“The Great Japanese American Novel”

Review of BORN IN THE USA: A STORY OF JAPANESE AMERICA, 1889-1947. By Frank Chin. (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002. 501 pp. hardcover, $80.00; softcover, $29.95).

Reviewed by Frank Abe
published in Amerasia Journal, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2004

book cover: Born in the USAA story told in Born in the USA has journalists James Omura and Larry Tajiri prowling the hills of pre-war San Francisco late at night, dreaming about which of them would write “The Great Nisei Novel.” It would be an epic that spanned the immigration of their Issei parents and the appearance of the second-generation Nisei as a new breed of American. Little did they know how war with Japan would soon interrupt that social progress and place them on opposite sides of Japanese America’s response to expulsion and incarceration: whether to cooperate or resist.

Frank Chin has devoted a quarter-century of interviews and research to bring just that book to life, and more. Although catalogued under “U.S. History,” this is a bold work of documentary fiction, a fact-novel, that evokes the cultural integrity of the Issei, the youthful optimism of “The Nisei Dream,” and what Japanese America might have become if not for World War II. In this narrative December 7th is not where the story starts; Pearl Harbor instead comes at the midpoint and represents “The Closing Papers” and the loss of innocence and possibility. In this movie the decision by Nisei leaders to pursue assimilation over civil rights, to choose secret collaboration over principled protest, is the pivotal act that betrays Japanese American integrity and frames their subsequent history to this date.

This book is the spiritual descendant of John Okada’s 1957 novel, No-No Boy and Michi Weglyn’s 1976 history, Years of Infamy. Both seethed with voices smothered under the image of the model minority as marketed by the wartime Japanese American Citizens League. Where Okada imagined the tortured mind of a lone resister who could not squeeze himself into the uniform of JACL’s “Better Americans in a Greater America,” Chin shows how real draft resisters with clear principles organized at Heart Mountain under the leadership of grocer and judo master Frank Emi and the Fair Play Committee. Where Weglyn focused on fixing accountability for racial exclusion on the Roosevelt Administration, Chin names the names of the JACL Nisei who collaborated with that regime, quoting memos and military intelligence reports that Weglyn culled from the National Archives and mailed to Chin over the years in hopes he would do the heavy lifting.

The literary model for Born in the USA is John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, which in 1937 experimented with recurring chapters headlined “The Camera Eye” and “Newsreel” that played off the headlines of the day and gave the novelist a voice as an observer on his own characters. Chin uses similar devices to create a tactile sense of growing up Japanese American amid racial paranoia: “American Bijou Presents!” for screenplay clips, “American Bookshelf Presents!” for book excerpts, and “Hot Off The Press!” for newspaper clips. “Mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people,” wrote Dos Passos, and Chin guides his characters to recall folktales from childhood or debate strategies in the Russo-Japanese War. His painstaking transcriptions are not cleaned up or “Americanized.” It is oral history told as a movie, with Frank Emi as “Leader,” James Omura as “Nisei Newsman,” Joe Kurihara as the “Veteran from Hawaii.”

A mention by Ken Takatsui, the “Kibei-Nisei,” of his admiration for Thoreau triggers a cinematic cut to pages from “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” Nisei memories of their first car are twice followed by sections of the owners manual for the Ford Model T. When a race-mongering tract hints that a Japanese military code is hidden in the vegetable prices of the June 16, 1939, Rafu Shimpo newspaper, Chin seeks out and prints the complete Los Angeles market quotations from that date—nine pages in the book—with the note, “If there is (a) coded message here, it is still here” (140). You will find this either a clever satire of racial fears, or just nine pages to skip over.

Every good movie needs a villain, and that role is played in the second half of this book not by the government or white racism, but by “Mike Masaoka: The JACL vs. Japanese America.” After four decades of JACL hegemony in the writing of Japanese American history, Frank Chin was the first to draw sharp distinctions and hold Masaoka accountable for his sacrifice of Nisei civil rights through the use of Masaoka’s own words. He made Masaoka’s name speakable again and demystified the legend of “Moses,” the man who led his people into the desert of wartime camps. He shared his knowledge and research with other writers and filmmakers, including myself.

This book convincingly documents the secret relationship JACL cultivated with the government, in chapters headlined “Shhh! Hush! Hush!” after a Glenn Miller song of the period. The author traces how the wartime field executive of JACL systematically sacrificed Nisei civil rights, and even Nisei lives, as proof of Nisei loyalty. Chin zeroes in on a central truth: where the Declaration of Independence claims certain inalienable rights, “According to Mike Masaoka, all rights are alienable—they can be taken away and must be reearned on demand” (235).

Chin argues Masaoka not only led Japanese Americans into camp, he pushed them, in order to fulfill his vision of racial assimilation as the antidote to racism. He exposes JACL policies that urge the use of those camps as indoctrination centers for behavior modification to speed the assimilation of the Nisei into the postwar mainstream. In a chilling comparison to the words of a Jewish collaborator in the Warsaw ghetto, the author asks us to confront the logical extension of such submission to tyranny.

This book presents new details about the JACL’s Faustian pact with the government, such as the recent discovery by Art Hansen, following a lead from Lane Hirabayashi, of FBI reports identifying code names for nineteen informants, at least ten of whom were top JACL officials. With deadpan G-Man precision, the FBI dubbed Mike Masaoka as “confidential informant T-11” and also as “SLC-167” for supplying names of anti-JACL activists at Poston and Manzanar. The information cements the case that JACL crossed the line from patriotic cooperation with proper authorities in the days immediately after Pearl Harbor, to ratting out those on JACL’s enemies list well into 1943 and the establishment of the camps.

