‘Rare and enlightening addition’ to the ‘black hole’ of JA scholarship




By Karen M. Inouye (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2016, 256 pp., $55, hardcover)

Karen M. Inouye, a professor of American studies at the University of Indiana, has launched a new book that takes up a subject still relatively unknown, the long-term resonance of the wartime Japanese American incarceration in society and its lasting impact on former inmates and their political agency in large-scale educational and legislative efforts.

Throughout, she explores the concept of “afterlife” — how the persistence of memory surrounding historical events, especially traumatic ones — can lead survivors to develop empathy that helps them to connect with others.

Inouye’s book is divided into five chapters. The first chapter deals with the social scientist Tamotsu Shibutani, who worked with the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study during his time in camp. The “afterlife” of the wartime experience for Shibutani was political engagement in the form of a pair of sociological studies he produced, “Improvised News: A Sociological Study of Rumor” (1966) and “The Derelicts of Company K: A Sociological Study of Demoralization” (1978). These challenged dominant views of the wartime imprisonment and Japanese American reactions.

The second chapter focuses on Norman Mineta. Throughout his long political career as mayor of San José, U.S. Congressman and presidential Cabinet member, Mineta continued to recount his wartime imprisonment experience in speeches and to use it as a prism from which to regard and motivate his legislative and ministerial actions, most notably his impassioned support for redress legislation.

The remaining chapters develop more collective latter-day responses to the wartime incarceration, whether on the part of Warren Furutani and his role in the creation of the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage at the end of the 1960s; the relation and distinctions between the redress movements for Japanese Canadians and Japanese Americans; or the attempts in recent years to have states enact Fred Korematsu Day in honor of the Nisei who challenged Executive Order 9066 in federal court and gave his name to the notorious 1944 Supreme Court decision approving the mass removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast.

The climactic chapter examines the nature and larger meanings of the diploma-granting ceremonies at West Coast universities as sites of commemoration and reparation. Beginning with the University of Washington in 2008, under the leadership of Tetsuden Kashima, Stephen Sumida, and Gail Nomura, and leading up to the University of British Columbia in 2014, under the leadership of Mary Kitagawa, Nikkei communities on both sides of the border organized to recognize surviving students at those institutions who had been denied the ability to complete their educations by their wartime removal.

In my view, Inouye’s book represents a rare and enlightening addition, not just to the scholarly literature, but to our public consciousness. First, while there is a developing literature on the postwar period, with notable studies by Ellen D. Wu and Cindy I-Fen Cheng, as well as my own book, “After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics,” it remains quite an enigma — I have elsewhere referred to the postwar years as “the black hole” of Japanese American scholarship.

Furthermore, Inouye looks at these questions on a North American scale. Her inclusion of Canada is especially welcome, as the transnational perspective does a great deal to sharpen our attention to the particularities of the postwar experience in the United States as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *