A digestible telling of familiar snippets of JA WWII history

FACING THE MOUNTAIN: A TRUE STORY OF JAPANESE AMERICAN HEROES IN WORLD WAR II

By Daniel James Brown (New York: Viking
Books, 2021, 560 pp., $30, hard cover)
 

Daniel James Brown’s “Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II” recounts the narrative of the Japanese American wartime experience by focusing on the individual histories of Gordon Hirabayashi, Katsugo “Kats” Miho, Fred Shiosaki and Rudy Tokiwa. Hirabayashi famously contested Executive Order 9066 in the courts, leading to a notorious Supreme Court decision. The latter three men served in Europe in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the all-Nisei combat battalion. The author draws heavily from the oral histories, encyclopedia articles and other resources of Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, whose executive director Tom Ikeda contributed an introduction. (Full disclosure: I have been involved in multiple Densho activities).

Author Brown, whose book “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” was a runaway bestseller, offers an exciting, inspiring narrative of the contributions of the gallant Nisei to the war effort. As with the recent release of a United States postage stamp honoring the Japanese American soldiers, the book is a worthy celebratory effort of the “Go For Broke” heroes. (Actually, I first received the book from an old friend, who heard the author interviewed on nationwide media and raced excitedly to buy me a copy). Still, it must be said that, for those who are already broadly familiar with the history of Japanese Americans, there is little that is new to this story. The fact that the author relies most heavily on Densho Encyclopedia articles, rather than on scholarly works for his information, underlines that he is aiming at a more readable and less in-depth study.

As such, what is particularly noteworthy about the book for the more informed reader is how it traces both the stability and the evolution of the mainstream narrative about wartime Japanese Americans. On the one hand, the author places Hirabayashi’s nonviolent resistance to Executive Order 9066 on a plane with the heroism of the Nisei soldiers (though the parallel campaigns on Minoru Yasui and Fred Korematsu are reduced to a footnote). He briefly mentions Hirabayashi’s status as a draft resister, and the trials the draft resisters received in general. While he does not focus on their story, even such mention is passing is more than the silence of earlier generations of authors.

All the same, the author chooses to tell a very familiar story of patriotism by focusing heavily on Japanese American soldiers. (It was no accident that the 1988 redress bill enacted by Congress was H.R. 442, numbered with a nod to the RCT, one of the most highly decorated units in the U.S. military). He is less interested in the parallel heroism of Japanese American women such as Mitsuye Endo, who challenged the mass incarceration, or Elizabeth Ito, who worked in the Office of Strategic Services. By his selection of subjects, the author also plays up the theme of Nisei from the camps volunteering for the Army, whereas they composed only a small fraction of the initial quota of 5,000 sought by the Army recruiters, and large majority of mainland Nisei who eventually served in the 442nd were conscripts.

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