Kuribayashi and Hara: Courage in Defeat

posted in: WWII, WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

To start with, only one lived to tell his tale. Only one could, in subsequent years, collect information from the public record and recollect his actions, thoughts, and emotions at the time. The other left only letters for a stranger from the next generation to discover and pore over, ponder and piece together into an haunting narrative for the twenty-first century. One was a captain in the Navy, remembered for numerous victories and his uncanny knack for keeping his ship afloat. The other was a general of the Army, remembered for his stalwart stand in a single, futile battle.

Yet both men shared the qualities requisite of great military leadership. They were both well-educated, perceptive, and analytical. Both were able to follow orders, as befitted a military officer, yet never blindly. Both would criticize or resist plans they thought misguided or poorly thought-out. Both demanded much of their subordinates and even more of themselves. They earned their men’s undying loyalty, as well as their willingness to die in their service.

General Tadamichi Kurabayashi’s letters from Iwo Jima to his family (and to his military superiors) served as the basis  for Kumiko Kakehashi‘s 2007 book, So Sad to Fall in Battle, which provided the inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s film, Letters from Iwo Jima, of the same year. Captain Tameichi Hara‘s memoir, Japanese Destroyer Captain, was translated into English in 1961 and annotated 1967. The resulting book gave American readers their first (I believe) comprehensive account of the Pacific War from the Japanese perspective. Though published forty years apart, the two books present a singular portrait of military leadership and honor in defeat that speaks to the ages.

Both Kurabayashi and Hara led by example. Like Rickenbacker (discussed elsewhere in this space), they never asked subordinates to do what they wouldn’t first do themselves. This was especially pronounced in Kurabayashi. On volcanic Iwo Jima, he accepted no special privileges to make the privations more bearable: no special meals with multiple plates; no extra water ration. There was virtually no fresh water on Iwo, and what little there was was salty, geothermally heated, and contaminated. Collected rain water was the main water source for Kuribayashi and his men. One canteen per soldier per day (later a half, then a quarter). Kuribayashi took no more. “To wash my face (actually I just wash my eyes), I put the tiniest drops of water in the basin,” he wrote to his wife. “After that Fujita uses it to wash, and we carefully keep whatever’s left over and use it for washing our hands in the toilet.” [28] Kuribayashi worked side-by-side with his men organizing the construction of the island’s defenses. As a commanding general he could have directed the defense from the much more habitable Chichijima nearby. He did not do so. He lived and worked on Iwo with his men the entire eight months they prepared for invasion.

Life on warships in World War II was luxurious compared to Army life in foxholes on Guadalcanal or the caves on Iwo Jima. Yet, while cruising the work was highly regimented and, when battles came, terrifyingly frantic. In the first weeks of the war, Hara was on active sortie with his men for fifty days straight. One sea battle and its aftermath required him to stay at the bridge, on his feet, for 24 hours without a break. Of those, he spent fifteen hours shouting commands every thirty seconds to keep his damaged ship on course. The sailors on Hara’s Amatsukaze, and then Shigure, knew they could count on their captain. And they made sure he could count on them. Hara respected his officers and men. He expected prompt action but not mindless obedience. In just a few months, he turned a loose affiliation of sailors into a cohesive naval unit.

Consequently, Hara was surprised when, after pulling into the Kure naval base for retooling, high command ordered most of his crew replaced. He would have to start training all over again. His task began abruptly on the very first day. He came across his new gunnery officer berating a sailor and striking him with closed fists. Hara called an end to the abuse and dismissed the sailor. Then he took the officer aside and explained his views on discipline: “Maintenance of good teamwork and proper order is not easy. But I have done it without resorting to corporal punishment. It is hard, but worthwhile. If it is too hard for you, report to me for a decision, the next time you are faced with a disciplinary situation.” [89] The officer left disgruntled, but Hara had made his first step toward building a team.

A year later, given a new ship (actually an old tub), Hara put yet another crew through the most rigorous training regimen. He withheld all praise until his men were clear on his high expectations. Then his superior suggested he give the men a movie night as a well-deserved break. Hara demurred, much to the lieutenant commander’s chagrin, and apologized, not quite according to Japanese decorum: “I feel sorry for you, Skipper, having to put up with a son of a bitch like me….” [167] He might as well have been speaking to the crew, who resented the tireless drilling. But after six weeks under his guidance, Hara was confident he “had transformed Shigure‘s sloppy, dispirited crew into a snappy, hard-working team.” [169]

Kuribayashi’s drive earned him early resentment, too, before earning him ultimate respect and loyalty. Some subordinates described his as a “stickler for details,” “aggressive and imperious” in his attitude, and “having too much confidence in his own abilities.” [62] He drove the men like beasts of burden, so intent was he on being prepared for the inevitable invasion. He had them digging scores of defensive installations, fifteen-to-twenty feet below the surface of the volcanic tuff. “We came here to make war, not dig holes,” grumbled both officers and men. [68] In the end, they dug hundreds of bunkers and a dozen miles of tunnels connecting them. In the final months of their lives, these men enjoyed no entertainment, no whiskey, no women. (Unlike other generals, Kuribayashi allowed no “comfort women” for his men.) Yet the general would slip cigarettes into their pockets, gifts “from the Emperor, originally intended for him but which he chose to share with them. By the time the Americans arrived on February 19, 1945, seventy percent of the planned fortifications had been completed–and every one of twenty thousand officers and men were willing to give their lives fighting for their commander.

Kuribayashi’s defense of Iwo Jima was unyielding but also unorthodox. Until August 1944, Japanese doctrine dictated island defense begin at the shoreline. A month earlier, after inspecting every square foot of ground on Iwo, Kuribayashi had already discarded it on his own. He and his men would allow U. S. Marines to come ashore unopposed and mount his defense only after they were massed on the beaches. His troops would defend the island from defensive installations inland. Only by doing so, could they extend the battle and impose maximum cost on the enemy. Victory was not Kuribayashi’s objective, but in prolonging the fight he and his men might push back the date of the fire-bombing of Tokyo. “Exacting the maximum bloodshed from the US forces on Iwo Jima would work to Japan’s advantage in negotiating an end to the war,” he explained to one of his superiors. [45]

Navy officials were furious when they heard his plans. Iwo Jima was their “unsinkable aircraft carrier” capable of sending planes into the air in defense of the Imperial Navy’s ships–never mind that hardly a dozen planes still operated from its three air fields. Ever the good soldier, Kuribayashi assigned part of his men to build pillboxes on the beaches. They would serve as decoys…and would be obliterated in the two-month bombardment that preceded the invasion. “Precise in observation and bold in action,” according to at least one comrade, Kuribayashi was determined to give his men the best possible chance–not for victory, but to not die in vain. [61]

Captain Hara was equally observant, analytical, and bold. Even before the war, he noticed that training torpedoes missed their targets more often than chance would indicate, if Japanese torpedo “doctrine” were correct. Hara studied the matter systematically and developed a new theory, highly technical, that the Imperial Navy later adopted. Time and again in his memoir, he describes himself thinking outside the box, devising a novel tactic for a unique situation. His idea to induce an engine explosion and thereby convince his attackers he had been struck, came on the spur of the moment. It saved his ship and the lives of his men. Likewise his response to Allied “skip-bombing” came to him at the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour–though the problem had been haunting him for months. Intuitiveness enhanced his analytic strengths.

