Book Spotlight: Baseball Saved Us – Ken Mochizuki

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Baseball Saved Us, written by Ken Mochizuki and illustrated by Dom Lee, tells the story of an unnamed Japanese American boy who finds strength in baseball during and after his time in a US concentration camp.

What I liked:

  • Mochizuki never uses “concentration camp” or “incarceration” in the text – which makes sense, since young readers might not know what those words mean, but he does use the capitalized “Camp” throughout the story and the MC* tells us early on how “Camp” is not the same as summer camp. If I had read this book as a kid, I’d probably have gone to my dad and asked him to tell me more about why “Camp” is capitalized, and I can imagine other JA/Nikkei kids doing the same. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but I appreciate Mochizuki creating the space for these conversations via a single terminology choice.
  • The MC is never named in the text.** I actually read the entire book without realizing it and only noticed as I was reviewing details in preparation for this post. I’m not sure why Mochizuki left the MC nameless, but I think it worked for this story (also, I believe this is more common in picture books than in novels). First, while many formerly incarcerated JAs have shared their experiences, others have either passed away or chosen to keep their memories private. Mochizuki’s nameless MC could thus be read as a stand-in for the many JAs whose stories we will never hear. I also wonder if Mochizuki intended the story to be an homage/testament to everyone who endured the camps, a way of saying, ‘regardless of whether you shared your story, your experiences were/are valid and we will remember you.’ Second, the story’s first-person POV combined with the MC’s unknown name might help draw young readers into the narrative. Although I’m not usually a fan of nameless MCs, in this case I imagine my younger self easily ‘stepping’ into the MC’s shoes and seeing the camp through his eyes. Encouraging empathy is key, especially for young readers whose first exposure to camp history might very well be this book.
  • Dom Lee’s illustrations are perfect for the story and subject matter. (Side note: I recommend reading the note at the beginning, which details how the illustrations were created; it’s listed after the acknowledgments on the back of the title page.) Lee’s mostly-brown palette simultaneously evokes old photographs (not surprising, since some of the illustrations were apparently inspired by Lange’s camp photos), dusty baseball diamonds, and camps in the desert. Message: these camps were historic and being in them involved dust and dirt. It’s quite a contrast from Joanna Yardley’s brightly colored illustrations in Yoshiko Uchida’s camp narrative, The Bracelet.*** At the same time, Lee’s dynamic compositions and multiple double-page spreads keep the visual narrative active and interesting. The many baseball-playing scenes probably help with the pacing – Lee is a master at rendering active poses and animated facial expressions.
  • One of my favorite illustrations is the scene when Teddy defies their father’s request for a cup of water. I’ve heard multiple JAs comment on how some of the worst aspects of the camps have been glossed over or omitted in firsthand accounts, for various reasons. Similarly, as I’m sure my fellow JAs know, the choices we make about how much we reveal when telling our stories can change how our community views and treats us. Knowing all this, I’m glad whenever I see a fellow JA take a straightforward, non-euphemistic approach to portraying certain conditions in the camps. For example, I didn’t know about non-partitioned toilets until recently, when I saw a photo on the Manzanar Committee website. Granted, I’ve barely brushed the surface of camp-related media and literature, but I’m surprised I didn’t know this until now.
  • This has nothing whatsoever to do with camps, but did any fellow JA/Nikkei readers connect the ‘glinting glasses’ to the same motif often found in manga and anime? Lee is Korean and, I imagine, has some knowledge of Japanese drawing styles, so when I saw the first reference to the glasses of the man in the tower, I immediately wondered if Lee and/or Mochizuki was intentionally engaging in dialogue with Japanese art. I’ve personally always found the use of ‘glinting glasses’ by Japanese artists hilarious (fellow JA/Nikkei readers, ask me about my love of signature manga style quirks sometime), so I’d like to imagine the connection exists, but I might be totally wrong. I don’t even know if Mochizuki reads manga or watches anime!
  • Mochizuki is straightforward about the difficulties of reintegration for Japanese Americans after the camps closed. (If you read my post about Uchida’s The Bracelet, you’ll see I was critical of the omission in that case.) For any JA kids reading this book, I think this brief reference toward the end creates another space for conversations about our family histories, much like Mochizuki’s use of “Camp,” discussed above.

What I learned:

  • I vaguely knew sports were one of the pastimes Japanese Americans had access to in the camps, but this is the first book I’ve read dedicated solely to the topic. I don’t personally know any Japanese Americans who play baseball and I’m not sure if it continues to be a significant activity in the JA community. I think I’ll add ‘history of baseball in Japanese America’ to my TBR. I’d really like to know if it continued to be a source of community building after the war, or if it petered out as formerly incarcerated JAs went their separate ways.

Questions I had:

  • Per the points raised above, I’d also like to know what kind of role, if any, baseball played in the Japanese American community prior to the war. The MC in Baseball Saved Us tells us he played some sports before being incarcerated, but it sounds like he did so in predominantly white/non-Japanese spaces, like P.E. or after-school teams. I wonder if any JA/Nikkei teams existed before the war, and if so, how and why they formed.
  • Is there a connection between JAs playing baseball and the history of baseball in Japan? My knowledge of sports history is approximately zero, so I’m not even sure which came first – baseball in Japan or baseball in JA communities. I’ve been thinking a bit about Kibei Nisei because I’m currently also reading Eiichiro Azuma’s Between Two Empires,**** and I wonder if they played any kind of role in introducing/mediating aspects of US/white culture to Japan. To tangent on a tangent, I’d love to see Nikkei/Nihonjin collaborate on a manga about the experiences of Kibei Nisei in pre-war/wartime Japan. (I know, I know, too many roads lead to manga in my world.) Interactions between diaspora Japanese and Japanese nationals have always fascinated me, probably because they’re a formative part of my own experiences, and I wish there was more Japanese-produced popular media on the topic.
  • What was the creation process of this book? Lee & Low Books, the publisher, has been one of the more vocal parties on the industry side in terms of advocating for marginalized writers and respectful representation. What was it like for Mochizuki to work with them? Were any major changes made to the story before publication?
  • What kind of preparation did Mochizuki do before writing this story? I believe his family was incarcerated (or perhaps interned, if they were Issei) at Minidoka. Did he rely mostly on family history and anecdotes, or did he also interview other formerly incarcerated JAs and consult JA/Nikkei-produced nonfiction sources? I’m not challenging the veracity of the story at all – I just have a personal interest in knowing how fellow JAs/Nikkeijin go about creating and telling our stories.
  • Who was Mochizuki’s intended audience? I mean, kids, sure, but I wonder if he was writing specifically for JA/Nikkei kids, or for non-Japanese audiences, or both? I didn’t see much of what I would label ‘pandering to whiteness’ in the text, except for omission of the word “white,” and this could have as much to do with the age of the audience as with their racial/cultural backgrounds.

