  • According to Kadohata’s website, she grew up in Georgia and Arkansas, so, as with Weedflower*, I can see how personal history might have shaped the writing of Kira-Kira. At the same time, I’d like to know what other factors, if any, contributed to Kadohata’s decisions regarding the character arcs and setting of Kira-Kira. For example, why does Lynn die and why specifically from leukemia? I’m not aware of any historical ties between the Nikkei community and leukemia, other than people with relatives who may have contracted it after Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
  • Is Katie really referring to Uncle Katsuhisa as “Uncle Katsuhisa” in real life, or something more like “Katsuhisa-ojichan?” or “Ojichan?” Considering Sumiko uses “Jiichan” in Weedflower, I would assume the former, but I’m curious. Fellow Nikkeijin can probably relate to the weirdness (or funniness, in my opinion) of using different honorifics depending on whether the relative in question is Nikkeijin or Nihonjin. Also, I wonder how many of us break down honorifics along linguistic lines? Sumiko is described as not speaking Japanese, but still uses the word Jiichan. My non-Japanese-speaking relatives don’t use Japanese honorifics, so I’m curious to know how other Nikkei families determine this.
  • At first I wasn’t sure what to make of the portrayal of Uncle Katsuhisa’s family. It seems like they get a lot of screen (page?) time even though their respective storylines don’t progress much. But when I compare them to, say, the island folks in ばらかもん, it makes more sense. Their presence enhances the atmosphere – or what I think of as the Nikkei-ness – of the story. In fact, I think Kira-Kira could be adapted into an excellent manga, especially with a mixed Nikkeijin/Nihonjin creative team. The deliberate pacing and nuanced moments would translate beautifully into images. I know US novels are sometimes adapted into graphic novels – I wonder if any Nikkei authors, including Kadohata, have ever considered pursuing manga adaptations of their work?

Follow-up:

  • See if I can find any more books by Nikkeijin, especially fiction and/or memoirs, set in the South.
  • Try to find some Nikkei sources on the history of chicken sexing in Japanese and Nikkei communities.
  • Try to shock someone by casually dropping the term, “chicken sexing” into a conversation.

*Some of Kadohata’s family members were sent to the Poston camp during World War II, according to her website.

Book Spotlight: Weedflower – Cynthia Kadohata

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

WEEDFLOWER is a middle-grade novel following the experiences of Sumiko and her family as they are forcibly relocated from California to a camp in Poston, Arizona, during World War II.*

Things I liked:

  • Kadohata’s spare, clear prose not only evokes many of the values/ways of thinking I associate with my own Nikkei experience, but its very delivery feels aligned with how I was taught to present myself (at least, via my Nikkei relatives) and how I’ve seen fellow Nikkeijin presenting themselves. I doubt an outsider could replicate this effect convincingly.
  • Sumiko’s budding friendship with Frank, a Mojave boy, complicates historical portrayals of the camps by reminding the reader that, as unjust as relocation was and is, Japanese Americans were and are participants in settler colonialism.
  • Sumiko’s observations of her environment (people, places, activities, etc.) indicate hers is only one variation of a narrative that played out in myriad ways for Japanese Americans across the US during this time. In other words, even though the entire story takes place from her POV, Nikkei wartime experiences are not flattened/distorted into a single narrative.
  • In dialogue with the previous point, the varying personalities and actions of Sumiko’s family and the other camp residents emphasize that Nikkeijin are not a monolithic group. Brothers Ichiro and Bull have very different personal interests, Jiichan and Sumiko speak different first languages, Mr. Moto pours his energy into building a camp garden while his son gambles away their savings. These variations illuminate the everyday cultural navigations required of Nikkeijin in communicating not only with outsiders but with each other (this really hit home for me – fellow Nikkei readers, what did you think?). At the same time, Kadohata conveys these realities to the reader without erasing the simultaneous existence of communal values, as evoked by gaman or shikata ga nai.
  • Kadohata gives us a snapshot of Sumiko’s family at a moment when it is both multigenerational and multilingual. In today’s Japanese American communities, generation and language have the power to both divide and unite. Just ask the Yonsei descendant of a camp survivor and the Nisei child of Shin-Issei parents the same set of questions about their respective Nikkei experiences and compare their answers. As a descendant of a camp survivor AND a Shin-Issei, generation and language are important cornerstones of my Nikkei experience. Even though Sumiko is not bilingual, many of her interactions with her family members feel deeply relatable to my own.

Things I learned:

  • Japanese American flower farms are new to me. Some of my relatives on my dad’s side had/have farms, but I believe they are all vegetable or fruit farmers.
  • This is the first full book about camp experiences that I recall reading. I think we read Farewell to Manzanar in school at one point, but I don’t remember anything except finding it boring. I’ll have to revisit it soon.

Questions I had:

  • Does Bull survive the war?
  • How have Native readers responded to the Mojave representation in this book?
  • Why was it important to the story that Sumiko be an orphan?
  • If Cynthia Kadohata ever reads this post, I’d love to know if my reflections align with her vision for the book, or if I overanalyzed/misunderstood anything.