Hara’s innate critical ability led him to enumerate the “blunders” of the Imperial Navy and of himself. He was continually shocked by how uninterested his superiors were in his experience and in his analysis. Indeed, he found their lack of curiosity disturbing, their myopia and mulishness astounding. Composing his book fifteen years after the fact, Hara had the benefit of hindsight and a wealth of documentary evidence with which to make the revisionist case. We don’t know if he were as convinced in his views at the time, in the frenzy of war. Yet Hara is unstinting in sharing his own “blunders” during the war. Indeed, the honesty and modesty of his tone are the most appealing aspects of his writing.

Kuribayashi, too, wrote refreshingly directly, in letters to his wife and children. He recounted his dreams (the kind that enlivened his sleep), responded openly to the subjects of their own letters, shared the details of his discomforts and privations, and yet expressed the joy he was able to find in being alive each day, not thinking about tomorrow. “I want so badly for all of you to be able to live long and happy lives,” he told his wife, Yoshii, more than once. [80] There is so achingly much behind that simple plea.

Kuribayashi did not shrink from speaking truth (his understanding of it) to power. “America is the last country in the world Japan should fight,” he said after a two-year tour of research in the United States for the military. [106] To an Iwo Jima civilian who asked if he would give the Americans “a good thrashing,” Kuribayashi broke all decorum when he replied, “We just haven’t the strength for that. …with things the way they are, there’s just nothing we can do.” [35] In his second month on Iwo Jima, he wrote a report to Imperial General Headquarters, asking that they “urgently appraise the fighting power of the United States, and make efforts to conclude peace after the fall of Saipan.” [44] Most famously, in his final telegram (an expectation of all Japanese commanders facing annihilation), he again shattered expectation, confessing:

…the gallant fighting of the men under my command has been such that even gods would weep. …they have continued to fight bravely though utterly empty-handed and ill-equipped against a land, sea, and air attack of a material superiority such as surpasses the imagination.

These words were “tantamount to whining,” says Kakehashi, and unbecoming an officer and commander. [xx] The offending phrases were changed or omitted in the version published in the newspapers. And it was that very discrepancy that drove Kakehashi’s years-long inquiry…which resulted in her book…which led  to Clint Eastwood‘s award-winning film.

It is the futility of the Kuribayashi’s mission that makes her book–and Hara’s, too–so powerful. “History is written by the winners,” we are taught. But these books are history as told by the losers. They are by and about men who not only were defeated, but saw defeat coming at them from a distance and could do nothing to stop it. They had their ideas to prevent it, but they were cogs in a great (if collapsing) military machine. They had orders to follow. They chose to follow orders they knew were misguided and accepted them with resignation and grace.

But always with a fighting spirit.

The man who never asked his men to do anything he wouldn’t do first, who questioned the value of sacrificing 20,000 soldiers for Iwo Jima, who wrote to his wife, philosophically, “I am past caring about myself and am ready, no matter what,” was yet the same man who wrote up a list of six Courageous Battle Vows that sound as fanatical as any kamikaze pledge we might imagine. Vow no. 2: “We  shall fling ourselves against the enemy, dashing in among them to kill them.” Those are the words of the thoughtful Kurabayashi? No. 5: “We shall not die until we have killed ten of the enemy.” He believed this stuff? “We shall continue to harass the enemy with guerilla tactics even if only one of us remains alive.” Really?

Significantly, Hara indulged in similar language as the noose began to tighten around his neck. Iwo Jima did, in fact, fall, and Okinawa became the final line in the sand (though everyone had to know its fate would be no different). Hara was asked to lead a one-way kamikaze surface fleet attack, but he saw no purpose in it other than suicide and said so. The other captains in the fleet spoke up in agreement. They were over-ruled by high command. Hara gathered his men and explained their task. “Our mission appears suicidal and it is,” he began. “But I wish to emphasize that suicide is not the objective. The objective is victory. You are not sheep whipped to a sacrificial altar. We are lions released in the arena, to devour the enemy gladiators.” [269] These words did not sound like the Hara we had come to know for 250 pages and three years of war.  Then the Hara we know resurfaces. “Do not hesitate to come back alive. …You must not give away your lives cheaply. You are not to commit suicide. You are to beat the enemy!” [270] Perhaps he did not really believe the last injunction, but sensed it was necessary to make the previous three acceptable. Then he became more philosophical, quoting from the Code of Bushido, “A warrior lives in such a way that he is always prepared to die. It does not mean that a warrior must commit suicide for some slight reason. It means that we live so that we shall have no regrets when we must die.” [271]

For twelve glorious minutes, Hara was in a sea battle high. As the American bombers circled and dove, he dodged and weaved and thrilled to the fight. But then something happened so unprecedented as almost to offend Hara. His ship took a torpedo to the hull. Suddenly, he was dead in the water, a commander with his hands tied behind his back. Bombs rained down on the deck, bodies blew up in the air, while he remained untouched. He abandoned the bridge only when the water rose to his knees. The ship’s suction pulled him under, and he believed he was dying. “I resisted and struggled, but the sucking whirlpool of a sinking ship is irresistible. I gave up and passed out, accepting death.” [282] To his credit, Hara was grateful when members of the only surviving Japanese ship rescued him among the survivors. He was happy to be alive, even in defeat.

For Kurabayashi, defeat, in its common understanding, was inevitable. Death was unavoidable. And yet, defeat, as he defined it, was never an option. The lives of 20,000 men would not, could not, be in vain. Kuribayashi willed himself to believe that their inland defense with Six Courageous Vows would save lives on the Home Islands, would bring a negotiated peace with at least a modicum of honor for the Empire. Like Hara, Kuibayashi steadfastly refused to allow his men to sacrifice their lives in a meaningless banzai charge, as was becoming commonplace in the Pacific. Nor would he or his adjutants commit ritualized suicide, hara-kiri, as prescribed by tradition. His island defenders would take as many Americans with them as they possibly could. Indeed, they took 25,000 American casualties (7,000 killed), in their fight to the death. Flags of Our Fathers author James Bradley said Kuribayashi was “the man America respected the most because he made them suffer the most.” [47]

A month into the siege of their underground, tunneled fortress, Kurabayashi was finally ready to make their last stand. They were reduced to a few hundred souls in an area less than a tenth of a mile square. The dearth of food and water had become untenable. The shortfall of ammunition had reduced their armaments to knives and grenades. Kuribayashi called his officers together and told them to burn their insignia of rank and all important papers. He gave each a cup of sake and two cigarettes (from the Emperor) and spoke: “With things as they are, each one of you must kill one hundred–there is nothing else for it.” [189]

Then an interesting thing happened. The commander dithered. He was ready to die, but, like the rest of us, perhaps, not quite yet. Eight days passed: more assaults from the Americans repulsed by the holed-up Japanese. Kakehashi argues that Kuribayashi did not deem the situation suitable for a final charge that would not be merely suicidal. (I admit the distinction is too fine a one for me to discern.) But on March 25, the American assault slackened, and Kuribayashi delivered his final, final speech: “The glorious exploits that you have carried out will never be forgotten. …Be easy in your minds and sacrifice yourself for your country.” [194] The attack that followed in the early morning of March 26, according to the official US Marine Corps History, “was not a banzai charge, but an excellent plan aiming to cause maximum confusion and destruction.” [195] Was their sacrifice “meaningful” in any meaningful way? And what of the 170 U.S. casualties that day?

