The postwar shadow looms



By Naomi Hirahara and Heather C. Lindquist (Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday, 2018, 208 pp., $28, hardcover)

In their new book, “Life After Manzanar,” Naomi Hirahara and Heather C. Lindquist throw new light on the lives of Japanese Americans in the postwar era, tracing the experience of the former camp inmates through resettlement, the difficulties of postwar readjustment, and political organizing. Their story revolves around Manzanar, the Assembly Center-turned-War Relocation Authority -camp which, the authors remind us, was the prototype and model for all the others. In a foreword, frequent Nichi Bei Weekly contributor Art Hansen lays out his own long engagement with Manzanar and the episodes of inmate resistance there. Through illuminating snippets on the experience of such diverse figures as Toyo Miyatake, Karl and Elaine Yoneda, Togo Tanaka and Joseph Kurihara, the authors show how the long shadow of Manzanar continued to touch former inmates even after they left camp.

In the first portion of the book, the authors detail the closing of the camp in 1945 and the return of the former inmates. They explore the experiences of individuals who resettled in Denver, Chicago, and New York. There is an intriguing section on mass resettlement at Seabrook Farms in New Jersey. However, they center on the experience of the majority who returned to the West Coast, notably Los Angeles County — prewar home of roughly a third of those confined in all the camps.

In a poignant chapter, the authors explore how Nikkei faced the poverty, employment discrimination and poor housing they found in Los Angeles. Terminal Island, the largest single prewar Nikkei enclave, was taken over by the Navy and remained shuttered. Many Issei and Nisei crowded into the old Little Tokyo district, which during the war had been populated by African Americans and dubbed “Bronzeville,” and dealt with their new neighbors. Others lived in temporary hostels such as the Evergreen Hostel, or were relegated to trailer parks in Winona and Lomita.

Further chapters discuss the formation of new lives in these postwar communities, including civil rights struggles against California’s alien land acts and the efforts of Nisei to obtain an education. The authors center on the questions of resistance and commemoration. For example, they reveal the story of the Buddhist priests who led annual pilgrimages to Manzanar in postwar years to honor the dead there. They also delve into the successful struggle of the Redress Movement beginning in the 1970s to obtain official accountability for the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans. Sections are devoted to such heroes of the movement as William Hohri and Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga.

This book, it must be said, touches a subject very close to my own heart. More than a decade ago, I came to the conclusion that, even if the postwar Japanese American experience of resettlement, readjustment and community formation lacked the extreme drama and pathos of the wartime confinement, it was at least as crucial in shaping the lives of the Nikkei. Yet there was effectively no discussion of the postwar era in the existing historical literature on Japanese Americans. My book “After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics” (University of California Press, 2012) was explicitly posed as an attempt to jumpstart discussion of this crucial era, with case studies on resettlement and political activism. Since then, there have been further works illuminating the subject, including books such as Ellen D. Wu’s “The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority” and Cindy I-Fen Cheng’s “Citizens of Asian America: Democracy and Race During the Cold War,” plus important articles by Diane Fujino and Edward Tang, among others. Even though my own case studies are not cited by Hirahara and Lindquist, I feel gratified that their book continues the discussion I proposed, on a more popular level.

“Life After Manzanar” is an engaging read. The authors make fine use of quotations from oral history sources, mixed with a generous sampling of photos from the period. One weakness of the book, stemming in part from the composition of oral history archives, is that it focuses almost exclusively on the Nisei generation — the particular tragedy of the Issei, stigmatized and left destitute by the wartime events and forced to build life anew, is all but ignored (I did the same in “After Camp” — mea culpa). I was pleased by the authors’ inclusion of the stories of the Nisei couple Ernest Kinzo Wakayama and Toki Wakayama, who made heroic, albeit unavailing efforts to challenge Executive Order 9066 in court. I was sorry, though, that they did not discuss the Wakayamas’ legal team, which featured the participation of the African American attorney, Hugh E. Macbeth, and the Jewish American attorney Edgar Camp (for whom the Wakayamas named their son Edgar). Nevertheless, “Life After Manzanar” offers valuable new perspective on a still-unknown era.

Leave a Reply

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