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Sunday, Aug. 24, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Voices from the past help explain the present


By A. M. COHEN
SERVING OUR COUNTRY: Japanese American Women in the Military during World War II, by Brenda L. Moore. Rutgers University Press, 2003, $60 (cloth), $22 (paper).

Building on her previous studies of racial issues, gender issues and military sociology, Brenda L. Moore has analyzed and documented an unusual aspect of Japanese-American history. A veteran herself, this professor of the State University of New York (Buffalo) provides a reciprocal macro-micro study of assimilation, looking at in particular the effects that military service had on the lives of a handful of women.

Many studies and much reportage have already been available regarding immigration from Japan and assimilation of Japanese-Americans; Moore makes deft use not only of familiar works by Roger Daniels, Gary Okihiro and others, but also digs deep in archival materials. The macro treatment as background is handled with competence and originality, while the micro studies of the women she interviewed provide the more significant contribution to the fund of knowledge and understanding of the core subject.

This is also a study of the treatment of ethnic minorities by the Federal and local governments at times of national crisis. This issue, now widely discussed in and about the United States, increases the relevance of Moore's work, by giving perspective from which to approach this new-old subject.

In terms of technique, Moore employs historical narrative as a counterpoint to interviews. Nine Nisei (second generation) women were interviewed for the book, and two interviews by the National Japanese American Historical society were also used. Eight of the nine had been in the Women's Army Corps. Moore analyzes the "life course" of her subjects, especially the turning points in their lives. The war and personal experiences during it were, as is evident, of special importance.

Although Moore's ultimate objective was to determine how the wartime experience influenced the lives of these women, the book is also valuable for its treatment of the changes within the Nisei community when it was subjected to extraordinary external forces. Legal, administrative, social, community, and familial obstacles had to be overcome for these women to serve in the forces. The number of Nisei women in the service during the war eventually did not appear to have reached the target of 500.

After introductory and prewar chapters, Moore deals with contradictions and paradoxes of the Nisei women, such as issues of citizenship that they faced and the effects of internment. Recruitment, Women's Army Corps and Army Medical Corps service are examined prior to the concluding chapter on the postwar years. And it is in this final chapter that Moore examines how her subjects fared, what they did and what they thought in the context of the preceding chapters as well as racial and gender changes in postwar America.

Among her conclusions is that military service facilitated upward mobility after the war. The women benefited socially, economically, and politically. "Their voices," Moore writes, "help to dispel the nativistic view of Japanese Americans as foreigners to the United States, and challenges the race and gender stereotypes of Japanese American women." These women were, Moore concludes, "both assertive and determined to take charge of their lives." Finally, the Nisei servicewomen contributed to the social, political and economic status that Japanese Americans enjoy today.



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