Nevertheless, it is hard not to admire Kuribayashi as both principled and a hard-nosed realist. And Hara, too. They fought as hard as they could, enlisting all of their perspicacity and skill, in the aid of their nation’s cause, even when they disagreed with its tactics and strategy. Both men, in similar–and different–ways, loved life, but were willing to sacrifice their own in defense of their countrymen’s. Kuribayashi’s words ring loudest today, three quarters of a century later:

Unable to complete this heavy task for our country
Arrows and bullets all spent, so sad we fall. [Kakehashi 186]




D-Day: Love Day. Also, Easter Sunday and April Fool’s Day, 1945. Company E of the 1st Marines has made the landing on Okinawa unopposed. They can’t believe their good fortune: a “stay of execution,” as it were. [Sledge 187]

Making their way cautiously across the empty landscape, the men of Easy Company come across a farmhouse, abandoned by all but a single pig, snuffling in the muck. The soldiers plead with their sergeant to let them butcher it and cook it up. Countermanding his first order, the sergeant agrees. Hard Luck Lineker–so named because he took a bullet in the butt on Peleliu only to recover in time to get sent to Okinawa–scrambled over the fence to execute the pig when–Pak!–a sniper’s bullet struck him in the back. He fell face-first in the muck. Hard Luck, indeed.

Thirty pages into the novel, Grenade, and Alan Gratz had me hooked. As in vintage Larry McMurtry, a colorfully named secondary character falls victim to the blindness of chance, setting an action-packed plot in motion.

Later in the book, as the close calls and brushes with disaster build up, I wondered if perhaps the plot were too tightly packed. Were all these encounters necessary?

On close review, they almost all were–and are. Gratz’s novel is finely crafted with an impressive attention to recurring details and threaded themes.


Grenade is told in two voices, one Okinawan, one American. Hideki is barely fourteen (the same as Rickenbacker when he lost his father and went to work fulltime!) and a recent inductee into the Okinawan Blood and Iron Student Corps. But at his class graduation, with American ship-born bombs going off in the distance, Hideki burns “hot with shame” for feeling fear. [4] He is well acquainted with this shame, for he has been teased often by his classmates. Cowardice is his destiny, brought on by the actions of his ancestor centuries before. Shigitomo surrendered to the Japanese without a fight leaving a curse upon the first-born son of every third generation of his descendants.

Ray is old enough to be a Marine, but only barely. At eighteen, he’s as green as a leaf bud in May. Love Day, the opening of Operation Iceberg, will be his first day under fire, and he feels “weak” and “shaky” at the thought. [15] Unlike his battle-hardened comrades, Ray feels a concern for the civilian Okinawans they eventually encounter. Coming from different worlds, these two protagonists share a heightened sensitivity and an outsider point of view.

The pig incident serves other purposes besides grabbing the reader’s attention. It introduces us to actual combat–the tension, the fatal consequences, and also the sounds: Thwack! Pak! Chu-chu-chung! Chu-chu-chu-chu-chung! Pa-kow! KA-THOOM! It plays a key role in character development, too, even if indirectly. As the only farm boy in the company, Ray leads the eventual butchering of the pig and, after the meal, earns his Marine nickname: Barbecue. Moreover, when the sniper turns out to be a twelve-year-old Okinawan boy, we experience with Ray the scrambled moral calculus of this war. Who is the enemy? What is right and wrong? This surprising scene, which starts almost comically, sets in motion the unavoidable hardening of Ray’s heart. And there is more. (See below.)

“God help me, I’m getting used to it!” Ray thinks a couple chapters and several encounters with the enemy later–and soon after having killed his first man. [75] A couple chapters after that, he shoots Okinawan civilians and realizes, to his horror, through the narrator, “In just a few awful seconds, he had become the monster these people were so afraid of.” The narrator adds, in light of backstory recently revealed: “More of a monster than his father had ever been.” [101] A photo received from his mother in the previous chapter stirred memories of his father whose violent anger he was only now beginning to understand. That day his father attacked him after Ray had tried to execute the pig, the second gunshot had triggered a kind of post-traumatic flashback. If his father was a monster–and at times he was–Ray understood it was because of his experience in the First World War. Now, in the Second World War, he felt himself becoming a monster, too. The pig butchering scene becomes a rich vehicle by which Gratz tours the reader through Ray’s back story.

The climax for Ray comes in the battle of Kakazu Ridge when a group of Okinawans, hands raised, march up the slope toward E Company’s line on the ridge. Ray’s gaze focuses on the woman in a blue kimono bearing a baby in her arms–and a string of dynamite strapped around her waist. In the ensuing confusion, Ray’s unit makes a disorderly retreat. Stumbling and sliding down the ridge, Ray is a whirl of emotion: “He just knew he never wanted to see another Japanese soldier as long as he lived.” [134]

Hideki’s hardening is, understandably, slower in coming. He is younger. He flees from his unit at the first suicidal encounter with the enemy, without a proper uniform or weapon (though  he does carry two grenades, one of breakable ceramic). In his aimless flight he trips over the dead body of his schoolmaster and recovers the fallen pictures of the Emperor Principal Kojima had been trying to protect. He finds his father, sitting wounded in the family tomb, and stays by him in his death. But the truly inciting event is his slide down a mud-slicked slope into a mire of writhing maggots. Hideki is so disgusted he pulls off all his clothes in an effort to escape them. It is a shocking scene.

But not far-fetched. E. B. Sledge in his memoir of Okinawa mentions the abundance of maggots at least three times. He says, “If a marine slipped down the back slope of a muddy ridge, he was apt to reach the bottom vomiting. I saw more than one man lose his footing and slip and slide all the way to the bottom only to stand up horror-stricken as he watched in disbelief while fat maggots tumbled out of his muddy dungaree pockets, cartridge belt, legging lacings, and the like. Then he and a buddy would shake or scrape them away with a piece of ammo box or a knife blade.” [260] Hideki had neither buddy nor knife, so he stripped. In the two-and-a-half-month battle, maggots were rife because of the ubiquity of decomposing bodies swallowed by the mud. Gratz elides this graphic detail–but, after all, his is a children’s book.

