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Nima del Mes

Greg (Quebec, Canada)

Greg Robinson is a noted author and scholar of Japanese and Canadian American history. A native New Yorker, Greg is Professor of History at l'Université du Québec À Montréal, a French-language institution in Montreal, Canada. Greg has contributed nearly 80 articles/essays to Discover Nikkei since 2009, with many published in multiple parts and co-written by other scholars/writers. Most shed light on extraordinary, yet little-known Nikkei, many of which were published in an award-winning anthology, The Unsung Great: Portraits of Extraordinary Japanese Americans. He was previously selected Nima of the Month in October 2013 and September 2018!

You’ve written about so many extraordinary Nikkei. What are some of your favorite stories that you’ve shared?

Among the Nikkei stories I have recounted in my columns, some of my favorites have been about people whom I actually knew personally. I most commonly write about historical figures whom I never met, so it is especially fun for me when I can give my readers a more direct image of a person and what they were like. For example, when I did a portrait of the Japanese Canadian photographer Tamio Wakayama, I mentioned his mordant sense of humor, the shapeless hat he always wore, and his reliance on bicycles for travel.

I took pleasure in telling the story of the trip I took in 2006 to visit the Nisei sculptor Shinkichi Tajiri at his castle in the Netherlands, and discovering that the renowned artist, whom I expected to be an austere figure, had a delightfully impish (and occasionally risqué) personality. I wish now that I had described the dedication ceremony for one of Shinkichi’s public sculptures that I attended during the visit, which featured news media and speeches by Dutch notables, or the casual but convivial dinner party he held in his courtyard, with food taken out from a local Indonesian/Chinese eatery.

While I did not mention my friendship with the activist Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga in my portrait of the “godmother of the redress movement,” my narrative was flavored by some stories that I learned directly from her—such as her amazing dedication in visiting the National Archives every day, without pay, for years to uncover and collect documents relating to Japanese American confinement. I might also have mentioned Aiko’s remarkable modesty: she would often say things like “Greg, I have so much to learn from you,” which would leave me so humbled that all I could do in response was to stammer that she had forgotten more than I would ever know.

Who would you like to write about in the future?

There are still enough unexplored areas of Nikkei history that the problem for me lies less in finding things to write about than in choosing among potential areas of study for my columns. One area I would really like to explore more is the lives of the Sansei.

It seems to me that each generation has had to come to terms with their own group experience and its importance. So many Issei were reluctant to speak of their experience and the hardships they had encountered. Conversely, I met any number of Nisei who stated that their parents’ history of immigration and building a life in their new country was heroic, and that their generation had no comparably noteworthy narrative. Now I find Sansei who claim that the Nisei story of mass confinement, resettlement, and recovery was the epic one, while their own group was unremarkable in comparison.

To be sure, the mass of Sansei grew up in the shadow of a family wartime experience that was not theirs, but it shadowed their lives. Perhaps as a result, many leaders of the redress movement were Sansei. In addition, the Sansei were better able to take advantage of job and educational opportunity in order to build a legacy of achievement both within the community and the larger society. I would be very interested in exploring the contours of this group’s experience.

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