THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Looking into the ‘great unknown’

Today’s installment offers a different kind of look into the “great unknown,” by unraveling some of the mystery surrounding how I do my research. Probably the question that readers of my column most often ask — sometimes with flattering wonder in their voices — is how and where I collect the wide-ranging bits of information that go into making up the entries. Since my mission is centered on exploring unknown aspects of Japanese American history, whether it is celebrating less known people or bringing to light hidden sides of famous figures, it means that I generally cannot rely on a plenitude of existing reference works.

Instead, I make use of different means to trace these missing persons from history.

In most cases, unless I am adapting something I have already written somewhere else, my search starts with material I discover in the course of my ongoing research. In the past dozen years or so, I have visited countless archives around North America. Sometimes it is with a particular project in mind, other times just to see what there is. There I read through files of government agencies, collections of personal papers, and newspaper and magazine back files. There is a very rich trove of information to be found in the Japanese American press, especially for the pre-war years, and I thank my lucky stars that so much survived the wartime removal and the upheavals afterward.

Once I start going through material, my practice is that whenever I see something that strikes me as unusual or potentially interesting, I will copy the text if possible, or at least make a note of it. Later on I sort through my pile of clippings and papers, and arrange everything by subject as I think most useful. I then either slip things into existing folders (computer or manila) or create new ones. A lot of what I find ends up going into my books, since they draw from a great number of different sources. However, I always turn up unusual things that I think are fun or intriguing but that do not fit well into my more scholarly writing. My column is thus a place for me to “lick the spoon” and enjoy using the research I do in a different way.

In any case, once I have enough in my “ Hisaye Yamamoto” folder, say, or my “Japanese Americans in Louisiana” folder, I can think of going forward. I then rummage through the books I have in my library at home to see if they have further information, or check other folders for material that may be housed separately. I also speak to friends who might be knowledgeable on a particular subject to find out whether they know anything.

One lucky thing about working on Japanese Americans is the number of people I get to know, both professional scholars and amateur and family historians, who are happy to share sources and insights. I also check notes of interviews with Nisei that I have done (or in a few cases that colleagues have given me). While I have not done full scale recorded oral histories in the manner of Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, I have been lucky enough to come into contact with witnesses of the past who were ready to tell me their stories. A good deal of the new information that I included in my article on the late New York-based activist Ina Sugihara, for example, came from an interview that I did with her some years ago. Fred Oyama, who joined his Issei father Kajiro as litigants in the post-war Supreme Court case Oyama v. California and won a historic victory over alien land legislation, kindly filled me in on some family history.

What I have described thus far might be said to derive from some fairly classic tools of the historian: archival research, microfilm reading and interviews. (The one new element is that certain archives these days allow me to bring in a digital camera and photograph documents, which is faster and easier than taking notes or making photocopies).

However, once all that is done, I begin my Internet searching. This is a new and, to my mind, a still almost magical process. Until recently, historians who wanted to read published sources, especially newspapers or magazines, had to go to a library that had the hard copies and read through masses of pages (with help from a few published indexes such as the New York Times Index or Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature). Now, however, the field of history has been transformed, Historians can sit at home at their computers and do much of their research by going through online databases. For example, ProQuest has scanned all the past issues of The New York Times and other top newspapers, and other services offer databases of local newspapers and of different organs of the ethnic press. Densho’s archive has files of War Relocation Authority camp newspapers, while the Japanese American Citizens League has now undertaken the digitization of the Pacific Citizen. What is more, thanks to keyword searching, which allows readers to zero in on references to a person or thing, information that in the old days a historian could find, if at all, only though months of intensive research can now be accessed virtually instantaneously.

Several years ago, I read through a vast store of microfilm of African American newspapers, looking for material on Japanese Americans, It was with a mixture of joy and chagrin that I went recently to check over some of my old research by repeating the process online. Within a few hours I located the vast majority of what I had previously (though not all, I proudly noted to myself) plus some other things I had missed. Similarly, in many cases books (or parts of books) and journals can now be consulted onscreen. So I sign into the various newspaper databases and plug in the name of the person whose career I am researching. I also use genealogical databases, as they provide data such as birth and marriage records and scanned census sheets (With the same kind of anticipation with which some folks await the playoff season, I am counting the days to April 2012, when the 1940 census records will become publicly available). I also consult the oral history databases, looking for mentions of the person or event I am researching.

After all the historical research is done, sometimes I also have to take up a little of the reporter’s trade as well, and find potential sources whom I can ask questions and fill in some gaps in my information. It is always nice when a knowledgeable friend can put me onto a good source, someone who knew the person I am writing about. More often, however, I must make use of the telephone directory to find contact information for friends and relatives of my subjects whose names appear in the records I have found, or even just people with the same name (if it is an unusual one). I much prefer to write letters to potential sources if I can, rather than to call, but sometimes there is no choice. Being a rather shy fellow (yes, really!), it takes a lot of effort for me to bring myself to dial up total strangers and ask questions over the telephone — especially about difficult times in their family’s lives. While sometimes it is an agony to explain who I am and what I want, most of the time people are at least gracious, and I am pleased to say that in more than a few cases the people I speak to have been pleased by my interest and we have had pleasant conversations.

So now my secrets are out — I hope that you still enjoy the results!


Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the 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 an associate professor of history at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. He can be reached via e-mail at

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