Characters

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 391

The main character in East Is East is a twenty-year-old Japanese American man, Hiro Tanaka. The story traces his escapades when he deserts from a freighter he works on as it nears the US coast. Trying to hide from the authorities in a Georgia swamp, Hiro finds himself alongside a...

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The main character in East Is East is a twenty-year-old Japanese American man, Hiro Tanaka. The story traces his escapades when he deserts from a freighter he works on as it nears the US coast. Trying to hide from the authorities in a Georgia swamp, Hiro finds himself alongside a renowned artists’ colony, Thanatopsis. The author portrays Hiro as both deeply committed to studying ancient Japanese culture, especially the achievements of and writings about the samurai and their noble ways, and simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the mythically abundant modern US culture. Ironically, hidden in the swamp, Hiro is about as far from metropolitan consumerism as possible. Although Hiro has broken numerous laws by jumping ship and entering the United States illegally, he is given an engaging, innocent demeanor and so impresses the reader as a likable, hapless protagonist—a kind of modern-day Candide.

Another main character is Ruth Dershowitz, a young American writer in residence at the colony, who takes Hiro in and helps him survive. She allows him to hang out in her cabin and gives him food. Ruth, however, seems to be shallow and insincere. Although she does not turn Hiro in, she is shown as using him to advance her career. Ruth has shown great promise and attended prestigious writing schools, such as Iowa, but has only published four short stories. Motivated not by love for art but rather by love for fame, she opportunistically takes advantage of Hiro’s plight. She is the lover of Saxby Lights, whose mother runs the colony, but she also sleeps with Hiro.

Ruth’s main rival, also present at Thanatopsis, is Jane Shine, a pretentious red-head who has published in The New Yorker and excels in self-promotion. Other characters in residence include Irving Thalamus, an influential critic with whom the authors try to curry favor; Laura Groybian, the “doyenne of the . . . former bohemian school of WASP novelists”; and the snobbish Peter Anserine, a consummate reader of European books (but only in the original language).

A few characters actually live in the area, such as Ambly Wooster, a wealthy old lady with whom Hiro stays for a while; Olmstead White, a poor, older African American man whom Hiro first frightens and whose home he burns down; Olmstead’s nephew Royal; and Sheriff Tibbetts, the rural white lawman who apprehends Hiro.

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