Follow-up:

  • Need to do some nonfiction reading on Japanese American flower farms
  • Need to read up on camp experiences in more detail, in both fiction and nonfiction – especially curious about any mixed-race JAs who were put in camps
  • Need to read up on works exploring relationships between Nikkeijin and settler colonialism

*I really hate summarizing books, so this is as much as I’m providing. If it piqued your interest, read the book, or check out some of Cynthia Kadohata’s other books!

“Small Asian Girl”

One summer in college, I came to campus early because I had volunteered to be a student leader for orientation. None of my friends signed up to be student leaders, so I was mostly alone outside of training sessions. I didn’t mind; I generally prefer to be alone and I’ve made most of my friends because they approached me, not vice versa. As other voluntary loners, probably know, though, this doesn’t mean you’ll be left alone.

I was in the dining hall for lunch, grabbing my food and getting ready to find a quiet table where I could eat alone. An Asian girl, an upperclassman I knew by sight, approached and asked if I wanted to eat lunch with her and her friend. I looked past her and saw her friend was another Asian upperclassman whom I knew by sight. I said ok. I was pretty sure they were both half-Japanese from the little I knew about them. I don’t remember if this factored into my decision to say yes, but I do remember thinking of it as I answered her. I do remember wondering why she asked me, since we’d never interacted before.

I turned aside to finish getting my food and heard her say to her friend, “I asked Small Asian Girl to eat with us.”

From the way she said Small Asian Girl, I realized instantly they’d already developed this label for me and had likely been using it for some time, given the ease with which it rolled off her tongue.

It was like a verbal slap to the face. It was realizing not only had the invitation been extended out of pity for my (perceived to be unhappy) situation, but also realizing how alienated I was from people I might have found community with. It was realizing other Japanese students chose to see and highlight my differences from them instead of looking for ways in which we might relate to each other – but that’s too black-and-white.

I sat down to eat with those girls anyway. I remember exchanging introductions and I think we talked about our Japanese backgrounds, but mostly what I remember is sitting there trying to figure out why I was sitting there. As I finished getting my food and joined them at their table, I was trying to think of how to back out without being obviously rude. Most of all, I didn’t want to say, “I don’t want to sit with you because of what you just called me,” even though it would have been the most honest and direct way of stating my feelings.

Eventually, we went our separate ways. I continued to see them around campus and occasionally we’d nod or wave or say hi, but we never ate together again.

To this day, and even then, I don’t believe the girls meant to be hurtful. I certainly don’t think she intended for me to hear her calling me, “Small Asian Girl.” In a twisted way, I think they did really want to reach out. I know this feeling because I felt the same when I saw Asian international students, especially Japanese ones, looking lost in the dining hall because their friends weren’t there. Unlike those girls, though, I would just go up and ask, “Do you want to sit with us?” And you know what? I made some great friends that way, including people who I still talk to, even though there’s an ocean between us.

I never forgave those two girls in the dining hall, but I think I understand at least part of where they were coming from. I’ve said some extremely ignorant things to Japanese nationals – including family and friends who, instead of calling me on it, let me figure it out on my own – so I know the learning process is different for everybody. I hope those girls know better now, as I do. And yeah, a tiny part of me does hope someone somewhere called them on it at least once.*

Now for a preface-type thing I’m putting at the end.

I got the idea for this post while browsing my alma mater’s website and realizing one of those girls is now the lead contact for the Alumni of Color (I hate that term) organization. Seeing her name and photo there was what told me I hadn’t forgiven her or her friend. It also pretty much guaranteed I’d never try to reconnect with my alma mater via Alumni of Color because I can’t stomach the thought of attempting civil interaction with this person.**

That said, I do wonder what kind of person she turned out to be. I wonder if she still refers to people with labels like, “Small Asian Girl,” or if she figured out at some point that this is not a thing she should do. I wonder if she works with marginalized groups and how she treats them. I wonder why she chose to become the lead contact for Alumni of Color. For the sake of my fellow nonwhite alumni who might try to reconnect via Alumni of Color, I really, really hope she isn’t the person she was in the dining hall that day.

All of this to say, prejudice doesn’t always come from outside groups. Sometimes it comes from the sources you (and I) least expect.

*It feels shitty to be called out, even if the person does it nicely, but I know I would’ve learned a lot more a lot faster if even one of my relatives or friends had said something instead of waiting (literally) years for me to get my shit together. Fortunately, Carl is pretty darn good at keeping me in check these days.

**I don’t know what would be worse – if she remembered our interaction, or if she didn’t and I’d have to relive the discomfort by explaining it to her. Either way, I’m not interested in finding out.

Interview Series – Manga #4

Welcome to my Interview Series. If you’re new, read this first. Today’s topic is manga and this is interview #4.

Name: AT

Self-identify as: Japanese American

  1. What is/are your favorite manga?

AT: I don’t have any favorites that I consistently go back to. I read manga in fits. I’ll find a series that I like (which I’ll usually find because many Japanese dramas tend to be live-action adaptations of manga series) I’ll read the first volume to start; if the story engages me, I’ll continue reading. If not, I’ll drop it pretty quickly.

