Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 613

Two important themes are central to an understanding and appreciation of the poem: movement or relocation and the larger issue of the clash of Japanese ethnicity with American culture.

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The bird imagery in the poem, beginning with the screech of seagulls at the dock when Grandfather Uyemura meets his future wife, symbolizes the flight that characterizes the grandfather’s life: immigration, return to Japan for a bride, return to America to seek his fortune, forced relocation in the internment camp, and return to his homeland. Putting down roots in a new country has not been possible for Grandfather Uyemura (although there are indications that it will be for his son), whose adult life has been marked by a continual pattern of flight. He is like the origami crane that he himself designs.

As the poem’s title, “relocation” names what once must have been Grandfather Uyemura’s sought-after personal goal. By the end of the poem some twenty years later, though, his return to his place of birth and to composing a verse form that is particularly Japanese indicate that American culture has not assimilated him and that he has settled on his culture of origin as his ethnic identity. As early as stanza 2, “pale ghosts” are gathering, which may be read as hakujin, or white people, that surround the Japanese couple in America. (The practice of labeling non-Asian people as “ghosts” is given extensive treatment in the works of another Asian American writer, Maxine Hong Kingston.) On a less literal level, the pale ghosts could symbolize the ghosts of the grandfather’s Japanese ancestors who will not let him rest until he returns to his home and his heritage.

Confined by Caucasian guards in the camp, Grandfather Uyemura outwardly submits to hard physical labor on one hand, but on the other hand silently defies his imprisonment, which he will not allow to break his spirit. He keeps his gaze on the “west,” toward Japan, and mutters under his breath “Baka” to the guard. Mura does not gloss this Japanese expression, which is slang for “idiot” or “dumbbell.” The grandfather is not giving in, and Mura also seems resistant toward catering too much to a non-Japanese reader.

Grandfather Uyemura has long cultivated the earth—as a field hand working to buy his greenhouse, then in the camp working a mule-driven plow. He has perhaps pruned the bonsai tree, which he writes about in his haiku, as he has nurtured his American orchids and roses. It is ironic, Mura implies, that the grandfather, at the hands of white America, has not been tended and nurtured with equal care and respect. His belief that “the Buddha always ate well” is at once a retort to his son’s Christian crucifix that bears a gaunt and dying Jesus and a justification for himself, emaciated and aged, to return to Japan.

Subsequent to appearing in Breaking Silence: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Poets (1983) as one of hundreds of poems written by fifty Asian American poets, “Relocation” appeared in Mura’s first book of poetry, After We Lost Our Way (1989), under the title “Suite for Grandfather & Grandmother Uyemura: Relocation.” The more recent version uses richer and more enigmatic imagery and shows Grandfather Uyemura contemplating remarriage after returning to Tokyo. The rest of the narrative lines, including the final haiku, are retained, however.

Mura discusses his own writing and concerns in his prose autobiography, Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei (1991). Awarded a writing grant that allowed him to spend 1984 in Japan, Mura describes his own search for cultural identity. The book is a meditation on difference and assimilation as well as a telling portrait of modern Japan.

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