Book reviews: End-of-summer reads about JAs and Japan

When the Japanese Canadian newspaper Nikkei Voice asked me to write about my favorite recent books related to Japan, I realized that I’ve read some books in the past year that I never got around to writing about, and was also finishing an innovative new book, or to be precise, a new ebook.

In any case, I tend to read many more non-fiction books by and about Japan and Japanese Americans than I do any fiction titles, so it’s sort of surprising to me that two of these books are flat-out fiction (albeit based on the author’s childhood for “Kazuo’s World”) and that another is fiction manga based on history and another is history told through a fictionalized manga lens.

Standing Tall: The Extra/Ordinary Life of Mizuko Takahashi Nomura

standingtallThe most recent book I’ve read is “Standing Tall: The Extra/Ordinary Life of Mizuko Takahashi Nomura,” by Sansei artist, filmmaker and film professor Art Nomura. It’s a biography of Nomura’s grandmother, who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s, made as an interactive iBook for iPads, iPhones and Macs. The family history is well written but what makes it special is the chockfull of extra information, side stories, games, clickable images and links to other resources that Nomura includes. The book is a fascinating, well-researched read — though Nomura admits he’s made up conversations and details of his grandmother’s early days in Japan, it’s as detailed and factual as possible. It’s certainly a great look at one Issei woman’s epic life, and the experience is made that much richer with all the extra information Nomura adds, utilizing the iBook format to its fullest. The downside of being on the cutting edge, of course, is that unless you have a Mac computer, an iPad or an iPhone, you won’t be able to read this delightful loving biography.

Still, I find myself reading more and more on my tablets or even smartphone, but none of my other ebooks are native to the digital format. Reading is evolving like everything else in our digitally-connected society, and people like Nomura are taking full advantage of the new technology. Kudos to him!

The following four books are all dead-tree books, though. Graphic novels especially, just don’t translate to digital page:
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Being JA v2.0 is here, and I’m so glad to be JA!

I gave a re0ent reading to a full house at the Japanese American Museum in San Jose's lovely Japantown, and had a blast.

I gave a recent reading to a full house at the Japanese American Museum in San Jose’s lovely Japantown, and had a blast.

During a recent trip to San Francisco to attend the annual conference of the Asian American Journalists Association, I squeezed in two readings from the new revised edition of my book, “Being Japanese American.” The two events reminded me why I wrote the book in the first place and why I love speaking to JA audiences. I love being JA!

The first edition was published in 2004, but a lot has happened since then: Japanese culture is even more popular now in the US than a decade ago, but so is Asian American culture in general. The Internet was around in 2004, but social media has exploded on the scene since “Being JA” v1.0 came out. During those years, Asian American have been early adopters and leading lights on blogs, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter – we’ve embraced digital media because we’re invisible in mainstream media.

Yet, even in mainstream media, we’ve made some huge strides: Hollywood movies still suffers from “yellowface” casting of whites in Asian roles, but there are more of us in starring and co-starring roles. John Cho was even cast the romantic lead in a short-lived sitcom this year, and “Fresh Off the Boat,” the comedy that showcases an AAPI family, is filming a second season.

In a sad reminder of our inherent “foreignness” in the US, the March 11, 2011 disaster in Japan of the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear meltdown sparked a fury of racists all over social media shouting how the disaster was god’s revenge on Japan for bombing Pearl Harbor — as if the US disintegrating Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atom bombs weren’t “revenge” enough. Whenever ugly emotions like that well up from under the shallow surface of political correctness, I and other JAs are reminded how we’re easily lumped together with events in Japan, even if we’re generations removed. That’s what caused our community to be imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II, and what caused many of us to grow up dreading December 7 every year, when we’d be pelted by the stings of hateful taunts from other kids “Remember Pearl Harbor!” The tsunami stirred up a lot of the same emotions for me.

So it made sense when my publisher Stone Bridge Press reached out and asked me to update the book with new text, additional historical photos and interviews with more JAs, Japanese Canadians and mixed-race Japanese.