Follow-up:

  • Mochizuki has written at least two other picture books, which I plan to purchase and read as finances allow. I also really need to finish his novel, Beacon Hill Boys, which I read about a third of before getting distracted by other books.
  • I should probably start reading some adult-focused JA/Nikkei fiction about the camps. My reading block for long-form, English-language prose fiction hasn’t gone away yet, so I’ve been sticking to children’s books, graphic novels, and a bit of nonfiction, but hopefully one of these days I feel like picking up a novel again. I have so many novels by Nikkei writers, both historical and contemporary, on my TBR!

*Main character, for anyone unfamiliar with book community lingo.

**His nickname is “Shorty,” but as a fellow short person, I find this way of referring to someone extremely dehumanizing and I won’t be using it in reference to him.

***See my post on The Bracelet for some concerns I raised about Yardley’s artistic choices.

****Eventually I’ll have a post about this book, but first I have to finish it. The sheer amount of information packed into each page is kind of destroying my brain right now.

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Book Spotlight: Yellow Peril – Jamie Noguchi

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Yellow Peril is a comic drawn and written by Jamie Noguchi, and follows the adventures of nerdy designer Kane Takeshi Hongo and his misfit friends in work, life, and love.

What I liked:

  • I believe this is the first Nikkei-produced work I’ve come across starring a Nikkei (I assume Kane is Japanese American, but I need to revisit Noguchi’s commentary – included at the bottom of each strip in the webcomic version – to see if he ever confirms this) character in a contemporary US setting, with a focus on the day-to-day lives of young adults. Although the timeframe is slightly different from my own – Noguchi’s characters are probably about ten years older than I am because they reference things like the 80s – the representations of working life and complicated relationships (and how these things sometimes intertwine) felt completely relatable. In short, Yellow Peril is the perfect thing to read while sitting at my desk waiting for the day to be over.
  • The non-romantic relationships in this comic are so fun to follow. Family relationships are often the ones I find most compelling when reading, and while only Kane and Lance are (apparently) related by blood, I enjoy the various techniques Noguchi uses to portray his characters’ close bonds. Some of my favorites, apart from Kane and Lance, are Julie and Kane (the high school flashbacks are so cute), and Bodie and Kane (so many comics/anime references!).
  • Noguchi comments on numerous issues without making the comic an explicit social justice work. I actually enjoy work centered on activism, but I appreciate how Noguchi leaves the level of engagement open-ended for the reader – it would be relatively easy to glaze over the social commentary if one was so inclined, but it’s definitely there if you look for it.
  • The Pit Lords! I hope we see more of them as Noguchi continues the comic. iRate and Killer Queen are hilarious – and I really want to know what Doctor No looks like. Killer Queen is one of my favorite characters, even though we haven’t seen a whole lot of her. I often gravitate toward characters who are so skilled at something not only do they kick ass, but they can literally become a fearsome enemy because of their skill, as in her case. The whole part about what it means to “owe” Killer Queen was THE BEST.
  • Yellow Peril is set in Maryland – I’ve never read a Nikkei work set in Maryland. I wonder if there’s a substantial Nikkei community there. It sounds like the location is based on Noguchi’s own life experiences. I’d like to know if there are other Nikkei creators producing autobiographical or semi-autobiographical work about being Nikkei on the east coast.
  • The Apocalypse Belles! I’ve never heard of a metal band composed exclusively of Black women in real life – does anyone know if this is a thing? I wonder what Black readers – especially Black women – thought of the Apocalypse Belles, not to mention Noguchi’s portrayal of Jezzi. I really liked seeing Jezzi as Lance’s mentor and maternal/parental figure, as well as Lance admitting he should have been there for Jezzi much sooner than he actually showed up. To me, their relationship evokes some of the historic (and ongoing) patterns of interactions between Black and Asian American social justice activists – Asian Americans owe a great deal to Black people, especially Black women, for leading and shaping our engagements with social justice, and we haven’t always been great at showing up for Black people in return. I’m probably reading way too deeply into the subplot at this point, but in line with my interpretation, I appreciate how Lance owns his failure without saying or acting as if he can “undo” what he did. (In other words, you can apologize and commit to doing better next time, but none of that actually undoes the harm you caused in the first place.)
  • Asian men who feel like real people! Ok, this is not exactly “novel” to me because I read plenty of manga depicting believable men, but in light of recent US discussions about representations of Asian masculinity, I thought I’d point this out. One of my favorite things about Kane and Lance is their unapologetic love of video games (and comics and anime). At one point, Kane mentions Julie was the only other kid in school who liked giant robot anime, which brought back memories of how being an Asian who enjoys Asian things in a predominantly white classroom often results in ridicule and exclusion*, but in general the Asians in Yellow Peril own their love of Asian things and are accepted by the non-Asians around them. In other words, even though Kane’s interests could be read as a “stereotype,” this isn’t how he is presented and it isn’t how his peers treat him. Along the same lines, even though I find it weird how race is mostly not discussed in the comic (is Noguchi a proponent of “colorblind” practices?), I’m glad none of the men (and none of the characters, as far as I saw) are fetishized for their race/appearance. I do wonder about the motives of some of Lance’s audiences (do they like him because he’s Asian?)…but so far this hasn’t been addressed.