  1. How or why did you start reading manga?

AT: The main reason I started reading manga was to improve my reading comprehension and kanji retention. I wanted to get my reading and writing comprehension up to par with my speaking skills, a goal that is very much still in progress.

  1. What is most compelling to you when reading manga? In other words, what aspects of the manga encourage you to read beyond volume 1?

AT: The story, hands down. If I find that I’m disliking a character’s development, or if the plotline is getting too shallow or predictable for my tastes, I tend to drop it like a hot potato. Like I mentioned earlier, I tend to read manga that have been adapted into films or drama serials. I’ve always been interested in filmmaking, and it’s interesting to see the process of adaptation, what filmmakers choose to discard or embellish, how they choose to tell the story in the limited time frame that they’re given. This is especially the case with dramas. If a drama REALLY interests me, for example (which, unfortunately is rare, because I tend to dislike shallow, predictable, cheesy romantic storylines), I will read the volumes that the drama episodes are based upon. If the storyline engages me beyond that, I might invest in volumes beyond the stopping point of the drama, but I may not.

  1. How do you choose what manga to read next?

AT: Sometimes I turn to recommendations from friends, manga series I’ve heard about during an interview or something similar. If I find the summary compelling after looking it up on Wikipedia, and it’s highly recommended by people I trust, I’ll go down that road.

  1. If you were recommending manga to someone who has never read it before, what would you recommend and why?

AT: I’d probably try to get a feel for what the person was interested in, for example, or if they have any manga series they’re keen to start. For example, if they saw a live-action adaptation of a manga in drama form and liked it, I would recommend they start there if they were interested. Having read very few volumes of manga up to this point, it’s hard to determine what my go-to manga is, especially since people have such varied interests.

Racism 101 – I’m Your Friend, Not Your Teacher

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my white friends. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how the experiences and opinions I document on this blog relate to my having white friends. Even more specifically, I’ve been considering the following question: should there be a line between friend and teacher? In case that’s confusing, I’ve added the missing descriptors below:

Should there be a line between (nonwhite) friend (of white person) and (Racism 101) teacher?

I imagine nonwhite people will have a range of responses to this question. I’m here to talk about my response only.*

My answer: yes, there should be and is a line. In my case, I draw the line at explicit teaching. Fellow nonwhite people will probably have a good sense of what I mean by this, but I’ve outlined some of the key points below. Keep in mind, the list is not comprehensive.**

Questions I will not answer:

  • Do you think [x] is racist?
  • Is it ok if I do/wear/use/write about [x]?
  • Do you think I am racist?
  • Have I ever been racist to you in the past? If so, can you tell me how?
  • Have you ever had [x] experience with racism?
  • How do you think I demonstrate my white privilege?
  • Will you teach me how not to be racist?
  • Why won’t you spend more time teaching me about racism?

Topics I will not discuss:

  • Identifying and explaining the ways in which you have been racist toward me
  • Identifying and explaining the ways in which you are/aren’t like other white people
  • Explaining how/why it is wrong for you to justify [x] by telling me that other Japanese/Asian person said it was ok
  • That time you or someone you knew studied Japanese or went to Japan (or studied a different Asian language and went to a different Asian country)

Long story short, I am not here to be anyone’s racism arbiter. I will not be the “token POC” friend or the face of Japan or the JA community. I am not interested in reliving and dissecting painful experiences to prove racism is real or to make you feel better about your whiteness. I give no prizes to people for treating me like a human being.

So. If those are the things I won’t talk about with white friends re: racism, what will I talk about? Well, all the things everyone talks about with their friends. Nonwhite people are people first, not [insert race/ethnicity/culture] first. We talk about any topic humans talk about. The key is how the discussions are framed.

In my experience, the most aggravating and harmful aspect of discussing race with white people is that, at some point, the discussion becomes personal. At some point, I am asked – or it is demanded of me – to give real-life examples to prove or justify something that, to the white interrogator, is difficult to grasp. I am expected to cite unpleasant personal experiences in order to satisfy white curiosity and “instruct” white ignorance. If I don’t, if I offer remarks only in the abstract, or cite external rather than personal examples, my perspective is discounted. I am talked down, dismissed, silenced. Why? Because it is easier to discount words (abstract) than actions (tangible). Because white privilege always looks for the quickest way to reassert control. Because if the discussion has already gone to this place, then the people asking the questions have no real interest in effecting change.

In my ideal world, every white person would sit down with a roomful of nonwhite people to discuss racism. One white person – the only white person – and every other face in the room, nonwhite.***

In the real world, the opposite is more often true. It’s fantastic to see nonwhite people volunteering to educate white people about race – and by extension, opening themselves up to white fragility, white tears, and white privilege at its most defensive. But when that educator is also the only nonwhite face in the room, or only one of a handful in a room of a hundred – has there really been a shift in the power dynamic? Can the nonwhite person’s role as educator versus the white people’s role as students transcend the sociocultural framework of systemic oppression? Do the numbers even matter, as long as the framework is in place?

