Book Review: “Relocating Authority” with the Written Word

Densho Content Director Brian Niiya reviews Relocating Authority: Japanese Americans Writing to Redress Mass Incarceration by Mira Shimabukuro (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2015). Join the author and Densho Director Tom Ikeda for a reading and conversation on May 5 at Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum of the Asian American Experience. Event information here

As someone with a fear of English majors—or perhaps literary theory—I approached this book warily. But I’m happy to report that, while challenging, Mira Shimabukuro’s Relocating Authority: Japanese Americans Writing to Redress Mass Incarceration is ultimately a rewarding and informative read that takes the reader to some unexpected places.

It is based on the author’s 2009 PhD dissertation from the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Department of English. She writes that she draws on work in “composition and rhetoric, new literacy studies, multicultural rhetorics, and Asian American studies.” Scary stuff! She adds two new chapters in the book to the five in the dissertation.

Relocating Authority is about the writing of Japanese American inmates in the World War II concentration camps. As series editor (of the Nikkei in the Americas Series for the University Press of Colorado), Lane Hirabayshi points out in the foreword to this book that much of what we know about the concentration camps come from “the very agencies responsible for planning, constructing, and then managing the camps” with even many of the contemporaneous voices of Japanese Americans being mediated ones such as those found in the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS). Shimabukuro plumbed the archives—much of her source material comes from the Japanese American National Museum (JANM)—to find unmediated Japanese American writing: letters, diaries, petitions, and the like. Influenced by decades of literature on the incarceration that either omits stories or resistance or claims they were very rare, she is surprised to find this writing indicates otherwise, that much of it can be viewed as what she calls ” writing-to-redress,” “the codification of a desire to set right what is wrong or to relieve one’s suffering from the psychological and physical imposition of forced ‘relocation’ and incarceration.”

The first three chapters are introductory: outlining her theoretical framework, describing her research methodology, and providing the background of how writing fit into concentration camp life. She also pays homage to two of her important influences, Michi Weglyn and Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, whose archival research challenged the mainstream/JACL view of the camp experience. She also writes insightfully of what she calls the “shikataganai/gaman cluster,” reframing the terms to move beyond the standard understanding that they connote a passive acceptance but that they also include elements of resistance and concern for others.

The core of the book is the next three chapters, one on private writing and two on public writing. She draws on this alternate view of “gaman” in her analysis of the private writing of letters and diaries, finding that these writings often served to organize the writers’ thoughts about their situation, express dissent, and shape their awareness of the hardships of others. Among the examples she uses are writings by such well-known figures as Yoshiko Uchida, Yuri Kochiyama, and Toyo Suyemoto, and the excerpts she uses provide interesting glimpse of other sides of these figures. She next turns to public writing such as collective letters and petitions, finding a good number of them, which further challenges the idea that resistance was rare. After theorizing the ways that such writing generates authority, she applies the concepts to an analysis of the bulletins of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee.

Though this is an academic book, dense with footnotes and citations, Shimabukuro incorporates memoir in inserting her and her family’s story into the narrative. She writes of the influences of her parents, particularly her father, well-known journalist and activist Robert Shimabukuro, recounting childhood memories of growing up at meetings and in offices, forever cognizant at some level of Japanese American community dynamics as the Redress Movement swirled around her. This mixture of scholarship and autobiography brings to mind sociologist Harry H.L. Kitano, whose own incarceration experiences both enlivened and brought greater insight to his work on Japanese Americans.

This approach is particularly effective in the last two chapters. One of the new chapters, on a petition protesting the draft of their sons by a group of mothers at Minidoka is the highlight of the book. The story is fascinating. Included as part of JANM’s America’s Concentration Camps exhibition in 1992 and in the book documenting that exhibition by its curator Karen Ishizuka, Shimabukuro writes of discovering its backstory. She first finds reference to it in the voluminous online JERS archive, in the notes of fieldworker James Sakoda. She then searches Densho’s Digital Archive of interviews and, remarkably, finds an interview with the daughter of one of the petition writers, who it turns out is someone her father and step-mother know. (Shimabukuro’s step-mother, Alice Ito, also conducted many interviews for Densho.) She writes of how she struggled with this chapter, but found herself able to write it only after she herself got pregnant, which allowed her to newly identify with the mothers writing the petition. I won’t give away the story here, but it is a remarkable one that is well told.

(One small quibble here: though Shimabukuro is well-read with regard to the literature on Japanese Americans and the wartime incarceration, she doesn’t cite Cherstin Lyon’s research on a similar petition by mothers at Topaz.)

She ends by arguing that “writing-to-redress matters not just because of what it illuminates about the past but because of what it can generate anew,” citing the impact of these resistance narratives on people like filmmaker/journalist Frank Abe and poet Mitsuye Yamada as well as herself. She deftly ends by positioning herself and the book as part of the very legacy she describes.

For the layperson unfamiliar with the many works of literary scholarship cited, it is a challenging book. But it is ultimately rewarding: insightful in creating a framework for understanding Japanese American concentration camp writing, mindful of the writings’ continued impact, and containing many new and interesting stories. But most of all, surprisingly, it is quite moving, a word I’ve seldom used to describe academic writing. It is an admirable addition to the Japanese American literature of resistance.

2 Comments
    • 22/04/2016 at 18:00

    Brian, nice piece. Who is the woman in the archival photograph?

  1. Natasha Varner
    • 22/04/2016 at 18:23

    Thanks, Frank! Not sure who the woman is but here’s a link to the original photo: http://ddr.densho.org/ddr/densho/37/688/

Leave a Reply