THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: ‘The Great Unknown’s’ 100th edition

bioline_Greg RobinsonA random perusal of my list of titles has led me to a stunning discovery: This week’s column represents the 100th installment of “The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great” that I have published in the Nichi Bei Weekly in the dozen years since the newspaper’s founding in 2009 (I have also done some 40 book reviews). At the same time, I have the pleasure to report that my new book of collected columns, “The Unsung Great: Portraits of Extraordinary Japanese Americans,” (University of Washington Press) was awarded honorable mention (a “silver medal” in terms of the award Olympics) for the 2022 Association for Asian American Studies History Book prize.

At such a moment, I can perhaps be excused for pausing briefly to reflect on my column and what it has meant to me, especially in recent times.

I have often been asked how I became active in producing my “Great Unknown” columns. I explain that my involvement follows from my longtime interest in producing scholarship that could reach readers beyond the academy. As a graduate student, I worked for popular encyclopedias and experimented with producing historical articles for newspapers and magazines, including even the daily legal newspaper New York Bar Journal. In fact, my very first published work in Asian American history was a feature in the Pennsylvania Gazette, the University of Pennsylvania alumni magazine, on Penn’s exclusion of Nisei students during World War II.

Although I became widely known as a historian of Japanese Americans after publication of my first book, “By Order of the President,” in 2001, the real turning point in my career came in 2004, when the right-wing commentator Michelle Malkin published a book purporting to justify the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans. I joined forces with my friend Eric Muller on a series of blog posts refuting Malkin’s arguments. In the process, I discovered not only the power of social media, then still largely in its infancy, but the importance of using my historical research to connect with real-life communities and their concerns. True, this was nothing new: As historian Alice Yang has shown, the generation of scholars who were active during the 1970s and 1980s, including Roger Daniels and Peter Irons, provided important support to the Japanese American Redress Movement. However, it was not something that I had previously taken for granted, or that I sensed history departments particularly valued in hiring and tenure decisions.

In the wake of my participation in the debate with Malkin, my friend Chizu Omori, a columnist for the Nichi Bei Times, encouraged me to think about writing a historical column, and in turn she recommended me to the paper’s English-language editor, Kenji G. Taguma. Kenji expressed to me that he felt the need for Nichi Bei to address new issues and audiences, and thought I might help provide something different. I was a professionally-trained scholar with research interests in diverse aspects of Japanese American history. What is more, I was an outsider to the community, both as a non-Japanese and as a New Yorker living in Montreal. For this reason, while I might not have the same understanding of events as a community insider, I could more easily write about delicate subjects, particularly the lives of LGBT Japanese Americans. I joked that I had an advantage, because none of my readers would call up MY mother to complain about my columns! (The joke gained extra pungency from the fact that my late mother Toni Robinson had actually been my professional collaborator). I started my column, “The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great,” in April 2007. I soon settled into publishing on a more or less monthly basis, though without a fixed schedule. I was delighted by the positive response that I received from readers. Then in mid-2009, barely two years after I had started, the Nichi Bei Times folded. I was convinced that my life as a columnist had come to its end. Kenji Taguma and others made the brave decision to create a nonprofit and spin off his own (all-English) publication, Nichi Bei Weekly. I gladly accepted Kenji’s invitation to move my column to the new publication, and I published my first piece there in February 2010.

At first, I published columns on a monthly basis, and by the end of 2012, I had enough material that I was able to put together a book-length manuscript made up of the best of the new columns, plus the columns I had produced for the now-defunct Nichi Bei Times. This collection saw print as “The Great Unknown” (University Press of Colorado). However, in the years that followed, the economics of the newspaper forced Kenji to impose limits on the size and frequency of my columns. As the Nichi Bei Weekly changed into a biweekly publication — its title notwithstanding — and expanded its news coverage, he had less space to give me. My columns became smaller, and they were no longer accompanied by images, as previously. I continued my longstanding practice of writing an annual piece for the Nichi Bei’s New Year’s edition, and also contributing an annual LGBT history article around Pride Week. However, aside from those two, there were sometimes gaps of weeks or months between appearances of my “Great Unknown” columns.

Because I was less busy with Nichi Bei Weekly, I undertook other public writing projects in order to take up the slack. I was a major contributor, and eventually associate editor, of the online Densho Encyclopedia. I worked for a time as a columnist for the monthly Japanese Canadian newspaper Nikkei Voice. On the invitation of Professor Duncan Ryūken Williams, I produced a series of articles on mixed-race Japanese Americans for his Website, hapajapan.com. While all of these were all quite rewarding, each was a limited-term assignment.

Yoko Nishimura of the Japanese American National Museum provided me a second home when she invited me to write for JANM’s blog, Discover Nikkei. Over the years, I had contributed a few pieces to Discover Nikkei, mostly reports on various Japanese American and Japanese Canadian conferences that I had attended. Now, I agreed to do a monthly column, and I began my new assignment in September 2017.

From the outset, the arrangement worked admirably. The Discover Nikkei editors allowed me greater flexibility as far as word counts, and they welcomed multipart columns, so I could write more in depth. Best of all, I could select images from among JANM’s rich visual resources to accompany my posts. I still enjoyed doing my “Great Unknown” columns for the Nichi Bei Weekly, and I started a new set of stories on Japanese American classical musicians. When in 2019 I prepared a new book of my short pieces, which became “The Unsung Great,” I selected works from all the various publications.

I come now to the most sensitive and personal part of my story. In the last years, like so many people, I have faced difficulties linked to the pandemic. I have been fortunate in that I have remained healthy and employed, and have been able to work from home. Nonetheless, COVID-era restrictions on international travel have meant long-term separation from loved ones. In addition to such travel bans, I have been hampered in my professional work by the shuttering of libraries and archives and by limitations on in-person meetings. I have mourned a close friend who took his own life, and faced isolation and lassitude myself.

In these difficult times, I have increased my output of “Great Unknown” columns and other short pieces. First, on the practical side, these articles are less challenging to create than extended scholarly works. Even without in-person access to archives, I can put together satisfactory columns by drawing on previously acquired material in my files and unearthing further information by virtual research. Also, the writing itself does not require as much concentration. Most importantly, I have found that doing my columns provides me a vital feeling of solace and gratification.

Another big change is that, whereas in the past I generally worked alone on my columns, I have now shifted my practice. In the past four years I have produced columns with a dozen different individuals. I find that writing with a partner (especially a younger scholar whom I can help mentor through our joint efforts) makes the work easier and more intriguing. One bright young historian, Jonathan van Harmelen, has become my chief collaborator, in addition to publishing his own columns in Discover Nikkei and elsewhere. Not only does Jonathan contribute to our joint efforts by pooling his research finds with mine and taking his part in drafting texts, but the enthusiasm he brings to the research and writing stimulates my own.

I am particularly gratified by the AAAS book award for “The Unsung Great,” as I see it as an endorsement by my professional colleagues of the importance of the kind of writing I do for community audiences and the general public.
I close by thanking all my Nichi Bei Weekly readers for their support over the last 12 years. I hope that they enjoyed the last 100 columns from my pen, and will enjoy the next 100 in the years to come!

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. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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