In Gratz’s novel, the maggots are not used to underscore the putrid degradation of war as in Sledge’s memoir. They allow the author to have Hideki, in the next scene, be given a Japanese uniform which he will wear throughout most of the rest of the book. Thus clad, he will be seen as a Japanese combatant, however young, when he, quite literally, runs into Ray in the novel’s pivotal event. The dazed Marine cannot aim his rifle before the AWOL Blood and Iron recruit detonates his eponymous grenade. Unsure of the result, we, the readers, are forced to turn the page and enter Part Two.

Ray does not accompany us there. Hideki will be our only guide from here on out. This is shocking storytelling for a children’s book. I would love to be a fly inside young readers’ brains as they try to accommodate the sudden death of a character they have come to know intimately for 130 pages. I know I missed him desperately right away. But I am an old guy, experienced enough to take it. I read on.

Hideki still fears he is a coward, but now he is also a killer. The rest of the book traces the hardening of Hideki’s heart, followed, at the end, by its swelling with generosity and courage. The onslaught of inhuman incidents and images have led to a deepening clarity of understanding.

Hideki’s hardening starts when he meets the deranged Private Maeda, who holds him and a group of Okinawans hostage to his paranoid, erratic behavior. Hideki stands up to him using his remaining grenade to back up the threat: “I’ve killed a man. Have you?” [163] This is convincing character development.

In the exhaustion of his flight, Hideki passes out and is recovered by American medics. They give him food and water, stitch up a gash in his head and give him medicine to help him sleep. He sees the Americans at their best. Not monsters, but saviors. Maybe surrendering to them, as the propaganda leaflets prompted, would not be so bad. But Hideki has to find his sister, a nurse with the Japanese Imperial Army, and the only other member of his family still alive. She is also a yuta with powers to communicate with ghosts, who can help him escape Rei‘s mabui. He flees again.

Marching south with hordes of Okinawan refugees, he notices army boots underneath “women”‘s kimonos. If the Americans discovered the enemy hidden among civilians, they would all be in danger. Hideki abandons the road for the safety of the forest. That night, American bombers attack the road. Hideki knows innocent civilians have died along with Japanese infiltrators. But he hurries on, “his eyes dry and his heart hard.” [183] He is following the same trajectory as Ray before him.

Now he encounters the Miyagi family, hiding out in their ancestral tomb. After weeks underground, they look wasted away like ghosts. “We thought the Japanese Imperial Army would protect us,” they say, completely oblivious of Gratz’s irony. The reader is aware because Hideki has begun to realize, that Okinawa is a sute-ishi, a sacrificial stone in the game of Go. The Miyagi ask, ingenuously, “Is it true what they say? That the Americans are monsters?” Because of his encounter with the American medic, Hideki is able to say, “They’re monsters only when they’re afraid. Just like the Japanese.” [185-186] He convinces them to surrender–according to regulation–and continues on his odyssey.

Hideki stumbles upon a command post in yet another cave and–aha!–there are nurses. But none of them knows a Kimiko. The Americans have arrived and the Japanese with whom he has sought refuge will fight to the death. Hideki and Masako, the nurse he has befriended, survive the grenade blast by throwing themselves under a metal cabinet. I wasn’t quite convinced of the feasibility of such an escape, or why the event was necessary to the story. It underscores the ruthlessness of the Japanese army, perhaps. Also, the deaths of so many in his midst continues to harden him to war’s cruelty. Lastly, he develops a bond with Masako, whose role as foil is not insignificant in the story’s final scenes.

Another cave. Another command post. Another Japanese call for suicidal defense. Hideki speaks for the reader in his mind: No! Not again! But this time his bad luck merges with good fortune: He finds Kimiko! In one of the funniest–and most meaningful–scenes in the book, younger brother and older sister argue over who is saving whom. “‘You don’t have to rescue me!’ Hideki protested. ‘I’m rescuing you!'” [204] Neither one is quite right. They have to save themselves. More, they rescue a troop of Okinawan children, also caught in the war’s crossfire.

And so, another escape out the back of a cave through a secret exit, by squeezing past an unexploded bomb, the Mother of All Bombs, as it happens. Masako freezes in fear, and Hideki, fated from time immemorial to be a coward, now speaks the words of encouragement to help dispel her panic. It is a significant moment, made all the richer after Hideki achieves his escape and Masako cajoles him to use his grenade. He could use it, she says, to detonate the Mother of All Bombs and bury the cruel Japanese in their own tomb. Hideki ponders, but shakes his head. Then Masako goads, “You told me to be brave enough to slide past that beast, but you’re not brave enough to throw your grenade at it.” [216] Gratz asks us to consider again: What is bravery?

In their next trial, Hideki, Kimiko, Masako, and the children must sneak past an American machine gun nest to escape the vise of No-Man’s-Land. But how to do so without getting shot by the Americans? Will the Americans be monsters or saviors? Again, the cowardly Masako pushes Hideki to use his grenade. But after all Hideki has been through–and he has been through an awful lot!–he now knows that this is not his, not the Okinawans’, fight. “No, if we attack them,” he explains, “we’re their enemy. When they’re not under attack, when they’re not afraid, the Americans are human beings.” [228-229]

It’s time, at last, to surrender.

He follows all the guidelines he remembers reading in the propaganda leaflets–and then some. Knowing how war can turn human beings into monsters (as Ray had known before him), he instructs the children, his sister and Masako, to remove their clothes. No hidden bombs, no human shields to threaten the Americans. He remembers the nakedness he felt after his encounter with the maggots, and he knows he must feel it again here, now. He places the grenade on the ground under his helmet and walks out with his hands up, in only his underwear. “Defenseless. Exposed. Vulnerable.” [234]

The maggot scene, like larva into pupa, has fulfilled its purpose. Living through war as a civilian is to be naked and exposed. Even, young readers, far from the brutalities of war, can begin to understand that.

Oh, but Gratz is not through with us yet. A young American recruit panics in the moment and fires. An Okinawan child falls wounded. The American in charge, the big bear-man with the missing ear begins shouting in his strange language. Are they all going to die? No, the man the reader knows to be the heart-hardened Big John is berating his own private for lack of control. The reader sighs deeply, appreciating that even a hardened warrior can defend the good. Indeed, in war, only the strong, righteous soldier can ensure peace.


In the last chapter, Gratz finally allows his reader relief from the tension and a chance for satisfying resolution. None is more satisfying than the response his sister gives to his question, “Why do you keep looking at me like that?” “You’ve changed,” she answers. You’re more confident. Braver.” The reader knows this to be true, of course, but there is nothing so pleasurable as hearing the outspoken Kimiko say it aloud. Rarely does a character change so convincingly or as meaningfully as Hideki does in this book. Rarely does a character’s development give a young reader such hope that confidence and bravery are attainable for him, too.


