‘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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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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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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