Reading List: Japanese-American Relations
Midnight in Broad Daylight is one of those truth is stranger than fiction books. It is hard to believe that one family could have gone through so much – on both sides of the Pacific.
Many books have been written about the era during World War II when Japanese Americans were interned in camps. The terror that swept the country after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor resulted in mass deportations of Japanese Americans along the West Coat from their homes, mostly to temporary homes in the country’s interior, many in desolate, windswept spots.
But the relationship between Japan and the U.S. started well before the war. These books chronicle the fascinating, if often troubled relationship between Japan and the U.S., and the people who tried to bridge the gap.
Daughters of the Samurai by Janice Nimura is a fascinating book about an era I knew absolutely nothing about. It’s the amazing story of five young Japanese girls who in the 19th century were sent to America to learn about the country. Their charge: to return and help Japan ese women enter the modern age.
These girls were born into a near-feudal society – they really were daughters of the samurai, the warrior class that helped govern Japan for centuries, but which eventually lost its power in a civil war (one girl bore a shrapnel wound from one of the battles). They got their marching orders from no less than the empress of Japan, who sat behind a screen while her lady-in-waiting read out the empress’ instructions to the terrified young girls.
Nimura beautifully brings out the personalities of all the girls as they made their way in America, in New Haven, at college at Vassar, where one was elected president of her class, and in Washington D.C. Then they returned, to a much changed Japan. This is an absorbing book that will introduce you to a time and culture most Americans knew little about.
If you want an overview of the internment period check out Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II by Richard Reeves.
Reeves, a very skilled writer and journalist, revisits this episode through 21st century eyes. The complete abandonment of any idea of civil rights for the Japanese Americans swept up in this event is shocking. With very little warning, 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of them United States citizens, were incarcerated in bleak camps throughout the Rockies and Southwest. They had little idea of where they were going – one young opera star packed a bathing suit because she heard she was going to a camp at Tule Lake. Any lake in this desert had disappeared 500 years ago.
The fact that, like Henry in Sakamoto’s book, some young men detained in the camps eventually left them to serve with honor in the U.S. military – working for the same government that had imprisoned them – is amazing to me.
Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community by David A. Neiwert is an in-depth look at the economics of the relocation in one Washington state community.
Today, Bellevue, Washington is a wealthy Seattle suburb, chockablock with skyscrapers and expensive homes. But in the 1920s, Japanese-American truck farmers farmed strawberries on the same land. Bellevue’s Strawberry Festival drew thousands of people every year.
These hard-working farmers faced relentless opposition from some white Bellevue citizens, who advocated a cutoff of emigration from Japan (eventually they were largely successful). The farmers endured, but in 1942 60 Bellevue families were shipped to Tule Lake, leaving their farms behind.
After the war, virulent anti-Japanese feeling caused most of the farmers to leave the area; their land was snapped up, some by those white same opponents, who eventually grew wealthy off the development of Bellevue. This is an unsettling book that starkly portrays the winners and losers in this historic event.
Finally, I want to mention two novels that introduced me to this piece of history.
The first is David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. This lovely novel is based on actual events in Guterson’s home of Bainbridge Island, Washington.
On Bainbridge, as in Bellevue, many farmers were of Japanese descent, and were relocated. The main event of the novel actually takes place in the 1950s, when a Japanese American fisherman is accused of murdering a white resident. As the trial commences, anti-Japanese sentiment is still running strong, and we learn what happened to the islanders before and during the war in flashbacks.
There are heroes in this book, and one, a crusading newspaper editor, is based on a real person on Bainbridge, a newspaper editor who fought the anti-Japanese sentiment on the island during the war. This is a novel of history, conscience and love. It’s a classic.
The other novel, which plays out in the city of Seattle, is Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. This is the story of a young man of Chinese descent who loves a young Japanese-American woman in the era before and during World War II. His father is bitterly opposed to any match (if you will recall, China was brutally invaded by the Japanese in the runup to World War II.
The title – a great title! refers to the Panama Hotel, a real hotel in Seattle’s International District where many items left behind by Japanese internees were eventually found. This novel got mixed reviews, but Ford lovingly brought World War II-era Seattle back to life. Based on the popularity of Ford’s book, the hotel is now a much sought out tourist stop.