Paris in the Present Tense

The journalist is a writer who carries out his education in public.

Someone said it. Maybe many people have. I don’t remember where I first encountered this thought. I just remember it was many years ago. I was reminded of it last month as I read Mark Helprin’s 2017 book, Paris in the Present Tense. And I asked myself, doesn’t a novelist expose his intellectual/social/emotional/spiritual/moral development even more to the scrutiny of his readers?

This was not my first encounter with Helprin. I had read him with some devotion (three titles) in the 1990s, so this time around was a bit like running into an old friend, at once distinctly recognizable yet also significantly changed. (Not to mention how deeply changed I was.) One feature unchanged: Helprin’s penchant for injecting social-political-economic observation/commentary into his narratives. Not so distinctive you might object, yet with views as unconventional and willfully nonconformist as his, the feature truly is distinctive. In Memoir from Antproof Case [1995] his character rails against the evils of coffee throughout the book.

Helprin’s web site avers that the author “belongs to no literary school, movement, tendency, or trend.” We are to understand that he is deeply independent, yet on his Wikipedia page we learn that, in the political arena, he has cast his lot with conservative causes. He is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, and in 1996 he signed on as Bob Dole’s speech writer and foreign policy adviser. He has a life as a conservative commentator, but in the pages of his fiction (or at least in Paris in the Present Tense), he comes across more as a traditionalist. Jules, the central character, tells his friend François, “When civilization turned a corner or two, I didn’t. …I wouldn’t make the turn. I’d rather be a rock in the stream, even if submerged, than the glittering scum on the surface.” [56] We get this kind of thing throughout the book.

The child of French Jews, Jules spends the first four years of his life hiding out, speaking in whispers, in the attic of a bakers’ shop in Reims. Just as the city is being liberated by American forces, he witnesses his parents be killed by a Nazi officer. We know of this tragedy from the book’s first pages. We are led to infer that it is the defining event in the seventy-four-year-old’s life. But Helprin makes us wait two hundred pages to learn the details, to appreciate the full painful irony of the event.  When we do, we suddenly understand why Jules is stunted, emotionally stuck in the past, unable to live fully “in the present tense.” And we sense the author shares some of Jules’s malaise.

There is, first of all, their (author and character’s) critique of modernity, specifically, “the illusion of security that modernity affords to advanced nations.” [105] Jules explains to his cello student (and latest infatuation) that “death, pain, and tragedy still rule the world,” despite the wont of rich nations to pretend they do not. [262] In case we (and Elodi) have missed the point, he later compares the world to a jungle, full of both wonderful beauty and great danger–“tigers, jaguars, and snakes lying in wait.” [296] This is Hobbesian state-of-nature conservativism softened by classical aestheticism.

In the inciting event of the story, Jules witnesses a man, a Hasidic Jew, being beaten by three young men, second-generation Arabs. What to do? Jules is physically fit, but there are three of them, they are younger, and one wields a knife. Through the narrator we hear Jules thinking how “well protected citizens” who “eschewed violence” would “close their eyes and wish to be done with it all equally and without the labor and risk of judgment.” [122]  After intervening, he poses his quandary more sharply as a rhetorical question: “Should he have abstained, as required of a good citizen, leaving the monopoly of violence to the state but allowing the murder of an innocent man?” [126] This is a direct challenge to liberals, limousine or otherwise, who talk a good game from afar but shrink from moral action when the situation demands it.

Other allegedly conservative critiques are more small bore. The pre-modern and modern-yet-religious belief in angels: “So what do you think fed [believers’] perfervid imaginations? Where did they get the idea? What were their models? Children, of course.” [129] The current mania for facial hair: “I suppose it hides their callowness. Instead of pretending, they should wait until they’ve suffered and endured.” [295] (Hobbesian realism again.) Cell phones: “Landlines did not double as television sets, pedometers, encyclopedias, atlases, travel agents, or teletype machines….” [323]

Yet other commentary seems standard conservative fare. Bureaucracy is “stupid and monstrous.” [332] “Federal government mismanage[s]” its billions. [167] The majesty of Versailles is a “tribute to humanity.” [257]  Yet Helprin’s “conservatism” is not mindless. He acknowledges paradox, holds opposing truths in tension. Versailles is also a “crime against humanity,” made possible by “the virtual enslavement of a whole nation for centuries.” [257] A private mega-corporation can enact more evil even than the leviathan of government. “Like a whale, [the Acorn insurance company] cruised the markets, sweeping up cash in its baleen.” [167]

Through his character and his narrative, Helprin makes the case for the individual and his capacity to find love and beauty in the world. More: to be loyal to one’s loves (people, art, values) even under the leveling press of modernity. Jules’s philosopher friend, challenges him to explain what he is loyal to…besides, perhaps, “being peculiar.” [136-137] “I’m loyal to a world that was destroyed,” Jules responds. If he is speaking for the author here, it sounds a lot like whining. But not so fast. Don’t we all, even if we did not lose both parents in the Holocaust, grow up into a world we don’t quite recognize? Don’t we all experience the loss of a world we thought we knew and loved? As eccentric as Jules is, he speaks, in a way, for all of us. Helprin gives us permission to stay loyal to our lost worlds. He exhorts us that we must remain loyal.


But let’s return to the casually-mentioned “latest infatuation” with Jules’s cello student. Any American not living under a rock cannot read of an older male mentor falling for a young, attractive female protégé–even in fiction–without cringing. Can this really be? In a book published as the Harvey Weinstein allegations were coming out? As a novelist, Helprin does his thinking out loud, for all to hear and judge. In fairness, Jules “falls in love” (pretty much at first sight) with at least six women–of all ages–over the course of the four-hundred-page book. Most of these are passing infatuations and Jules recognizes them as such. Two are significant to both the character and the plot. One, revealed in a flashback, becomes his wife and the love of his life. Since she has died, Jules remains steadfastly “loyal” to her memory, even if he conducts ephemeral, involuntary infatuations in his mind. Helprin gives Jules an uncanny ability to project alluring qualities on a woman within seconds of meeting her, as he did with Amina, his last infatuation which turned out to be more profound than expected: “mischievous, knowing, innocent, forgiving, loving, comforting, challenging, proposing, curious, seductive, and enthusiastic.” [370] Such quasi-objectification hardly fares better with the #MeToo crowd–or me, either, for that matter. I tired of it.

