An intimate look at the life of ‘an American with a Japanese face’


JIM AND JAP CROW: A Cultural History of 1940s Interracial America

JIM AND JAP CROW: A Cultural History of 1940s Interracial America

By Matthew M. Briones (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012, 288 pp., $42, hard cover)

It is rare that I find myself reviewing a book on a friend of mine authored by still another friend, but that is the case with Matt Briones’ Charles Kikuchi-centered cultural history “Jim and Jap Crow.” My friendship with Kikuchi revolved around two events: our participation on a controversial panel at a September 1987 conference held at the University of California, Berkeley to reassess the World War II work of the (Japanese American) Evacuation and Resettlement Study; and the oral history interview I transactedwith Kikuchi in Rhode Island at his family’s Block Island vacation home in August 1988, a month prior to Kikuchi’s death. As for my friendship with Briones, it began in Boston at the 2004 Association of Asian American Studies annual meeting, and was nurtured by a series of informal meetings held in Southern California over the next several years in which we discussed our common interest in Charles Kikuchi.

During my interactions with Kikuchi and Briones, I was enlightened by their capacious intellects and warmed by their infectious personalities. But what most affected me about these two Asian American men — one nearing the end of his life, the other embarking on his scholarly career — was the depth of their humanity and the tenacity of their commitment to America’s promise as a multicultural, democratic nation. It is the combination of these two qualities that provide the mainspring for elevating “Jim and Jap Crow” from the status of an important book to one of seminal significance.

I will admit being disappointed that this volume did not include Charles Kikuchi’s name in either its title or subtitle. Its publication by Princeton University Press probably led to the book being marketed under a designation that would privilege its cultural historical mission vis-à-vis the role played by 1940s progressive intellectuals championing an authentically interethnic, interracial democracy for the United States as against its biographical purpose to probingly explore one unique yet representative American of Japanese ancestry whose life and work quintessentially embodied what those liberal democratic thinkers boldly espoused. 

Books, of course, should not be judged by their titles alone, and the one utilized for the book under review is both appropriate and defensible. However, had the publisher asked me to provide a promotional blurb for “Jim and Jap Crow,” I would either have prioritized it as a biography over a cultural history or granted these two genres equal billing. In fact, the dustcover recommendation by Lane Hirabayashi, a UCLA professor of Asian American studies, nicely encapsulates what I would have written: “Briones’s masterful biography of Charles Kikuchi gives us an intimate portrait of how one Japanese American’s firsthand encounters with discrimination during and after World War II transformed him into an enlightened citizen who envisioned a nation and world unbound by racial prejudice. ‘Jim and Jap Crow’ is a profound meditation on race in American society.”

My rationale for regretting that Briones’s book title did not showcase Charles Kikuchi is grounded in my awareness of his having been similarly “marginalized” throughout his 72-year life (1916-1988), even though quite often at his own behest. At age 8, after being repeatedly brutalized by his father, Kikuchi (the oldest male sibling) was banished from his Vallejo, Calif. home and remanded to a multicultural Salvation Army-run orphanage in the Northern California community of Healdsburg, where he remained (as the only Japanese-ancestry resident) until his 1934 high school graduation.

Thereafter, Kikuchi matriculated at San Francisco State, a college with a distinctly working-class and multiethnic/multiracial student body that few other Nisei attended, as opposed to the less diverse and more elite institution across the bay of UC Berkeley. Shortly after graduating in 1939, Kikuchi was invited by the writer Louis Adamic, a Slovenian immigrant and proponent of American ethnic diversity, to contribute an autobiographical essay to his forthcoming “From Many Lands” anthology. When Kikuchi’s life story, substantially edited by Adamic, was published in 1940, it was titled “A Young American with a Japanese Face,” appeared under anonymous authorship, and represented its protagonist as a prototypical “marginal man” (living on the margins of two cultures and societies, as well as his own Nisei generation).

In 1940, when Kikuchi landed a celery-pulling summer job in the San Joaquin Valley, he confronted racial differences pitting Filipino and Japanese workforces. Because of his efforts to model interracial friendship with the Filipinos for his Japanese workmates, they demonized him as a discredit to his race and forced him to quit their bunkhouse for the Filipino one and to thereafter work within the Filipino crew. 

Then, after his 1941 UC Berkeley enrollment as a graduate student to become a social worker, he distanced himself from the majority of Nisei students, and instead befriended a circle of politically progressive social science undergraduates (Warren Tsuneishi, Kenji Murase, James Sakoda, Tamotsu “Tom” Shibutani and Lillian Oda). But Kikuchi was even marginal to this group. According to Briones, Shibutani and others warned him: “Well, you don’t want to go into social work. Social work is sissy work. Men go into sociology and then women go into social work” (p. 44). Moreover, although affiliating himself, like his Cal comrades, with far left international causes and organizations, Kikuchi also got involved in the multiethnic San Francisco-based Yamato Garage Gang, “a group of young men who were unemployed, unmarried, and unfazed by outside attempts to corral them into organized activity,” and who, in the words of another Kikuchi biographer, John Modell, “(were) devoted mainly to gambling, mischief, whoring, and especially to talking about these exploits” (p. 23).

