On LA agriculture’s ‘unique triracial hierarchy’

Transborder Los Angeles: An Unknown Transpacific History of Japanese-Mexican Relations

Transborder Los Angeles: An Unknown Transpacific History of Japanese-Mexican Relations

By Yu Tokunaga (Oakland, Calif.: University of California Press, 2022, 274 pp., $29.95, paperback)

Transborder Los Angeles: An Unknown Transpacific History of Japanese-Mexican Relations

In this work, adapted from a doctoral thesis produced at the University of Southern California, author Yu Tokunaga explores the relations between transnational Japanese and Mexican communities in the Los Angeles area during the prewar years, from the Immigration Act of 1924 to the mass removal of Japanese Americans and the origins of the Bracero program in 1942. As the author phrases it, “Los Angeles, a transpacific workplace located in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, provided … space for Japanese immigrants to understand the importance of both ethnic solidarity and interethnic accommodation.”

The work’s primary contribution is that it puts these two ethnic/national histories in dialogue. The author innovates in demonstrating how Los Angeles agriculture operated through “a unique triracial hierarchy” in which Japanese farmers who leased land from white landowners then hired Mexican laborers to help work the land. As a result, in the course of several bloody labor strikes by Mexican workers in the years before World War II, Japanese immigrant farmers were caught in the middle. The work is also innovative in discussing the impact of Japanese exclusion in the U.S. on the growth and development of the Japanese communities in the Mexican borderlands. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the author breaks new ground in sketching the close relationship between wartime Japanese American removal, the acquisition of land by Mexican Americans, and the origins of the Bracero (Mexican agricultural guestworker) program during World War II, though much remains still to be discovered in that area.

Tokunaga’s book is groundbreaking in its comparative and transnational approach to the history of Nikkei in the Mexico-Los Angeles borderlands. For example, Tokunaga explores the growth of a local Japanese farming community in Mexicali, Mexico, whose members expressed support for striking Mexican immigrant farm laborers in Los Angeles during the interwar years (before they were driven from their homes by hostile Mexican state legislation). By looking at Japanese American history through the lens of the triangular Japanese-Mexico-U.S. relationship, Tokunaga’s work adds a new dimension to our understanding, especially the mechanics behind the wartime removal of Japanese Americans.

The writing is generally clear and understandable and the style is convincing, no mean feat for a Japanese-born author. The author uses a wide variety of sources in English, Japanese and Spanish, including newspaper articles, diplomatic documents, archival collections (including land company records) and government records. The author deserves special credit for his heavy use of the Japanese-language vernacular press, notably the prewar Los Angeles dailies Rafu Shimpo and Kashu Mainichi, as well as the English-language Nisei press (the author’s reliance on foreign-language sources forms a welcome contrast with the mass of scholarship in Asian American studies, which is too often concentrated exclusively on writings in English).

Full disclosure: I read this book in manuscript, and also blurbed it.

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