Despite its classification, this is not a dispassionate history without an agenda. The author was unable to convince his publisher to market the book as a “documentary novel” in the Dos Passos mode. It does him no disservice to say that Frank Chin despises JACL for betraying the Nisei Dream as much as he despises Kingston, Tan, and Hwang for passing off faked Chinese folktales as real. With his powers as a novelist, Chin shapes his material to fit a single vision, with JACL as antagonist, so readers should be aware of pieces that get left on the cutting room floor:

  • The author rightfully berates JACL for its initial hostility to criminal test cases, including that of the Fair Play Committee. He overlooks JACL’s involvement in the civil habeas corpuscase of Mitsuye Endo, the case that led directly to the closing the camps.
  • The author upbraids Masaoka for opposing individual hearings for the Nisei in camp, but omits mention of Masaoka’s lobbying for hearing boards to determine individual loyalty before the movement to camp.
  • The author wants to catch Masaoka in a lie about an Army “contingency plan” to round up all Nikkei at gunpoint within twenty-four to forty-eight hours, which Masaoka knowingly used to scare Nisei audiences into submission with exclusion. Masaoka overreacted and embroidered the threat with images of “guns, bayonets, and tanks,” and James Omura and Joe Kurihara call him on that. But you can read in Major Karl Bendetsen’s own words confirmation of just such “a plan for immediate evacuation if developments required. . .a complete evacuation, practically overnight, in the event of an emergency” (221), a plan entirely consistent with a military force instructed not to distinguish citizen from alien.
  • The author backs down from his 1981 public accusation—based on his discovery of a 1942 JACL loyalty oath—that JACL invented the infamous Loyalty Oath administered by the government in 1943. Masaoka and others denounced that claim as irresponsible and reckless. Chin now writes only that “the wording of Question 28 was similar” to the JACL version (361). Roger Daniels traces the origin of Question 28 to a long-standing Army questionnaire for aliens who wanted to enlist.

None of this lets Masaoka off the hook, or makes anyone who says so an apologist for JACL. Chin’s insights provoke new lines of inquiry that scholars must pursue in order to put the right name to JACL’s many accommodations and betrayals. What’s missing in his argument is the same context that informs the earlier chapters. Following the Manzanar riot, Masaoka’s memo urging segregation of “known agitators and troublemakers” is damning and wrong, but newspapers up and down the coast were already demanding just that. Were those editorials included as “Hot Off The Press!” sidebars to resonate against Masaoka’s words, we might see a different picture: that of a politician racing to get in front of the parade, rather than the drum major leading it. The literary device that enlivens the first half of the book is denied to the second, giving JACL the appearance of the tail that wagged the dog.

That second half details the battle between JACL, James Omura, and the Heart Mountain resisters for the soul of Japanese America. The book connects the resisters as the last tie to the integrity of the Issei legacy and the Nisei dream, and the curfew resistance of Gordon Hirabayashi, and demonstrates that their refusal to be drafted from inside an American concentration camp was a daring stand against both the government and the JACL.

Little errors annoy, such as giving two different names, both wrong, within the space of four lines for the Bay Region Council for Unity (243), or distorting Masaoka’s tone by adding exclamation points where they don’t exist to passages from his memos and memoirs. More disturbing is how some stories have mutated over time. Where he once wrote that John Okada’s widow burned her husband’s papers after being rejected by UCLA archivists, Chin now imagines the scene this way:

When Okada died in 1971, his wife called the UCLA Japanese American Research Project and offered them a manuscript of her husband’s unfinished novel on the Issei generation and his papers. The JACL’s Joe Grant Masaoka, running the UCLA program, told her to burn the papers, sight unseen. He thought Okada was a No-No boy (472).

Great story, but according to the transcript of Chin’s own 1971-1972 interviews, when asked if she had offered the manuscript to anyone, Dorothy Okada said, “I didn’t try anything. I just threw it out.” When asked if she had offered it to “Asian American Studies,” she said, “I didn’t know there was such a thing.” She only said she wrote a letter to the “Dean of Japanese Language” at UCLA, offering the books and clippings collected as research for the Issei manuscript, received no reply, and “just threw it out” on her own. And while Joe Grant Masaoka did run JARP, he died in 1970.

Make no mistake—this is a brilliant achievement, the product of decades of inquiry from a great American storyteller who taught us the importance of recovering our buried or falsified histories. It should be required reading for all classes, raising the issues that must now be addressed in any discussion about the camps. During the redress campaign, Frank Chin recruited volunteers by threatening that there could be no Japanese American art without the validation of an authentic Japanese American history. He has given us both. This is “The Great Nisei Novel” as imagined by the Chickencoop Chinaman.

Read it as a novel for the underlying truths it reveals. Read it as non-fiction for the interviews and documents. Born in the USA invites, and defies, Japanese America to rise up and make use of the material it puts on the table. Just be sure to check the facts.

Frank Abe
Producer, Writer, Director, “Conscience and the Constitution” (PBS, 2000) www.Resisters.com

Review © 2004 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

Order BORN IN THE USA online using this direct link to Amazon.com.

This review appears in the special “A Tribute to Miné Okubo” issue of Amerasia Journal, Volume 30:2, 2004. The back issue is available for $15 plus tax/shipping and can be ordered online here, or from: UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 3230 Campbell Hall, Box 951546, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1546. For more information, call (310) 825-2968.

PBS film and two hours of new bonus features on the largest organized resistance to the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans