Memoir offers insights into WWII JA teen’s relationships


American Yellow

American Yellow
American Yellow

American Yellow
By George Omi (Sarasota, Fla.: First Edition Design Publishing, 2016, 140 pp., $14.95, paperback)

George Omi’s “American Yellow” (2016), a memoir on his Japanese American teenage experiences during World War II and incarceration, provides an intimate lens to view his relationships with his family, community and outside world. The memoir offers a glimpse into the relationships between the immigrant (Issei) generation and their American-born Nisei children by providing a lens from the point of view of a young teenager navigating a world at war. Omi illustrates the immense struggle and survival in the navigation of anti-Japanese racism while experiencing the teenage life of bullying, finding oneself and the desire to have fun.
“American Yellow” begins in the Omi residence in San Francisco with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and traces Omi’s journey from the Bay Area to the Rohwer incarceration camp in Arkansas. Before leaving for Rohwer, an interesting note is that the Omi family would read the Nichi Bei newspaper, a predecessor to the Nichi Bei Weekly, for information concerning the Japanese American community in the Bay Area. While at Rohwer, Omi locates moments of happiness in the harsh backdrop of incarceration and allows the reader to share in his triumphs and obstacles that similarly shaped many other young Japanese American teenagers during the war. The memoir ends with the return of the Omi family back to San Francisco and the re-building of their lives.

Although the memoir reads more like a historical account, Omi did insert some of his contemporary personal reflections, which may create more tensions rather than bridges in the Japanese American community. While depicting his Uncle Kazuo’s decision to renounce his loyalty to the U.S. and leave for Japan during the war, Omi contextualizes it by introducing the reader to a brief snippet of the Japanese American draft resisters or — who he incorrectly identifies as “No-No Boys” — who refused to serve in the U.S. military during war. This debate between Japanese American veterans and draft resisters has caused great pains in the community due to the solidification of a simplistic binary view on Japanese American World War II experiences, which is ultimately an unproductive comparison that creates hierarchies. Omi takes a stance between the draft resisters and the veterans and believes that, “Some forty years later, the No-No Boys were vindicated, hailed as heroes, applauded for the courage of their convictions. Yet, who today can remember the anguish when brothers, uncles and cousins, left the internment centers to become soldiers — or the tears, when they didn’t make it back, or the shock to see a brother or uncle return without a leg” (98-99). By rehashing an old debate to elevate the soldiers over the resisters, Omi would have been wise not to take a side but rather show the reader the gravity of the situation that informed his Uncle Kazuo to make his decision.

For those readers interested in understanding the experiences of young people in the incarceration, this memoir would be a great inclusion in your library. Although a relatively short memoir, the content and insights are a refreshing perspective, which will benefit an already growing list of Japanese American incarceration narratives and memoirs.

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