THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: The stigma of being different

Today’s column is a little different. Rather than exploring the life of some unknown person or theme in Japanese American history, as is my usual practice, it instead jumps off of a previous column, and follows my discussion about the column with friends, in order to make a larger point about Japanese American life.

To give some background, in the June 17-23, 2010 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly, I wrote a column for “The Great Unknown” that dealt with the history of sexual life, and especially homosexuality, in Issei and Nisei communities. In my column, I discussed the shift from the sometimes-freewheeling nature of Issei sexuality toward a more normative heterosexual nuclear family model. At the same time, I discussed how Western-style homophobia grew up in West Coast Japanese communities.

In the course of my discussion, I quoted from the camp diary of Stanley Hayami. Now, Hayami, for those who may not already know the name, was a Nisei teenager who kept a diary of his wartime confinement experience at Heart Mountain, Wyo. and who later served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, where he met his untimely death. His family donated his papers to the Japanese American National Museum. In recent times, Joanne Oppenheim edited the diary and other writings into the wonderful book “Stanley Hayami, Nisei Son,” and they also form the basis for Ann Kaneko and Sharon Yamato’s new documentary “A Flicker in Eternity.”

In any case, the entry I cited from the Hayami diary was one in which Hayami spoke of his moodiness and his frequent wish to be alone amid nature. He confided to his diary, “I don’t tell this to anyone because they’ll figure that I’m a queer (Maybe I am).” I used this “confession” as evidence for the proposition that social nonconformity among Japanese Americans became tied up with gender nonconformity — that is, any people who were somehow different, and who stuck out from the general crowd, were stigmatized as “queers.” I added in passing that there was no hard evidence in the diary of Hayami’s sexual orientation, and that the only conceivable hint in either direction was some drawings he did of muscular men.

Some readers proceeded to jump on my comments and to complain that I was presenting Hayami as gay. One reader noted that, despite Hayami’s comments, the diary shows him to be a normal teenager who was not antisocial and who liked parties. Various friends also contended that I might have made too much of Hayami’s use of the word “queer” in reference to himself, since it was a common word among Nisei (like other Americans of the time) that meant “strange” or other things with no connection to homosexuality — as indeed, Hayami uses the word at other places in the diary where there is clearly no sexual dimension.

My reply to all these comments was this: As you will note, my main point is not to speculate on Hayami’s sexuality, much less to make a definitive interpretation. Hayami says that he is reluctant just to tell people that he wants to be alone, because that might mark him as a queer. I picked up on that as a sign of just how stigmatized all difference in character was, and how it became tied up in people’s minds with sexual difference.

That said, there remains a question about how to treat Hayami’s private comment to his diary. The point about the generalized use of the adjective “queer” is well taken. However, in this one particular case Hayami uses it, not in adjectival form as elsewhere (à la “queer ideas”), but as a noun: “a queer.” This too was a well-recognized usage: Bill Marutani, to give just one example, has stated that that Nisei of his generation routinely referred to homosexuals as “queers.” (Marutani was just two years older than Hayami). Of course, there were more symbolic uses of the label as a generalized undesirable: for instance, in Milton Muramaya’s 1959 novel “All I Asking For Is My Body,” which takes place in Hawai’i in the late 1930s, a plantation Nisei character praises his white school teacher, whereupon another scoffs that there are no “good” haoles — if a white guy is nice, he is either “a communist or a queer.”

We can agree that the Hayami diaries (at least the published part) do not give any much evidence one way or the other about ANY sexual interest.

Whether Hayami attended parties or not, and whether he was social or antisocial, there simply is no statement of erotic interest in girls, (unlike) lots and lots of guys in camp who DID express heterosexual inclinations. Hayami’s silence on the subject could indeed be regular teenager behavior. It could also be something else. Conversely, when I say that the only conceivable sign of any sexual desire at all is his nude male drawing, which is just precisely what I mean — it is the ONLY thing that could by any stretch of the imagination even be so interpreted. It is at least equally conceivable that there was no such [sexual] interest associated.

In sum, I do not mark Hayami as attracted to men, but in the absence of clear evidence I do not assume that he was straight either, and I do not consider it over-reading or stigmatizing to leave the question open, though my main point is elsewhere.”

I do not know whether I satisfied my critics, but I did not receive any further comment. The reason that I bring up this exchange is that recently I came upon an intriguing corollary to the question, something serves as an odd sort of confirmation of my analysis of Hayami’s comments in his diary. In 1982, William Marutani mentioned in his column in the Pacific Citizen that in the years when he was growing up, he and other Nisei called gay people “queers,” while the Issei referred to them as hentaisei, a phrase which Marutani translated as “abnormal” or “sexual perversion.”

(I have found no other corroboration since that Issei regularly used this term — perhaps some Nisei readers could enlighten me as to whether their parents actually used it). Intrigued, as I always am by Issei Japanese, I mentioned Marutani’s statement to a group of friends from Tokyo. To my surprise, they responded that in their understanding hentaisei means “nonconformist” or “deviant,” with a connotation of “antisocial” in the sense of opposed to social norms. As such language would imply, it was not so much that in Japanese eyes same-sex activities were uniquely shameful or unnatural, as Marutani would have it, but that they were part of a larger set of actions that disrupted the traditional fixed social structure. This sense of hentaisei reminded me of nothing so much as the classic Japanese proverb about the nail that sticks up being hammered down. If this is the intellectual framework that Nikkei communities took from Japan, it is no wonder that Hayami internalized the association of “queer” behavior with “queer” sexuality.

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 a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

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