- Between Two Empires: Race, History, and Transnationalism in Japanese America
Between Two Empires tackles head-on one of the thorniest topics in Asian American history: the pro-Japan and racist ideas and practices of the Issei and Nisei before World War II. Eiichiro Azuma refuses to apologize for their pronouncements and actions, but instead offers an ambitious and cogent interpretive framework to understand their evolving worldviews and seemingly contradictory nationalist allegiances. Japanese Americans are not simple victims, villains, or heroes in his nuanced rendering. They are, above all else, complex human beings, a diverse people struggling to find a place for themselves and their children in a nation and a world largely beyond their control. Ultimately, Azuma reveals far more than the historical experiences and consciousness of Japanese Americans. His innovative study charts new ways to critique race and nation in Asian American Studies, which has been all too complicit in reproducing U.S.-centered liberal narratives of racial exclusion and national inclusion.
Japanese American history, Azuma insists, cannot be reduced to an American story, divorced from Japanese migrants' backgrounds and their ongoing engagement with the Japanese nation-state and empire. He calls for a transnational history, more precisely an "inter-National" approach, that takes into account the enduring and uneven effects and affects that Japan and the United States had on Japanese American lives (5). The mass migration of Japanese workers to the American West, he begins, coincided with the consolidation of the Meiji government, realized in part through the colonization and conquest of Hokkaido, Okinawa, Taiwan, Korea, and China. Thus, even as most individual migrants harbored little to no identification with the Japanese state, political and intellectual elites in Japan and in Japanese communities in America were able to equate "emigration" with "colonization," a national project of imperial expansion into the "frontier." The problem, as they construed it, was to produce respectable imperial subjects out of the masses of migrant laborers and prostitutes. [End Page 332]
Japanese diplomats and self-proclaimed Issei leaders, however, saw no contradiction between exemplary Japanese citizen-subjects and assimilable Americans, an outlook that set them apart from white Progressive reformers with whom they shared many views. Indeed, in the face of anti-Japanese hostility, they championed efforts to "re-form" the Japanese populace in the United States, from unruly and uncivilized gumin (ignorant masses) to moral and civilized citizens, racially fit to represent the "pure" Japanese and to assimilate into middle-class America. But the elitist campaign of moral reform and racial uplift, coordinated by the Japanese state, failed to convince most whites and the U.S. nation-state that the Japanese, unlike the Chinese, were capable of "Americanization." Although the Issei continued to maintain connections with imperial Japan, Azuma argues, their racial subordination in the U.S. political economy, most notably their dependency on white landowners, made them a self-conscious "American minority, who engaged but never fully belonged to either racial empire" (62).
And, it is the Issei's dual engagement with the dominant racial and national norms in the United States and Japan—appropriating and conjoining without really challenging them—that Azuma is most interested in documenting and explaining. In historical texts commissioned and written for and by the Issei elite between 1927 and 1940, for example, Japanese in America came to embody prototypical American frontiersmen conquering the Wild West and Japanese colonialists advancing Japan's expansion. Representations of the Issei as quintessential Americans and model Japanese addressed and erased their marginal status in the United States and Japan, but, Azuma stresses, they also relied on and reinforced racialized and gendered tropes justifying U.S. and Japanese nationalisms and imperialisms. Projections of the Nisei as their racial successors—carrying on the "Japanese spirit" in America, bridging the United States and Japan—underscored the Issei faith in the compatibility of Japanese heritage and Americanization.
Azuma concludes his study by exploring the tragic consequences of this "immigrant eclecticism" in the years leading up to World War II. Issei and Nisei support of Japan in the 1930s—an...