The book covers he history of Japanese immigration and of course the WWII concentration camp experience, but it’s also about our culture, community, food and families, and the future of JAs.
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Artifacts contain our cultural history, that’s why they’re so precious

Hand-carved wood panels made in Amache in Colorado during WWII. These were among the items  that would have been auctioned.

Hand-carved wood panels made in Amache in Colorado during WWII. These were among the items that would have been auctioned. Here’s a link to the announcement on JANM’s website.


 
UPDATE MAY 3, 2015:T he Japanese American National Museum announced last night at a gala fundraising honoring George Takei (who’s a JANM board member as well as a community activist) that with Takei’s help, the museum will take in the collection of Japanese American concentration camp artifacts that were originally slated to go to public auction. This is great news, and a brilliant public relations move by JANM and its CEO, Greg Kimura. When can we expect to see the “Eaton Collection Exhibit?” Here’s the Facebook Page, “Japanese American History: NOT for Sale,” with announcements and reactions from the community.
 


I’ve watched the news in horror as ISIS forces have systematically destroyed ancient mosques, temples, artwork and artifacts in their zealous pursuit of religious absolutism. It’s patently offensive to me that there could be such callous disregard for an entire civilization’s recorded and preserved history.

Compared to such crimes against humanity, some people might think that the auction of a personal collection of artifacts from the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II must be a minor controversy.

But the auction, which was to be held April 17, was canceled two days before, following an ad-hoc social media campaign and mainstream media coverage that was sparked by outraged Japanese Americans, was not a minor controversy.

It blew up into a big deal. A Facebook page named “Japanese American History: NOT for Sale” gained almost 7,000 followers after it was created on April 9. A Change.org online petition created just a few days before the auction got almost 8,000 people signed on.
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“Fresh Off the Boat” could be the tipping point on TV for Asian Americans

freshofftheboat_cast

There’s a new ABC sitcom being aired starting in February that I can hardly wait to see. I’m hoping “Fresh Off the Boat” will finally be a show where I can see people like me acting the way my family acts, with funny American situations but filtered through an Asian cultural perspective. I expect it’ll be a moment of critical mass for Asians on the U.S. pop consciousness.

It’s about time.

As a baby boomer, I grew up with very few Asian Americans on television. Few enough that everyone stood out. Even until recent years, my wife and I would point to the TV everytime we saw a minor character on TV played by an Asian, or an Asian face on a TV commercial, and yell, “Asian spotting!”

Among the first notable Asian Americans to be spotted on the small screen was Hawaii-born Filipino musician and comic Poncie Ponce, who was cast as the wise-cracking, ukulele-playing cab driver Kazuo “Kim” Quizado on the detective drama “Hawaiian Eye” which aired from 1959-1963.

My earliest memories of seeing an Asian on TV were of Hop Sing, the Chinese cook on “Bonanza,” a Western that also debuted in 1959 but ran until 1973. Hop Sing, played by U.S.-born actor Victor Sen Yung, wore a long queue hanging from under his cap, and diligently fed the Cartwright family for the run of the series, though I don’t recall that he ever cooked up Chinese food, or Chinese American dishes like chop suey, for Hoss and the others. He did face racism in a few episodes, though.
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The students protesting for their high school history curriculum are fighting for JAs, too

Hundreds of Lakewood High School students, including this one, left their classrooms in September to protest a proposed history curriculum they believed would lead to censorship. Students organized the walkouts using social media sites like Facebook. Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat Colorado

Hundreds of Lakewood High School students, including this one, left their classrooms in September to protest a proposed history curriculum they believed would lead to censorship. Students organized the walkouts using social media sites like Facebook. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat Colorado)

I grew up as part of a generation that found our collective voice in protest, for African American civil rights, against the war in Vietnam, and to advocate for women’s and LGBT rights and Asian American studies.

College students have been at the forefront of many of these social movements. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was a cornerstone of the civil rights movement. College students led the free speech movement at the University of California at Berkeley, and the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society was formed at the University of Michigan. Students led protests across the globe, including the Prague Spring in 1968 all the way to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Even the Taiwan protests earlier this year and the current and Hong , Kong democracy protests.

But in Colorado where I live, my admiration goes out to a group of high school students, who have been protesting in Jefferson County, the school district where I graduated in the 1970s.
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