Monica Sone is primarily known for her autobiography, Nisei Daughter, an account of her years of growing up in the waterfront area of Seattle. The Japanese word nisei means second generation, and Sone’s autobiography thus reflects the experiences of a second-generation Japanese American.
Sone’s father, who immigrated to the United States in 1904, initially worked as a farmhand and then as a cook on ships sailing between Seattle and Alaska before acquiring a small business. Because of the immigration laws then restricting Asians, there were few unattached young Japanese women, but he was fortunate to meet the daughter of a visiting Japanese Christian minister. Kazuko Monica Itoi was their second child.
Kazuko, as Sone was known in her childhood, spent her early years in the hotel managed by her parents. Surrounded by people of many different ethnic backgrounds, Kazuko did not become aware of her Japanese ancestry until, at the age of five, she and her older brother were sent to Nihon Gakko, a Japanese school they attended for one and a half hours every day after public school. They were taught the proper way to talk and walk and sit and bow in the Japanese tradition and they learned the language.
In her autobiography Sone captures the excitements and the tranquillity of her early years. Her life was in many ways similar to the lives of her “yellow-haired, red-haired, and brown-haired friends at grammar school,” but in her family there were occasional special events in the Japanese community. During a family visit to Japan when she was about seven years old, she enjoyed meeting her relatives and seeing new places but felt like an alien; she was relieved to be back in Seattle.
As she was growing up Sone noticed the repercussions of world events on her community. After Japan attacked Shanghai, the Chinese in the neighborhood became openly hostile toward the local Japanese residents. Some first-generation Japanese, who by law could not become American citizens, considered returning to their homeland, but most decided to stay for the sake of their children, who had been born in the United States and would have no future in Japan.
Sone had planned to go to the university after high school but, following her parents’ advice, she completed the business program first. Before she could enroll at a university, she was stricken by tuberculosis, and the subsequent nine-month stay at the sanatorium provided her an education of a different sort. Away from her family and on her own for the first time, she learned to shed her submissive attitude and become more assertive.
After recuperating in the sanatorium, Sone came back to a new house her family had purchased. Life changed abruptly, however, on December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Sone describes the confusion, uncertainty, and fear in her community when the authorities began questioning Japanese and Japanese American citizens. She recalls how the families systematically destroyed any Japanese books, papers, or objects that could create the slightest suspicion.
In February, 1942, Executive Order 9066 decreed the mass evacuation of individuals of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. Those in the Seattle area were asked to report to the state fairground from where they were eventually sent to inland camps. Each person was allowed one seabag of bedding and two suitcases of clothing. Families lost their houses, businesses, and belongings.
Sone and her family reported to a fenced camp that was named Camp Harmony, where she remembers feeling like a criminal who had been convicted without a trial. From May to August they lived in the temporary camp before being moved to Minidoka Camp in Idaho, which was still under construction and lacked even the basic amenities. To make matters worse, there were dust storms in the fall and intense cold in the winter. Life was hard, but the Japanese American community faced the adversity calmly in the hope that their loyalty would eventually be recognized. In 1943 the authorities granted permanent leave to those who had job offers or who had been accepted in colleges and universities. Sone was able to leave for Chicago and later go to college in southern Indiana.
Although Nisei Daughter ends at this point, Sone in a new preface to a 1979 edition provides an addendum. Her brother and sister also left the camp, but her parents were not allowed to return to Seattle until 1946. Sone continued her education at Case Western University, where she earned a degree in clinical psychology. She married Geary Sone, settled in Canton, Ohio, and brought up four children.
Nisei Daughter is a valuable historical document, for it provides a moving account of the manner in which the relocation policy disrupted the lives of ordinary citizens of Japanese origin.