Speaking again from personal experience, no, sometimes the numbers don’t mean anything. I can have a 1:1 conversation about racism with a white person and we won’t be on equal footing. Why? Because I am trying to explain histories and experiences that have largely been written out of the dominant US cultural narrative. Because, for all or most of their life, the white person I’m talking to has probably been exposed to ways of thinking and acting underlined – subtly or not – by a, “white is right” mentality. Because if I’m the first or one of only a handful of nonwhite people to have this conversation with this white person, my words are probably being weighted unfairly. In other words, most white people don’t know where to toe the line between, “you’re just one nonwhite voice, so I’ll dismiss you because you make me uncomfortable” and, “I will take your word as the be-all, end-all on racism because I can’t see past the color of your skin to understand that nonwhite people are not monolithic.” Both concepts sound fairly ridiculous when written in so many words – and yet, the majority of my discussions on racism with white people have culminated in one of these two ways. And always, always, the discussion cycles back to whiteness, whether it be defensiveness or entitlement to being taught. Not the most rewarding result for a situation that is already putting me under a lot of stress.

So, that said – where does it leave us?

Speaking for myself, I want and expect my white friends to acknowledge their white privilege. This does NOT mean I don’t expect them to slip up. Microaggressions will still happen and when they do, I’ll say something. I will not, however, necessarily provide the full background for why something is racist. I might – if I have time and feel so inclined – but I might also say, “you know, I think it’s better if you look into this yourself.” Whether they do or not is entirely up to them – personally, I think it’s a good way to identify who is willing to walk their talk and who is not. It also clearly sends the message that no white person, regardless of their relationship to me, is entitled to Racism 101 lessons from me. Let me say that again: no white person is entitled to Racism 101 lessons from me.

Lest someone raises the protest, “but a REAL friend would explain –!” – if that is your response after reading this far in this post, you have completely missed the point and I am not here to explain why or how.

For any white friends reading this, yes, we can still talk about racism – I’m merely saying, the conversation is not going to be in the form of you asking questions and me answering them. If you read an article or follow a blog or see a Twitter discussion and you think we could or should talk about it, by all means, let me know.**** If you want to talk about racism but aren’t sure where to start, I definitely recommend either looking up the folks I follow on Twitter or checking out the blogs/websites on the Resources page. As with many other topics, conversations about racism tend to be most productive if everyone involved has some amount of background knowledge.

Before I wrote this post, I considered approaching each of my white friends 1:1 to discuss racism. But then I realized – there’s not really a reason to do this apropos of nothing – and if racism isn’t already something they’ve been thinking about, they might not respond in a way conducive to future discussions. So, instead, I wrote this post. If and when racism comes up in conversation, I’ll ask my white friends to start by reading this post.

In closing, I’ll reiterate that this post reflects only my opinion on the line between friend and Racism 101 teacher and should not be assumed to apply to other nonwhite people’s views on the matter. Additionally, I am pretty much always willing to discuss race/representation with fellow nonwhite folks – just @ me on Twitter. Thanks for reading!

*I don’t speak for other nonwhite people. Nor am I interested in speaking over nonwhite people who may disagree with my perspective. If you’re interested in seeing what other nonwhite people have to say about “teaching” Racism 101, please check out the Resources page and/or the folks I follow on Twitter.

**Hint: If your approach to the list is to read it and search for loopholes, you are completely missing the point. Also, stop centering whiteness (which is what happens every time a white person tries to circumvent racism).

***If you’re white and the idea of doing this scares you, you might want to think about why.

****I will not, however, engage in racist-bashing with you; in other words, if you want me to read something that you know is harmful, so we can engage in shared righteous indignation about it – no thanks. To paraphrase some of my Twitter folks, I don’t need to know about every racist thing happening to Japanese/Asians – and I don’t want to know. I already encounter plenty of harmful material in my regular social media activity – I don’t need any more.

What #ownvoices means to me

If you follow this blog, you’ve probably noticed I use the term “#ownvoices” to refer largely to nonwhite people writing their own cultures. This is because these are the stories I am personally most interested in reading and supporting, especially in light of ongoing, harmful (mis)representations of many nonwhite cultures by white writers. My life experiences have been and are directly impacted by stereotyped, insensitive representations of Japanese culture by white people. Any and all countermeasures in the form of Japanese (especially diaspora Japanese) speaking up for ourselves goes a long way toward dismantling the white-is-right ideologies I’ve been bombarded with for most of my life.

When #ownvoices started, I was still relatively new to social media. Seeing a highly visible movement supporting nonwhite people writing ourselves helped me realize how social media can create communities across socioeconomic, cultural, and geographic borders. While #ownvoices is now “old” by Twitter standards, I continue to discover and learn from other nonwhite folks who use it – and to find out about upcoming #ownvoices releases.

My above reasons for supporting #ownvoices and the way I choose to utilize the term on this blog are NOT the same as saying these are the only stories which qualify as #ownvoices writing. For those unfamiliar with its history, #ownvoices was actually created by a white writer, Corinne Duyvis, who writes about disability from an #ownvoices perspective.* Below is a screenshot of a screenshot (haha) from Duyvis’s website:

Duyvis

I am grateful to Duyvis for starting #ownvoices. While I can’t say someone else wouldn’t have created a similar hashtag if Duyvis had not, the fact remains Duyvis did create this one and it has proven enormously useful to many nonwhite people, including me.

