‘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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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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A Japanese American perspective on Trump and Japan

A standing-room-only crowd attended this year’s Japanese American Day of Remembrance in Denver. Lane Hirabayashi, Asian American studies expert and author of books about Japanese American history, gave a presentation of the post-war resettlement of JAs in Denver.

Many Japanese Americans I know don’t pay much attention to Japan, which I think is a pity. I believe JAs should keep up with news from Japan, and travel to Japan. A lot.

However, most JAs I know closely follow the news of Donald Trump’s presidency, and what he’s doing in the US.

JAs – and others — have been concerned enough about our president that this year’s Day of Remembrance events across the US, which commemorated the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942 by President Franklin Roosevelt, were packed with much larger audiences than in past years. That’s because EO 9066 led to the incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent in American concentration camps.

Now, with President Donald Trump signing a blizzard of executive orders including two controversial, currently on-hold one temporarily banning travel to the US from seven Muslim-majority countries, and threatening to punish “sanctuary cities,” also blocked by a federal judge, Executive Order 9066 has a much heavier symbolic weight. People are worried that what happened to Japanese Americans could happen again to Muslim Americans. A ban and registry, which were both cited during Trump’s campaign, are first steps to what happened to JAs 75 years ago.

So Trump’s brief reign as president has already resulted in a lot more awareness of the Japanese American experience. Thanks, prez!

But JAs should also keep an eye on what he does and how he thinks about Asia, and in particular, Japan.
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Haircut and history

NOTE: I just heard today that Mas Nonaka, a member of the local Japanese American community who has cut hair at several iterations of his barbershop, Nonaka’s, in and around Sakura Square since before the block was called Sakura Square, passed away.

Nonaka’s was where I first got my hair cut when my family moved to Denver from northern Virginia in 1972, and his shop at the time was on 20th Street across from the Buddhist Temple. Mas and his wife Yasuko (who styled women’s hair in the shop) were familiar figures whenever my family and I went to Sakura Square.

In recent years, I would see Mas and Yasuko at many Japanese American community events. He was always upbeat and very warm, even though I could see the years had cloaked themselves around him. He always called me “Gilbert” because that’s how he knew me, from my dad. It was when I went to college, everyone started calling my Gil. I never minded him calling me by my full name.

He had moved his shop to the ground level of Sakura Square for some years, and I know he wanted to sell the business, but it seemed younger barbers weren’t interested in small, family-owned barbershops. They would rather work for a chain, or maybe save money to buy a chain’s franchise. The past couple of years, Mas had relocated his shop to the mezzanine level of Sakura Square but it was rarely open when I walked past it.

I’m sad on hearing about his passing because Mas was the subject of the second-ever “Nikkei View” column I wrote way back in 1998, when the Rocky Mountain Jiho newspaper, now long-gone, asked me to write weekly columns for them.

I’m “repurposing” that second column today in his honor. Rest in peace, Mas…
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