Set mostly in pre—Civil Rights era Georgia, the novel accurately portrays the treatment of Japanese Americans in the United States in the 1950s. Though they are U.S. citizens, the Japanese American characters in Kira-Kira are continuously treated as outsiders and excluded from mainstream society. In several instances, the Takeshimas encounter people who do not even recognize them as Japanese; at the motel, the front-desk woman assumes they are Indian or Mexican, and when Katie starts school the other students ask if she is Chinese or Japanese. They cannot compete with whites for the same jobs, they are relegated to special sections for "colored people," and are generally regarded with suspicion. The characters experience others' racism as alienating and isolating. Interestingly, even though much of the novel is set in the South, there is no mention of African Americans or any other ethnic groups who might share similar life experiences with the Japanese Americans. Although the novel does not express any direct opinions about whites as a group, the characters who are not Japanese are viewed with suspicion and often portrayed as less caring or thoughtful than the Japanese characters.
The novel is concerned with the question of identity on many levels. Katie and her family are Japanese Americans living in the American South of the 1950s. Although she was born and raised in the United States, Katie often struggles to reconcile her Japanese upbringing with the customs and traditions of her native country. The question of identity is also explored in regard to gender roles—in Katie's case, the question of what it means to be a woman. Katie's mother often berates her and her sister for not being feminine enough because they are growing up in the United States. She tells them that she will send them to Japan to become properly feminine, and she curls Katie's hair in pin curls and dresses her in a party dress on the first day of school. Katie, who is changing from a young girl to an adolescent, wonders about what it means to be feminine. She is annoyed by Amber and Lynn's preening and gossiping about boys, but she also wants to be a part of it.
Identity is also explored in terms of the role that a person occupies within a family. Even though Katie is a middle child whom others sometimes see as irresponsible or childish, she lifts the family out of the depression caused by Lynn's death. It is she who takes over housekeeping and cooking chores while her parents are working overtime to pay the mortgage and Lynn's medical bills, and she takes care of Sammy just as well as Lynn took care of her. Various definitions of identity evolve throughout the novel; its meaning changes according to the life experiences of the characters.
Love and Kinship
Despite the many hardships the Takeshimas endure in the novel, their love for one another maintains a strong spirit and a willingness to continue living. Love is primarily expressed in the relations between the family members, communicated in the ways they make sacrifices and care for one another, the lessons they teach each other, and even in the legacies they leave behind. The Takeshimas also show love in their ability to see beauty and good in the world, even when the dark and unpleasant side of life seems most prominent. Mr. Takeshima works tirelessly at two jobs to support the family, but he never questions whether the sacrifice is worth it. The children save the nickels their father gives them for snacks, planning to help pay for the house and eventually saving one hundred dollars. Uncle Katsuhisa shares his secret grief over a lost infant son to help Katie gain perspective on the loss of her sister. The characters also perceive love as a saving force. At the beginning of the novel when Katie is chased by a dog, Lynn protects her and is attacked by the dog. Katie comes to her rescue by throwing a bottle of milk at the dog. In the sisters' different accounts of the story, each speaks...
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