#ownvoices is at its heart about the importance of people writing stories based on their own experiences, including but not limited to experiences with race, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, and intersectionality. These lived experiences can never be fully replicated or “known” by an outsider. In other words, #ownvoices stories are inextricably linked in some way to the identities of their writers.

In several discussions on book reviewing, I’ve seen arguments for evaluating a book without evaluating its author. I don’t believe this is possible. In terms of semantics, yes, we can leave an author’s name out of a review, or avoid directly attacking the author’s character – in the world outside of that review, though, the book did not spring into being by itself. Someone wrote those words. Someone made decisions about which words to use, and when, and how. Books are human creations – it is impossible for them to exist without humans standing behind them. The words an author chooses to put on a page open up questions, not just about the book, but about the person who created it. While the reader cannot know an author’s personal beliefs and history merely by reading their work (unless the work explicitly cites these things), the reader can question the author – directly or indirectly – about why the author made certain choices in their work. Readers should ask these questions, especially if the work in question contains harmful representations of a group with which the reader identifies – and authors should respond.**

If you follow online discussions about “diverse” books, you probably know the above sentiments are often directed toward people writing outside their lanes. However, the same principle applies to #ownvoices stories: you cannot evaluate the book without evaluating the author. The very essence of #ownvoices precludes this – the point of having #ownvoices stories is about HOW the identities of the people writing them SHAPE the work itself. This is not to say #ownvoices writers restrict themselves to purely autobiographical work. Rather, I’m saying who wrote the book matters as much as what was in it.***

Here’s a personal example to illustrate:

Whenever I pick up a book pertaining to Japanese culture, written by a Japanese person, my mindset shifts into one different from the one I’m in when I read other books. Before I even turn to page one, I’m already wondering how many cultural markers I’ll find inside – words, turns of phrase, aesthetics, ways of thinking – which will make me smile and think, yes, this person knows. If the book is in English and the author is bilingual, I’ll pay extra close attention to how they present Japanese terms, ideas, aesthetics, etc. I’ll also look at whether the author spent the majority of their life inside or outside Japan (again, diaspora Japanese v. Japan-based Japanese are different, etc, etc). If the book is in English and the author does not appear to be bilingual, I’ll still pay extra close attention to the things I listed above, but I’ll also see if I can discern whether/how the author’s diaspora experiences shape their writing.**** If the book is in Japanese, I don’t generally wonder about finding cultural markers – the author’s use of language often speaks for itself – but I do pay attention to how the author handles any US or English-language references, if they even appear. Always, I’m looking for authors whose backgrounds closely parallel mine. I live for the moments when I find something in the text that makes me go, THIS – this is me – this is us.

By contrast, when I read non-Japanese, nonwhite people***** writing about Japan, my mindset is not the same as when I read #ownvoices work. Before even picking up the book, I look at the author’s background. What is the nature of their connection to Japan? How did they prepare for this work? What are the chances I will get hurt by reading their work? If the chances seem high, I don’t read it. If I do start reading, I pay close attention to how the author presents Japanese terms, ideas, aesthetics, etc. I also consider the author’s background in relation to their representations of Japanese culture – if something seems jarring, I try to see where they might have been coming from. This isn’t a foolproof method and sometimes I still get hurt, but sometimes I also learn about how other nonwhite cultures intersect with Japan.******

When I read these works, I am not expecting to find myself in the pages. I am not expecting to have moments where I go, this – yes, this is me, this is us. I doubt the non-Japanese author expected their work to be a mirror for Japanese readers in the first place. Also, I do not expect someone without the lived experiences of being Japanese to utilize, much less be aware of, the cultural markers I find in work by Japanese writers. Some things cannot be learned. I do expect non-Japanese, nonwhite authors to put in the work necessary for respectful, nuanced representations of Japanese culture, just as they ought to expect any outsiders writing their cultures to put in the necessary work – but even so, I will never approach these works in the same way I approach #ownvoices Japanese work.

#ownvoices matter because research is no replacement for lived experience. Writers cannot wholly remove themselves from their work. Even if they choose to adopt an alternate “persona” while writing, the choices they make in the creation of said persona will inevitably reflect their own life experiences. People writing outside their lanes don’t and won’t have the life experiences of insiders. This is not something that can be changed. They do, however, have life experiences of their own, from which I’m sure they could craft some kickass #ownvoices stories – but for some reason, they choose to imitate other people’s perspectives instead.*******

The level of arrogance commensurate with this choice – especially by those folks who claim to write so [insert race/ethnicity/culture] readers will see themselves represented – staggers me. Either these writers truly (and wrongly) believe they are capable of writing these stories as well as or better than #ownvoices writers – or they understand their work will never take the place of #ownvoices and do it anyway. I won’t waste time calling the BS of the first reason. The second is just – why? If these writers truly believe their readers from [insert race/ethnicity/culture] would be better served by #ownvoices stories – then where does their own work fit in? If these writers truly believe #ownvoices stories should be elevated above their own – why are they bothering to write their versions in the first place? I fail to see the logic from either a moral or capital perspective. If these writers truly believe #ownvoices stories should be privileged above their versions, are they truly encouraging readers to buy #ownvoices books over their own? Are they truly calling for their sales to decrease? If so, sure, that’s fine – but then why write a book for publication in the first place if they’re just going to discourage people from buying it? Or are they just saying #ownvoices stories should be elevated but secretly believing their versions are interchangeable with #ownvoices? – in which case, I cite the abovementioned BS.

