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Yellow Soul

“There are many stories untold. Some are lost. Others will come up in the future.”
(Excerpt from “Nodas in America” short story, Yokohama, California by Toshio Mori)

Ever heard of American Nisei writer Toshio Mori? It was by chance that I saw a review of Unfinished Message, in the Japan Times newspaper earlier this year, prompting me to look further into the works of the man who William Saroyan hailed as “the first real Japanese-American writer.”

My reading of Nikkei writers is still cursory: Joy Kogawa (Obasan, etc.), Ken Adachi (The Enemy That Never Was), Kerri Sakamoto (The Electrical Field); Americans like University of California, Berkeley historian Ronald Takaki (Strangers from a Different Shore), Mine Okubo (Citizen 13600), Monica Sone (Nisei Daughter); Hawaiian Milton Murayama’s Five Years on a Rock; John Okada (No-No Boy) and, most recently, Mori’s Yokohama, California and Unfinished Message.

Yokohama, California, Mori’s first collection of short stories, was ready for publishing before America entered World War Two, but was delayed, then finally printed in 1949. Saroyan, an Armenian immigrant, was one of Mori’s biggest supporters.

In the introduction to the 1949 first edition, Saroyan wrote:

“He is a young Japanese, born somewhere in California, and the first real Japanese-American writer. He writes about the Japanese of California. If someone else tried to tell you about them, you would never know them. Even if another young Japanese without Mori’s Eye and Heart told about them, they wouldn’t be what they are in Mori’s little stories. They would be Japanese; in Mori’s stories they are Japanese only after you know they are men and women alive.”

After being interned at the Topaz Relocation Center, Utah (1941-44), Mori worked as a gardener in San Leandro, California, writing in obscurity, until being discovered by young Asians in the 1970s (just as Terry Watada did for Canadian Nisei writer Muriel Kitagawa). He published one other collection in his lifetime, The Chauvenist (1979).

It’s significant that the short story “All American Girl”, (young boys fantasizing about a young Nikkei beauty), stands beside “Slant-Eyed Americans” (about the effects of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on the Nikkei community). “The Seventh Street Philosopher,” an eccentric who surmounts his status as community freak by virtue of his unrelenting humanity. “The Finance Over At Doi’s” is about Satoru Doi, whose dreams of striking it rich on the stock market—the American Dream—fizzles away.

With his remarkable eye and heart, as Saroyan noted, Mori represents a Nikkei community as just American with as much right to be here as any other immigrant group, just with our particular ethnic twist.

While Canadian Nikkei share the experience of internment with our American counterparts, American Nikkei literature represents the experience more dramatically, notably because of a questionnaire given to American Niseis that included these loaded questions:

#27. Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty whenever ordered?

#28. Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power or organization?

Answering “no”, “no” made you a “No-No” boy.

Mori’s Unfinished Message (Heyday Books, Santa Clara University, 2000) a collection of previously published and unpublished work, like any good writing, speaks to that which is universal, not just the Nikkei community.

The Brothers Murata (1944), the previously unpublished novelette written by Mori when he was an internee in Topaz, Utah Relocation Camp, is the jewel of this collection.

The Brothers Murata captures the tension brought about by the issue of loyalty to Japan versus the United States. Those whose trust in America was destroyed by internment, while others saw more clearly, perhaps, the need for a blood sacrifice so that future generation of Nikkei might be able to live without the scourge of racism. There is no explanation about why the story was never before published.

Of the two Murata brothers, Hiro chose to enlist in the U.S. army; Frank, leads the movement against enlisting in the army as long as they are prisoners. Frank, conscious of the young Nisei opposition, is the hero of the story. Younger brother, Hiro, comes off as naive, misguided. (Mori’s own brother, Kazuo, was a sergeant in the U.S. 442nd Nisei Infantry Unit).

In the story, it is messiah-like, “no-no” boy Frank, not Hiro, who says: I want man to live peacefully with one another, and whenever a problem should arise, it should be solved by civil methods… If individuals can comply to the national laws, why cannot nations comply with universal laws?” (pg. 188) or Hiro recalling his father’s words: “Harmony must come from within in order to embrace without.” (pg. 200) Harmony. Blend with the conflict subdue and tame it.