What I learned:

  • There are a lot of comics/anime references I don’t know! Haha, I already knew this, but I don’t usually read work so laden with references that not knowing them starts to impede my understanding of the content. Not that I missed anything vital – I don’t think – but I have a feeling I skipped over a few jokes because I didn’t know the context. For example, I didn’t realize all the characters on the train were comic/anime characters until I read Noguchi’s commentary about that panel. I still don’t know who all those characters are, but I imagine the panel is a lot funnier to someone who does know. Anyway, I hope some comics- and anime-loving Nikkei reader comes across Yellow Peril – I bet they’ll love it.

Questions I had:

  • What is Lance’s ethnicity? I believe we’re told his surname is Li, which is definitely not Japanese and sounds rather Chinese to me. I’d really like to know more about the familial connections between Lance and Kane. I’ve met a few Japanese/Chinese people and my cousin’s kids are Japanese/Chinese (in other words, it’s possible for Kane to be Japanese and to have a Chinese cousin – seems self-evident, but in my experience, outsiders get really confused about this), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “mainstream” Japanese/Chinese character. Also, if Noguchi himself isn’t Japanese/Chinese, I’d be interested in why he created a (potentially) Japanese/Chinese character.
  • Will the female characters be getting more fully developed storylines as the comic progresses? Up to this point, Ally has gotten significantly more panel space than the other women and while I do find her an entertaining character, it’d be nice to see a WOC receive the same amount of attention. (Side note: I feel ok discussing this comic in the context of US conversations on gender because Noguchi seems much more in dialogue with US social values than, say, Japanese ones.)
  • Why did Noguchi make Ally, the (initial) love interest, a white woman? I’m not sure this was a conscious choice – in the same way many POC writers start out writing white characters without really realizing they’re doing it – but if so, why? Sure, white women are marginalized relative to white men in US society, but I’ve never been a fan of “POC has white love interest” storylines because I feel too many of them cater to white audiences, much like the symbolic “biracial” MC. I’m not saying Noguchi made Ally white in order to attract white readers, but it’s definitely something I always wonder when a POC creator chooses to include a prominent white character in a mostly-POC cast. For that matter, it would have been interesting if Noguchi had made Ally, say, half-Japanese and half-white. From what I’ve heard, JAs have high rates of interracial marriage, so mixed race Nikkeijin definitely have a place in contemporary and future Nikkei narratives. I do like where Kane’s relationship with Tara seems to be headed…
  • On the flip side of my previous point, it’s true a fair number of JAs marry white people, so I suppose Noguchi might have made Ally white to reflect reality. I suspect it’s outside the scope of this work to examine how interracial marriages with white people relate to the role of assimilation in JA history, but I would love it if Noguchi addressed this later in the comic, especially if Kane and Ally actually end up together at some point.
  • What was the purpose of the cooking competition subplot? It felt like an attempt to give Julie more on-page time, but I didn’t think it added much to the overall narrative. I do like the idea of dueling with kitchenware – in fact, Noguchi seems to have many quirky ideas which he drops in at intervals and I admire his creativity.
  • What is Kane’s relationship to his heritage? I’m not sure if he’s bilingual or if he just knows a few words of Japanese, but from what I recall of Noguchi’s commentary, we really aren’t told much about Kane’s connections to Japan outside of his interest in anime. This isn’t a criticism – I have met JAs who are far removed from Japan either because of a generational gap or for other reasons – I’m just curious about how Kane came to be as a character and if there will be any in-depth discussion of his heritage in later parts of the comic.
  • On a related note, do non-Japanese people often get Kane’s name wrong? I know many fellow Nikkeijin (and Asian Americans with Asian names in general) have encountered this problem in real life, but I didn’t notice it ever being mentioned in the comic.
  • Ally’s growing relationship with Annie gets a lot of page time – unsurprising, since Ally is one of the main characters – but I couldn’t help notice Killer Queen’s having a girlfriend was very much glossed over by comparison and seemed mostly to serve as comic relief in the story of how Kane can’t successfully land a date. This is another reason I hope we see more of Killer Queen as the comic progresses – white women aren’t the only women who get to date women.

Follow-up:

  • I’ve read the webcomic in its entirety and hope Noguchi keeps updating because I’m now very invested in some of the characters. I ordered volume 1 of the physical copy for an easier reread in preparation for this post, and I plan to order the other volumes soon.
  • I was skimming Noguchi’s website while writing this post and saw a passing reference to Stan Sakai, which reminds me – Sakai has been on my TBR forever, so I should probably get reading soon! I wonder if there’s a “secret” group of Nikkei creators where they talk shit about industry problems, etc. I say “secret” because I haven’t found many Nikkei creators in online activist spaces like Twitter, but I find it hard to believe nobody is saying anything. Since most of the Nikkei creators I know of are older, I imagine they communicate via other means. I wonder if there’s a non-physical space where Nikkei creators of varying ages and backgrounds can exchange ideas.

*Thanks to Soojin (@skimlines) for frequently discussing this topic on Twitter. I hadn’t thought much about how to articulate my off-and-on relationship with certain aspects of Japanese culture growing up until I read her tweets about Asians being marginalized simply for trying to enjoy our own things on our own terms.

Book Spotlight: The Bracelet – Yoshiko Uchida

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

The Bracelet follows the story of Emi, a Japanese American second-grader who is sent to a concentration camp with her mother and sister.