I’ve also seen outsiders trying to write insider stories because “diversity is the real world” or some such reason. Ok, sure – but newsflash: in the real world, you are YOU, not someone from [insert race/ethnicity/culture]. I find this reasoning much more believable – even if I still approach these works with caution because you don’t need to inhabit someone else’s POV in order to create a harmful representation of them – if the POV is #ownvoices but the world is populated by characters of varied backgrounds, i.e. white writer writing from white POV but including nonwhite characters. I’d like to think that writers who understand the difference between “diverse” worlds and “diverse” POVs are at least a little less arrogant and prone to creating harmful rep than writers who jump headlong into a POV that isn’t theirs and splash around in it because it’s pretty or exotic or trendy or moneymaking.

So, why did I just take a giant tangent to rant about outsiders taking on POVs that aren’t theirs and the issues therein? Well, I do think these writers should deeply consider the problems inherent to writing outside their lanes, but more importantly, the existence of these problems is yet another reason why #ownvoices is so relevant to today’s writing scene. #ownvoices writers are already part of the communities they write about. They already understand ways of connecting with #ownvoices readers. They have the background and the experiences to create yes – this is me – this is us moments for #ownvoices audiences. They don’t have to craft a POV from scratch – sure, their work may not be autobiographical, but their real-world experiences help lay the foundation. They know their own preferences re: representation and can choose how to place them in dialogue with their community’s perspectives. In short, their lived experiences as a member of the group being represented inform their representations of that group at macro and micro levels, in ways outsiders will never access or understand.

As a kid, I learned early – so early I only remember knowing it, not actually learning it – to be wary of non-Japanese representations of Japanese culture. It probably helped that I spoke Japanese from the get-go and grew up in a household strongly influenced by beliefs and practices my mom brought with her from Japan, as well as the diaspora Japanese beliefs and practices of my dad’s side of the family. I knew the correct pronunciations of sushi, Tokyo, karate, samurai, etc. – but I didn’t think of them as “correct” – I thought of them as “the pronunciation” because they were what I learned first. I still remember hearing westerners say those words in English and not understanding what they meant because the pronunciation was so badly butchered. I remember a white classmate thinking my last name (my real name, not the one I use here) was pronounced the same as a country in Africa. I corrected him and he asked if he could keep using the name of the African country because it was easier to say. Given this and many other experiences, I’ve never really had faith in the ability of outsiders to get anything “right” about Japan or Japanese culture because they have demonstrated time and again that they can’t – and they don’t care.

Looking back, I wish I had had more exposure to #ownvoices media by diaspora Japanese during my school years. I had plenty of exposure to #ownvoices media by Japan-based Japanese – in fact, probably just as much as I had to western (white)-based media – but I also knew from my time in Japan that Japan-based Japanese relate to Japanese culture very differently than diaspora Japanese. The only diaspora Japanese books I remember reading during that time were Yoshiko Uchida’s books and Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori. (There were probably a few others, but I don’t recall the titles.) I was dreadfully disappointed when I realized the writer Lensey Namioka was Chinese, not Japanese – because her books were the first ones I found in English that even came close to showing some understanding of samurai culture as I knew it from Japan-based media – and I so badly wanted Japanese people to communicate this information to western audiences, instead of the stereotyped representations I saw by non-Japanese. For the record, I’m still a Lensey Namioka fan, but I’d also love to see diaspora Japanese create something similar to her Zenta and Matsuzo series. A collaboration between diaspora Japanese and Japan-based Japanese on this topic would also be super awesome!

Suffice to say, there are a lot of reasons, both personal and more wide-reaching, that I support #ownvoices stories over outsider representations. If you’re interested in other perspectives on #ownvoices, I recommend checking out the Resources page. As always, I speak only for myself on this blog, unless otherwise stated. My views aren’t representative of the Galactic Federation of Japanese, or Asians, or nonwhite people, etc, etc. Thanks for reading!

*For the record, I do not hate all white people. While a great deal of harm has been done by white people attempting to represent nonwhite cultures, especially my own, I appreciate how some white people have spoken against such acts and demonstrated awareness of their own privilege. We still have a long way to go re: decolonization and respectful representation, but seeing even a few white people with the potential to work with us toward these goals gives me hope. While it would be nice to see fellow nonwhite people fully in charge for once, short of supernatural means I don’t see us dismantling white hegemony without at least some cooperation from white people. This is not to say I condone white privilege and racism. I do, however, believe in not ignoring white people who indicate via their words and actions that they support equity and inclusivity for nonwhite people. (Note: This is not the same as “diversity” and I give no cookies to white people merely for treating nonwhite people like human beings.)