And yet,  after consideration, I’m not sure Helprin is so interested in romantic, sexual love, anyway. Falling in love may simply be a stand-in for human love more generally. Jules’s frequent love-at-first-sights may seem almost pathological but in Helprin’s fiction, I think, they point to a capacity for love. Others may fear that love “is an illusion that will not last,” but Helprin assures us “it does, and it will.” [104]

Helprin is not at all interested in newly orthodox views on sex and gender. In the first chapter (on the fourth page!), his narrator explains that the stewards and stewardesses are now called flight attendants, “as if they had no sex.” [16] This is a bold slap in the reader’s face, as if to say, Don’t expect the mindlessly politically correct from me. Helprin might consider that the occupation’s title is not so much a denial of sex as a denial of sex as the defining feature of the employee. In any event, if we don’t follow Helprin’s line of thinking, he soon devotes several sentences to a description of the “stewardess’ uniform”: “every line and angle of which knew with affection the beauty and charm of her body and the loveliness of her face.” [16] No, she is not sexless.

Many chapters later, Jules enters a high-powered corporate boardroom with three women present. All three are dressed “expensively and elegantly,” and, after detailing their clothing and accessories, the narrator says, “They were pretty,” which the reader takes, instantly, as  damning with faint praise. “Beautiful” is used extravagantly throughout the book. The narrator explains: “Although these women had every attribute of femininity–delicacy, beauty [OK, he did use it here.], grace and more–they were patently unfeminine merely because they chose to be. Suspicion, aggression, self-assertion, and the sense that they were crouched to spring radiated from them quietly but unmistakably.” [168] Helprin appears to be taking a position on feminism post-#MeToo in line with Catherine Deneuve. Yet he inoculates himself against a charge of sexism by adding in the next sentence that the men present were just as unappealing and “radiated  the same suspicion, aggression, and self-assertion.”


In my first encounter with Mark Helprin, twenty-five years ago, I was shocked (and awed?) by the density of similes in his writing. (A dozen per page? More?) I asked my English professor friend if it were possible to have too many similes in fiction. Certainly, was his reply. Helprin didn’t worry. He belonged to “no school, movement, tendency, or trend.” The quantity of similes in this latest book is now well within the normal range, and they are all apropos and thought-provoking: “…the compassionate dead looking on were infinitely wiser than the living, so many of whom stopped for an instant as they thrashed through life like fish in a net.” [84]

But Helprin has a new device in his writerly repertoire. He composes delightful sentences that, in their final clause, turn in on themselves like a sock being pulled inside-out. When Jules disguises himself after the fatal encounter with the street toughs, we get: “Thus transformed, he would be anything but the man who had had the confrontation onto the bridge, although of course he was.” [128] Later, Jules attempts to put off his pursuer with a distraction “which had the irresistible air of a scheme, because that’s what it was.” [321] Approaching the heart of the matter, we read that Jules “so much wanted to live, and he so much wanted to die, but the conflict would resolve itself, because, without fail, he would do both.” And my personal favorite: “The worse it got, the worse it got.” [265]

My earnest, still-young adult self might not have appreciated Helprin’s humor the first time around. At least, I don’t remember it so much. This time, I smiled often and chuckled almost as much.

  • “After Jack inhaled his steak, he said, quoting Hemingway, ‘It was good.'” [73]
  • “Isn’t a jingle supposed to be irritating, so it becomes a brain worm and you can’t forget it? This isn’t irritating, it’s inappropriately beautiful. These days, people don’t like that.” [169-170]
  • “Though the [love]locks, in being too heavy in their collectivity, may have endangered the railings, they had been a boon to local hardware stores….” [368]

He takes advantage of humorous lost-in-translation opportunities:

  • An entire conversation in which the Texas billionaire is talking about a kid actor, and Jules, whose “English was entirely formal,” thinks they are talking about a goat. [71] (Helprin “milks” that goat for a full page and more.)
  • A brief confusion over Snickers: foot wear or a candy bar? [175]
  • A mis-remembered idiom: I’m having a whale time. [341]

He is not shy about using names as double entendres:

  • The psychiatrist called Dunaif
  • The billionaire Texans called Cheatham.
  • The sinister insurance investigator called Damien Nerval (“Who could tell if he had become the man he was because his name was Damien Nerval, or, because of the man he was, he had changed his name to Damien Nerval.” [316])

Some of he best moments are in dialogues:

“‘Oh, I see,” said Jules.

“What do you see?” Nerval pressed.

“What do you think I see?”

“I think you see, or should see, that we know what you’re up to.”

“And what am I up to?”

“You tell me.”

“No, you brought it up. You tell me.”

“I don’t have to tell you anything”

“Yes you do.”


“Because you came out of the blue. You have to initiate. All I have to do is sit here.”

“What other than guilt would prevent you from answering my question?”

“What question?”

“What you’re up to.”

“You didn’t ask me what I’m up to. You told me you know. That’s not a question.” [318-319]

(Not a dialogue that would happen in real life, perhaps, but one that playfully examines what might happen if we could break down the logical fallacies of ordinary speech in real time.)

Ultimately, though, Paris in the Present Tense is a serious book about serious themes: love and beauty, loyalty and time, as well as the most serious of all: death. The whole book is about ending Jules’s life, not just as a theme but literally the plotting of it, by both character and author.  But first Jules must come to terms with his life: accepting the past, “its reverberations and its sustain,” providing for the future, “the clarity and beauty of its promise,” [191] while learning to live fully in…wait for it…the present tense. As a septuagenarian himself, Helprin is approaching the reality of his own mortality. No more than the rest of us can he chose the where, when, or how of it. But as a novelist he can do it for the character of his creation.

Early in the book, Jules tells François, his philosophical interlocutor, “There’s joy in dying the way you want, by your own standard, in faith to what you see as self-evident. Enough joy to lift you over death as it comes to you.” [56] Jules accomplished this with the help of an adept novelist shaping his story. Helprin and the rest of us must struggle to find a way to do it on our own.

Surviving Topaz and Santo Tomás

posted in: WWII, WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

The physical suffering of the American detainees, most agree, was greater than their Japanese American counterparts. Psychologically, also widely acknowledged, the impact was the reverse.

Both groups suffered similar deprivations in the early months, and many of these were discussed in the previous post. Privacy was absent. Food was sufficient but not especially appetizing. Insects and vermin were a plague. Weather added to the discomforts of rustic accommodations. If anything, conditions at Topaz and other relocation centers improved. Infrastructure was upgraded and, according to Miné Okubo, the rules became “much less rigid.” [Okubo 202] Topaz had a bureaucracy and a growing, $2 trillion economy behind it. [https://www.thebalance.com/us-gdp-by-year-3305543] Santo Tomás was an afterthought for the Japanese military and by 1944 an unqualified burden. Providing for the Manila internees did not register as a priority when the Emperor’s warriors needed calories. Twice daily meals of stew, roll, tea, and banana gave way to a small palmful of rice once a day, at best. The internees withered to nothing.