What I liked:

  • Uchida is (was) one of the best-known Nikkei authors writing about JA incarceration, but before coming across The Bracelet I thought she had only written middle-grade historical fiction. It’s nice to see she also produced work for younger readers.
  • Joanna Yardley’s artist note at the beginning of the book states she used a Japanese American model, presumably for her depictions of Emi. My initial impression of the cover illustration was, ‘wow, this girl actually looks Japanese,’ so it’s great to hear the artist put in the work of finding a model. Sometimes, I see white artists creating very white-looking Asians and other POC – I’m glad that wasn’t the case with Yardley.
  • Uchida’s narrative style reminds me of Cynthia Kadohata’s Weedflower – clear, honest, and concise. The reader is not spared Emi’s distress and confusion at being incarcerated, nor the harsh conditions of the Tanforan Racetrack. As Kadohata does with Sumiko in Weedflower, Uchida filters the information provided to the reader via the lens of Emi’s youth. I did find the ending a little too tidy – Emi’s faith in her friend Laurie was hard to view as realistic, given the difficulties Japanese Americans faced reintegrating into society after their release. I can see why Uchida and/or her editor might want to close on a hopeful note – the target audience is children, after all – but when I compare this ending to Allen Say’s books where he depicts his experiences with racism head-on, I don’t think it would be too “adult” to imply Emi’s postwar future might hold obstacles. Kadohata also doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of post-camp life in Weedflower.
  • Yardley’s illustrations are vividly colorful. Aesthetically, I found them wonderful. In light of the book’s subject matter, not so much. Color often sets the mood of a picture book and in this case, the brightness of Yardley’s palette is difficult to read as anything but happy and joyful. It’s difficult to reconcile these subliminal (or overt, depending on your interpretation) messages with the serious content being presented. If Yardley’s intent was to convey the strength and hope of Japanese Americans in the face of racism and incarceration – well, I still think it could have been done with a subtler palette. One illustration, probably my least favorite in the book, depicts the buses carrying Emi and other JAs to Tanforan as they cross the Bay Bridge. The scene is sunny, the colors warm and vibrant. Take this illustration and plunk it into a picture book about some kids going on a field trip and it wouldn’t look out of place at all. Although some JAs who went to camp at a very young age recollect not knowing what was going on and thinking they were on a field trip, in The Bracelet we already know from the previous scenes that Emi is very aware this is not a field trip. Who, then, are the colors for? Why the false optimism? On whose behalf, exactly, is the narrative being softened?

What I learned:

  • Emi and her family live in Berkeley before their forced removal. I don’t know the history of Berkeley, but now I wonder if there was a significant JA community there before the war. It’s not a location I’ve seen mentioned in discussions of historic JA communities, so I’ll have to do a bit of digging.

Questions I had:

  • Words like “incarceration” and “concentration camp” are never used in the book – instead, we have “internment,” “relocation,” and “evacuation.” Did Uchida use this terminology in her original draft, or was it an editorial decision? This terminology also appears in Uchida’s afterword. I’ll have to take a look at her other books to see which words she uses there. I’m always curious about the word choices Nikkeijin make when discussing the camps. I personally favor the more straightforward “incarceration,” but given the emotional history of the era, as well as the subsequent pressures (internal and external) to conform to “model minority” standards, I can see why other Nikkeijin might lean toward the softer terminology (or prefer not to discuss their experiences at all).
  • Who was Uchida’s intended audience? Although the history of incarceration continues to be a sensitive topic in the JA community, I think most Japanese American children reading this book would already know the aftermath of incarceration doesn’t match the tone of the book’s ending. Additionally, Uchida’s portrayal of white characters like Laurie and Mrs. Simpson seems to let white Americans completely off the hook regarding incarceration. Yes, there were white people who looked after their Japanese neighbors’ properties and belongings during the incarceration, but there were also plenty of white people who supported incarceration and openly expressed anti-Japanese sentiments. None of the latter type of white people are shown in the book, which to me is a dishonest omission. (It should also be noted, white people who did/said nothing about incarceration were complicit in anti-Japanese racism. There is no ‘neutral.’) Children shouldn’t be shielded from racism – instead, authors and other media creators should be finding ways to present race and other complicated topics in ways children will understand.

Follow-up:

  • I have a bunch of Uchida’s other books sitting in my TBR pile, so I will be reading those for comparison, hopefully in the near future. I want to say I also have a biography or autobiography of Uchida on my list somewhere, but I might just be making that up.*

*If no such book exists yet, I would love to see a Nikkei writer tackle this project!

Book Spotlight: When Blossoms Fall – Masako Fukui

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

When Blossoms Fall is a novella chronicling the lives of kamikaze pilot Hajime, his wife, Michiko, and his daughter, Yuri, after they relocate to Australia in the postwar era.

What I liked:

  • I think this might be the first fiction piece I’ve read about 神風特別攻撃隊 – certainly the first I’ve read highlighting postwar memory and family experiences. I know very little about this era of Japanese history, but as far as introductions go, When Blossoms Fall definitely motivated me to read up. Several of the works by Japanese scholars on my TBR focus on wartime and postwar Japan, so I might give this novella a second read after I have a broader understanding of the historical context.
  • The alternating POVs – Hajime, Michiko, and Yuri – are integral to the overall shape and flow of the narrative. It seemed to me the differences in the three characters’ perspectives functioned partly to counter any external presumptions of a monolithic, fanatic Japanese nationalism during this period. To be sure, I’m a US-based Nikkei reader commenting on the fictionalized experiences of Australia-based Nikkeijin/Nihonjin, but I remember my white classmates yelling, “COMMA-CAUSE-E” when running into the opposing team’s zone during our P.E. sessions of Capture the Flag.* I had to ask my white friend what she was yelling because it was unintelligible by Japanese pronunciation standards. These incidents no doubt stemmed from the negligent coverage of Japanese wartime experiences in our textbooks, which for many of my white classmates were likely their only exposure to non-US/European aspects of the war. All that to say, I’m so glad Fukui’s novella complicates this portrait of Japanese people during/after the war.
  • FUKUI IS A BILINGUAL NIKKEI WRITER!! (Yes, I’ll probably react this way for every bilingual Nikkei writer whose work I feature on here.) I’ve stated in other places on this blog, as well as on Twitter, why I think Nihonjin/Nikkeijin need to retain ownership over our stories, and I deeply appreciate Fukui telling this story. It means so much to see a bilingual Nikkei writer depicting bilingual Nikkei experiences.**
  • In dialogue with my previous point, the macro- and microaggressions (and experiences of assimilation) are spot-on. Hajime’s transformation into “Jim” thanks to Don, Ally’s white-lensed portrayal of Japanese culture being prioritized over Yuri’s #ownvoices perspective – I’ve experienced variations of both of these and reading these scenes I thought, YES THIS IS IT SHE GETS IT.
  • Fukui also doesn’t gloss over Yuri’s difficulty fitting into school when the family returns to Japan for the first time since moving to Australia. I always love to see Nikkei writers tackling the ever-present question, “what does it mean to be Japanese?” with regard to our experiences.
  • Manga, Japanese feminism, and memory – three topics which particularly interest me – play significant roles in the story. I haven’t done much nonfiction reading on any of them, though, so it was also a good reminder to revisit my TBR. One of my favorite aspects of the story is how Fukui intertwines these topics – Yuri’s use of drawing as a way of reconstructing/recollecting/reshaping her memories and Tokugawa’s nationalistic war manga are a few notable examples.
  • There are two female narrators – Michiko and Yuri, compared to one male narrator, Hajime, but overall there are more male characters. I wonder if this is Fukui’s acknowledgment of the gender imbalances/prejudices of Japanese society. Interestingly, while Hajime’s POV shifts between second- and third-person throughout the story, Michiko’s and Yuri’s POVs remain in third-person until the very end, when Yuri’s POV shifts into first-person. Perhaps this is a nod to the changing generation – Hajime has passed and it is Yuri’s turn to be the “head” of the family – and makes me wonder if generation terminology is as important to Australia-based Nikkeijin as it sometimes is to US-based Nikkeijin. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard non-US-based Nikkeijin utilize terms like Issei, Nisei, Sansei, etc.
  • Michiko reminds me of many of the Japanese mothers I’ve met – those meticulously crafted dishes! I could see non-Japanese readers perceiving her as too compliant, too quiet, but it makes perfect sense in the context of Japanese maternal values. She also embodies the spirit of hardworking immigrant parents who sacrifice on behalf of their children, which I think many fellow Nikkeijin and other diaspora folks will find familiar. Fukui even makes a point of telling us, through Hajime’s eyes I believe, how Michiko cleaves to custom on the surface but grooms Yuri for a different path.
  • Hajime! I really liked Hajime (“Majime Hajime” lol). Fukui gives him many of the “quintessential” traits of Japanese men, which is interesting – and I imagine, deliberate – in light of his rather unusual relationship to the war. Even though he isn’t the most straightforward person, the straightforward narrative presentation of his personality and motives make him interesting rather than unlikeable. On a personal side note, I’ve also been reading several manga featuring 斎藤一 of 新選組 fame, so it was funny to read about such a different character with the same (given) name.
  • “When Blossoms Fall” is such a visual title. I’m a very visual reader (hence all the manga) and as I was reading, I was thinking about the ways in which I’ve seen falling blossoms utilized as a motif in Japanese media. Two examples that stood out were the song, 千本桜, and the parts in 風光る where connections are drawn between warriors and sakura. These comparisons, along with the role of sakura – and other flowers – in Japanese culture/nationalism, made me wonder just how many layers of symbolism Fukui intended when she chose the title. Flowers appear in various parts of the novella, too, but this isn’t really unusual in context and I’m not sure if they were integrated for symbolic effect or simply to help set the scene (or both). I’m also not entirely convinced the title isn’t drawn from a real-life inspiration, but I don’t have the background knowledge yet to confirm this.
  • It’s kind of mind-blowing to read a war-related Nikkei story where JA incarceration doesn’t play a role. Now I’m quite curious about the history of Nikkei communities in Australia – when did the first Japanese people arrive? How were they affected by the war?
  • I briefly addressed this point above, but Fukui humanizes her characters without letting the story become a literary apology for or rosy-hued portrait of Japanese imperialism. None of them are let off the hook – Fukui makes it clear they each proceed through life imperfectly – but she also makes clear they weren’t all Tokugawa Kens.*** I especially enjoy Fukui’s attention to the effects of generation on shaping perspectives of the war (very relevant for those of us familiar with JA incarceration) and her diverse representations of Nikkei experiences. It might be I’m spending too much time on Twitter lately, but I often feel discussions of the Asian diaspora, particularly Asian Americans, fall into “us versus them” models without accounting for nuances on both sides. In other words, even though we as Nikkeijin may share many experiences and in some cases histories, we aren’t monolithic – and the same goes for Nihonjin.

What I learned:

  • I think the other parts of this post make abundantly clear what I learned – which mostly consists of realizing how much I don’t know yet – so I won’t write anything else here.

Questions I had:

  • Before reading the novella, I knew there were pilots who never flew their missions, but I hadn’t thought much about what happened to them after the war. I wonder how many of them left Japan (whether because they were relocated for work, like Hajime, or for other reasons) and what their destinations were, apart from Australia. I wonder especially if any of them made it to the US, considering JA incarceration and anti-Japanese sentiment were fresh in the minds of the US population. Clearly, I have a lot of reading ahead of me!
  • I’m not sure what the rights situation is with this novella, but I would love to see it reissued one day in a standalone volume, a la Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti. If it does get reissued, it would be awesome to see some accompanying illustrations by a Japanese artist. There are many moments I feel could be beautifully captured in a spare, black-and-white sketch – or possibly quiet watercolors or 墨絵, especially the final scene and the part about Michiko’s persimmons.
  • Is Fukui planning to write another novella or a novel? I would love to see a novel about this topic, whether it expands on the existing novella or employs a whole new cast. Along similar lines, does Fukui plan to write a Japanese version of the novella? From the bio page on her website, it appears she has the linguistic qualifications to do so. It would be so interesting to see how the characters’ voices change when rendered in Japanese!
  • How did Fukui come to write this story? Did she have an intended audience in mind? I think my fellow Nikkeijin will find much to relate to in this work, but perhaps we weren’t the audience Fukui envisioned. I could also see it being of interest to Nihonjin, though I’m not sure how many would read it if there is no Japanese version.
  • Is the Tokugawa/Ms M controversy based on a true event? I couldn’t help but wonder about Fukui’s choice in naming Tokugawa, considering the logical historical association and the trajectory Tokugawa himself follows over the course of the story. Maybe I’ve been reading too many 幕末 and 新選組 manga!
  • What is the Australian Nikkei community like? I’ve met a few Australia-based Nikkeijin on Twitter, but none in real life. I wonder if there’s a novel or novella or short story out there, by an Australia-based Nikkei writer, about Australian Nikkei interactions with POC/indigenous communities in Australia. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I’ve seen a US-based Nikkei writer center a work on interactions between US Nikkeijin and other POC/indigenous communities in the US (with the exception of scholarship on the connections between Asian American civil rights movements and Black civil rights movements, i.e. Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X)…but maybe I need to look harder…
  • This novella made me think about a lot of different things, but as I’m writing this super long post, I also wonder if all my assumptions about the text are off the mark. After all, I did read from a very specific and personal perspective, which is no doubt very different from the lens Fukui brought to bear when writing the novella. It would be interesting to hear how my reflections compare with Fukui’s thoughts, but I doubt she’ll ever read this!