**If you have chosen to be a published author, don’t pretend you live in a vacuum every time a reader addresses your work, ESPECIALLY if the reader says, “your book hurt me.” Any author who refuses to acknowledge AND make amends for any harm they have caused to readers through their work does not deserve the privilege of having their work circulated to the public.

***#ownvoices writers should also be prepared to respond to readers, if they choose to circulate their work to any audience other than themselves. If an #ownvoices work hurts you, the reader, and you also belong to the group represented, I’m sure the author wants to know so they can do better next time (I know I would, at least). Readers always have the right to speak up about books that cause harm to them. I hope my fellow #ownvoices writers feel the same way about receiving critique from #ownvoices readers. It helps none of us if we made it this far, only to cut ourselves off from insights that are very likely more useful and nuanced than what we might receive from outsiders.

****I have yet to meet a Japanese person who has spent all of their life in Japan but can speak/understand only languages other than Japanese. If they exist, I’d be interested in talking to them, though.

*****I don’t currently read white people writing about Japan. I’ve explained why in other places on this blog, so I won’t elaborate on it here.

******As a Japanese person, I believe there is value in hearing non-Japanese perspectives on Japan, especially with regard to topics like Japanese imperialism. For example, I feel it is absolutely relevant for me to have some understanding of Chinese and Korean perspectives on Japanese imperialism when interacting with my Chinese and Korean friends. Not because we’re necessarily discussing Japanese imperialism, but because, if some passing reference is made to historical tensions between China and Japan, or Korea and Japan, knowing something about Chinese and Korean experiences may reduce the chance I accidentally hurt my friends with a comment from my Japanese perspective.

*******I am referring specifically to outsiders who write from the perspective of something they are not, i.e. white writer writing from Japanese POV.

“One of these things is not like the Other,” or the problem with choosing ‘sensitivity’ readers

I’d like to start off by saying I am excessively proud of the bad pun in the title of this post. I came up with it in the shower and was about to discard it when I realized, why do that when I could INFLICT IT ON THE WORLD instead? So, there it is.

I’ve talked in various places on this blog about how Japanese, Asians, and nonwhite people are not monolithic. Today, I’m thinking aloud (in writing?) about why it is especially important to know this when writing as an outsider.*

In course of drafting and revising my own works-in-progress, I’ve had a number of conversations with fellow Japanese re: representation. One of the most common topics in these conversations is specificity – specifically (see what I did there?), the importance of knowing what your readers can and can’t contribute to your work, versus what you (the writer) want or need readers to contribute. For example, my dad is Japanese, born and raised in the US. He has not lived in Japan for an extended time, nor does he speak Japanese. One of my MCs has a dad. He is Japanese, born and raised in Japan, speaks Japanese, etc. That being said, can my dad vet my representation of my MC’s dad?

Well, yes and no. Yes – they are both dads, they are both Japanese, they both have daughters. No – my dad’s life experiences are mostly contextualized by diaspora Japanese/dominant “American” cultures, while my MC’s dad’s life experiences are mostly contextualized by Japanese culture. In short, my dad has not experienced being a dad in Japan, just as my MC’s dad’s experience is not reflective of being a dad in diaspora Japanese/dominant “American” culture. This doesn’t mean my dad has nothing to contribute to this discussion – I can still ask him for his opinion of my MC’s dad – it just means, I will also need to solicit opinions from Japanese who have experienced being a dad in Japan. My end goal – for my MC’s dad to be a character reflective of Japanese fatherhood in Japan – thus requires vetting from a specific group of Japanese.

I bring this up because I’ve seen a lot of online discussions re: “sensitivity” readers lately. It seems more folks are catching on to the idea their sensitivity reader(s) cannot and should not be expected to be a foolproof method against critiques of representation. I’d like to pull back a level by asking, are writers considering “best fit” when approaching potential sensitivity readers? It’s great to acknowledge your sensitivity readers are human, to be sure, but it’s even better if you choose wisely in the first place and avoid wasting your own and your reader’s time when it turns out they aren’t the best fit for your project.

Confused? Let me rephrase: do you see your sensitivity reader(s) as human first, or as [insert culture/race/ethnicity] first? Just because someone self-identifies as [insert culture/race/ethnicity] does not mean they want to or need to vet your representation of that culture/race/ethnicity. Just because someone self-identifies as [insert culture/race/ethnicity] does not mean they are the best fit TO vet your representation of that culture/race/ethnicity, even if they agree to do so. Maybe they are being nice. Maybe they think they know more than they do. Maybe they fear being called out for lack of “authenticity” if they say no. There are many reasons why someone might feel pressured into being a sensitivity reader for you. As a writer, it’s YOUR job to be as clear as possible about what you need from a sensitivity read – and to be RESPECTFUL of where your potential sensitivity readers are coming from if they express discomfort with reading your work.

But wait, why am I writing about my experiences as an #ownvoices writer in a blog post ostensibly about people writing as outsiders? Well, precisely that – based on outsider representations of Japan I’ve seen, there are levels of nuance of Japanese culture and experience which seem to be simplified and/or overlooked by non-Japanese. I don’t think this is necessarily something outsiders can help – you can’t be expected to know everything about something you have never personally experienced – but at the same time, this fact does not justify misrepresentation.

