Japanese American Identity in Literature Analysis


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Japan, unlike China, responded to the challenges of the West by joining its ranks. When Emperor Mutsuhito, who reigned from 1868 to 1912, came to the throne, he inaugurated the Meiji era of political reform and technological modernization. The feudal system was eliminated and peasants were given land to farm. Also during Mutsuhito’s reign, Japan defeated China (1894-1895) and Russia (1904-1905) in two wars and became the major regional power of East Asia, moving rapidly toward colonialism and global domination. This historical context has led some historians to speculate that the emigration of the Japanese was part of Japan’s imperialist project, but a more likely interpretation is simply that Japanese peasants were so heavily taxed that many soon found life in Japan impossible. In either case, many Japanese made the Pacific crossing to the United States (see Milton Murayama’s Five Years on a Rock, 1994). Haru Matsukata Reischauer’s family saga, Samurai and Silk: A Japanese and American Heritage (1986), offers a century-long overview of the relationship between the United States and Japan.

The Japanese were first brought to Hawaii in 1869, but apart from these few immigrants and the several hundred students studying at American universities during the 1870’s, the Japanese did not leave for Hawaii and the United States mainland in large numbers until the exclusion of the Chinese in...

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Japanese American Experience, 1869-1942

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Apart from materials in Japanese such as haikus published in Japanese-language newspapers, the literature documenting the first phase of the Japanese American experience (1869-1942) may be placed, for convenience, in three thematic groups. The first group may be called the cosmopolitan group, as expressed in the prolific writings of Sadakichi Hartmann (1867-1944), born in Japan of a Japanese mother and a German father, and Yone Noguchi (1875-1947). They participated in the international literary scene, knew Ezra Pound and W. B. Yeats, and played an important role in the cultural exchange between East and West. Examples are Hartmann’s Tanka and Haiku: Fourteen Japanese Rhythms (1915) and Noguchi’s Japanese Hokkus, 1920. The second group is characterized by a sense of aristocratic nostalgia for the culture and tradition left behind. Typifying this impulse is the fiction of Etsu Inaki Sugimoto, whose A Daughter of the Samurai (1925) is filled with descriptions of fairy tales, legends, customs, and festivals that define the traditional culture of Japan, which the author regrets being lost to modernization. The book, followed by A Daughter of the Narikin (1932), A Daughter of the Nohfu (1935), and Grandmother O Kyo (1940), served a diplomatic function in explaining Japan and appreciating America. The third group, which overlaps with the first two to a certain degree, is the sociohistorical (whether biographical,...

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Japanese American Experience, Since 1942

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The second phase (1942 onward) began with the dispossession, relocation, and internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans residing on the West Coast in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The internment was the most revealing moment of Japanese American identity because it not only deprived Japanese Americans of their livelihood and civil rights but also shattered their assumptions about themselves, their nationalities, and their loyalties. The ordeal spawned a whole range of literary responses and expressions that haunt the memories of the Japanese American community and challenge the conscience of America as a democracy. Japanese Canadians went through a similar persecution; the most well-known literary recounting is Joy Kogawa’s Obasan (1981). The literature of the internment experience expresses three types of sentiment. The first is defiance and anger, which is typified by World War II veteran John Okada’s No-No Boy (1957), in which some Nisei characters refuse to prove their loyalty by serving in the United States military. No-No Boy was the first of a stream of protest literature among younger Japanese American writers. Examples include Edward T. Miyakawa’s Tule Lake (1974), and Janice Mirikitani’s Shedding Silence (1987) and We the Dangerous (1995). The second sentiment is more complex in that although outrage is present, it is subdued and sometimes diluted with humor or stoicism (and even shame and self-abnegation), with implications that justice can be entrusted to the good will and good judgment of the American public. Examples of this approach include Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter (1953), and Farewell to Manzanar (1973) by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James Houston. The third sentiment overlaps with the first two but is distinguished from the protest of the first and the resignation of the second by a realism that concentrates on the factual aspects of the lives of the internees. Examples of this sentiment include Mitsuye Yamada’s Camp Notes and Other Poems (1976) and Lawson Fusao Inada’s Legends from Camp (1993). The significance of this approach lies in the fact that the internment is used as a framework for the meditation on and exploration of Japanese American identity. In the process of such meditation, the generational, cultural,...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Cheung, King-Kok, and Stan Yogi. Asian American Literature: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Modern Language Association, 1988.

Chin, Frank, et al., eds. Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974.

Chin, Frank, et al., eds. The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature. New York: Meridian, 1991.

Kim, Elaine H. “Asian American Literature.” In Columbia Literary History of the United States, edited by Emory Elliott et al. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.

Lim, Shirley Geok-lin. “Twelve Asian American Writers: In Search of Self-Definition.” In Redefining American Literary History, edited by A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. New York: Modern Language Association, 1990.

Lim, Shirley Geok-lin, and Amy Ling, eds. Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.

White-Parks, Annette, et al., eds. A Gathering of Voices on the Asian American Experience. Fort Atkinson, Wis.: Highsmith Press, 1994.

Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. Reading Asian American Literature from Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.