No-No Boy (University of Washington Press, 1957) by John Okada (1923-1971) is as good as any book I’ve ever read. I remember picking up a copy in Seattle about 10 years ago and being astounded. I devoured it. It was the book that I’d been looking for: The angry young man novel, except that this one is of a Nisei, a “no-no boy” who had chosen to go to prison rather than enlist in the U.S. army. Not an Italian-American Brando or Anglo-American James Dean, but yellow like me.

The hero, Ichiro, just turned 25. Having spent the last two years in prison for refusing to enlist in the army, he’s introspective, brooding, an outcast who wants back in but doesn’t quite know how. He drinks, swears, sees clearly through facades. There is a gnawing, visceral cynicism, a groping for hope, a search for place that begins with home. His mother believes Japan never lost the war, his scared father turns to alcohol and his embittered younger brother rushes off to join the army once he turns 18 to atone for his “No-No” brother’s sins.

Ichiro understands that what he did was for the wrong reasons. It was his mother’s fantasies, not his own convictions. After WW2 Seattle’s Nikkei community is fragmented—those who refused to fight; the “good guys” who enlisted; and wiser others who pointed no finger of guilt.

In fact, Okada served in the U.S. army, discharged in 1946 as a sergeant. Afterwards, he enrolled at the University of Washington, got a degree in English literature, went on to Columbia University (1949) where met his wife Dorothy, earned a M.A., returned to Seattle, married, earned a B.A. in Librarianship at U. of W. He worked as a librarian at Seattle Public Library, then as a technical writer for Chrysler’s missile operations of Sterling Township, close to Detroit, where the local Christian church didn’t want Japanese Americans, even U.S. vets. He died of a heart attack at 47.

No-No Boy is a “beat” book, beat with a race message far ahead of its time when yellows then weren’t supposed to be writers. Gardeners, fishermen, farmers, cooks, cleaners, menials, sure; professionals with the understanding they were to serve their ethnic communities (before WW2 Nikkei doctors often got their internship training in Japan, not Canada), OK; but as an Asian writer who has something worthwhile to say to a white-dominated society, 50 years more ignorant of us than it is today, hell no.

No-No Boy jabs you, sometimes catching you on the chin, keeps coming at you, relentless, looking for the openings, faking, countering, hardly giving you time to take a breath.

After WW2, the Nikkei community families were scattered, torn up, mixed up, confused. Who could rejoice over such a hollow victory? Okada, the first Nikkei novelist, died in 1971, his only novel then still undiscovered. (No-No Boy was discovered and reprinted in 1976 by the Combined Asian American Resources Project, Inc., Seattle and San Francisco.) Mori, the first “real” Japanese American writer died in San Leandro, California where he worked as a nursery gardener, at the height of his popularity.

In both cases, their generation, the Niseis, virtually ignored their work; only after a generation of healing and consciousness-raising was the next generation able to champion and give these great literary works the place they deserve.

It’s significant that those of Asian heritage don’t have to go all of the way back to one’s ancestral land to find voices that mirror one’s own. Nor do we have to look exclusively at writers of our respective ethnic communities. The Asian immigrant story is a common one told as well by important writers like Carlos Bulosan (America is in the Heart), who arrived in Seattle in 1930 at 17, with only three years of formal schooling and little English. He did learn English and wrote in his adopted tongue with a passion and fury about the injustices that “white chauvenism” heaped upon Orientals and coloured people.

He died in 1956, never did become American, but said as much about the grim Filipino immigrant experience, victimized by anti-Oriental stereotyping (“Kick the Filipinos Out” drive beginning in 1928, Yakima, Washington; “Repatriation Act”, offered free transportation back to the Phillipines but barred re-entry; Tyings-McDuffie Act of 1934, set a quota of 50 immigrants a year), as our own.

Tapping into this rich heritage of Asian American literature then is one way to better understand the complexities of our place in Canada and, from this vantage point, seeing more clearly who we truly are and where we’re heading.

* First published in the Dec. 2002 / January 2003 edition of the Nikkei Voice newspaper, Toronto, Canada.

© Norm Masaji Ibuki

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