Every person is unique.

The above statement doesn’t magically vanish because of someone’s racial/ethnic/cultural background. Writers who view their sensitivity readers as representatives of [insert culture/race/ethnicity] first and everything else second are missing the point of having these readers to begin with. From what I’ve seen, writers who are writing outside their lanes are more susceptible to this fallacy than #ownvoices writers.** Writers who play musical chairs with their sensitivity readers – as long as the checkbox for “sensitivity reader” is ticked off, who cares who filled it, right? – have already failed at respectful representation. They are utilizing their readers to validate their insecurities about their work, while completely ignoring and oversimplifying the varied experiences their readers have to offer. In short, they are seeking absolution for their perception of [insert culture/race/ethnicity] as Other, rather than recognizing and attempting to unlearn their privileged perspectives. This is the writer’s version of, “well, this person from [insert culture/race/ethnicity] said [insert racist thing] was OK, so I’m going to ignore everyone else from [insert same culture/race/ethnicity]!”

I chose to share a personal example above because it illuminates one instance of the wide spectrum of Japanese experiences. I am Japanese and I write Japanese stories. But I don’t use my “Japaneseness” or the “Japaneseness” of other Japanese I know as an automatic catch-all for any errors I may make. To ask a Japanese person to vet your representations of Japanese culture purely because they are Japanese is to unfairly and unrealistically expect them to represent your idea of Japanese culture. This is not the same as saying they will have nothing to contribute to your work. If a Japanese person agrees to vet your representations of Japanese culture, they will of course have some insights – but whether those insights match up with gaps/errors on your part is not their responsibility.

As the “diverse” writing scene shifts toward increased emphasis on respectful representations and how to achieve them, I hope writers – particularly outsiders – are thinking deeply about WHY they need sensitivity readers. Simply having a sensitivity reader to tick off a box is insufficient and disrespectful to the reader and the race/ethnicity/culture being represented, not to mention any insiders who may invest in the finished product. If writers are truly committed to respecting their sources, they will recognize the human experiences underpinning their work and actively seek out voices who can speak to these experiences, not merely those who are tangentially related by dint of a label imposed on them by systemic Othering.

Thanks for reading! Other people have discussed sensitivity readers in other places on the internet – please check out the Resources page for their perspectives.

If you already knew all of this because you’re a fellow #ownvoices writer – yay! I’m glad you’re here and I appreciate you taking the time to read my blog. I’ve probably read your blog, too, and/or followed you on Twitter – but if I haven’t, please let me know so I can!

On a final note, I’m not completely satisfied with this post – some of my thoughts on the topic are still developing, so I’ll probably revisit it in the future.

*If you’ve followed my scattered references to my own work, you already know I write #ownvoices stories. I’m writing this post as a member of a culture that gets frequently (and badly) depicted by outsiders. It’s not intended as a lesson – as I’ve said before, I’m not in the business of encouraging outsiders to write Japanese culture to begin with – instead, it’s the latest part of the ongoing conversation I’ve been having with myself and with other #ownvoices writers about representation. If you’re writing outside your lane and you’re reading this, well, I can’t stop you, but know it isn’t for you. There are plenty of places online where you can talk to people about writing outside your lane; this isn’t one of them.

**No, #ownvoices representations are not “perfect” – because even within a race/ethnicity/culture, there will always be differing opinions about how things are and should be. However, I trust #ownvoices writers to be more conscious of these differences and to find ways to acknowledge these differences in their work – much more so than I would trust outsiders to do the same. This goes for both “realistic” and SFF representations – I think outsiders too often fall into complacency by writing off their errors/lack of research/privileged perspectives as, “it’s just science fiction/fantasy/fiction.” Easy for them to say – because at most, they will only ever experience the consequences of their poor representation in the form of a one-star book review. They will never endure the lived experiences that result from such poor representation – slurs, whitewashing, fetishizing, assimilation, etc. When a white person alters a Japanese myth in the name of “fiction,” they perpetuate the westernizing, colonizing, white-supremacist framework that sanctions/creates/encourages/consumes such representations in the first place. When a white person alters a Japanese myth in the name of “fiction,” they are saying the importance of elevating their (white) voice to tell this story is worth the real-life repercussions it will have for Japanese people whose experiences within the western, colonial, white-supremacist culture are shaped by representations like these. This is why, “it’s just science fiction/fantasy/fiction” does not justify misrepresentation. “Fiction” does not exist in a vacuum, no matter how much the (white) writer might wish it. There is a different power dynamic at play when a white writer alters a Japanese myth versus when a Japanese writer alters that same myth. The white writer is much more likely to reveal cultural ignorance in the choices they make about what/how to alter the myth than the Japanese writer because the white writer lacks the cultural perspectives informing the original myth. And yet, white writers continue writing Japan, choosing to ignore or insufficiently interrogate their own privileges in the process. For this reason, I will always support #ownvoices writing Japan over white voices writing Japan.