‘The Little Exile’ is a terrific addition to the JA reading list

The historical story of the Japanese American incarceration during World War II is still not well-known in mainstream American culture and literature. When it comes to books, there are only a handful of books that are based on JAs’ wartime experience. After the groundbreaking, angry “No-No Boy” by John Okada in 1957, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s “Farewell to Manazanar” was the first well-known memoir in 1973 (and made better-knwon because of its 1976 TV movie adaptation). The 1994 novel “Snow Falling on Cedars” is the most famailiar to non-JA audiences (again, because of the 1999 Oscar-nominated Hollywood film version).

Why She Left Us” by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto in 1999 delved into the emotional distress of incarceration. I loved “The Red Kimono,” a 2013 novel by Jan Morrill that told the story of life in a concentration camp in Arkansas from the perspective of a young girl.

Now, we can add to this short list of excellent literature, “The Little Exile” by Jeanette Arakawa, a first-time author who couches her own story in a fictionalized novel instead of a memoir.

The fictional framing serves the story well, and gives Arakawa the creative freedom of shaping the narrative and dialogue for a sweeping, epic look at her family’s history that starts in pre-war San Francisco and ends as her family returns to the Bay Area after the war, and after spending time in Denver upon leaving the Rohwer concentration camp in Arkansas. Yet, that history is told in exquisite vignettes, as if she is remembering one memory at a time, turning them over like a Rubik’s Cube in her mind and then lining up the colors before moving on to the next memory.
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On writing about the JA community

I started my writing career as a music critic and became a journalist with jobs at various mainstream media newspapers and later, websites, and wasn’t much concerned with covering the Japanese, Japanese American or Asian American Pacific Islander communities or issues.

I became curious about my roots when my father was diagnosed with lung cancer in the early ‘90s, but it wasn’t until a few years later before I started writing about being Japanese American. I met my wife, who is Sansei, in the late ‘90s and one of the first things she said to me was that I’m a “banana” – yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

She was right, even though I was actually born in Japan.

My dad was a Nisei born in Hawaii but my grandfather took the whole family back to Japan in 1940 and my dad and his siblings were stuck there during WWII. That’s a book that’s been stewing in the back of my head for a long time.

He stayed in Japan and became a houseboy at 13 for the US soldiers stationed there during the US Occupation. When he was old enough, he enlisted in the Army and he began getting a carton of Lucky Strikes every week as part of his GI rations. That was his ticket to lung cancer, I’m afraid – he smoked until his death.

My mom was born and raised in the small fishing town of Nemuro, on the easternmost tip of the northernmost island, Hokkaido. My dad was stationed there during the Korean War, and that’s where they met.

My early childhood was very bicultural – my family lived in Tokyo (and for a year, Iwakuni, near Hiroshima) neighborhoods and my brother and I took the bus to American schools on US military bases. It never occurred to me that I was living a split personality as Japanese and American. One year for Halloween I dressed as a cowboy, complete with western pistols on my hip; the next I dressed as a samurai. I played ninja with my Japanese friends and had crushes on white girls at school.

But when I was eight years old and my family moved to the states where my dad got a transfer to Washington, DC, it took me just a few weeks to become all-American. I learned every English cuss word, for one thing, even though I didn’t know what most of them meant. And, I forgot most of my Japanese (I never learned to read and write hiragana or katakana, even though my mom the equivalent of “Dick and Jane” language primers with us to America).
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Vincent Chin’s murder 35 years ago galvanized a pan-Asian movement

Vincent Chin rally in Detroit, 1983 (Photo by Victor Yang, China Times)

On the night of June 19, 1982, 27-year-old Vincent Chin was celebrating his bachelor’s party with friends in a Detroit strip club. He got into an altercation with two white men, and both groups were thrown out. The two men tracked down Chin with the help of a third man and brutally beat him with a baseball bat.

Their reason? They blamed the downturn of the Detroit auto industry on Japanese cars, which were at the time overtaking American models in popularity. They thought Chin was Japanese. He was Chinese American.

Vincent Chin was left in a coma and died four days later, on June 23 — a few days before his scheduled wedding. The two men from the club (one of them was the killer while the other held Chin) were charged with second-degree murder but the charge was reduced to manslaughter and neither served any jail time. They were ordered to three years probation and to pay $3,000 in fines.

A young Asian American journalist, Helen Zia reported on the murder, then led the efforts to bring federal civil rights charges against the men. In the end, the accused murderers settled a civil suit out of court. Ronald Ebens, the man who beat Chin, was ordered to pay $1.5 million, but Chin’s estate has never received any payment.

It was national news when it happened, but it’s faded from memory for most people.
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Why do people still hold hateful feelings for Japan from WWII?

I wasn’t surprised that anti-Japanese sentiments were expressed when Takuma Sato, a Japanese driver, won the Indianapolis 500 race — he is the first driver from Japan to take the flag. But I was shocked, and disappointed that the hateful sentiment was blurted by a journalist. In Denver, where I live. And that it was someone I had worked with.

Terri Frei, a veteran sports writer for The Denver Post whose main beat was the Colorado Avalanche hockey team, tweeted shortly after Sato’s historic victory, “Nothing specifically personal, but I am very uncomfortable with a Japanese driver winning the Indianapolis 500 during Memorial Day weekend.”

The comment sparked a social media furor, and within 24 hours, on Memorial Day, The Denver Post announced that Frei no longer worked for the newspaper.

I didn’t know Frei well, but I worked with him, when I managed the DenverPost.com website. I was bewildered that he would post such a blunt, ethnically charged statement.
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Don’t give up on civil discussions on social media

One of the great benefits of today’s social media – and why I urge everyone, young and old, to at least be on Facebook – is that it can connect you to people you know, people you don’t know, and maybe most surprisingly, to people you used to know.

When baby boomers starting logging into Facebook about a decade ago, I was happy to reconnect with former co-workers and friends from the past, and to people from my school days, both college and high school.

I’m Facebook friends with a host of classmates and friends from two high schools. I attended 8th-10th grade in northern Virginia before my family moved to Colorado and I finished school in a Denver suburb.

But Facebook can have its downside (besides being a time-suck that can take over your life). Sometimes, old friends may have traveled in different directions from my own path.

Such is the case with John, who was my schoolmate in Virginia, and now lives in Washington, DC. We weren’t close friends, but knew each other. He was one of the popular kids and I was a nerdy school photographer. He and I became Facebook friends about a year and a half ago, right in time for the Donald Trump presidential campaign.

Anyone who follows me on social media knows I share a lot of stories about race, identity, racism, politics and pop culture, often Asian and Asian American pop culture. Oh, and food. Lots of food pictures.

I’m pretty liberal, though I wouldn’t say radical. John is conservative, and a Trump supporter, though I wouldn’t say alt-right. For months now, John has been commenting on my posts and chiding me for being left-wing, and citing a lot of Fox News and Breitbart rhetoric.
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