Follow-up:

  • Reading this novella exposed so many knowledge gaps for me! I’m super motivated to add to my shelf of nonfiction books on Japan, though it’ll take some time (and money).
  • I’ll be keeping an eye out for Fukui’s future work!

There’s a lot more I could say about When Blossoms Fall and I’m sure my post has some glaring omissions which I’ll notice right after publishing it, but I’ll wrap up here for the sake of word count. I’d love to know if any Nikkei writers or scholars, particularly anyone specializing in wartime or postwar Japan (or Australia-based Nikkei), have looked at this novella – fellow Nikkeijin, if you come across anything, please let me know!

*I don’t suppose this sentence will make sense to anyone who grew up outside the US education system, and maybe not even to some of my fellow US-based Nikkeijin!

**Come to think of it, I’m not sure how Hajime, Michiko, and Yuri self-identify by the end of the story, since they do move back and forth between Japan and Australia. I don’t mean the label itself is particularly important, but I wonder if the characters themselves feel more affinity with Nihonjin or with Nikkeijin – or maybe both. A friend of mine who lived in Japan and Okinawa until high school recently told me he “now” identifies as Japanese American, making me wonder if Hajime, Michiko, and Yuri also experience shifting understandings of their selves over time.

***I know Fukui writes him into the text as Ken Tokugawa, but his nationalistic inclinations make him very much Tokugawa Ken in my mind. I wonder if any Nikkei writers have tackled the connections between Nikkei/Nihonjin status and name order – and code-switching, and…yup, that’ll have to be a separate post.

Book Spotlight: Yuko-chan and the Daruma Doll – Sunny Seki

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Yuko-chan and the Daruma Doll follows the adventures of Yuko-chan, who saves her village from poverty by inventing handmade daruma dolls.

What I liked:

  • THIS BOOK IS BILINGUAL!!! Granted, I haven’t read many books by Nikkeijin yet, but of the books I’ve read or added to my TBR, this is the first bilingual work I’ve come across. As a kid, all the Japan-related books and media I consumed were in either Japanese or English. Although some of these works were created by bilingual Nikkeijin or Nihonjin, for whatever reason they were never actually produced as bilingual. Needless to say, the bilingual aspect is my favorite thing about this book!*
  • Sunny Seki is one talented guy. From what I can tell, he wrote and illustrated the entirety of Yuko-chan and the Daruma Doll himself. The illustrations aren’t as manga-esque as those in the Japanese children’s books I grew up with, but I definitely noticed some similarities. I especially enjoyed the calligraphic quality of Seki’s illustrations – for example, the image of daruma-san on the back cover contains visible brushstrokes. The Japanese version of the story also mirrors the language, tone, and flow of Japanese children’s books.

What I learned:

  • I’m familiar with daruma-san as we know him in everyday life, but this is my first time reading any kind of origin story about him. I wonder if Yuko-chan’s story is Seki’s invention entirely, or if it is a retelling of an existing origin story. How many versions of daruma-san’s origin story exist in Japan? I’d love to visit Takasaki/Gunma-ken one day and see for myself.

Questions I had:

  • Did Seki write both versions of the story himself? If so, did he have much difficulty deciding how each version should be written, knowing they would appear side-by-side on the page? Fellow bilingual Nikkei readers will note the two versions are not a “literal” translation of each other. Personally, I preferred the Japanese version – the characters feel more vivid and individualized than in the English version. (Also, was I the only Nikkei reader who thought the end of the story would be an excellent jumping-off point for a manga? The part of Yuko-chan’s story told in this book would probably also be a good manga, especially if it focused on daily village life and the experience of being a child adopted by a temple.)
  • Whom did Seki envision as the audience for this book? What are the demographics of the people who have actually read this book? Do the two match up?
  • Why is the cover not bilingual? My version of the book shows only the English title. Before purchasing the book, I read in the description that it was bilingual, but it is not immediately obvious just from looking at the cover. Did the publisher feel an English-only title was better for marketing? Did Seki himself have any input on the cover? How does he feel about it?
  • How do other Nikkei readers approach this book? In my case, I read each page in both languages before moving on to the next, rather than reading the entire story through in one language and then returning for a second pass in the other. My focus was on comparing both versions of the text, but it did make for a rather disjointed reading of the story as a whole. I’d love to hear how bilingual Nikkeijin/Nihonjin read the text, compared to Nikkeijin or Nihonjin who can read only one version.
  • Is Yuko-chan’s blindness part of some existing origin story about daruma-san, or something Seki added? As noted above, I don’t know how much, if any, of this story is Seki’s original idea versus a retelling. In Seki’s book, Yuko-chan’s blindness explains why daruma-san’s eyes aren’t painted in, which is something I’ve always wondered about. What would the people of Takasaki say if asked why daruma-san’s eyes aren’t painted in? Also, if we assume Yuko-chan’s blindness was part of an existing origin story, could Seki have found a way to execute his retelling without making her blindness the pivot point?
  • In the context of US discussions about disability representation in literature, I imagine some of my fellow Nikkeijin might read Yuko-chan’s story as a, “accomplished THIS in spite of [insert disability]” narrative. How have disabled Nikkeijin/Nihonjin responded to this story, especially any who self-identify as blind or visually impaired?
  • What inspired Seki to write this book? Does he self-identify as Nikkeijin or Nihonjin? I realize I’ve been assuming he is Nikkeijin because I first heard of him through Nikkei resources, but I may very well be wrong. If he is Nikkeijin, how do Nihonjin feel about his creation of this book? Do they even know it exists?** I especially wonder if any Takasaki residents know of this book. I imagine Seki visited Takasaki at least once while preparing to write the book – I wonder if he or they ever followed up once it was published?

