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Sunday, May 13, 2001

Portrait of California's nisei generation brings out diversity

GROWING UP NISEI: Race, Generation, and Culture among Japanese Americans of California, 1924-49, by David K. Yoo. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000, 180 pp., no price.

The experiences of second-generation Japanese Americans -- the Great Depression, world war, postwar prosperity and Cold War -- spanned much of the 20th century. Historians of the nisei have, understandably, concentrated on the most dramatic and tragic episode in Japanese-American history: the incarceration of 120,000 alien parents and citizen children during the Pacific War.

David Yoo believes there has been too much emphasis on the internment, which has foregrounded the group's victimization to the exclusion of an awareness of the "rich subculture" the nisei created on the West Coast in the 1920s and '30s.

Further, he thinks that the nisei's assimilationist image -- their acceptance of internment and their drive to become "200 percent Americans" after the war -- belies the complexity of their response to their ambivalent position as a racial-ethnic minority in prewar America, as well as to their wartime dislocation.

In "Growing Up Nisei," Yoo recaptures the economic and political concerns of California's emergent nisei generation through a discussion of its education, religious institutions and English-language press. The nisei's schooling was divided between Japanese-language schools, which prepared them for jobs only in the ethnic economy and reinforced ties with their parents' generation, and public schools where strategies of Americanization and the promotion of democratic principles clashed with prejudice in the wider society. This latter contradiction became even more pronounced in the schools established by the War Relocation Authority in the internment camps.

Nisei Buddhist "churches," while becoming more Protestantized, tied the younger generation to the racial-ethnic community; Christian organizations like the Young People's Union Church and the Japanese Student Christian Association, while fostering relations with the broader community, increased a sense of racial-ethnic identity.

This sense of separateness was also expressed in the three themes that Yoo finds dominant in the expanding prewar nisei press: the racial responsibility to succeed; social solidarity, noted especially in the encouragement of in-group dating and marriage; and racial victimization as a result of the conflation of Japanese and Japanese Americans in the public mind after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937.

In school, in church or temple, and in the newspaper they wrote for and read, the prewar nisei were forced to ask questions about opportunity, belonging and identity that reached crisis dimensions with the coming of war and evacuation.

In the camps, interfaith groups uniting Buddhists and Christians provided forums for discussion of vital issues of loyalty and resistance, while newspapers, especially the few outside the camps like the Denver-based Rocky Shimpo, provided information from the outside world and opinions on the loyalty questionnaire, service in the armed forces and other important questions faced by the internees.

Yoo's theme of the diversity of perspective among the nisei culminates in the affecting final chapters of the book. Writers/editors Larry and Guyo Tajiri worked on the Japanese American Citizens League's newspaper Pacific Citizen after its move to Salt Lake City with the coming of war. Larry, while supporting the JACL's accommodationist stance on internment, placed the forced removal of issei and nisei in the larger context of race in America; Guyo, writing as "Ann Nisei," addressed issues of second-generation women. James Omura, on the other hand, opposed internment and sharply criticized the JACL's cozy relationship with the government. And, to a greater extent, Charles Kikuchi's life histories, part of the large Japanese [American] Evacuation and Resettlement Study, demonstrate the variety of views among the nisei on the dilemmas of race, identity and democracy as they left the camps.

"Growing Up Nisei" contributes to the growing body of evidence showing the problems with stereotyped images of Asian-American groups. Yoo focuses on nisei creating community institutions and speaking to other nisei. His well-crafted study offers readers the felt thoughts of a minority generation and, importantly for official history, demonstrates again that the internment was not an aberration but an outgrowth of long-standing discriminatory efforts aimed at Japanese Americans.

William J. Clark is an associate professor of American studies at Temple University Japan.

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