Counteracting ‘invisibility’ within the JA community



Edited by Yasuko Takezawa and Gary Y. Okihiro (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2016, 448 pp., $35, hardcover)

This substantial volume is co-edited by two distinguished Nikkei practitioners of Japanese American studies, one a Japan-based anthropologist, Yasuko Takezawa of Kyoto University, and the other a U.S.-situated historian, Gary Okihiro of Columbia University. Although this work is primarily targeted at other scholars and advanced university students within their common transpacific field of inquiry, its well-grounded and illuminating introduction, 14 essays, and 7 perspectival responses to the book’s contents have much to offer a general readership. At bottom, the mission of “Trans-Pacific Japanese American Studies” is to expand and enrich Japanese American studies by moving this sub-discipline beyond its past preoccupation with the Issei and Nisei generations and the World War II exclusion and incarceration experience of Japanese Americans and by providing greater attention, through dialogue, to cross-national developments and issues and underrepresented communities and perspectives.

Given the brevity of this review, I will attempt within the rest of it to illustrate how this anthology discharges its intellectual burden with distinction by briefly discussing but four of its essays, one by the pioneering transnational historian Eiichiro Azuma (University of Pennsylvania), and the other two by essayists boasting Bay Area connections: anthropologist Sachiko Kawakami (Kyoto University of Foreign Studies); and Asian Americanist Wesley Ueunten (San Francisco State University).

The essay by Azuma, decries that unlike other Asian communities in the U.S. that thrive on the inclusion of postwar immigrants, present-day Japanese America has virtually no place for people like him, a Shin-Issei who arrived in the country along with thousands of other Nikkei after 1945. Because they are accorded only fleeting attention, the Shin-Issei suffer a paucity of historical representation and are consigned to the status of “perpetual outsiders.” So too, claims Azuma, does the same neglect and attendant “invisibility” apply to those Americans of Japanese ancestry who live in locations other than Hawai‘i and the Pacific Coast states, a regional bias that obscures the reality of their encompassing a large percentage of post-World War II immigrants. Indeed, “other than the short period of temporary dispersal (resettlement) Japanese American life ‘east of California holds little attention in the story of the postwar Japanese American experience” (pp. 270).

In the case of Kawakami, the transpacific research emphasis of her essay is “the spatial practice primarily revolving around individual daily commercial and consumption activities of Korean immigrants in San Francisco’s Japantown. Through interviews she conducted in Korean/Japanese/English with Japanese-literate men and women seniors who came of age during Korea’s colonial period (1910-1945) and also with predominantly male Korean small business owners, she reached two related conclusions: first, that these immigrants, although they lived, worked, and socialized in Nihonmachi, did not represent it as “their” community; and second, that their relationship to Japantown was rather one of a silent “place-based affinity,” a concept that Kawakami developed to capture how these immigrants participated “in the lives and communities of others to satisfy their practical needs” (pp. 241).

With regard to Ueunten, he conducted participant-observation research within a small cluster of scattered Bay Area Okinawan immigrant women, the Nakayoshi Group, who for some 15 years had been meeting roughly to eat, talk, sing songs “they own.” As cogently summarized by the book’s co-editors, Ueunten discovered in his fieldwork that central to these women’s experiences as women is violence, extending from the Battle of Okinawa to the persisting U.S. occupation and militarization of Okinawa. Based upon his interactions with the Nakayoshi Group, Ueunten makes the case for “a more inclusive Japanese American history and community that accounts for the voices of all of its diverse members.”

This book is an important milestone in Japanese American studies and its core message for how the Japanese American community should be studied and represented in the future needs to be heeded.

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