Follow-up:

  • Yuko-chan’s story reminded me I have several nonfiction works about disability in Japan on my TBR. I’m not sure if any of them directly address being blind in Japan – I think they may focus on other disabilities – but I’ll keep Yuko-chan’s story in mind as I read them.
  • I don’t think I’ve come across a single Nikkei-written nonfiction work about the intersections of disability and being Nikkeijin in the US or other parts of the diaspora. I’ll review my TBR to be sure, but if you’re a fellow Nikkeijin/Nihonjin reading this and you have any suggestions, let me know!

*I’m using “bilingual” here to refer to Nikkeijin/Nihonjin who are bilingual in Japanese and English. There are of course Nikkeijin/Nihonjin who are bilingual in other combinations of languages, as well as Nikkeijin/Nihonjin who know more than two languages.

**A Nikkei author – Naomi Hirahara, I think (?) – once stated Nihonjin are not necessarily interested in work produced by Nikkeijin, specifically Japanese Americans, in the context of being asked if her books were translated into Japanese. I reflect on this every time I come across work by Nikkei writers that seems to engage, directly or indirectly, with themes pertinent to Nihonjin and/or Japan itself…but that’s a topic for another post.

Book Spotlight: Drawing from Memory – Allen Say

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Drawing from Memory recounts, in picture book/graphic novel format, Say’s journey to becoming an artist, from his childhood fascination with drawing to his apprenticeship with the mangaka Noro Shinpei and eventual transition to the US.

What I liked:

  • To date, I’ve read three other books by Say – Grandfather’s Journey, Kamishibai Man, and Tea with Milk. While I loved all three of these books and thought Say did a marvelous job writing and illustrating each one, I think Drawing from Memory best showcases the range of his skills as both an author and an artist. In what might appear to be a deceptively “simple” picture book, Say’s narrative interweaves the everyday experiences of Nihonjin during and after the war with his personal experiences as a student and apprentice. I say “interweave” rather than “uses as a backdrop” to refer to his depictions of wartime Japan because the essence of Say’s story is inextricable from its historical context. As in his other work, Say’s outstanding ability to convey nuance through his illustrations and spare writing style steals the show. さすが日本人!
  • The number and variety of images (photographs, Say’s artwork in various styles ranging from sketches to paintings, etc.) enhances and balances the text. Drawing from Memory seems to have a higher word count than Say’s other picture books (not surprising, given the nature of the story being told), but the arrangement of text and image prevents the reader from being overwhelmed.
  • Say tailors his art style according to content and meaning – for example, compare the illustrations depicting Say as a child and apprentice, to the panorama of the bay (Yokohama, I wonder?) on the page describing the US occupation of Japan, to the black-and-white drawing of the riot police. His watercolors are my favorite – the quiet aesthetics of everyday Japan, the liveliness and vitality of the people evoked by his color choices, the attention to details like shop signs – but I also loved seeing the many other styles he is capable of working in.
  • Significant people in Say’s life – Noro-sensei, Tokida, Orito-san, his mother – are presented in brief but vivid snapshots. I especially love the intimate illustrations of Say working in Noro-sensei’s studio and drawing with Orito-san in the art room. These illustrations, juxtaposed with actual photographs of the people involved, infuse the work with a feeling of nostalgia. As the title itself indicates, this book is a collection of Say’s memories, pieced together from true events and imagination. At times, I felt a bit intrusive, as if I was leafing through Say’s family album, and I had to remind myself Say would not have included anything he wished to keep private. Looking back, I realize this feeling is yet another indicator of how successfully Say executed his, “drawing from memory.”
  • Say expertly distills long passages of time into a few images and lines of text, highlighting key moments in his life without making the story feel disjointed. For example, the time he spent studying for the Aoyama entrance exam is captured in a single illustration of him lying belly-down on his futon, his schoolbooks spread out above the pillow. Numerous versions of this image can be found in contemporary Japanese media, alongside stories, both fictional and true, of the rigors of exam preparation. Between this image and the subsequent one showing the exam results board, exists the entirety of the effort Say invested in gaining admission to Aoyama. It’s interesting to compare Say’s framing of this portion of his life to the culture of consumption around school-themed manga and anime that exists in contemporary Japan (but that’s really a discussion for another post). Long story short, I really admire Say’s talent for economy!
  • Kyushu gets a little screen (page?) time, however briefly. I always get excited when I encounter other Nikkeijin/Nihonjin with ties to Kyushu, even if they aren’t from the same area as my family. Represent!