Both Japanese and Manilan Americans felt anger and resentment toward their captors, but of a qualitatively different kind. At Santo Tomás, American anger was directed against an enemy. At Topaz (and the other nine camps), its object was the government they had once viewed as their own. Both groups learned to quash these feelings to varying degrees. The Manilans recognized their dependence on the good will of the Commandant and presented themselves accordingly. The Topazians were no less inclined to accommodate to their new life. Older Issei, first generation Japanese American immigrants, were more likely to submit obediently, even ingratiatingly, to their captors. They were driven by deep cultural mores of stoic acceptance.

Their Nisei, second generation, children heard this message clearly in the words their parents used most often: gaman, “patience” or “endurance;” fuben, “inconvenient,”  nasake-nai, “cold-hearted” or “unfeeling.” But the most common refrain of all: Shikata ga nai, “It can’t be helped.” [Harth 23, 32]

In January, 1943, Roosevelt issued another order that would profoundly affect Japanese Americans. He announced the creation of an all Japanese American combat unit to be filled with recruits who formally declared loyalty to the United States. All males over age 16 were to register by taking a survey. Question 28 stirred up both passions and controversy: “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign power or organization?” [Okubo 175] The wording was tweaked even after the questionnaire went into circulation, but the contradictions inherent were never resolved. By renouncing their Japanese citizenship, Issei were officially declaring themselves stateless persons. (There was no “path to citizenship” for them in the United States.) Nisei–many of them–could only have resented the assumption that their loyalty was divided. Weren’t they American citizens?

Those who could not or would not affirm their loyalty were sent to the designated “Segregation Center” at Tule Lake, formerly one of the ten relocation camps. Carl Mydans’s first assignment for Life after escaping Santo Tomas and the Shanghai “Civil Assembly Center” was Tule Lake. (In fact, most of the 13,000 detainees at Tule Lake were not “disloyals” at all. Many were family members who relocated to the northern California camp to stay with their parent or sibling who answered “no” on Question 28. Six thousand were from the original Tule Lake internees who simply could not bear to relocate and opted to stay. [Fortune 61-62]) As a former internee himself, Mydans empathized with the prisoners, as he rightly called them, and remarked on the obvious ironies, especially in his interview with Yoshitaka Nakai. “I am an American like everyone else born in this country,” said Nakai. “And I would fight and die for this country like any other American. But because my eyes are different and my parents come from Japan, everybody looks at me and treats me as though I’m disloyal. And now–I am disloyal. How do you like that?” [C. Mydans 124-125]

Issei and Nisei were not the only designations for Japanese Americans. A third group made an outsize impact on the internment communities. Kibei were Japanese Americans born in the United States but educated in Japan. Their ties to the mother country were strong and their loyalty to it stronger, even, than their parents’. If the Isseis’ impulse was to accommodate their captors and the Niseis’ to hold onto American culture all the more tightly, the Kibeis’ was to resist. They were over-represented in both “riots” that occurred in relocation centers, the first following the Harry Ueno controversy at Manzanar, the second stemming from the James Wakasa incident at Topaz.

A Nisei didn’t have to be an outright accommodationist to resent Kibei agitation. Mild-mannered Miné Okubo appeared miffed when she wrote that “anti-administration rabble-rousers skillfully fanned the misunderstandings” in Topaz. [Okubo 176] John Tateishi believed the contradictions of their situation bred infighting: “Instead of directing our anger and hurt at the government, we directed it against ourselves and in some cases caused emotional chasms that can never be bridged.” That last clause intimates at a lasting pain that he confirms in the next sentence: “I don’t know if any of us children of the camps understood how profoundly the wound cut into the psyches of the Issei and Nisei generations or how unforgiving brother would be to brother when it was all over.” [Harth 137] The distrust lingered for a generation and more.

The Santo Tomás captives were not immune from infighting, either. Shelley Mydans’s fiction sheds light on the kind of internal tussles that took place in this inchoate society. Inequities of power and resources provoked resentment. Slacking stirred animosities. Rumors fomented mistrust. In The Open City we see the Committee become a lightning rod of grievance for those who feel their interests are not represented. (What else is new under the sun?) Lance Diamond irritates the Committee by selling his cot, moved into a dark, unused stairwell, for couples to fulfill their sexual desires. Everyone wants to know the identity of the army combatants hiding out in their midst. They’re willing to spread false information on the off chance that they get credit for a big scoop.

Nor were Topazian captives immune from the attraction and pitfalls of rumors. The basic human need for information was stymied, so they rushed to fill the gap. Though accusations of rabble-rousing or of appeasement, false and otherwise, made the rounds and tore at the community fabric, the rumors were not always sinister. Okubo warmly recalled “plenty of laughter in sharing discomforts, creating imaginative rumors and stories, and daydreaming wishful hopes.” [Okubo ix]

But Okubo was even more visual than verbal. It was the scenes she witnessed, full of “humor and pathos,” that prompted her to make her sketches. [Okubo 53] More than two hundred drawings became the basis for her celebrated book, Citizen 13660. The artist drew herself into every one of those drawings, underscoring the deeply personal nature of the work. The last one shows Okubo at the side of a vehicle which will take her away from the detention center she has called home for a year and a half. She is looking back at the residents who do not yet have the courage, the will, or the means of leaving. (They may do so as long as they do not go back to their lives in California.) At that moment, Okubo says, “I relived momentarily the sorrows and joys of my whole evacuation experience….” [Okubo 209]

It comes as a bit of a shock to read of “joys” in the context of an internment camp. Yet from October, 1942, to January, 1944, Topaz was Okubo’s home, its residents her neighbors and extended family. We can assume that she was not alone in holding such a seemingly heretical sentiment. Those Nisei who survived Topaz, or Manzanar, or whatever other camp, with their esteem more or less in tact must have understood, at some unconscious level, that the internment experience had become a part of them. They could no more extricate it from their identity than they could pluck out an eyeball. They were stuck with it. For good and for bad.


After pledging loyalty and passing the appropriate background check, Japanese American internees could apply to relocate outside the camps beginning in the spring of 1943. After removing them from society, the federal government now had a stake in reintegrating Issei, Nisei, and Kibei citizens and aliens. At least, on its own terms. No more Little Tokyos would be tolerated. (Of course, in establishing the relocation centers the government had created the ne plus ultra of segregation and non-integration. The ironies never cease.) Nisei were encouraged to apply to universities. Seasonal workers were sought to relieve the farm labor shortage. The Army offered its 442nd Regiment for Japanese Americans, as well as opportunities in defense plants and, most crucially, in the intelligence department.

Issei had lost their property and their youth. They could not resume their businesses, nor were they inclined to return to wage labor. The camps provided three squares and security. The Issei saw no reason to go anywhere. As Fortune magazine remarked, in their 1944 feature that included Okubo drawings, “He is a courageous father who dares to start a new life with these responsibilities when, at the center, food, shelter, education, medical care, $16 a month, and clothing are provided.” [Fortune 66] Many Issei and their families chose to remain prisoners months beyond the time they were, technically speaking, free to leave, as early as spring 1943. A year later,17,000 (mostly) Nisei had chosen to leave the camps. That still left 100,000 behind in the Manzanars and Topazes of America. (In the end, the government would have to force the last of the internees out of the camps. It would close the last detention center in March, 1946, seven months after the end of the war.)