In Pearl Harbor’s wake, Shibutani and Sakoda introduced Kikuchi to Cal sociologist Dorothy Thomas, who having already hired these budding social scientists as researchers on the UC Berkeley-connected JERS project that she led, persuaded Kikuchi to join them. But even during the 1942-1945 interval in which Kikuchi participated in JERS’ interdisciplinary undertaking to analyze and document the causes and effects of the forced mass migration of Nikkei into concentration camps plus their subsequent resettlement into so-called “free zone” U.S. settlement areas (Chicago being the most notable), both what Kikuchi did and where he did it were marginal to that of the mainstream JERS researchers of Japanese ancestry. Whereas the War Relocation Authority-administered detainment center of Tule Lake in Northern California became JERS’ principal study site and the place where Thomas dispatched Shibutani and Sakoda (among others) to enact participant-observation fieldwork and write diverse research reports based upon it, she assigned Kikuchi to the study’s secondary check site of The Gila River concentration camp in south-central Arizona with the primary duty of maintaining a diary concentrated on his observations and his and his family members’ experiences. Following the infamous “loyalty oath” administered by the WRA and the U.S. Army to the imprisoned Nikkei in the detention camps and the ensuing conversion of Tule Lake from a “relocation center” to a “segregation center” for incarcerating those deemed “disloyal,” the core of JERS’ Japanese American staff, including Kikuchi, was transferred to the University of Chicago to record and interpret the life and work experiences of the 20-30 thousand Nikkei who had resettled in the Windy City. However, while most staffers were preoccupied with preparing research reports in the JERS office, Kikuchi largely spent his time away from the office collecting life histories from Chicago resettlers. Moreover, notwithstanding that the majority of the flagship JERS publication devoted to resettlement, “The Salvage” (1952) consisted of 15 of Kikuchi’s total 64 life histories, instead of being listed as a co-editor for this volume with Dorothy Thomas, he was relegated to sharing marginalized subsidiary credit with James Sakoda.

After leaving JERS and spending more than a year in the U.S. Army as a psychiatric social trainee at military hospitals, followed by completing his master’s degree in social work at New York’s Columbia University, he embarked on a 24-year career in New York as a psychiatric social worker in Veterans Administration hospitals in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where mainly he counseled Vietnam War veterans. Disenchanted by the doctrinaire Veterans Affairs emphasis on Freudian social-work theory and the virtual absence of “minority” social workers, a disgruntled Kikuchi was shunted to the sidelines and denied promotions. In addition, he was the only VA social worker to picket against the Vietnam War, right outside the VA hospital, and was threatened with arrest for violating federal property. 

Not surprisingly, Kikuchi quit the VA in 1973. That same year saw the publication by the University of Illinois Press of “The Kikuchi Diary,” a compilation of selected diary entries Kikuchi logged for JERS, before his stint at Gila River Relocation Center, during his four-month incarceration in 1942 at the Tanforan Assembly Center near San Francisco. Although his name was highlighted in the book’s title, what perhaps most people, and particularly scholars, remember about that volume was the magnificent editing of and introduction to Kikuchi’s diary by historian John Modell. As for Charles Kikuchi, he spent the final 15 years of his life serving as the behind-the-scenes manager for the internationally renowned dancing troupe of his world-famous wife, Yuriko Amemiya Kikuchi, the onetime star performer for the Martha Graham Company.

So, it might be asked, what justification, however implicit, did Matthew Briones offer for ostensibly marginalizing Charles Kikuchi by excluding his name from the title of the book under review? Assuredly, Briones provides one overarching reason for this absence by telling readers that “Kikuchi never explicitly sought the spotlight,” a statement that certainly squares with historical reality. But Briones also informs readers that from the time of Pearl Harbor in 1941 to Kikuchi’s death in 1988, he maintained a daily diary that added up to more than 100,000 pages, and that in these pages, covering the World War II period, he commented on “nearly every significant moment” of it. More to the point, Briones goes on to discuss Kikuchi’s voluminous diaries as providing “a narrative through-line for the 1940s within the broader cultural history of home-front America” and what he, Briones, considers “its unprecedented level of interracial interactions.” Furthermore, observes Briones, “Kikuchi not only discussed the various possibilities of a multiracial American democracy with a number of intellectual players, but also invariably recorded these in his trusted diary day after day, providing a road map through the winding and uncharted topography of the era” (pp. 3-4). In a stroke of genius, Briones concludes his assessment of the importance of Kikuchi and his diaries and the relationship of both to the 1940s and what has come to be called by historians the staging ground for “the long Civil Rights Movement.”

“His, then, is not the role of a downstage actor … nor the bit part of a minor player who appears only sparingly; rather, Kikuchi and his diaries inhabit the traditional Greek chorus in an all-too-real staging of democratic America in flux during the 1940s; he touches upon almost every major historical event, records it in his diary, and ultimately fades ever so subtly into the background” (p. 4). 

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