By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
“It speaks to something we all know—that places are important to people—and reminds us of the changing nature of places and the fragility of their communities,” said Gregory Masao Tanbara in the forward to the newly published book, “Becoming Nisei: Japanese American Lives in Prewar Tacoma.”
Written by Lisa M. Hoffman and Mary L. Hanneman, with a grant from the Scott and Laurie Oki Series in Asian American Studies, and published by University of Washington Press, the book tracks the history of first and second generation Japanese and Japanese Americans (the Nisei’s gaining citizenship and the Issei not) who lived in Tacoma prior to World War II and the incarceration. Through extensive interviews, and other related resources, the book’s authors piece together the history and present at the same time. It’s a history of too-forgotten presence in a city that many once assumed would become one of the greatest shipping hubs of the West Coast, and a present of those whose formation happened there.
“We are exploring a place where that which has been ‘collectively forgotten’ may reemerge, disrupting the selective memories presented by cities, their makers, and the visible urban landscape. In other words, this project…might produce a flash of recognition that destabilizes structural forgetting,” explains the authors. The book starts with this kind of sociological conversation, which can be daunting, yet really boils down to places as well as people who make us who we are, and both live in our memories. Sometimes, as in the case of the Issei and Nisei, those memories end up being almost all we have.
The presence of Japanese immigrants and their families in Tacoma before WWII is often overlooked after, similarly to the treatment of the Chinese in Tacoma, these residents were systematically pushed out by the city’s white establishment, and by a government that questioned their loyalty. It was a presence informed by the places the parents worked—hotels, markets, the timber industry—and the places their children frequented, such as Tacoma’s Japanese Language School (TJLS).
Looking at the maps provided in the book, and hearing the testimonies of Issei and Nisei, we come to understand how integral they were to the city’s life and character, and how it is still a part of all of our history. For the children—and for the parents, too, as few of them had automobiles in those early days—it is largely a walking history. This idea that memories were formed by walking, is one of the most charming in the book. It’s something relatable for many of us who come from places that have undergone significant change. The buildings on those streets may have altered, but those streets are still in our blood.
The book discusses in depth the challenges Issei and Nisei faced as ambassadors of Japan, at the same time they endeavored to integrate into American society. The Issei of that time were expected to represent their home country—there was regular communication between the Meiji government and the Japanese population here—and act as a “bridge” to settling in the States. (The concept of a “bridge” is found in contemporary correspondence, yet the authors prefer using the word “bridging” to emphasize what was a many-layered process).
This connection to the home country complicated things, yet efforts to embody the values important to them—summed up as “shushin” or ethics—gave Tacoma’s Japanese residents a sense of togetherness, and perhaps hope. They hoped that, by being model Japanese, they would also be model Americans, and thus gain acceptance. According to a quote by then Japanese Consul in Seattle Tokichi Tanaka, “inculcating the Japanese spirit,” in the Nisei in particular, through instruction from their elders and language schools, would “give them a sense of identity as Japanese, and enable them to overcome the ill effects of exclusionism and the myriad of other difficulties they encountered in their lives in America.”
The primary position of TJLS, as a gathering place and vessel of Japanese culture and language, is the subject of much of the book.
Ran by Masato and Kuniko Yamasaki, TJLS was unique compared to other Japanese language schools in the U.S. in that it did not have a religious affiliation. The focus on TJLS crystallizes for the reader the special quality of the Japanese community in Tacoma. Per the authors’ conjecture, and that of other scholars, this uniqueness was caused by “the connections between population size and the lack of other large ethnic groups living nearby.” One interviewee, Kazuo Horita, described it as “feeling like a family.” It distinguished Tacoma’s Japanese from those elsewhere. “How come you Tacoma people are so close together?” Horita’s San Francisco mother-in-law asked him.
Interviewee Kimiko Fujimoto said, “I always felt that we were one of the lucky ones, because our community was so united, and we all knew each other and we helped each other. Whereas in California, and even in Seattle, the population of the Japanese was so much larger, that they didn’t have that privilege of being united.” Tacoma’s Nisei still have reunions today, and they continue to be impressed by their special closeness. Interviewee Ryo Munekata commented, “There’s a few of us left that still remember Tacoma. And I think it was a small community. So it’s not like growing up in Los Angeles…I get the feeling their reunions are not great like ours.”
Underlying all of this—this feeling of closeness, this community-wide effort to maintain a strong identity, while also fitting into the fabric of their new lives—is the looming shadow of what we know is coming—their exclusion, their exile, their incarceration—and the fact that all of these memories will lie only in their heads and hearts, as much of their physical presence in prewar Tacoma is erased. Some interviewees admitted their closeness might have made them “too” inclusive, yet this is no excuse for their treatment at the hands of a racist majority during WWII.
This is not a beach read, but it’s not a difficult one either. “Becoming Nisei” is a worthy addition to the bookshelf of any Washington resident. The interviews provide a warm character to the authors’ dedicated research, and the many other sources cited help complete the picture of an important part of all of our history. There are photos and reminisces collected here that might otherwise be hard to find all in one place. “Becoming Nisei” provides more much-needed proof of the importance of Japanese and Japanese Americans in the United States. It places their past solidly in all of our memories—not just theirs—and gives us a window into who they are today.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.