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Journal of Asian American Studies 4.3 (2001) 305-308
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Growing Up Nisei: Race, Generation, and Culture among Japanese Americans of California, 1924-49
Growing Up Nisei: Race, Generation, and Culture among Japanese Americans of California, 1924-49. By David K. Yoo. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000).
"[T]here was no such thing as a 'typical Nisei'." (152) One would feel this way after reading Growing Up Nisei. Covering the period 1924-49, David Yoo's study challenges the common understanding of Japanese American history. He focuses on the continuity of nisei experience rather than its discontinuity ushered in by an aberrant wartime event. The narrative revolves around three themes: race, generation, and (sub)culture. Through these lenses, Yoo tackles the diverse and often contradictory processes of identity formation, bound by the forces that cut across nisei lives.
Yoo's methodology is to salvage nisei voices from the wide array of materials produced by and on them. By letting the "historical agents" speak about their dilemmas, the study captures the nuances of history. As it defies the established mode of interpretation that tends to arbitrarily categorize nisei practices as "assimilationist," "loyal," or "disloyal," Yoo's descriptions are not subject to neat summarization. "The richly textured world of the Nisei undermines dismissive [End Page 305] characterizations of the second generation as assimilationist. The experiences of Nisei illustrate the highly contextual nature of race, generation, and identity formation. Far from a uniform picture, what surfaces is a montage that blurs the lines between categories that have so often been applied to the migration and settlement process in America." (179)
The study is organized chronologically and thematically. Chapters 1-3 deal with the prewar years, while 4 and 5 examine aspects of the nisei's incarceration. Chapter 6 includes the wartime and immediate postwar years. Using the three analytical themes, each chapter sheds light on different institutions, where the niseis' interpretations of self, community, and their place in the nation are diversely expressed.
Chapter 1 attempts to situate nisei education in the larger context of "progressive" Americanization in public schools. "Schooling represented a key site of socialization for Nisei in California during the years between the world wars." (17) Yoo looks at "the politics of race in education" by not only examining how white teachers foisted Anglo-centered Americanization upon the nisei, but incorporating the students' perspectives on those efforts. The betrayal of American principles and the problem of occupational exclusion are factors in the discussion of nisei education, which fostered certain patterns of identity formation. Yoo also views Japanese-language schools as "strengthen[ing] ethnic ties" and yet supplementing Americanization. "English-language (or Japanese) usage and academic achievement did not entail the shedding of one culture and the adoption of another but a process marked by negotiation." (30) In this context of constant negotiation, Yoo highlights many innovative solutions Nisei devised to come to terms with the contradictions caused by racism, generational differences, and cultural gaps. "In spite of the difficult circumstances that they faced, Japanese Americans were not passive receptors but instead sought to make their education work for them." (28)
Chapter 2 defines religion as a site of similar negotiation and identity formation. Combining an analysis of Buddhist and Christian churches with the question of race, Yoo goes beyond the conventional binarism that falsely superimposes the national distinctions upon the religious counterparts. Buddhism and Christianity had exhibited much less dissimilarity than commonly assumed. This is not to say that the former had simply assimilated into the latter; rather, it was because racism recognized little difference among Japanese Americans. "[T]he churches reinforced a sense of racial-ethnic identity that undermined any simple notion of assimilation to American society," (66) Yoo argues. Both Buddhist and Christian churches offered "a form of community," [End Page 306] where nisei created a subculture as Japanese Americans and as the second generation.
Chapter 3 focuses on the role of the nisei press. First, Yoo draws attention to the notion of "racial responsibility" that nisei...