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Writing-to-Rediscover & Writing-to-Redress—Mira Shimabukuro Visits JANM





Reading Mira Shimabukuro’s newly released book Relocating Authority (2016) is to travel back. Back to WWII and back to your own high school history lessons, in which you learned that barring a few outliers, Japanese Americans walked quietly and cooperatively into the barracks with great suffering and little complaint. Not because they did not suffer, but because, as one well-known New York Times columnist wrote in 2011, “Japanese people themselves were truly noble in their perseverance and stoicism and orderliness…Uncomplaining, collective resilience is steeped in the Japanese soul.”1 That is, that Japanese Americans, like their ancestors, bear hardship quietly and passively. This book seeks to join the throng of new voices that contest this narrative of the quiet model minority, and revive the legacy of Nikkei resistance to incarceration.

From within the academic field of composition and rhetoric, Shimabukuro strives to demonstrate how spoken silence does not imply acceptance or complicity; and that by listening intently to the thousands of voices that scream and muse and despair over their WWII imprisonment so plainly through diaries, poems, and draft-resisting committee manifestos, we are able to discern deeper patterns of resistance.

Why did you write this book?

In a recent interview with Discover Nikkei, the author explained that despite some early insecurities, she grew up surrounded by two starkly contrasting realities—that of everyday lived examples of Nikkei redress activism performed by her father and stepmother, and that of glaring evidence that Asian American activism was not reflected in the mainstream version of American history. Even upon entering her PhD at the University of Wisconsin Madison, she continued to find that Nikkei voices were relegated to the background when represented at all.

This book, she says, seeks to join contemporary voices like George Takei’s Allegiance that are filling that rhetorical silence. “I’m trying to help redress both the idea that most incarcerated Nikkei didn’t “talk back” to the oppression they faced and the mistaken notion that prior to the awakening of collective consciousness in the late 1960s, early 1970s, that Asian American activism—and more specifically Japanese American activism—was non-existent. I’m certainly not the first person to say this,” she adds, “[but] I needed to spell this out again.”

An Activist Legacy

Shimabukuro’s argument, therefore, is that the incarcerated Nikkei did talk back; though not necessarily in the assumed way of public protests. Over the course of her doctoral research, she uncovered hundreds of diaries, bulletins, agendas, letters, and other amassed private and public documents that were not sanctioned by the War Relocation Authority (WRA). As any lay reader might see in the poem below, the writings reveal myriad individual voices who were vocally silent, but nonetheless actively contemplating, rationalizing, and above all thinking deeply and critically about the means of their racial oppression. One such poem that jumps from the page is below. In the early days of the Poston, AZ, camp, one women wrote a poem in direct response to a mass demonstration, rejoicing privately in her fellows’ defiance.

                        “I saw my people as dead since the war

                        Come to life today:

                        “Before God, we’ve still got some human rights!

                        ’Tis better to die fighting than die like this

                        Caged beasts, meekly cowed by men

                        Who flaunt democracy but deign to give an ounce…


                        Kneel ye before thine own judgement throne

                        Who is to say American is thine or mine?”

—Sugino, 1942. Writing about a mass demonstration
inside the Poston, AZ camp

Another personal diary, written by a young Nisei only months from being deployed, exhibited a different conclusion about Nikkei imprisonment. “FIRST OF ALL, DO I THINK THAT IT WAS CONSTITUTIONAL? NO I DO NOT…DO I THINK RACIAL PQEDD PREJUDICE WAS INVOLVED? YES I DO…HOWEVER…I PERSONALLY WILL PROCEED TO FORGET THE WHOLE MESS, WILL TRY TO BECOEM A GREATER MAN FROM HAVING GONE THRU SUCH EXPERIENCES, KEEP MY AMERICA” (Hayami, June 6, 1943) The entry was written “a couple of months before Hayami joined the military and subsequently died overseas.” (93)

I don’t know the story behind [many of these] notebooks,” Shimabukuro admitted in our interview, “but being able to touch that paper and think about the activism these kinds of documents suggest brings me great satisfaction as we Asian Americans continue to be told, directly and indirectly, that we don’t have an activist legacy;” Or an activist legacy that is common to all members of the Nikkei community. As Shimabukuro notes in the book, Issei, Nisei, women and men all played significant roles in what she calls “writing-to-redress” the wrongs of imprisonment.


The greatest contribution of this book, though, is perhaps the author’s refreshing re-interpretation of the word “gaman;” that same word the New York Times columnist used to further explain the “uncomplaining, collective resilience” of Japanese people and that reappears constantly in the debate about the nature of Japanese American response to incarceration. As Shimabukuro is so critical of the culturalist translation of gaman as “passive silence and endurance,” I asked her how she sought to reimagine this concept, while simultaneously avoiding the stereotype of the compliant, passive incarceree. In the true form of a comp/rhet scholar, her answer is that there is never only one meaning. Depending on who is using it and who is hearing it, the Japanese concept of gaman is capable of both generating and suppressing resistance to authority.

“Words and terms are always interpreted and re-interpreted by those that use them, and with each interpretation, a slight difference in meaning is possible,” she says. “So if incarcerated Nikkei grew up hearing gaman again and again, some, of course, perceived this as a call to “suck it up” and repress any feelings of rage or sadness in order to avoid an outward expression of complaint.” In these cases, gaman may indeed work to suppress both written and verbal resistance. “But,” she continued, “I [also] wanted to consider the ways in which incarcerated Nikkei may have also perceived it as ‘Don’t let them break you. We gotta get through this because the same situation’ and then expressed their rage and sadness and concern for others in private through writing.” The collective endurance of gaman, so often used to explain the collective endurance that leads Japanese people to ‘submit’ to oppression, “can also be understood as a way to develop inner strength for the future” through writing. Especially given these cultural tropes of silence through gaman, Shimabukuro asks us repeatedly to consider “the rhetorical possibilities of silence, or the ways outward silence can be intentional, even resistant” in the Japanese American community.

Reactivating a Written Legacy

The legacy of writing-to-redress in WWII camps, the author argues, presents new possibilities for critically reimagining the role of women in camp resistance, “the translingual ways we use language” across and within generations, and in “relocating authority” from the WRA back to the people—read: our people—who created their own authority to write and to speak without permission. In my final question to her, I asked Shimabukuro what this new interpretation of gaman, and these revelatory new written sources from within the camps, leave us in the contemporary Asian American movement.

Her answer was simple. “Writing-to-redress matters not simply because of what it can instigate in the present but also because of what it can enable in the future. I use the metaphor of a seed [in the book] and explain that even when writing-to-redress does not ‘take root,’ in the conditions of its own time” and generate a reaction from the oppressive power, “it ‘remains…a fertile carrier of possibility” into present day; traveling forwards again to our own history lessons and her own cultural rhetoric classes at the University of Washington Bothell.

On May 13, 2017 at 2 p.m., Mira Shimabukuro will be visiting the JANM for a moderated discussion of her book and legacies of writing-to-redress. Admission is free with museum admission and open to the public. Q&A will follow the discussion.


1. Sympathy for Japan, and Admiration


© 2017 Japanese American National Museum

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