Biography 24.3 (2001) 670-675
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The controversy surrounding the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism, dedicated in November 2000, only highlights the need for more research in this area. Old wounds are still festering and we need to understand why. The "model American" image of the "official record" of the Japanese American seems to be weighing heavy on some AJA's--no doubt some Yonsei (4th generation) even reject this old acronym (Americans of Japanese Ancestry). In this era of civil rights, ethnic pride, and multiculturalism, people could be disconcerted by the pictures of acquiescent, complying Japanese faces being carted off to concentration camps. It's time to look at the record again to understand the conflict in the midst of the Japanese American community.
A good place to start is Growing Up Nisei: Race, Generation, and Culture among Japanese Americans of California, 1924-49. Here David Yoo proposes to "provide an opportunity to trace how race translated into the lives of Japanese Americans not as some immutable entity but as a socially constructed and highly variable social force" which will uncover a Nisei world "marked by race" offering "insight into a chapter of race relations in California" (2). The fear, hatred, and racism that led to internment has been glazed over recently through conciliatory gestures like redress for concentration camp internees, and more recently, Medals of Honor for some 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team veterans. Yoo helps us remember. [End Page 670]
Using a combination of oral histories and personal papers, and building on the research of others, Yoo hopes, however, to move beyond internment as the "defining moment" of the experience of becoming Nisei. By "placing the war in a larger context [he] reminds us that Japanese Americans should not be viewed merely as victims but as historical agents who directed the course of their lives within given circumstances" (2). Yoo is working on a new public image of the Japanese American. Moreover, the camps "appear less as an isolated, wartime mistake than as the culmination of a racial legacy that dated to the late nineteenth century" (6).
Through his examination of the public record--laws, statistics, organizations--he wants to get to the elusive thing called Nisei identity. What did it mean to have grown up Nisei in California during these rough times, and how did Nisei become Americans negotiating between cultures and generations? Yoo is not searching for a monolithic Nisei, like the "quiet American" described by Bill Hosokawa in Nisei, published over thirty years ago. Instead he reflects the younger generations who want to move beyond the compliant stereotype.
To begin, Yoo goes over familiar ground. He reviews the public record to present the variety of experience in the lives of large numbers of ordinary young men and women coming of age at the beginning of WWII. He enumerates laws that divided children from parents, permitting one group access to citizenship while denying it to the other, as well as laws that created shared misery, dealing with miscegenation, housing, employment opportunity, and access to public facilities (such as city swimming pools). The pattern of racism is clear; it has always been clear.To combat this racism the Japanese American community promoted its Nisei as the "bridge," the connection between the Issei and America, and between Japan and America. The hopes of the Nikkei--people of Japanese heritage not living in Japan--were placed squarely on the shoulders of the second generation and its ability to assimilate. (Yoo incorrectly translates "Nikkei" as "Japanese people" which in Japanese is "Nihonjin.") Considered an appropriate role for the time, the Nisei "bridge" was to be a double-edged sword. As relations between the two countries became more and more difficult, the Nisei had to bare the brunt of anti...