Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest: Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians in the Twentieth Century
November 4, 2013
Review By Yuko Shibata
This long-awaited book emerged from a May 2000 conference entitled “The Nikkei Experiences in the Pacific Northwest.” The conference was organized by the Department of History at the University of Washington (UW) in conjunction with the celebration of Gordon Hirabayashi, the university’s distinguished alumnus of the College Book of Arts and Sciences for the year 2000. On 16 May 1942, Hirabayashi, a senior at UW, had challenged the Constitution of the United States by refusing to accept Executive Order 9066, which called for the incarceration of 110,000 Japanese Americans based on their ethnic origin.
I participated in this exciting conference, where I rekindled ties with my former advisor – Gordon’s younger brother Jim Hirabayashi – and met scholars, community activists, and Nikkei researchers (Nikkei are people of Japanese descent). We were a truly diverse group. Some of us had participated in local Nikkei community building by reviving the Japanese performing arts of Taiko drumming, by collecting oral histories to preserve Nikkei history and culture, or by serving as teachers and research scholars in different disciplines. The editors of Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest describe us as “an eclectic group” of sociologists, educators, attorneys, historians, and artists “whose backgrounds in architecture, anthropology, law, ethnic studies, literature, music, religion, documentary film making, oral history, and the visual arts” inform our presentations (xi). Both Nikkei and non-Nikkei participants were attracted to the conference because of an interest in the experiences of Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest (the states of Oregon and Washington and the Province of British Columbia) and a desire to share this knowledge and experience with future generations. I was particularly curious to see whether a book such as this could capture the spirit and energy that I had experienced at this multidisciplinary international conference.
A brief but comprehensive introductory essay by Fiset and Nomura prepares readers for an exploration of the histories of Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians in the region. The following thirteen essays explore varieties of Nikkei experience, including their resistance to the legalized racism and discrimination that almost erased the Nikkei from the United States and Canada during the prewar and Second World War years. The themes of Nikkei survival and importance to Pacific Northwest history are key concepts that reverberate through the essays in the collection.
Most authors focus on prewar community building. Some tell stories of Nikkei survival through adapting and altering their host community’s values and customs while establishing their own place in the region. Others depict the impact of the Pacific War on Nikkei communities, families, and individuals by delving into Nikkei as a collective group and as individuals. Writers reflect on, and reassess, the effects of Nikkei community politics during the war, including the complex intracommunity dynamics that shape the Nikkei community even today. James Hirabayashi’s essay on four Nisei cousins is a good example. By presenting their life histories, he vividly illustrates how each cousin (his elder brother Gordon included), born and raised in the vicinity of Seattle, differed on the question of American citizenship during the Second World War – a time when such a question determined not only their own destiny but also that of their families.
A well-known Nikkei scholar, Roger Daniels, skillfully argues that the commonly used terms “internment” and “relocation” are inappropriate when referring to the uprooting of the Japanese Americans during the Second World War. He points out that the term “incarceration” should be used for the government’s treatment of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066, which violated the rights of Japanese Americans. Daniels also suggests how the meaning of terms has changed over time and urges us to use the correct language for Nikkei history. It was a pleasant surprise to learn from his essay that the first academic conference that sought to bring justice to the Nikkei following their wartime experiences was held in 1967.
Four of the thirteen essays explore Canadian experiences: Andrea Geiger-Adams’s essay focuses on Tomekichi Homma’s 1902 legal challenge to British Columbia’s Provincial Voters Act; Michiko M. Ayukawa reconstructs the lives of Nikkei in the Fraser Valley from the 1920s to the 1940s through the writings of Yasutaro Yamaga, an instrumental figure in establishing the berry farm industry in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley; Patricia E. Roy investigates a question of Canadian citizenship by analyzing the delayed return of the Japanese Canadians to the Pacific coast in 1949, four years later than the return of Japanese Americans; and Masumi Izumi focuses on the development that took place in Vancouver’s Powell Street area in the 1970s and examines factors that explain how the Nikkei effected the cultural revitalization and reconstruction of Vancouver’s postwar Japanese Canadian community.
The collection suffers from limited Canadian content and a failure to extend much beyond the level of historical description. Despite this, readers will enjoy the book and learn a great deal about the experiences of the Pacific Northwest Nikkei. Those who would like to explore the subject further might start by checking the web pages of the Densho Project at http:// www.densho.org/ or the Japanese Canadian National Museum at www. jcnm.ca. Those interested in Nikkei experience at the global level should go to the Discover Nikkei site at www. discovernikkei.org.