What I learned:

  • This is the first book I’ve read focusing on how mangaka/artists trained in wartime and postwar Japan. I think it’s only the second book I’ve read about the behind-the-scenes work of mangaka, the first being バクマン.
  • I’d never heard of Noro Shinpei before reading this book. It sounds like not much of his work might be extant today, but I might poke around to see what I can find. Maybe I’ll also ask my mom if she’s familiar with him, since she grew up in postwar Japan and read a lot of manga as a kid.
  • I wasn’t expecting to learn that Say’s foundational training occurred under a mangaka, since he isn’t one now. Time to look for some Nikkeijin/Nihonjin-written work on how the history of manga intersects with the history of other art forms in Japan.
  • As readers of Tea with Milk know, Say’s mother was raised in San Francisco for a time before her parents chose to move the family to Japan, and she found a job as a department store interpreter thanks to her bilingual skills. In Drawing from Memory, Say mentions several times that after his parents separated, his mother supported herself, Say, his sister, and his grandmother on her income. I wonder what sort of work she did – I imagine her bilingual ability would have been even more useful during wartime and the postwar period. I’ve never thought much about how Nikkeijin – especially women – made a living if they were in Japan during the war, but now I’m motivated to find out!

Questions I had:

  • Where have Allen Say’s books been all my life?! No, serious question. Maybe it’s because I grew up with books and media created by Nihonjin, not Nikkeijin, but I find it incredible I haven’t come across Say before now. Fellow Nikkeijin, are you familiar with Say’s work? When and how were you introduced to it?
  • I wonder why Say chose not to become a mangaka? I hope reading his other work will offer some clues!
  • How much input did Say have on the layout of this book? The photographs, illustrations, and text seamlessly unite to form the narrative – not a single piece feels out of place. Considering Say probably provided most of the content, with the possible exception of a few of the images, I would assume he also had the final-ish say (pun unintentional) on how everything came together. Anyway, kudos to whomever was responsible! It’s a beautiful production.
  • Now that I know Say trained under a mangaka – has he ever considered creating manga? I think his background and skill set perfectly position him to execute a “first” of sorts – a manga exploring the relationships between Nikkeijin and Nihonjin (I would also love to see more Nikkeijin and Nihonjin creating other types of work around this subject, especially if it involved a transnational collaboration a la Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda for Monstress).*

Follow-up:

  • I just purchased Say’s The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice, which I understand to be the novelization of the story told in Drawing from Memory. I believe the story also continues in picture book format, so I’ll be looking for those as well.
  • Look for more fiction and nonfiction by Nikkeijin and/or Nihonjin on the history of manga, as well as the general history of Japanese art.

*Saw a recent call for an artist for a graphic novel about Japanese American incarceration, but I’m not sure if the creative team will end up being all Nikkeijin/Nihonjin. I hope so – I think Nikkeijin need to retain ownership over stories about the camps. I also saw an agent list “Japanese American internment” as an area of interest for manuscripts which – hmm. Unless the agent is specifically seeking #ownvoices work, it reads a little too much like, “here’s a trending topic, work by anyone (read: white people, outsiders) is welcome!” I’m 100% positive I don’t ever want to read anything written by a white person/non-Japanese person about JA/Nikkei incarceration.

Book Spotlight: Kamishibai Man – Allen Say

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Kamishibai Man follows Jiichan’s recollections of performing kamishibai as he retraces his old route from village to town.

What I liked:

  • Say’s illustrations are, as always, delightful. I especially like the opening scene showing Jiichan and Baachan in their home, and the scenes where Jiichan is wheeling his bicycle through town. Say’s attention to detail in depicting the signage for different types of shops and eateries made me so nostalgic for Japan – and I also wonder if he has much interest in 書道 or other types of writing/lettering. The opening illustration reminds me of the homes depicted in the children’s books my mother read to me before I learned to read on my own. Even now, my immediate visual association with the idea of a Japanese home is an image like this one.* The illustration at the end of the book, depicting Jiichan and Baachan sitting at the dinner table, really reminds me of the scene in one of my favorite childhood books, かさじぞう, where they have what looks like a dinner of hot water and 沢庵 (たくあん). I tried to copy that meal once and discovered it wasn’t very filling. 懐かしい!
  • I think we had a children’s book about kamishibai once, but I don’t know if my parents still have it. It wasn’t one we read a lot and I remember thinking it was rather boring because the pictures were black and white. Reading Kamishibai Man made me remember the existence of this book – time to see if my sister can find it.
  • Say’s use of Jiichan read to me as the perfect balance of specific and general. In not naming Jiichan, Say allows him to stand in for the many kamishibai performers whose life stories have been erased or ignored by subsequent historical developments. The dignity with which Say depicts Jiichan – his love for kamishibai, his nostalgia for the Japan of his youth, his perseverance and eventual reconnection to his old listeners – is an homage to kamishibai and its practitioners. At the same time, choosing to refer to him as Jiichan feels like an intimate choice to me because of the situations in which we (Japanese speakers) use Jiichan. I love how Say’s language choices enhance the story’s treatment of changes in Japanese society, particularly with regard to the shift from small-scale, familial activities like kamishibai in villages to more impartial mass media like television in developing cities.
  • Baachan’s homemade candies! I have to ask my mom about this – I think it’s something I’m too far removed from generationally and geographically, though I do remember my mom and maybe some of my aunts making a syrupy, stringy sugar candy on the stove. 水飴かな? I wonder if this is the candy on a stick that Jiichan gives out.

What I learned:

  • Nikkei authors have written about kamishibai in fiction! So far, this is the only example I’ve seen, but I hope to find more.

Questions I had:

  • Why did Say decide to write a book about kamishibai? I’ve made many assumptions and interpretations of his motives above, but these are all guesses. It would be nice to hear about the origins of the book in the author’s own words.

Follow-up:

  • The scholar’s note at the end of the book (not by Say) presents kamishibai as a predecessor to manga. Since I’m currently on something of a manga-reading kick, I guess it’s time to read up on the histories of both to see where and how they intersect. I hope I can find some Nikkei/Japanese sources!

*On a side note, I see Say worked on an English version of 三年寝太郎 (さんねんねたろう), written by someone else, which is interesting. I wonder if translating/retelling Japanese stories doesn’t appeal to him, since his own work seems to deal with more personal and/or historical narratives. Personally, I think it would be wonderful to see a Nikkei/Japanese author produce a bilingual version of this story for Nikkei kids learning about their heritage and Japanese kids learning English. Maybe a Nikkei author could collaborate with a Japanese artist – super cool!

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.