I am still reeling from the power and the beauty of this book. I am hopeful that many of us have heard of Sulu from "Star Trek," George Takei's story about being a Nisei (second generation Japanese) in the US, and the internment of several hundred thousand Americans of Japanese descent at the onset of World War II. He has even produced a play on Broadway, "Allegiance," about his memories of his family's internship. It was a shameful (understatement) period in our history, and the xenophobia didn't start there. It began in the late 1800's when Asians came to help us build the railroad. This book will give a reader an even deeper view into how this country treated the Japanese Nisei (and the immigrant parents, the Issei).
Harry Fukuhara was born in the US of Japanese immigrants in the Pacific Northwest. He grew up a typical American kid, hanging out with friends, eating hot dogs. His older brother and sister had been sent back to Japan at a young age, to live with relatives, in order to learn about their heritage; their younger siblings barely new them. Harry’s sister Mary, feeling abandoned by her mother, lived a life filled with resentment and contempt because of this.
As a teenager, the family relocated back to Japan, where Harry found himself a fish out of water. He was “too American” to fit in at his Japanese high school. As soon as he turned 18, he returned to the US. Unfortunately, a lot had changed while he was gone. Looking up his old chums, he was met with cold shoulders and closed doors. He found his way south, to California to scratch out a living as a houseboy and a greengrocer. It was all he could find due to the blatant discrimination towards Asians.
The prejudice, especially on the West coast, was pervasive. When the war started, Harry and his sister (who had since moved back to the US) were sent to a miserable prison camp in Arizona, pursuant to a decree of the U.S. Government . His only escape from the misery of the internment camp was being asked to join the U.S. Army as a Japanese linguist. Frank trained in Minnesota before he was sent to the South Pacific, interrogating prisoners (rare, since Japanese soldiers were told to die rather than surrender) and translating documents recovered from Japanese casualties. The Japanese linguists had to have Caucasian bodyguards (so that a soldier wouldn’t think they were the enemy) and were treated poorly by fellow troops. Regardless of their seniority, none of the linguists were promoted or allowed R&R, unlike those who were Caucasian, and lower in rank. Harry and a fellow Nisei had to argue their case before a sympathetic superior before they were recognized.
Meanwhile, back in Japan, Harry’s father had died, and his mother and three brothers lived in fear of being recognized as Nisei, or of being “too American”, by the local Japanese. Frank, the youngest son, enrolled in a prestigious military school, but endured years of hazing and physical abuse by the older students. He kept his head down and did what he had to do to get through. He stayed in school as long as he could to avoid being drafted in the Imperial Army. He and his mother struggled to find black market food in light of stricter and stricter rationing by the government. Eventually, though, Frank was conscripted, as the Japanese effort became hopelessly lost, and the government made a last, desperate attempt to fight back.
The book comes to a terrible climax when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The details of what happened to the populace are difficult to read. Harry’s cousin was only a half-mile from the impact, and was blinded and badly burned; she died shortly thereafter. His brother Victor was badly burned. Harry arrives in Japan after the surrender, and manages to find his way to Hiroshima, to find his mother at their old house. It was a bittersweet reunion, as his mother didn’t even recognize him. All he could say was, “Mother, it is I, Fukuhara. I have come home.”
I lived in Japan from 1965 until 1968. Only twenty years after the end of the war, the country was largely rebuilt. The people we met couldn’t have been nicer, more dignified, welcoming and proud. There was not much talk about the war, and I wonder if they felt a degree of shame for what the government had done in the people’s name. Part of me can understand the knee-jerk reaction of Americans on the west coast; how could they know if the Japanese in their midst were friendly or not? But to put them all in what were essentially concentration camps? To take away their homes and their livelihoods, even after it was all over? The degree of persecution is unfathomable. This is a story of ongoing hardship and tragedy, but also a story of hope. The Japanese term “shikata ga nai” (it can’t be helped) is a theme woven intricately into the fabric of the story. Harry and his mother and brothers plod on through the extreme difficulties of their lives, knocked down time after time, only to emerge with their dignity and their pride. This is a book not soon forgotten, as it should not be.