FANTASTIC VOYAGE: ‘99 Nen no Ai’ – A popular Japanese drama about Japanese Americans

Any Japanese American would immediately understand what you meant if you said 442nd, E.O. 9066, or camp. But how many Japanese people living in Japan would know? Before November, not that many.

However, in November, Tokyo Broadcasting System aired a drama in Japan called “99 Nen no Ai ~Japanese Americans~.” The drama was about the Japanese American experience, before, during and after World War II.

The drama has two main story branches, one that follows life for the Issei families in America, and one that follows life in Japan. As the drama is mainly about the Nikkei, the Japanese parts are mostly to connect the hardships of the Japanese in Japan and the Japanese in America.

I’m not as good at Japanese American history as I should be, but as a fourth generation Japanese American, I thought the show was excellent. The main point that I thought the drama succeeded in was showing the difficult situations that the Japanese Americans faced.

Of course the drama shows the horse stalls that the Japanese Americans were sent to. It shows the house tagged with graffiti and the “no Japs allowed” signs around the town. It shows the squalid conditions of the barracks with the ever-present guards and guard towers and barbed wire. It gives a nod to the No-No boys who were sent to Tule Lake, and the difficulties of making such a decision. It honors the 442 infantry and shows how their bravery helped pave the way for Japanese American acceptance in postwar America.
But not only that, it showed how families worked together to get through the incarceration. While many books emphasize the difficulties of the experience, this drama seemed to focus more on the strength of the Issei and Nisei to stay together as a family to overcome their challenges.

With my limited knowledge, I can’t say how accurate everything was from a historical point of view. After all, it’s not like I’ve been to the camps, or know what my grandparents or great grandparents talked about during their incarceration. But it fits with what I’ve read, and what I’ve heard. I guess the only complaint I might have about accuracy is the portrayal of the subsequent generations of Japanese Americans. It shows fourth generation Japanese Americans speaking Japanese fluently and behaving, well, like Japanese people that live in America. Everyone is bowing perfectly and introducing themselves in typical Japanese fashion.

But to complain about such a thing is like getting a BMW for Christmas and complaining about the color of the rims. There were so many positive things about the drama that they overshadow the little missteps here and there, like the heavy soundtrack or the awful acting by anyone not Japanese.

According to Video Research Ltd., a company that specializes in television ratings in Japan, “99 Nen no Ai” was the most watched drama in the week it was released. To put that in perspective, it had ratings almost as high as game seven of the Japan Series (the equivalent to the World Series). Personally, I’ve had several acquaintances come up to me and talk to me about my Japanese American heritage. Some comments I got: “When I watched the drama, I thought about you and your family” and “I never knew about the 442nd. They were so brave!”

I asked a group of people in my adult English class how much they knew about Japanese American history. Some of them knew about the internment camps, and one said she wanted to visit Manzanar, when she came to America last year. But none of them knew about the 442nd infantry unit, or the extent of the racism that Japanese Americans faced.

The drama was distinctly Japanese, with famous Japanese actors Kusanagi Tsuyoshi (from the band SMAP) and Nakama Yukie (from the shows “Gokusen” and “Trick”) playing leading roles. The style was quite Japanese as well, and this seeped in even to scenes that were supposed to portray America, and American life. The pacing was also slower than typical American shows, and there was an emphasis on feeling and atmosphere rather than dialogue. As such, I don’t know how receptive an American audience would be to the show.

Personally, the drama was very important to me. Of course I know about the incarceration of Japanese Americans. But it’s like I know that my parents lived in a world without color TV, or refrigeration. I can understand it on an intellectual level, but that doesn’t mean that I could follow whatever repercussions it might have had on their daily life. It’s like saying, “It’s cold at the South Pole. No, I mean really cold.” Sure, you can understand it, but unless you’ve been hanging out with the penguins, you don’t really know what it’s like. And while watching a TV show can never truly describe the experience, it was the closest thing that I’ve personally ever felt about the camps.

Jeff Asai, a Yonsei originally from Northern California’s South Bay Area, writes from the town of Asuka, Nara Prefecture, Japan, where he is teaching English in the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program. He can be reached via e-mail at jeffasai@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. Jane H. Yamashiro says

    Thanks for the really interesting article. I’ve heard about this drama but haven’t had a chance to watch it yet. When I was in Japan (1992-93 in Tokyo, 1995-98 in Nagano, 2004-2009 in Yokohama then Chiba), most Japanese didn’t seem to completely understand the concept a of a Japanese American. I wonder how much this will change with this kind of program shown nationally that introduces some of the history of Japanese Americans from the U.S. continent. On the other hand, when they portray yonsei as fluent in Japanese, it may still be confusing when Japanese meet later generation JAs that don’t speak much, if any, Japanese. A few years ago, a Japanese drama called “Sakura” about a JA from Hawaii in Japan was similarly critiqued for its portrayal of a yonsei who was fluent in Japanese. But it’s hard to tell if these shows are specifically portraying JAs as speaking Japanese, or if it’s like how in American movies like “the Sound of Music” everyone speaks English even though they’re in a German-speaking country.

  2. I’m indonesian and live in indonesia too but I reallly love japan, a really great, unic, interesting and inspirated country fo me. I love japanese drama and movie most. I watched this movie last day, it was really awesome drama. So beautyfull for me, once again I was Impressed by japanese, they are really awesome men! sorry for my poor of english.

  3. thanks for all article. it is very helpfull

  4. Martin Kubota says

    Here are my comments I made to another blog that had reviewed
    this film.

    In spite of all the criticism of this film, I thought the issues brought
    out were good ones, and was an attempt to explain the history
    of the Japanese who immigrated to the U.S. The sad part of all
    this, is that the Japanese Americans don’t have the clout to
    produce a film of their own history in the U.S.

    As a Sansei, 3rd generation JA in the U.S., I liked this film,
    because it was the first time, I have seen a film about my
    own heritage and I’m almost 62. It took the Japanese to
    produce this film because hollywood doesn’t see profit in
    an Asian cast film. Since the Chinese or should I say
    Taiwanese are making inroads into the entertainment industry,
    they would be the ones to portray JAs, if a movie about the
    internment and the 442 were to ever to be made. JAs have
    not really been able to make much headway in the entertainment
    industry. What does that tell you about prejudice and discrimination
    against Asians since WWII ended. The best story about the
    lack of support for an Asian actor is the Bruce Lee story, back in
    the 70s.

    I’m glad this film was produced, so that all current living JAs
    can get an insight into their own history. I would bet that
    most JAs living now are so Americanized or as some people
    say, “White washed.” that they don’t care about their past
    and the sacrifices that were made by their ancestors.
    Maybe this film will remind them about their roots.

  5. Hi Jeff,

    I am a half Japanese/ half American (born in Japan) currently living in Clovis, CA, near Fresno. I think that your blog about 99 nen no ai is from an interesting viewpoint. As a half Japanese/ American, I don’t have any relatives who had to endure the internment camps during WWII, just horror stories of post WWII Japan.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  6. Aaron Ishibashi says

    Glad that there are others who feel similarly about this! I’m Yonsei 4th-gen also. I have enjoyed the various 442/Internment documentaries, but I completely agree that this is like getting a BMW for Christmas haha I remember a while back thinking, “someone should totally do a drama with actual battle scenes, like a Japanese American ‘Saving Private Ryan’… This is exactly what I was hoping for! I was hardly bothered by Nisei’s inaccurate heavy accents and bad hakujin acting. 99 nen no ai really struck me in a different way, I now feel a stronger emotional connection to my heritage.
    PS: being a composer myself, I also thought the music was great!

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