A foreigner in everyone’s eyes




By Matt Faulkner (New York: Disney • Hyperion Books, 2014, 144 pp., $19.99, hardcover)  

People of Japanese descent on the West Coast were, without regard to nationality, rounded up and placed in American concentration camps during World War II. The story is well known. Perhaps lesser known are the stories of mixed-race Japanese Americans who lived through the wartime incarceration. 

Matt Faulkner tells the story of Koji Miyamoto, a 13-year-old boy living in San Francisco at the beginning of World War II through a colorful graphic novel entitled, “Gaijin: American Prisoner of War.” Koji lives with his Caucasian mother, Adeline, while his Japanese father, Ichiro, is away visiting relatives in Japan. The family is split as the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and Koji, being half Japanese, faces discrimination from everyone around him. Whereas Koji faced discrimination for being of Japanese descent before the mass incarceration, once at the fictional Alameda Downs Assembly Center, Koji is met with more discrimination from his Japanese peers.

In a story reminiscent of Estelle Ishigo, a Caucasian artist who went with her husband to camp, Koji’s mother volunteers to follow Koji and is also subject to discrimination from those around her. Aside from being the only Caucasian woman incarcerated at the assembly center, Adeline faces her own crisis dealing with Koji, who increasingly resents her in adolescent anger.

At its heart, “Gaijin” is a coming-of-age story. The young teenager struggles with his identity and tries to understand the concepts of “shikata ga nai” (it cannot be helped) and, though unstated in the graphic novel, “gaman” (to endure).

While most stories describing the wartime incarceration focuses on all four years of camp life, Koji’s story focuses on his experiences at the start of the war through his time at the assembly center before being sent to the fictional “Agua Dulce Camp.” Faulkner focuses on a crucial moment for Koji rather than giving a detailed history lesson, though for those aware of the history, the author peppers in staples of camp life: long lines at the latrines, terrible food and nightly curfews enforced by armed guards.

While Faulkner presents a fictionalized account of the Japanese American experience, he does write from his own family’s experience. According to the afterword, the author based the story on his great-aunt Adeline Conlan, an Irish American singer who married a Japanese man and had a daughter. Faulkner wrote that his great-aunt left Japan and her husband as anti-American sentiment became an issue, but was equally ostracized by her family in Boston. She elected to join her daughter and grandchildren in the American concentration camps during the war as Koji’s mother did. 

With emotions rich as the colors Faulkner used to illustrate this tale, “Gaijin” teaches an important lesson about the racism faced by Nikkei during the war and their perseverance despite it.

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