THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Unmasking the complexities of documenting queer Nikkei sexuality and history


bioline_Greg RobinsonThis week’s column marks the 12th entry in the annual series on queer Japanese American history that I have undertaken to mark LGBT Pride Month. Previous entries have shed light on the nature of sexuality within Japanese communities, the rise and decline of homophobia, past gay activists and community debates over LGBT civil rights. This time I want to do something a little bit different, and talk about some of the issues I face in these columns.

Perhaps the greatest problem in studying the history of sexuality is that of evidence. It is a truism that scholars are only as good as their sources. Yet sexual desire and relations — of any kind — involve the most intimate kinds of feelings and vulnerabilities, all of which makes getting a clear picture of past practices rather troublesome. Inquiring into queer Nikkei sexuality is especially tricky and uncomfortable, both because of the difficulty of asking for information and the sorts of responses one gets. Same-sex desire and practice long remained stigmatized in Japanese communities, as in mainstream American society. Because of the illicit nature of the subject, signs of its existence were denied or destroyed, or at best lay half-concealed amid rumor and hearsay. Thus, the available pool of evidence is fragmentary, and even what exists is less reliable.

In dealing with data in this area, I find a certain parallel with the techniques of my colleagues who specialize in ancient history. They reconstruct the past based on tiny sets of primary materials, using archeological and philological tools. They must grasp subtleties of meaning in scattered pieces of text written in dead languages — fragments of poems, inscriptions, and the like. In the same way, as a scholar of queer sexuality, I must deal with texts phrased in slang and coded language, with no ready system for detecting irony or euphemism. Like a traveler encountering a foreign country with different language and social codes, I face a situation ripe for misunderstanding and sometimes comic error.

Let me offer two examples of the pitfalls of interpreting the incomplete and ambiguous sources that I come across. The first case is that of the short story, “A Nisei in the U.S. Army.” This is a text I came across some years ago when I was on a research trip to Honolulu (and before you ask, yes I DO really spend my time working when I am in Hawai‘i — the state has such a rich Japanese American history that there is much to study and absorb). One day I was in the special collections room of the Hamilton Library at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, looking through the papers of the Romanzo Adams Social Research Laboratory for the World War II era. In a file marked “AJAs” (i.e. Americans of Japanese Ancestry), I found a composition by one Kimie Kawahara, who was listed as a “freshman in Mr. Shepardson’s class.” It was undated but was clearly a product of the war years.

The story told of a Nisei soldier, Sgt. Frank Goda, who had been sent from California to Hawai‘i, and who now faced a decision as to whether to volunteer for a dangerous mission. The reason for Goda’s hesitation was the treatment of his family on the mainland. His father had been “interned at a detention camp in Arizona,” while his mother and siblings had been sent to “an evacuation camp in the interior” that had been dubbed Shangri-La in the newspapers. My eye was caught by the passage that followed:

“His thoughts were also with Butch Watanabe who was stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas and whom he missed as much as he did the family. He remembered how Butch and he used to haul vegetables to Los Angeles at such ungodly hours of the morning as one or two. And how they came home at dawn to make delicious hamburger with as little noise as possible and to steal into his room upstairs to eat it and to read each other’s love letters which usually emerged at the end rumpled and dotted with catchup and mayonaise (sic).”

How was I to interpret this tantalizingly ambiguous tale? It was clear from the text that Frank’s feelings for Butch were strong, as strong as for his immediate family, but was it a love story between two teenagers or a case of male bonding? It is easy to do a queer reading of the text.

Certainly there is a touching intimacy about the boys stealing quietly together to Frank’s room to have private time together, rather than eating downstairs. The odd phrase about “making delicious hamburger with as little noise as possible” has a powerful erotic subtext — as can be seen by how much more natural the phrase sounds if the word “love” is substituted for “hamburger.” The text is unclear whether the love letters read by the boys are letters they wrote each other, or that came from others. Yet there is no mention of Frank missing any girls, even those who might have felt close enough to write him love letters. Rather, the text suggests that Frank and Butch were most interested in sharing their letters to impress each other, and were quite cavalier about others whose tokens of affection were stained with the boys’ condiments.

Yet any such reading risks launching countervailing charges of over-interpretation. Opponents might dispute whether a college freshman AJA in Hawai‘i, inventing a story about mainland Nisei, could have planned such a meaning, or even have been aware of it? External evidence was of no use here. I was unable to find biographical information on “Kimie Kawahara” — even to discover whether the student was male or female.

Conversely, there is the case of “Helen Ito.” I recently came across copies of ONE that had been posted online by the University of Southern California. ONE was the magazine of the Mattachine Society, the first and most important “homophile” group (in the 1950s, before Stonewall and gay liberation, small numbers of “homophile” activists organized to fight police repression and call for decriminalization of homosexual acts). On reading the very first issue of ONE, from January 1953, I was stunned and excited to see a poem called “Proud and Unashamed.” The narrator dreamed of a time when gay people could share in the world’s great love poetry, be associated with other historic loves — in sum:

“That we, too, might be proud and unashamed
To bring our love out into the sunshine
And proclaim to the world, ‘We love!’ ‘We love!’
And proclaim to the world ‘We love’”

Even greater was my astonishment when I saw that the author of the poem was listed as Helen Ito. Of course, I knew that in those days, when homosexuality was illegal in the United States, that many contributors to ONE used pseudonyms (the Mattachine Society got its name, after all, from a medieval figure who spoke truth from behind a mask). Yet, I thought that surely Helen Ito, with her call for pride, would not have hidden behind a false identity. At the very least, she was brave not to conceal her Japanese ancestry in her pseudonym. I determined to trace her career, the more so as there were so few women connected with ONE and she remained involved for some time. Imagine my disappointment when, in the course of perusing later issues, I found an obituary for Elizabeth (Betty) Purdue, and discovered that SHE was Helen Ito. Fearing the loss of her job as a schoolteacher if her lesbianism was discovered, Purdue, a white woman from the South, protected herself by adopting a Japanese pseudonym — the authors thought the name might have been a tribute to a Nisei girlfriend.
Betty Purdue was still inspiring for her dream of unashamed love, and I could not blame her for protecting her identity in a time of mass repression, but my thrill at finding an out and proud Nisei lesbian were dashed. Meanwhile, I could only guess at the identity of Kimie Kawahara and Kawahara’s intentions. Such are the trials of working on the queer side of the Great Unknown!

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. His new book based upon his Nichi Bei columns, “The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches,” was recently published by University Press of Colorado. He can be reached at The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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