THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: A behind-the-scenes glimpse at a historian’s work documenting JA stories

bioline_Greg RobinsonOne of the burdens of my work as a historian of Japanese Americans is the continuing sense of time passing. I have a continuing need to find people before they move out of reach, due to death or disability.

Now, I realize that, on one level, I have less ground for complaint than most. After all, coming to the study of Japanese American life so many years after the events I write about took place, I should by all rights have been relegated to using written sources and existing histories for my information. Instead, I have been extremely fortunate to get to meet a number of extraordinary, indestructible Nisei who were still active in their late eighties and nineties. I have even been privileged to count some of them as friends. They have given me information and insights about Japanese American life, both during World War II and at other times. While I am by no means a master as an oral historian, I always learn from speaking with people who were witnesses to past events, and getting their stories. The personal dimension that one gets from listening to surviving members of a bygone era is quite special, and it helps put me mentally into the period that I want to write about, with greater sense of ease.

All the same, I am continually sorry that so many people whose work or lives proved of interest to me should have departed before I could track them down. I often feel like the poor sap who arrives at the party after the all the action has taken place, and misses everything (and worse, gets such differing accounts of all the wonderful doings that it is near impossible to sort out truth from exaggeration). What is particularly galling is to discover an individual’s obituary, and realizing that I could have reached out to them if only I had known. (Of course, sometimes it is only because the person DID pass away that I become alerted to their existence).

This is not a new phenomenon in Asian American life, it must be said. In recent years I have been working on a collaborative study of the Nisei writer John Okada, who wrote the pioneering 1957 novel “No-No Boy.”

The book attracted little attention at the time of its first appearance, and Okada died in obscurity at age 47. Apparently, it was just weeks after Okada’s passing that a group of young Asian American writers — Frank Chin, Shawn Wong, Lawson Fusao Inada and Jeff Chan — happened upon a copy of “No-No Boy” in a used bookstore in Berkeley, Calif. Fascinated by their discovery, they met with Okada’s wife Dorothy, only to learn that Okada had died, and that his grieving widow had destroyed his unpublished papers. They started assembling information on the author, and used it in their republished edition of the book, which launched a large-scale rediscovery of Okada. Still, despite the posthumous reputation afforded “No-No Boy,” which has now appeared in multiple editions, Okada remains something of an enigma whose uneasy shadow hangs over his creation.

I can tell my own version of the tale. In late 1997, I was browsing the outdoor dollar bin of Argosy Books, a used bookstore on 59th Street in New York. There I came upon a book called “Restless Wave.” Published in 1940 by the small left-wing press Modern Age Books, it was the memoir of Haru Matsui, a Japan-born feminist and activist. I was fascinated by the work and its discussion of Japanese American life. I began to inquire about the author.

I soon discovered that “Haru Matsui” was in fact an assumed name. However, It was not hard to track down the author’s real name, Ayako Tanaka Ishigaki, especially as her husband, artist Eitaro Ishigaki, had been the book’s illustrator.

I also discovered that she had died in 1996, just one year before I had started my research. So, I had just missed her.

Worse, despite her having spent 25 years in the United States, it seemed that hardly any of the Asian Americanists I spoke to had even heard of her, and nobody knew anything much about her. In those pre-Internet days I could not simply look up information on her online. All I was able to find was that she was a friend of the pro-Chinese radical writer Agnes Smedley, as she was mentioned in a book about Smedley, though the authors of the book, who had interviewed her, were unable to tell me much of substance. Little by little, I accumulated various scraps of information. I looked in the New York Times Index (yes, I know that speaking these words horribly date me as a scholar!) to find mentions of her. I also discovered that she had produced a set of Japanese-language memoirs and diaries in later years, following her return to Japan. I ordered some of the books on interlibrary loan, and a Japanese-speaking roommate generously read and summarized passages for me.

Eventually, I learned that Ishigaki had spent her later years finding money and works for a museum of her husband’s art in Wakayama. When I wrote to them, they sent me some materials on Ayako, including a video of her at the opening of the museum.

With my colleague Yi-Chun Tricia Lin, I set out to produce a new reprint edition of “Restless Wave,” with an afterword discussing Ishigaki’s exceptional career, especially in the period after the book ended. Her memoir had been somewhat fictionalized, as it turned out. In addition to artistic considerations, she changed names and dates to protect her sister and brother-in-law, Japanese diplomats serving in the United States, from potential reprisals by their superiors in Tokyo. She also had soft-pedaled some of her left-wing politics in order to appeal to mainstream Americans. It ultimately appeared in 2004 in an edition with the Feminist Press at the City University of New York. I wish that the author could have known that people would be interested by what she had to say. I wish even more that I had been able to interview her and get more information on matters that she ignored or elided in her book.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. His new book based upon his Nichi Bei columns, “The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches,” was recently published by University Press of Colorado. He can be reached at The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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