JA gender, transnationalism and racial politics in the interwar period


Cover of “New Women of Empire”


By Chrissy Yee Lau (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2022, 206 pp., $30, paperback)

In “New Women of Empire: Gendered Politics and Racial Uplift in Interwar Japanese America,” Chrissy Yee Lau provides a much-needed examination of gender, transnationalism and racial politics for Japanese Americans coming of age in the interwar period (between World War I and World War II). I was struck by both the book’s depth of research and how little I had known about organizations and the daily lives of Japanese American youth and young adults during this period. Whether engaging in pig farming while attending school, participating in the “Oliver Club” or being active in the Girls Reserves, Japanese Americans were active in a range of organizations, professions, sports and hobbies that spoke not only to leisure activities but the aspirations and hopes of a generation.

Lau concentrates on five individuals: Susie Yamamoto, Masao Dodo, Chiyo Otera, Gene Sakamoto and Lily Satow. She frames her book around these five to discuss the respective roles of Japanese Americans as the New Women and New Men of the early 20th century, navigating the at times conflicting aspirations of Japanese and American empires. Each chapter provides an in-depth examination of one of Lau’s subjects, discussing their lives through their relationships with the organizations they pioneered and participated in. With nuanced storytelling, the author provides insights into the hopes and struggles of a generation that was ultimately optimistic and filled the dreams of possibility despite the impending clash of empires that would occur with the onset of WWII. One of the highlights of the text is its ability to delve into these complexities without the subsequent war and mass incarceration overshadowing two decades, which seemed full of potential for Japanese American youth.

The detail with which Lau writes comes from her extensive use of archival materials, including the “Survey of Race Relations,” a sociological study of different ethnic groups conducted in the interwar period. She combines the survey interviews with census data, newspaper articles and organizational documents to contextualize the answers of the youth and their trajectories throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Compellingly, she shows how their lives were impacted by the intersectional forces of gender, class, citizenship, race and religion. Each facet plays a role in the opportunities and restrictions afforded to the individual, as well as their attempts to remold older gender roles. The stories are all centered in the Los Angeles area, providing a rich tapestry of Southern California life for Japanese Americans, and very much in dialogue with works by historians like Valerie J. Matsumoto and Eiichiro Azuma in untangling the pulls of dueling imperial projects and the cosmopolitan urbanism of city life.Lau’s prose is engaging, allowing the reader to feel like they’re reading in real time the trials and tribulations of her subjects. Whether highlighting the ingenuity of Susie Yamamoto in negotiating city sanitation collection contracts or the frustration of Masao Dodo to rectify Japanese imperialism with Americanization, each chapter’s protagonist is treated with empathy and care, providing depth and nuance to their stories. “New Women of Empire” (which readers may notice profiles three women and two men), is an engaging and much needed addition to Japanese American history, highlighting the complexities of femininity and masculinity in this period.

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