A historical survey of Asian Americans in the Heartland





Edited by Sook Wilkinson and Victor Jew (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2015, 384 pp., $34.95, paperback)

In 2009, I published an article about Japanese Americans in the Interior West, a field earlier pioneered by two Arizona State University doctoral students, Eric Walz and Andrew Russell. So I was naturally pleased when the Nichi Bei Weekly invited me to review the present book. It, in effect, shifts the venue of the same general topic east to the Midwestern state of Michigan (particularly Detroit’s Tri-County area: Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties) and broadens its concern from Japanese Americans to Asian Americans. The first book to tackle this subject, “Asian Americans in Michigan,” as observed elsewhere by one of its 41 contributors, Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, “takes a closer look at Asian Americans in the heartland, where because of small numbers, the community’s experience is vastly different from that on the coasts, and where cross-cultural multiethnic and multiracial coalitions and community groups have always been a reality.”

The intent of this volume is manifestly pan-ethnic, focusing as it does on Michigan’s fastest growing racial/ethnic community, which between 2000 and 2010 increased 39 percent to total 289,607 people in 19 different Asian-derived communities.

However, because of the length and breadth of “Asian Americans in Michigan,” the comparative brevity of this review, and its targeted Nikkei readership, I will restrict my attention here to those portions of the book devoted to the Japanese American experience in Michigan.

Fortunately, the Nikkei story is addressed in three of the book’s five parts. In Part 1 (“Taking Soundings of Asian America in Michigan”), co-editor Victor Jew, an Asian Americanist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, emphasizes the World War II role of the War Relocation Authority in promoting resettlement among its 10-camp incarcerated Nikkei population in Michigan.

In addition to persuading one-time West Coast farmers to go to Michigan via a pamphlet entitled “Farming in Michigan” — which cited the state’s leadership in dry beans, potatoes, sour cherries, celery, and apples — the WRA urged other Nikkei to resettle in metropolitan areas such as Detroit (1,649) and Ann Arbor (534).

Within Part 2 (“Legacy Keeping and Memory Keepers”), essays by two accomplished retired women, Toshiko Shimoura and Asae Shichi, rivet their attention on Japanese Michigan. In “The History of Nikkei in Detroit,” California-born Nisei Shimoura, a World War II concentration camp survivor, surveys her subject through three disparate chronological periods: 1900 to 1924; 1944 to 1950; and 1970 to the present. During the first interval, she explains, the few Issei pioneers in Detroit were dispersed around the city, and hence neither formed organizations nor coalesced into a Japantown. The years between 1944 and 1950, however, were more consequential. Owing to the government-forced resettlement of wartime inmates, a trickle of Nikkei (mostly Nisei), including families, were drawn to Detroit by its abundance of industrial jobs. While a bona fide Japantown never materialized, due to governmental discouragement of Nikkei clustering into “deleterious” group visibility, a variety of ethnic organizations did emerge, including the 1946 formation of the city’s Japanese American Citizens League chapter. In the post-1970 era, says Shimoura, the waning of Nikkei immigrants to Detroit was supplanted by a surge of Japanese nationals with business interests, and this resulted for Japanese Americans in an enrichment of Japanese culture, traditions and cuisine. As for the younger generations of Nikkei, on the other hand, it became increasingly customary to marry outside the ethnic group and to sacrifice in-group practices and priorities on the altar of Americanization.

With respect to Asae Shichi’s contribution, “From Hammered-down Nail to Squeaky Cog,” it pivots on the significance of the 1982 murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin by unemployed auto workers mistakenly believing him to be of Japanese ancestry, and the subsequent lenient sentences given to Chin’s killers. As viewed by Japan-born Shichi — who came to the U.S. on a Fulbright Scholarship and studied at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley before teaching at a variety of Michigan universities and serving on numerous boards of Nikkei organizations — the Chin bashing progressively altered the Nikkei (and Asian American) community outlook in Detroit (and Michigan) from that of passivity in the face of oppression to active resistance to it. Shichi captures this transformed spirit in a dramatic scenario that unfolded at a 1992 public event: “Dr. Kaz Mayeda, a prominent second-generation Japanese American researcher at Wayne State University, got tough, reminding the audience that it was the 10th anniversary of Vincent Chin’s murder. ‘If we have to, we’ll take up arms to prevent this sort of thing from happening again’” (pp. 151-52).

Part 4 (“Life Journeys”) provides the most abundant representation of Nikkei experience. Lynet Uttal, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of human development and family studies and former Asian American Studies Program director, titles her essay “Growing Up Hapa in Ann Arbor.” Although her mother was of Japanese heritage and her father of Russian Jewish heritage, as a child Utall was viewed as Chinese by her elementary school classmates, who chased her around the playground with taunts of “Red China! Red China! Red China!” As she came of age, she received mixed messages from her mother, who told her and her siblings that “we were American, not Japanese” (pp. 248). Yet, while encouraged to deny her race in public, at home she lived her ethnicity: being served Japanese food and instructed to be humble and hyperaware of others.

For Utall, growing up in the Midwest amounted to being “a noticeable, racialized person, yet without any social or political history. Our group story was unknown” (pp. 248).

Born (1929) and raised in Japan, Kyo Takahashi, at age 14, volunteered for World War II service in the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force. During the war he witnessed the destruction of Tokyo and his hometown of Yokohama, the burning of his family home, and the bombing of his military base. In 1952, he got work as an artist/designer for a Tokyo advertising agency. In 1963, Takahashi left Tokyo for Los Angeles and enrolled in the Art Center College of Design. He later relocated to New York to work for the J. Walter Thompson Company, then the world’s largest advertising agency. Concentrating on the automobile industry, he became a highly successful car illustrator, which took him on business to Detroit. Eventually, Takahashi was offered a lucrative position in Detroit in 1984, which he was reluctant to accept because of Vincent Chin’s tragic 1982 murder: “People in Detroit hate Japanese, don’t they?” However, upon joining Detroit’s Japanese American Citizens League chapter, Takahashi met the son of a Japanese American Citizens League member involved as a lawyer in the Vincent Chin case. “If one good thing came out of that tragedy,” reflects Takahashi, “it is that the entire Asian community pulled together” (pp. 269).

Finally, biracial Sansei Dylan Sugiyama, an immigration attorney and former resident of Lansing, Michigan, where he worked as a civil rights representative with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, exploits the usable past in “My Family’s Experience of the Japanese American Internment Camps” to serve as a present and future touchstone. Although his family responded in the affirmative to the key two questions on the 1943 so-called “loyalty oath” administered to the incarcerated Nikkei population, writes Sugiyama, some 8,000 chose to be sent to Japan, including many who later renounced their U.S. citizenship in disgust of their mistreatment by the U.S. government. He expresses pride in the actions of those Nisei inmates who resisted being drafted from behind barbed wire on constitutional grounds and were then shackled with federal prison sentences. Although some 30,000 Japanese American served with heroic distinction during World War II, mostly in segregated units, there were also, as Sugiyama points out, many other dissenters apart from the draft resisters, “thus refuting the common impression that Japanese Americans meekly and passively accepted their internment” (pp. 243). For him, the significance of the “internment” did not end with World War II or even the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 with its governmental apology and reparation payments, but persists into the present relative to the racial and ethnic profiling of other so-called “deviant” Americans.

The editors and other contributors to this multi-vocal anthology are to be commended not only for their estimable scholarship, but also for rendering a formidable service to Asian American community-building in Michigan. This book sets the stage for a full-dress treatment of the Asian American experience in the entire Midwest region.

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