Early on in Gene Oishi’s novel Fox Drum Bebop, the young protagonist Hiroshi Kono watches his father give a thrilling kabuki performance as the mythic samurai Sato Tadanobu. It is May 1941, and the Japanese community in Hacienda, California, has gathered to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday. According to legend, Tadanobu is a fox who has turned himself into a samurai to be close to his mother, whose skin was made into a drum. The rich legacy of the fox drum, evoked on this small community stage, serves as a crucial counterpoint to Hiroshi’s later love of bebop and the beatnik lifestyle; together, “fox drum bebop” names the cultural dissonance that haunts Hiroshi’s ongoing search for an effable Japanese-American identity, and straddles the rift between pre- and post-war generations of Japanese-Americans.
Spanning the decades between 1940 and 1982, Fox Drum Bebop follows Hiroshi, the youngest of five, to an Arizona concentration camp, and chronicles his foray into adulthood against the backdrop of his family’s ensuing dissolution. That Hiroshi is still a child when Pearl Harbor hurls the United States into war allows Oishi to give us insight into how fear and propaganda infected Japanese-American self-image at large. When Hiroshi sees the hinomaru, the red sun signifying Japan, on a flag erected over camp, he struggles to reconcile its competing implications. It’s a struggle of double consciousness: “For Hiroshi, the hinomaru had the feel of both nostalgia and danger. Before the war, it had often symbolized a harmless bit of fun, as when Mother would sometimes put a red pickled plum on [End Page 454] a bed of white rice for a ‘hinomaru lunchbox.’ Or it could be a frightening harbinger of war, and, after Pearl Harbor, a token of evil. Its sudden appearance above the camp was both funny and scary.”
This morass of conflicted self-identity affects each of Hiroshi’s siblings differently. The internment camp becomes a crucible for renewed loyalty to Japan or unflinching American patriotism, a divide that literally pits brother against brother in the Kono family.
Having assimilated into American culture to varying degrees—Mickey, a high school football star, relies on his older brother Isamu to translate his English to Father—the family forms a microcosm of complex Japanese-American loyalties during World War II.
Oishi is a skilled and clear-eyed writer, deliberate in his reporting of each character’s history and attitudes. In a chapter titled “Brothers,” he harnesses several perspectives to illustrate the cultural and political headbutting amongst them. Isamu tells us of Mickey, “All the energy he had previously channeled into football he henceforth directed at becoming an exemplary, flag-waving, allegiance-swearing, law-abiding citizen and patriot. It turned out Mickey was Japanese after all—the mirror image of his patriotic, nationalist father.” Oishi strengthens the novel with frank exposures such as this, reflecting the deformities of wartime in the insecurities and hypocrisies of each character.
As we leave the internment camp, the novel’s ruminative pace picks up. Because the chapters immerse us in radically different points in Hiroshi’s life with little allusion to the connective tissue between them, they have the self-contained quality of interconnected stories, generating huge narrative momentum at the cost of sometimes jarring the reader. “Hiroshi had been at UC Berkeley for almost a year when Mich’s letter reached him,” reads the opening line of the chapter “Urashima,” before the reader knows that Hiroshi has enrolled in Cal or met his girlfriend Mich. In the first half of the novel, however, the leaps are small, the characters congruous from scene to scene. The second half of Fox Drum Bebop is also a departure because, unlike chapters such as “Brothers” which let Hiroshi out of view in order to inhabit another psyche altogether, the remaining pages remain rooted in Hiroshi’s perspective.
Structurally, then, the novel follows a trajectory that Oishi discusses in the afterword. “For the Japanese in America,” he writes, “Pearl Harbor and the war that followed were the cultural equivalent of the Big Bang...