The Manilan American internees experienced much the same fear of the outside. Shelley and Carl Mydans jumped at the chance to relocate to Shanghai but could convince few of their friends to go with them. These internees were unwilling to trade the devil they knew for one they didn’t. Mydans called it a “psychosis” in his memoir of twenty years later,” which made the world “outside the fence into a frightening unknown and drawing prisoners closer and closer together for comfort and security.” In their degraded state, these previously strong, independent Americans, were too fearful to make a bold move toward freedom. [C. Mydans 82-83]

They stayed in Santo Tomás. And they suffered.

In late 1944, Carl Mydans returned to the Philippines, embedded (as we would say today) with an invasion unit assigned to liberate Santo Tomás. Mydans barely recognized the men and women he had lived so closely with for eight months. One former comrade, he tells us, “was a skeleton stretched with skin.” His legs and arms were “thinned to the bone,” his legs and ankles “swollen with beriberi into clublike appendages.” [C. Mydans 199] Almost four hundred internees had not survived long enough for rescue. (The death rate at Santo Tomás was three and a half times greater than for Japanese Americans at the ten internment camps.)

The survivors would struggle to regain their health, and they would be haunted by the memories of incarceration. But they had the advantage over their counterparts in the States by having an ennobling narrative in which to place themselves. They had held out under extreme duress and provided inspiration for the determined “return” of MacArthur and his forces–not to mention the hopes of an entire nation. Santo Tomás was a chapter in the wider saga of Bataan and Corregidor, a story that begins in perfidy but ends in redemption. After visiting Tule Lake Segregation Center, Santo Tomás survivor Carl Mydans realized that for all the hardships he and his fellow inmates endured, they had an intangible the Japanese American internees did not: “a deep and comforting conviction that we were part of the great national emergency and that we were all playing a part both toward victory and our own salvation.” [Mydans 124]

Japanese American internees had no uplifting narrative in which to place themselves. There was no final triumph to wash away the shame and guilt. For Issei there was no “old life” to pick up where they had left off, nor even a home to return to. They felt no eagerness to leave the camps.

Nisei, while not unaffected by mixed emotions, were yet eager to get on with their lives and more hopeful of what the world (America) held for them. They led the way out of the camps and back into society. Greater Chicago was the most popular destination. New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Montana, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona were the next most common destinations (though Arizona turned out to be notoriously unwelcoming).

Those who relocated (the same term was used for the other side of the “evacuation” experience) were supplied with railroad fare, $3 a day in travel expenses, and $25 in cash with which to start their new lives. As eager as they were to get on with their lives, these Nisei knew a world of prejudice and hatred awaited them “outside the fence.” Some were surprised at what they found. “We can eat in any restaurant,” one wrote back to the camps. “I attract very little attention on the train,” wrote another. [Fortune 64] Such was Mitsuye Yamada‘s experience—at first. In the dorms at the University of Cincinnati Yamada was “just one of the girls” and felt “almost a teenager again.” Then while walking down the street, she was spat upon by an angry passerby who reminded her that she was still a “dirty Jap.” [Harth 39, 42] Even among the friends Yamada there were awkward moments. When asked about her experiences, she heard herself say more than once, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad.” (Emiko Omori captured the sentiment memorably in her 1999 documentary, Rabbit in the Moon: “It wasn’t bad enough.”) Conflicting emotions settled into shame when a Jewish friend (so many of her friends were Jewish) said something to the effect of, Well, at least YOU weren’t gassed or anything. [Harth 40, 49]

Postwar, no matter how successful or filled with reconstructed family joys, would always be clouded by memories of the camps. The survivors would always be haunted by a sense of betrayal and “scarred by feelings of shame and inferiority.” [Harth 191] Fifty years after leaving Manzanar, John Tateishi’s childhood memories still had the power to stir “the feeling of isolation and abandonment” as if he were right back in the desert surrounded by barbed wire and overseen by guards in watchtowers. [Harth 130] Few spoke of their memories. Kodomo no tame, they said: “for the sake of the children.” [Harth 36] Those children, thoroughly assimilated, grew up ignorant of their parents’ childhood trauma and their country’s Constitutional betrayal. Yet, by the 1980s, the fact of Japanese American internment had entered the national dialogue. Gerald Ford formally rescinded FDR’s Executive Order 9066 in 1976.  Manzanar was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985 and National Historic Site in 1992. Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, granting each surviving internee $20,000. Amid this activity in the public square, third generation Japanese, Sansei, started to ask questions. They became politically aware.

Political awakening helped dispel the silence and the shame. Political action helped build self-confidence and a more positive narrative. In a survey given in the 1990s, most Sansei responded that their family’s historical experience helped sensitize them to other forms of injustice in the world. Nisei Sue Kunitomi Embrey turned her Manzanar experience into the focus of her life, working for three decades to get Manzanar preserved and classified a National Historic Site, to convince Congress to pass a reparations bill. Said Kunitomi, “I have reaped benefits I never expected.” [Harth 184] Among them: meeting “extraordinary people,” participating in “wondrous events,” traveling widely, receiving recognition, and being invited to dine in the White House. Manzanar was an integral part of who Embrey was, and she would do nothing to deny that part of herself. Nor would she accept that the wrong her country committed go unacknowledged, unaccounted for, or un-righted.

This view makes sense within the context of Asian philosophy, in which good and bad are bound together, like the black and white paisleys in a yin-yang circle. American complacency led to a Japanese strike at Pearl Harbor and their capture of the Philippines. These offenses led to both a thirst for vengeance–facile and impulsive–but also a determination to stand up for justice–patient, concerted, and nationwide. The latter freed 3,000 mostly American internees from three years’ captivity and established the independence for a former colony. The former led to the incarceration of tens of thousands of innocents, the denial of their rights as Americans, and a stain on the national image.

The good and the bad all balled up together. That is the reality of our past, and best kept in mind when we shift our gaze, like Okubo at the end of her book, toward the future.


Hartendorp, A.V.H. The Santo Tomás Story. New York: McGraw-Hill Co., 1964.

Harth, Erica. Last Witnesses: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans. New York: Palgrave: 2001.

“Issei, Nisei, Kibei.” Fortune, April 1944, in Hynes, Samuel, et al. Reporting World War II, Part II. New York: Library of America, 1995.

Mydans, Carl. More than Meets the Eye. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959.

Mydans, Shelley Smith. The Open City. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc., 1945.

Okubo, Miné. Citizen 13660. Seattle: University of Washington Press: 1983 (1946).

Wikipedia: “Internment of Japanese Americans,” “Manzanar,” “Santo Tomas Internment Center,” “Topaz Relocation Center,” ” Tule Lake National Monument