The Tanforan and Gila Diaries: Becoming Nikkei
The Tanforan and Gila Diaries: Becoming Nikkei
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter illustrates how Kikuchi had decided to rejoin his family during the initial phase of the internment. Kikuchi infused the connection to his family with the greatest significance: as an index of his Americanism, a sign of his loyalty to the nation. Kikuchi's intertwining of his two aspirational families is striking-filiopietism translated into patriotism or, to use his term, Americanism. When the Kikuchis left the Tanforan horse stalls behind at the beginning of September 1942, they were also leaving behind a more cosmopolitan group of evacuees, all of whom had lived in the Bay Area. The Gila River Relocation Center, on the other hand, housed a cross-section of diverse groups of Japanese descent from the West Coast: rural and urban, older Issei bachelors and Nisei families, Kibei, Hawai'ian Nisei, worldly Angelenos, Berkeley academics, and San Joaquin Valley farmers, among many others.
Stable 10. Stall 5. That was where the Kikuchi family spent its first four months (May–August 1942) of incarceration at Tanforan Racetrack. As previously noted, Kikuchi cautiously, even if not reluctantly, had decided to rejoin his family during the initial phase of the internment. Before evacuation, he had occasionally interacted with his siblings but rarely visited his parents. In fact, the period of the internment and resettlement represented the most time Kikuchi would ever spend with his family of origin. Even though they would survive the trauma of internment together, including Kikuchi père’s death, it did not appear to be a bonding experience that Kikuchi could build upon in the postwar years. It surely was not for lack of trying. As early as July 1942, Kikuchi infused the connection to his family with the greatest significance: as an index of his Americanism, a sign of his loyalty to the nation. The following excerpt lays bare how closely Kikuchi aligned success within his own family with his ideal of the American family.
Here all of my life I have identified my every act with America but when the war broke out I suddenly find that I won’t be allowed to become an integral part of the whole in these times of national danger. I find I am put aside and viewed suspiciously … Americanism is my only solution and I may even get fanatic about it if I’m thwarted. To retain my loyalty to my country I must also retain family loyalty or what else have I to build upon?1
Kikuchi’s intertwining of his two aspirational families is striking. Filiopietism translated into patriotism or, to use his term, Americanism. The two wrenching traumas of his life up to that point—abandonment at the orphanage at eight years old and the roundup of Japanese Americans (abandonment by America) at twenty-six—seemed to slip back and forth into one another as his senses (both literally and figuratively) started to falter: “I keep saying to myself that I must view everything intellectually and rationally, but sometimes I feel sentiments compounded of blind feelings and irrationality … My set of values gets twisted; I don’t know what I think.”2 “Blind” and “twisted”: Kikuchi’s better judgment is impaired, rationality giving way to sentiment. The source of his Hamlet-like vacillating was the news that Tanforan residents (of which there were nearly 8,000 at (p.137) maximum capacity) would have to evacuate either as family units or as individuals to one of the ten relocation centers.
The Kikuchis were deciding between Tule Lake, California, and Gila in Rivers, Arizona, the latter of which they ultimately chose. However, in the confusion of this transitional period, Kikuchi was truly wrestling with issues that had wracked him emotionally for most of his life. His next observation shows just how discombobulated he felt as he allowed undeserved guilt to engulf him.
If I am to be in camp for the duration, I may as well have the stabilizing influence of the family. If I go my own way again at this time, it will be the end as far as the family is concerned and they may feel that I ran out on them in a time of crisis. If they were holding me back, it would be another matter; but actually they are shoving me forward. The family setting gives this whole thing a more normal balance.3
Desperate to have one of the older siblings take over in light of the father’s failing health, and fearful of an unknown future in the camps, the Kikuchis were pushing “head of household” on Charles, again despite his having been a relative stranger to all of them. Instead of their collective guilt, or at least the parents’ guilt and irresponsibility over Charles’s neglect, the Kikuchis allowed the oldest son, their oldest brother, to feel as if he were at fault, as if he had made a choice at eight years old to leave his abusive father and ambivalent mother, as if he had abandoned them to go “[his] own way,” when the truth was starkly the opposite. “It will be the end” and “they may feel that I ran out on them” are poignant reminders that even at the age of twenty-six, Charles Kikuchi still felt very deeply like that orphan left in Healdsburg eighteen years before. On the one hand, who could blame him for wanting to be with his family, especially after nearly two decades apart from them and now in the midst of an unprecedented crisis? On the other hand, he was well within his right—legally, morally, and emotionally—to go his own way. But he did not. Feeling their “shove,” he sought the family unit, no matter how dysfunctional it had proved and would still prove to be in the future; he even inexplicably perceived his family’s presence as providing “normal balance.”
Immediately before the family’s departure for Gila, Kikuchi reiterated this newfound optimism on August 31:
In reviewing the four months here, the chief value I got out of this forced evacuation was the strengthening of the family bonds. I never knew my family before this and this was the first chance that I have had to really get acquainted. There is something wholesome about it and with the unity which it presents, one does not feel alone, knowing that there are some who will back one up in moments of crisis.4
Kikuchi is careful, however, to qualify his musings by the end of his daily entry: “Of course, we have only had four months of this life and things may be different after we have been in camp for a much longer period.”5 He assumes a willful amnesia (p.138) about the previous months in Tanforan, running the risk of greater disappointment in the months ahead at Gila. Only six weeks earlier, for example, the entire family unit almost unraveled in one fell swoop over the aforementioned issue of establishing a “head of household.” On July 11, Kikuchi reported that the family’s debate over who should lead the family onto Gila came to a head. The father, already suffering from physical and mental infirmity (and a year away from his stroke), had exclaimed that he wanted both Charlie and the second son, Jack, to take over family matters. The mother objected, singing the praises of Alice, the sister who had been keeping things together ever since the oldest sister, Mariko, had left the family and fled to Chicago. Different siblings took opposite sides, but in the end, the father’s decision still won out. In the midst of all of the heated discussion, however, Nakajiro resented Alice’s defense of her mother, Shizuko, to the point that he admitted to Charles that he was going to hit his daughter for what he considered her insolence.
Worse, resentment had festered for so long between the parents that Nakajiro had taken a paranoid, stubborn attitude toward his wife, thinking that she was constantly cheating on him, that she believed being a barber was low class, and that “she was too proud to walk with him in public because he looked like an old man.”6 Seventeen years his wife’s senior, Nakajiro could not control his growing dementia and jealousy. Kikuchi provides a chilling example:
He said that at one time when Mom went to S.F. for a divorce he almost killed the four [youngest] children and planned to commit suicide. That was one of the reasons why he never lived among the Japanese—because he feared that the men would try to steal his wife.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, Kikuchi wrote about the animated argument with an adult’s calm but also a detached emotional immaturity: “This was one chance in which I had an opportunity to practice social case work.” For eighteen years, this family had been developing its own dynamic, its own choreography of arguing, and its own way of being without Charlie. And before he was ultimately appointed paterfamilias, half wanted him to take charge, while the other half still did not quite know who he was. In this larger, more realistic context, rereading Kikuchi’s August 31 entry above (“strengthening of the family bonds” into a “wholesome … unity”) raises the question of how much he was willing to deny in order to finally have his family.
“A Process of Education”
When the Kikuchis left the Tanforan horse stalls behind at the beginning of September 1942, they were also leaving behind a more cosmopolitan group of evacuees, all of whom had lived in the Bay Area. The Gila River Relocation Center, on the other hand, housed a cross-section of diverse groups of Japanese descent from the West Coast: rural and urban, older Issei bachelors and Nisei (p.139) families, Kibei, some Hawai‘ian Nisei, worldly Angelenos, Berkeley academics, and San Joaquin Valley farmers, among many others. The center was located on land belonging to the Gila River Indian Community, comprising the Pima and Maricopa tribes. The reservation never authorized the building of a prison camp on its sacred land, but the federal government never asked for permission: Milton Eisenhower, the head of the WRA, did not want to relinquish control of the center to the Office of Indian Affairs, because of the camp’s potential for profitable agricultural production. Hence, the Office of Indian Affairs simply gave the WRA a five-year lease on 16,500 acres of land (as a quid pro quo, many of the camp’s administrators were Indian Affairs employees). The center opened on July 20, 1942, and closed on November 10, 1945. Two different camps existed at the center, three and a half miles apart—Butte and Canal—housing 13,348 internees at their peak. Two camp factories completed projects for the military: one made camouflage nets and the other, model warships; the latter produced eight hundred models for the U.S. Navy. Although summer temperatures averaged an unforgiving one hundred degrees, two other features distinguished Gila from the other nine camps: internees tilled and cultivated seven thousand “profitable” acres of crops through a vast, labor-intensive agricultural program; and Butte touted the best baseball diamond in all the camps, designed by “the Father of Japanese American Baseball” and Fresno internee Kenichi Zenimura.
The Kikuchis ended up in Butte, the “more cosmopolitan” of the camps, according to Robert Spencer, who had already been in camp for JERS and helped the family move in. Sharing unit 65-9-B with a Nisei couple, the family took their time getting used to the cramped and dusty barrack in the desert. For his part, Kikuchi not only continued his diary keeping for Thomas’s study, but also took a position with the camp’s social welfare unit, a job that fit his graduate work and exposed him to the lives of all types of Japanese living in camp. As he describes it, Gila was much more a “process of education” than Tanforan had been.
Up until that time, the Nisei to me was in a category that was more intellectual and academic. That started in the prewar situation and then also on the campus. Then making labels, “Nisei is this,” you know? And I think I continued some of that broad definition of categorizing Nisei, Japanese, country people … and it wasn’t until I got to Gila that I began to separate [out that] “this is an individual.”7
Instead of abstractions or theories about mainstream Nisei, Issei bachelors, or “hicks” from the country, Kikuchi could finally put much of what he had learned at Cal into practice and take a hands-on approach to people’s problems in the privacy of his welfare office. In the process of intimately getting to know these internees as individuals, he had to learn to forgo seeing groups or cliques within the camp as monolithic, and as a consequence, he began to soften and reconsider his previously less informed and less empathetic attitudes toward all of these discrete groups. Reflecting on this period decades later, Kikuchi conceded that Gila indeed had been a formative moment in his own process of becoming Nisei.
(p.140) If I hadn’t gone through that experience [in the social welfare unit], I probably would have gotten out of camp very rapidly. I would have had this brief exposure to the Japanese American society and that’s the end of it. But because I stayed for those seven months or so I suddenly became a Nisei although I did not take on all of the outward appendages of a Nisei.8
Fortunately for Kikuchi, his maturity relative to the rest of the Nisei population (the average age was twenty-two in Gila, seventeen in all camps) served as an anchor for the myriad changes he faced:
I had my own particular adjustments to make. But I saw that as part of the process of being Japanese American so that I didn’t have to fight it so much.
Furthermore, unlike many others in his position (e.g., Ichiro, the fictional protagonist of John Okada’s No-No Boy ) who were dealing with double or triple kinds of consciousness, Kikuchi stressed that he had gained enough perspective and had cultivated indispensable coping mechanisms before arriving at Gila. He concludes, “The fight was not internalized to that extent that I became immobilized or angry or confused.” Hindsight once again affected Kikuchi’s recollection of that evolution, since I would argue that, on the contrary, he had internalized the struggle for identity, as many young people in their midtwenties are wont to do (especially those with unconventional childhoods), while confronting a series of extreme external pressures. On the other hand, Kikuchi did at least offer substantive evidence for his claim of calm objectivity.
For example, he vividly recalled the case of an Issei farmer on whom the entire unit of social workers had given up. The older man faced inoperable stomach cancer, colostomy bag and all, and most likely suffered from encephalopathy—an inflammation of the brain common to end-stage cancer patients, which can cause hallucinatory spells. In his spiraling decline, the man had taken mercurochrome used for doctoring wounds, painted his bed sheet to look like a Japanese flag, and then stood on his bed and waved the flag, asserting his love of Japan and yelling at anyone who came into his hospital room. At one point, the staff attempted to send in a social worker—under Kikuchi’s charge—who could speak Japanese, in hopes of settling the addled man; instead, he threw a shoe at her and told her to leave. “So I decided I’d go see him,” Kikuchi remembers.
I had nothing to lose. At that point, when I entered his barracks room, I didn’t see him as a Japanese nationalist with a Japanese flag … I saw a dying individual who had to have something to justify his life. He felt that being a Japanese was something he could strongly identify with.9
Kikuchi’s intervention allowed the staff to get some food into the older man, and in time, the Issei calmed down enough to just sit and talk with Kikuchi during his final days. “I didn’t understand what he was saying,” recalled Kikuchi.
Kikuchi recognized that this was a significant turn in his thinking about the Japanese in America. As suggested above, he did not see the sick older man as a “nationalist,” but rather as an individual with a specific personality in a specific cultural context: a dying man who had farmed for all of his life without recognition and who now felt he had little connection to anything—except to his original home. Those particularities were what moved Kikuchi with regard to this case and pushed him further away from stereotyping, grouping, and “categorizing,” as he might put it. “I was able to accept it,” he says.
I didn’t see him as Japanese, whereas if he had been a well person and put up a Japanese flag, I would have reacted … “Well, he’s not being American enough. Why isn’t he speaking English to me?” This kind of behavior.
But the context was quite different, and Kikuchi’s knee-jerk impulse to derisively call all Japanese “Japs” was altered dramatically by intimate exposure to people with real-world problems and individual personalities. In his interview with Arthur Hansen, Kikuchi haltingly offered, “I think that whole experience of working with these individuals …” He paused in midsentence, took a moment, and resumed with redirected certainty: “I learned a lot in terms of the cultural factor in case work.”10
Contrast these observations with some of the first impressions recorded by Kikuchi when he first arrived with his siblings in Gila and scouted the available housing. While it is unsurprising for people to express trepidation under new circumstances, and groups or families tend to turn inward, territorial, and isolationist under extreme pressure—like moving into a barbed-wire camp with military overseers—Kikuchi’s commentary is still quite cutting, markedly condescending in its tone. On September 2, 1942, he wrote:
The next place we went to, there were some old Issei in the place. “Old Frog Voice” raised great objections to anybody moving into his domain … The old lady in there was one of those rural, Japanese types—very crude and rude.11
Emiko and Bette, the two youngest sisters did not like it there and, “made many disparaging remarks about the Japanese ‘hicks.’”12 After two days in camp, Kikuchi had already seen enough of the rural Japanese to say:
I know I don’t like their messhall manners. They come in all sloppy and sit down and gobble up their food without saying one word all throughout the meal. There seems to be a very large percentage of the Issei group eating at our messhall. They don’t even ask for anything—just reach right over your plate and grab it. Some of the waitresses are Issei women and there is much more Japanese spoken here than in the Tanforan group.13
(p.142) Even in the microcosm of the dining hall, many different elements blur in Kikuchi’s mind at this early point, mostly descriptors with a negative connotation: Issei, rural, working class (waitresses and farmers), and the Japanese language. With little sense of irony, the family longs for Tanforan—the horse-stall barracks—because of its Bay Area cosmopolitanism. Their conflation of disparate elements of the Japanese—as monolithically “Jap” or as the singular Other—is troubling but not necessarily unexpected; nor is it a type of chauvinism exclusive to the Nisei.
The historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, for example, defines “the politics of respectability” as a forceful dynamic sprung from the tensions felt by middle-class Blacks, established in cities like Chicago when southern working-class migrants arrived to take advantage of industrial job opportunities. Although Higginbotham’s analytical model referred specifically to the women’s movement in the Black Baptist church (1900–1920), it nevertheless provides a useful precedent for the phenomenon the Kikuchis experienced a generation later. She writes:
Respectability demanded that every individual in the black community assume responsibility for behavioral self-regulation and self-improvement along moral, educational, and economic lines. The goal was to distance oneself as far as possible from images perpetuated by racist stereotypes. Individual behavior, the black Baptist women contended, determined the collective fate of African Americans.14
Unquestionably, this type of strained relationship and high set of expectations informed Kikuchi’s view of his rustic campmates:
They have very few college people and the leaders are the doctors and church people … The rural element can be seen in all of these mothers sitting out in the porch, breast feeding their babies. Nobody pays any attention to them.15
With a petulant flourish, Kikuchi insists: “In Tanforan, I did not see one baby being breast fed in the open.”
For all of the family’s insecure classism and judgment, however, one can still detect a minor shift in Kikuchi’s thinking as he spent more time in Gila. As described above, acknowledging his fellow internees as individuals within certain cultural contexts laid a sturdy foundation. A handful of factors helped weaken his biting rhetoric and boorish behavior. First, Kikuchi began to take his role as the oldest brother more seriously; early in their Gila experience, the only family members present were Charles and three younger siblings—Emiko, Bette, and Tom. Especially at that point, he realized how important his influence could be. At one point, he berated himself: “I am afraid that Tom is reflecting some of my attitudes as he makes remarks about those ‘Japs’ [who] don’t know how to speak English at all.”16 After confessing this in his diary, as if in penance, he immediately went on to describe the “clever” rock garden an older Japanese had begun building, as well as “a beautiful baby crib” the former carpenter put together (p.143) with some extra lumber. To provide shade, other neighbors had constructed “real fancy” extensions for their barracks, “porches … done with an Oriental type of architecture.” His observations then turned even more attentively to the agricultural prowess of the “country people”:
A large percentage look like they have been used to manual labor all of their lives and they are pretty healthy. I see them in the shower rooms in the evenings and they look all muscles and are tanned from the outdoor life—although many of them are gnarled and almost bent over. So far I have seen very few of the soft fat type of man who has lived an easy life.
Perhaps unconsciously feeling guilty about what he had said about these “Japs” to his younger brother, Kikuchi expressed a genuine respect for these hard-working people he initially deemed “hicks.” He continued:
Even the women around here look as if they have been used to hard work all of their lives … They wear the simplest hair dresses and no makeup. In this camp, many of these farm women will no doubt live a much easier existence.
His admiration does not seem at all canned at this point; in fact, Kikuchi sounds as if the sun-drenched images of these lean, unadorned workers remind him that not too long ago he too was stooping to pick vegetables in the valley and migrating from summer job to summer job just so he could pay his college tuition. In comparison, these country folk labored year-round. Kikuchi understood the dignity of that reality: “6,975 acres of this land has already been used for alfalfa for the past 5 years.” He then intimated that the vast acreage will pose little challenge for these skilled rural folk: “There is a large percentage of the farming people in this camp so that they will not lack for experienced hands.”17
At Cal, Kikuchi had consciously avoided the so-called mainstream Nisei, those who might have formed the Nisei Club and stayed within the self-segregating circle of Nisei. He took pride, as well as great comfort, in being on the margin of that mainstream group, largely because he could safely critique the parochialism he attributed to those by-the-book Nisei from a distance. The radical Nisei—Kikuchi, Tsuneishi, Shibutani, Murase, Ota et al.—clung to a highly intellectualized, nearly self-abnegating discourse. As budding sociologists and social workers, they believed that integration (unlike assimilation, which seemed like a capitulation to exclusively white, middle-class values) was the proper course for Japanese Americans of the younger generation. Kikuchi therefore appeared more a radical reformer from the edge of the mainstream group (but still within its orbit) than any kind of expatriate revolutionary from outside the sociocultural group. In many ways, then, Kikuchi’s evolving self-identification as a Nisei at Gila was not entirely surprising. As was the case with many Nisei during the internment, a surplus of external enemies provided easy targets toward whom all the Nikkei community could direct its collective anger—including the internal security chief W. E. Williamson, who conducted a witch hunt for disloyal internees; (p.144) the ill-prepared WRA administration; and the feckless head of Kikuchi’s welfare unit, William Tuttle.
For example, when Tuttle took over the social welfare unit, he arrived in the winter of 1942–1943, just as the desert weather quickly worsened. During this time, Kikuchi was in charge of basic amenities like housing and clothing; he would dispense it to the neediest or most indigent in the camp community. However, the WRA employed a strict means test—whether an internee qualified for welfare based on a predetermined maximum of money—before assigning housing or giving out staples like blankets or winter clothing. Completely oblivious of the season’s conditions, Tuttle followed strict protocol, expecting those working under him to check internees’ bank accounts (if they had one) to determine who qualified for winter clothing and who did not. This struck inmates as the height of absurdity, just as it did one of the unit’s own employees, Kikuchi. He recalled:
I felt that that was not really the function of the welfare department: to be involved in determining whether the evacuee had sufficient funds for clothing or whatever. I thought you should just give it to them. And that was not the function of the social worker: to decide whether that person deserved it or not. That was not the role. The role of the worker was to help in every possible way. And I guess I felt that if you had to bend the rules, you bent the rules.18
Therefore, Kikuchi gave evacuees blankets or whatever necessity they requested, obviating the humiliation and impracticality of applying a means test to a people already disenfranchised. This particular situation—an inane, cut-rate bureaucracy laced with explicit racism—helped close the gap between Kikuchi’s cartoon definitions of Nisei, Issei, Kibei, rural, or single, and reality. “Even though it might have been very dishonest from someone else’s criteria,” he remembered,
I did not see that as dishonest. I just looked at it as a need on the part of the individuals. And whether I had feelings about that person being Americanized or not had nothing to do with it. He needed it. That, in the end, proved to be part of my education in accepting people as individuals.19
Changing Lenses: “The Hansen Thesis”
Kikuchi’s every move, his every thought was recorded, whether he achieved success or suffered failure. The uncertainty, the ambivalence, and the angst felt by the rest of us in agonizing experiences usually go unnoticed and thankfully undocumented for scores of people to see and judge. For Kikuchi, however, his life was and remains an open book to any reader. All of us are cracked vessels, free to make errors in the privacy of our own lives. In many ways, though, like most “public” intellectuals (admittedly, a loose term for Kikuchi), he did not have that (p.145) luxury; his limitations and blind spots stand up on the page as much as his valiant ideas and courageous acts. In this context, then, what I term “the Hansen thesis” (after the scholar Arthur A. Hansen) provides clarity and another helpful road map through this intellectual’s peripatetic life.20
Most importantly, Hansen convincingly makes the case that Kikuchi underwent three distinct stages of identity formation. First, from his time as a child growing up in the multiethnic orphanage (1924–1934) at Lytton Springs through his tenure with the Yamato Garage Gang and his concurrent four years at racially and economically diverse San Francisco State (1935–1939), Kikuchi was exposed to an unusual but nurturing set of multiracial milieus. Therefore, by 1940, Kikuchi had established a strong, foundational multiracial identity. Second, through his NYA study of the Nisei and especially during his time at Cal, Kikuchi took a genuine interest in the Nisei “genus.” Granted, Kikuchi also wore it as a badge of honor that along with the era’s phenomenal cadre of budding Nisei intellectuals, he was still on the margin of the mainstream Nisei, those “squares” who flocked to the Nisei Club, the Berkeley Fellowship, and Nisei churches. Even if he considered himself a radical on that margin, though, Kikuchi was nonetheless within the larger group’s orbit and understood clearly what it meant to be identified as Nisei. Furthermore, his incarceration at Tanforan and his dedicated (but ultimately censored) commitment to the Totalizer was another sign of his growing political consciousness as a Nisei, while the numerous bull sessions he enjoyed with left-leaning cosmopolitan liberals like the Korematsu brothers, Tsuda, and the Kunitanis only solidified his credentials as a Nisei leader by the time he reached Gila.
Third, what he described to Hansen as “becoming Nisei” might more accurately be translated as his “becoming Nikkei.” The “cracked vessel” analogy comes back into play here, since Kikuchi was simultaneously guilty of bald-faced chauvinist and elitist views toward Issei bachelors, the farmers, and the porch women who breast-fed in broad daylight while also feeling deep respect for the bent but unbroken bodies of the Issei farmers and doling out clothing and cold-weather supplies to poor families who would not have passed the WRA’s means test. His Nikkei identity, then, augmented the layered foundation of his multiracial Nisei identity. It should also be noted that various factors during his incarceration at Gila finally opened Kikuchi up to the possibility of identifying himself, with qualification, as Nikkei: his frustration with the WRA; his contentious position in the Gila JACL; his connection to this intergenerational community through the social welfare unit; and his wading into the violent Issei-Nisei political maelstrom in camp. Kikuchi realized that the cultural markers did not matter as much anymore: he needed to see each person as an individual (including himself), even if he or she had different cultural politics. Recognizing his own Nisei-ness, or his own Nikkei-ness, within this uniquely experiential context, he could feel part of an even larger body, like a member of another “family,” with all of its challenging complexities and global networks: that is, of a piece with the Japanese diaspora.
The irony here is that Kikuchi’s American or democratic urge toward individualism (and toward seeing his fellow evacuees as individuals) belied the deep tension among the multiple groups at Gila that grew out of cultural expectations of abiding by a generational hierarchy. As Arthur Hansen and Paul Spickard have previously demonstrated, cultural politics and institutional politics (in the form of camp councils or the JACL) were in contested flux throughout the war. Using a wide lens, Spickard correctly asserts that Pearl Harbor brought about the diminishing role of the Issei in Japanese American communities before evacuation:
Whole Japanese communities were paralyzed by the FBI raids. They were left leaderless. The Issei who remained did not have the skills of leadership, or they refused to risk being arrested themselves … The institutional processes of the Japanese American communities nearly ground to a halt. The only Japanese American organization in a position to deal with the crisis was the JACL.21
Under the new leadership of its executive secretary, Mike Masaoka, a Nisei, the JACL trumpeted the notion that the second generation, “not the Issei of the Japanese Associations, were the true leaders of their communities.”22 Furthermore, as seen in Common Ground, Masaoka had written the “Japanese American Creed,” an explicit pro-U.S. manifesto, which he paired with a movement to completely dissociate the JACL from the Issei. When FDR issued Executive Order 9066, however, the JACL offered little resistance, appearing passive and complicit. Many of the groups in camp, regardless of affiliation, believed that the league had identified the radical and dangerous elements of the communities to the authorities before evacuation. As rumor and resentment spread, then, Masaoka and the accommodationist JACL looked like the Nisei version of Uncle Tom. Hansen adds:
So great, in fact, was the animosity toward the JACL by the time of the community’s incarceration in assembly centers that they tagged many of the leaders with the pernicious label of inu (dog; informer) and threatened them with, or administered, beatings. Accordingly, the WCCA administration prudently adopted a policy disallowing formal organization of JACL chapters.23
Kikuchi, for his part, could not stand the JACL before his arrival in Gila. Along with other progressive Nisei intellectuals at Cal and in the state college system, he vociferously opposed their jingoistic cheerleading before the war and continued to express his distaste for the organization throughout his Tanforan stint. For example, during community elections in the summer of 1942, Kikuchi said of one JACL leader at Tanforan: “He dominates the present council and bootlicks like hell for personal advancement.” He continues, “These God damn JACL’s … They are not even aware of the problem as a whole and yet they profess to be the leaders (p.147) of the Nisei.”24 Spickard elaborates on this oppositional group of progressive intellectuals: “Like the JACL, they were intensely patriotic; but they had more concern for the maintenance of civil liberties.” After citing Gordon Hirabayashi’s conscientious stand against the evacuation (for which he spent ninety days in prison and whose case came before the Supreme Court), he points out:
Their education and political liberalism cut them off from the people in their communities, for few Issei had been past grammar school and most Japanese Americans were relatively conservative. These liberals were talented but unorganized. They could oppose the JACL as individuals, but they could do little to unseat it.25
In the end, Spickard argues, the mainstream Nisei assumed leadership of the JACL, assiduously attempting to speak for all Japanese Americans during the internment and serving as the liaison between governmental agencies and the communities.
The Issei, generally speaking, saw the wisdom of stepping back from leadership roles that might attract too much unwanted attention during the war. But in Gila River, Hansen argues, the Issei in Canal camp put up a fight for less public but culturally important (and ultimately powerful) leadership positions, resulting in the blacklisting and beating of prominently positioned Nisei or other Japanese sympathetic to those camp leaders. The WRA wanted the Nisei in positions of public leadership because, compared to the Issei, they were more Americanized, spoke English fluently (thereby facilitating the transaction of any official camp business), and appeared less hostile toward the WRA. Additionally, the power structure established by the WRA prioritized Temporary Community Councils, which could be made up only of Nisei or American-born Kibei citizens, explicitly leaving the alien Issei without representation. This form of governance profoundly offended the Issei, especially those in Canal who were largely from rural areas in the Sacramento Valley delta and the San Joaquin Valley (Butte, where Kikuchi lived, contained a better cross-section of urban, rural, and suburban internees). Disgruntled evacuees expected the administration and the younger generation to observe a particular hierarchy with deep roots in Japanese cultural norms, a practice rarely obeyed by the quickly Americanizing Nisei (with the exception of the rural, valley Nisei).
By November 1942, things came to a head when the Issei acted upon their frustration over deteriorating camp conditions. Hansen states:
Living quarters were inadequate, stoves had not arrived, the food lacked quality, clothing allowances were short, and toilet and washing facilities were abominable … The Issei blamed camp conditions on a system whereby the government, army, WRA, and camp authorities had ignored the natural leaders of the Japanese American community, and leaned on an artificial “leadership” of inexperienced, incompetent, and misguided citizen appointees.26
(p.148) Forming an oppositional force under the aegis of the Ken-Kyu-Kai (“study group”), the Issei took on much more actual power in Canal. Its membership “overlapped and interpenetrated a medley of formal and informal internee groups emphasizing Japanese cultural forms and practices,” including the Kibei Club, the Sumo Club, the drama and literary clubs, the Zen Buddhists, and the Judo Club, among others.27 While it theoretically was a group organized to study the poor conditions of the camp, the Ken-Kyu-Kai instead met to target certain camp leaders who sympathized with the WRA-appointed Nisei or the administration itself, as well as other high-profile positions, like the editors of the camp newspaper or the wardens appointed to police their own people. Fed up with what they perceived as favoritism and sycophancy, five members of this informal Issei-led coalition attacked and severely beat Takeo Tada, a Kibei-Nisei, on November 30.
Tada’s crime? He appeared to be too close to the administrations of his assembly center (Turlock) and relocation center (Gila). Tada had been in charge of clothing and coupons for the Turlock store when shortages seriously affected Issei and Kibei bachelors, leaving them without clothing allotments or any coupons with which to buy supplies at the camp store. Even though Tada was not responsible for the shortage, many of his fellow Turlock campmates still carried a lingering resentment against him when they all relocated to Arizona. Appointed to the Temporary Community Council and the Community Activities Section at Gila, Tada did little to assuage any of the Ken-Kyu-Kai’s concerns when, because of circumstances beyond his control, he failed to procure enough equipment and supplies for the camp’s numerous recreational clubs. To add insult to perceived injury, Tada—in his capacity as liaison and spokesperson for the camp administration—denied recognition to the Kibei Club and would not provide it with any meeting space. That was the last straw for the Ken-Kyu-Kai crew. Tada seemingly represented everything they detested about the Nisei leadership: he was a self-promoting university graduate who was cozy with white administration leaders, a JACL supporter who was a member of the WRA-handpicked Community Council. At Canal, therefore, a line was drawn in the sand: you were either with the Issei or against them.
Meanwhile, over at Butte camp, contrary to all his normal instincts, Kikuchi was considering membership in the Gila chapter of the JACL (notably, the only chapter established at any of the relocation centers). On November 4, he was elected secretary. As a consequence, and given his role in community affairs (as part of the housing and social welfare unit) and his associations with prominent Nisei, Kikuchi was beat up by unknown assailants on December 23, an event that understandably frightened him and fueled his desire to leave camp as soon as possible and resettle. More surprising than his being assaulted, however, was his puzzling about-face on the JACL. Consider Kikuchi’s own reaction to his election. Calling himself a “hypocrite,” he wrote:
I almost fell over when they announced that I was elected. I had just gone to the meeting to “observe” and I never had been a member and was opposed (p.149) to the group. I’m not even a paid-up member! What a joke! When Shibs, Mitch, and some of my other “radical” friends hear of this, they will roar with laughter.28
Kidding aside, two legitimate factors influenced Kikuchi to take the risk of joining this “targeted” group. First, Kikuchi’s partner and confidant on JERS, Spencer, convinced Kikuchi to attend the meetings, if for no other reason than to gather data for their field reports to Thomas. Kikuchi had already begun speaking with members of the Kibei Club, so Spencer thought coverage of more “groups” in camp would make for a thorough accounting. As mentioned above, Spencer was an anthropologist by trade, one who had studied many of the traditional elements of Japanese culture, and throughout his partnership, he encouraged Kikuchi to view particular events as cultural practices rather than as overtly political acts of Japanese nationalism. “I wouldn’t have done it otherwise,” Kikuchi recalled.
But Bob said, “Go to the sumo matches,” and all these little festivals that he dragged me to. So I learned a lot. [I thought,] “It’s funny, I’m learning about Japanese culture.”29
As noted above, his attitude toward “all things Japanese” correspondingly improved from negative to comically “tentative” (what would pass for “positive” for any other person).
Second, what started out as an intellectual exercise for him evolved into a potential reform movement:
Maybe I can help them push the program of Americanization even to the point of the parting of the ways with the Issei, if necessary. The leaders of the JACL here are the leaders in the community. The group is the closest thing to a liberal group that I will find here. Shouting from without won’t do much good. It also does place me in a position where I may get to know the leaders well.30
He concludes the entry by joking, “I can just hear Warren [Tsuneishi] saying: ‘Alas, poor Charles, I knew him well, /Before he joined the Stuffy JACL!’” Perhaps exceedingly naïve, Kikuchi thought the JACL—as the “most liberal” of groups at Gila and the bane of Canal’s Issei population—could provide the vehicle (or even just a conduit) for the kind of Americanizing that Kikuchi envisioned: integration rather than assimilation; a break with overtly Japanese practices; and a strong national voice through intellectual journalists, like Tajiri, the editor of the Pacific Citizen, who always wrote opinions as if he were solidly to the left of the entire JACL.
What appears remarkable is that forty-six years later, Kikuchi remembered his written rationale above almost word for word (with no checking of his diary during the interview), confirming many friends’ claims that he possessed a photographic memory:
(p.150) I had early on arrived at a decision that, “Well, if you can’t beat them, join them and see what you can do from within.” I honestly believed that maybe if the JACL chapter in Gila could get well organized that they could do a lot of things in terms of the goals that I myself believed in … The JACL leaders that I had met in Gila seemed to be of a much more liberal personality … I really thought that by pushing JACL membership that I might be able to affect its policy to some extent and to help it to develop as a strong force in the community.31
He remained well aware that the league’s larger reputation was overwhelmingly negative, and he underestimated the staying power of its historical standing: his dream of transforming it was noble but, frankly, naïve. The older members of the community had already taken so much from hostile parties (the government, the WCCA, and some Nisei) that they were not going to remain passive any longer, especially toward those who were supposed to be representing their interests and rights. One of Kikuchi’s closest friends in Gila was an older like-minded Nisei named Ken Tashiro, an editor for the Gila News-Courier and an officer in the JACL. Given how much he respected Tashiro, their friendship alone might have been the major reason for Kikuchi’s joining the Gila chapter. However, the friendship also stigmatized Kikuchi in the eyes of the more conservative elements in camp, including the Ken-Kyu-Kai in Canal. To these Issei, Tashiro’s leadership in the JACL was offense enough, but his close ties to Tajiri through the national newspaper put him over the top. Therefore, guilty by association, Kikuchi was considered inu, a possible informant to the camp administration. And near the end of December, he literally and physically absorbed their message.
Before that fateful night, though, Kikuchi kept his word and aggressively conducted a recruitment drive for the JACL, especially among the youngest generation of Nisei, even when confronted with widespread Issei parental disapproval. He enjoyed some success: the Gila chapter of the league ultimately boasted nearly a thousand members. In the process of recruitment, however, he gained a strong sense of the generational divide among the Nikkei as a whole, but this time, instead of simply dismissing the Issei, as he would have only months before in Tanforan, he genuinely tried to understand their motivations for such staunch opposition. For example, the federal government had given Gila the camouflage-net project for internees to work on and explicitly demonstrate their contribution to the war effort. Kikuchi reported that the evacuee head of the net project was having trouble garnering enough community support for the job, and, worse, this leader had already received threats from the older groups. “As usual,” Kikuchi opined,
some Kibei and Issei are opposed to the net project because they do not want the evacuees to help the government in any way. There has been a deliberate rumor started that the J.A.C.L. got the net project here in an effort to discredit the organization. As if the J.A.C.L. has that much influence!32
(p.151) A little further along in that day’s entry, he tempered his frustration toward the anti-JACL Issei and Kibei by emphasizing an anecdote from his day in housing and welfare. Sixty-nine-year-old Mr. Ikeda (an Issei) was desperately looking for a job so that he could provide clothing and sundry essentials for himself and his elderly wife. Unfortunately, most employment was already spoken for: in the mess halls, Issei women filled the majority of positions, and Nisei workers almost exclusively filled spots on the camouflage-net project. What is more, Ikeda was much too old to exert himself in any open slot. Kikuchi noted that Ikeda
had a slip from the doctor saying that he wasn’t strong enough to work and [that] he recommended welfare assistance. But Ikeda wanted to work. Because of his needs, he had to accept the welfare.
After muscling a grant of five dollars for Ikeda from the unit, Kikuchi then declared with sympathy: “This was quite a blow to his pride.”33 As he returned to his barrack, Kikuchi found a package from the old man, a gift. His reaction is a striking measure of just how far Kikuchi had come in his conscious efforts to understand the Issei as individuals rather than as one large collective opposing the Nisei. Kikuchi observed:
I was extremely angry. At first I thought that it may have been a bribe on his part. Then I stopped to think of his past actions and I realized that this gift was an expression … of an independent attitude. It made him feel good to show me that he still had money left which he could spend as he pleased. His motives were of the best.34
Being a man of strong “independent attitude” himself, Kikuchi could appreciate Ikeda’s generous gesture, one born out of cultural and personal pride as well as the custom of “saving face.” Whereas Kikuchi would previously have skewered Ikeda for being too “Japanese-y” and traditional, or not “Americanized enough” and a “Jap,” he now distinguished the man behind sixty-nine years of labor, the individual struggling in the middle of an Arizona desert, and the husband and wife just trying to do their best under the worst of circumstances. Kikuchi was not only doing his job as a social worker in the welfare unit, but also performing the morally appropriate duty of serving “the least of these.” Ironically, through his commitment to seeing and valuing individuals in the community, Kikuchi was slowly, surely becoming a member of the entire Nikkei family.
Slipping Inside the Breaks and Looking Around
That same winter of 1942, Kikuchi recounted an afternoon’s passing conversation. “I was walking over by the Butte this afternoon and I stopped to talk about the camp with a Negro workman who was digging postholes for the fence which is going around the place,” he writes. The young African American asked Kikuchi about the loyalty of Japanese Americans, and disappointed to discover that the (p.152) majority of Nisei (including Kikuchi) pledged allegiance to the United States, the workman responded:
Boy, you are making a mistake. Why should you be loyal to a country that don’t want you? … This is a white man’s country and all the colored peoples of this world has got to change this so that I can get a good job just like a white man and I don’t have to dig post holes to lock you Japanese up who are born in California. You help this country out and they will turn around and give you a kick in the pants afterwards.
I suggested that maybe these things would be changed with a democratic victory, but he thought I was crazy. “Man, you read too many books. Too much education make you believe something that don’t come true. The white man don’t ever give you a chance. I should know that.”
Kikuchi reflected on this dialogue:
What a joke! Here I am, a person conceited enough to think that I am just as good an American as anybody, but I have to be put behind a fence dug by a black man who doesn’t even feel that this is his country … It just doesn’t make any sense. In wartime, nothing is ever rational.35
Both the exasperation of the anonymous workman and the subsequent surprise expressed by Kikuchi represent only a fraction of the emotions involved in a number of interactions between Japanese Americans and African Americans during this period. Issues regarding political alliance, military segregation, common legal battles, intercultural “exchange,” housing, and intermarriage gained more prominence as the two minorities met each other more frequently in neighborhoods, at work, on the street, and even within the confines of a concentration camp. Kikuchi systematically recorded and analyzed such newfound and complicated interactions in his diary, providing persuasive firsthand knowledge of and evidence for arguably the watershed era in relations between African Americans and Japanese Americans.
While Blacks and Japanese had interacted before this time, they had never previously been forced—in such large numbers and with such regularity—to share urban spaces so intimately, compete for similar jobs so intensely, or agitate for civil rights with such collective might. In the wake of the evacuation in the winter of 1942, abandoned homes and apartments in “Little Tokyos” were quickly rented to African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Filipino Americans. By the end of the war, in 1945, the government permitted Japanese Americans to return to their former neighborhoods, filled now with a host of other minorities. Both relieved at their regained freedom and fearful of nativist violence, Issei and Nisei clustered once again in Nihonmachi (San Francisco), Little Tokyo–Bronzeville (Los Angeles), and Yesler Way (Seattle). Others joined small but established communities in Chicago (as the Kikuchis would), New York, and New (p.153) Jersey, in cities that also housed significant Black populations. Hence, this deliberate relocation left African Americans and Japanese Americans in the city little choice but to interact in both public and intimate spaces. The next decade, however, would witness substantial “yellow flight” out of the so-called ghetto, and by 1970, as mentioned in the introduction, the number of mainland communities where two Japanese American families lived next to each other barely registered demographically.36 To take one specific and relevant case: between 1942 and 1950, approximately thirty thousand Japanese Americans settled in Chicago; by 1960, only fifteen thousand remained.37 Given these statistics, the 1940s proved crucial in the historically significant interaction between Nisei and African Americans.
Kikuchi’s narrative fills the interstices between conventional African American and Asian American history, demonstrating that both are more complicated and more interconnected than we have been led to believe.38 The lineages of these allegedly “discrete” histories are not pure and unmixed. In fact, there was much cross-pollination between the races—either for political advantage, ideological exchange, strategic organizing, or even for love, in the form of intermarriage; for example, as mentioned earlier, Kikuchi’s younger sister Bette married an African American postal worker named Gene Orro. Japanese Americans did not always choose whiteness, and sometimes inhabited what Craig Wilder has previously termed “a situational Blackness,” a type of active resistance to the status quo and a refusal to be imprisoned by what would eventually be called “the model minority myth.”39 These individual rebellions, like that of Kikuchi, contributed to a culture of dissent, social reform, and individual agency: a type of interracial counterpublic. The histories and conversations embedded within that culture reveal what ultimately limited those individuals or what limited their society in the quest for long-lasting interracial alliances. Their history also reveals what was possible.
Kikuchi’s understanding of the relationship of the local to the global helped him contextualize the Japanese American predicament within a larger racialized framework that had dismissively elided the “problems” of the Negro, the Oriental, and the immigrant. In many ways, the experience of racially driven, institutionalized internment simply reinforced his belief in the necessity of multiracial and multiethnic alliances and in the insidious interconnectedness of racism on many fronts. Kikuchi rejected the false comparisons between Blacks and Asians imposed by white America, unequivocally refusing to play a game of racial competition—pitting protest minority against model minority—thereby allowing for his principled appeal for interracial coalitions.40 Much like the wartime slogan of African Americans—“Double Victory”—Kikuchi dreamt of tyranny overcome abroad and democracy achieved at home.
For him, assimilation was not simply a stamping out of Old World cultures, customs, and languages. Rather, it required both the genuine acceptance of New Americans by Old Americans, and the nation’s full commitment to integration—not erasure—of the diversity of its minority and immigrant cultures (in a nod to his mentor Adamic). What is more, Kikuchi felt that the stories of Nisei and other minorities had to be shared and their situations defined (much in the way (p.154) W. I. had encouraged). Given his varied experiences as a migratory farm laborer, an internee, and an active social worker with minorities before and after camp, Kikuchi envisioned a democracy that was truly multiracial and multiethnic, one that could address both racial and socioeconomic dilemmas in more expansive terms. American democracy, as he knew it, had consciously enslaved and interned its own people—making it no different from the fascism bleeding Europe and Asia.41
As evidence, Kikuchi observed the following in the autumn of 1942, after his arrival at Gila:
It does seem a little inconsistent that our war aims conflict with what is carried on in this country in many states. Evacuation of the Japanese is just one small, but important part of it. The problem of our 13 million Negro population is much larger.
He then cited greater implications:
Treatment of colored people in this country is directly connected to our “aim” to free the colored people abroad … If the ideals of the Atlantic Charter are carried through it certainly will make a difference to the Negroes, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, and other non-caucasian groups living in this country.42
He situates the “Negro problem” within a larger wartime and global context, prefiguring the efforts of participants in the Bandung Conference of 1955, including Carlos Romulo (Philippines), Jawaharlal Nehru (India), and Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana).43 Kikuchi thus represented a notable departure from the Asian American intellectual tradition. A progressive, he steadfastly adhered to the primary organizing principle of his philosophy: genuine acceptance of and equality for African Americans was not only the crucial starting point but also the key to a successful democracy in America and globally. Other racial and ethnic minorities should not only follow in the footsteps of African American freedom fighters but also support them in the midst of their ongoing struggle.
Kikuchi, it must be remembered, was a victim of child abuse. After his parents had placed him in an orphanage in Healdsburg, he created a surrogate family of his own among “brothers” who were African American, Native American, Mexican, Chinese, and white. As the discussion of “the Hansen thesis” above suggests, this unique situation prepared Kikuchi for numerous interracial and interethnic relationships later in life, and made multiracial environments seem natural, familiar. The childhood period of abuse and abandonment not only fueled his disdain for his father, but also made Kikuchi particularly aware and protective of African Americans, the most severely abused members of the American family. Their “problem” was his problem. Once again, when African Americans fully achieved the rights of citizenship, the breakthrough would serve as a hard-won catalyst for other marginalized groups seeking their rightful turn in the democratic debate: this signified his one and only article of faith.
(p.155) To demonstrate the broadly constructed lens Kikuchi used in viewing the “problems” of all people of color, consider the following conversation he had with an American Indian inside Gila in the fall of 1942. The young Arizonan delivered evacuees’ mail from camp to the local post office beyond the confines of Gila, driving approximately 125 miles every day for his route. “He was very sympathetic to the people here,” Kikuchi recalled,
and thought it was a shame that such discrimination goes on. He asked if the MP’s [military police] ever beat up any of the people. Some of the Indians in his village think that this is the case and they feel very sorry for us.44
The man told Kikuchi that he would like to visit during one of the holidays so that he could witness Japanese customs, but Kikuchi told him that they “did not celebrate any Japanese holidays,” because they were “mostly Americans.” He cautioned Kikuchi about the postwar period:
If I were in your place, I would be afraid of going out for private jobs because of all the white people around here [who] hate you people for starting the war. I don’t think you are to blame at all.
In a fascinating glimpse of the obstacles that lie in the way of interracial alliances, the man admitted that the local Native Americans also hated Japanese Americans immediately after Pearl Harbor, but after “many of them got jobs around the place and became acquainted with the people, they changed their minds and thought the evacuees were all right.” Additionally, noted Kikuchi,
He thought that we got treated worse than the Negroes, so I had to explain to him that we were making very good progress in California and the other coast states.
After the young Native expressed the opinion that “Indians were probably Asiatics and related to the Japanese,” Kikuchi repeated his own call for solidarity: “I told him to be on guard against racial propaganda, because all of the minority groups should work together to see if we could solve the whole minority problem in this country instead of looking to Asia or Hitler.” In a final statement particularly fitting given the setting, the young man “said that he was a good American, but sometimes he did not get treated as one.” Kikuchi understood this sentiment completely.
Diagnosing the Problem
In 1944, Myrdal pinpointed American’s dilemma, arguing that the nation had utterly failed to live up to its creed—generally defined as the lofty ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity for all—by consistently and often violently depriving African Americans of participation in the democratic process:
(p.156) In principle the Negro problem was settled long ago; in practice the solution is not effectuated. The Negro in America has not yet been given the elemental civil and political rights of formal democracy, including a fair opportunity to earn his living, upon which a general accord was already won when the American Creed was first taking form.45
Kikuchi’s own lifelong quest to solve, or at least, address, this dilemma necessitated an expansive vision of what America was. While he certainly demonstrated his loyalty to the nation (e.g., by enlisting in the army), Kikuchi was not blinded by any notion of American exceptionalism. Rather, he expressed a greater loyalty to the ideal of democracy, looking forward to substantially transforming the definition of “Americanism” in the postwar years.46 In examining the diaries written between 1942 and 1945, one finds that this struggle required a highly critical, sometimes contradictory, but invariably persistent scrutiny of America’s democracy and its potential to be a multiracial one. Like Myrdal, or Cayton and Drake, Kikuchi believed the most crucial element for fulfilling the democratic creed lay deep within Black America.
Although he often called for a banding together of “the colored races,” at other points in his diary Kikuchi acknowledges the difficulty in forming such “colored” alliances. In particular, he recognizes the challenges unique to African Americans, especially those posed by his fellow Japanese Americans. From Gila, he wrote:
Some funny fellow put a sign in our latrine today: “For Japs only. Niggers use the ditch!” I tore it down. I have seen little outward race prejudice among the residents here so far, but they definitely hold bias against certain colored groups.47
Kikuchi had gained firsthand knowledge of Japanese prejudice toward African Americans before his arrival in camp. In his diary for November 1942, Kikuchi remembered a prewar incident at Berkeley:
[Last] semester I took a Negro friend to a Nisei dance and the reception was horrible. He was ignored completely; there was an obvious reaction of disdain. Afterwards he said to me: “I feel like I was isolated. Why should the Japanese girls have such an arrogant contempt?”
Kikuchi ends the entry quizzically: “Could it be that these Nisei are compensating through projection—blaming others for their own failures?”48 Despite looking for therapeutic explanations, he could not find easy, definitive answers.
He himself was not completely innocent of falling prey to simplistic theories of race when considering questions of inferiority. “Race prejudice works two ways,” he postulated at Gila.
If a group feels superior and another minority group acts submissive, the feeling is bound to become more intensified and accepted. I doubt if the Nisei around here will get that submissive attitude which I have noticed among the Negro workers here.49
(p.157) On the other hand, Kikuchi made no claim about the innate inferiority of Mexicans and Blacks (as Myrdal later would), but rather focused on the economic straitjacket imposed on both minorities from without. Class still intersected with race much more prominently in Kikuchi’s incomplete calculus at this point:
Prejudice against the Japanese arose in large part from economic competition. The Japanese arose beyond the level of a ready available labor force to be exploited, whereas the Mexicans and Negroes in this state are still in a submerged status.50
Two years later, in 1944, highlighting what he similarly considered the more difficult task lying ahead for African Americans, Myrdal stated:
The Negroes do not, like the Japanese and the Chinese, have a politically organized nation and an accepted culture of their own outside of America to fall back upon. Unlike the Oriental, there attaches to the Negro an historical memory of slavery and inferiority. It is more difficult for them to answer prejudice with prejudice, and, as the Orientals may do, to consider themselves and their history superior to the white Americans and their recent cultural achievements. The Negroes do not have these fortifications for self-respect.51
As far as a commonly shared, traditional “outside culture” serving as a protective shield or touchstone for Asians, Myrdal’s assumption may have held up if he had been strictly speaking of the older generation, the Issei, but with each successive generation of Japanese in America, ties to the old country surely wore thinner and thinner. In the postwar era, Nisei who had experienced internment especially deemphasized any common, older culture and tried to avoid looking too clannish, because they knew all too well the consequences.
The issue of language provides an instructive example: even though many Nisei attended Japanese-language schools, in addition to their full days at conventional American public schools, language retention remained weak. According to Hosokawa,
In the early days of World War I, the U.S. Army interviewed 3,700 Nisei in a search for men to be recruited for intelligence work. Only 10 percent were sufficiently fluent in Japanese to be useful to their country.52
Certainly, failure of language retention alone does not signify complete abandonment of Japanese culture, but as Miyamoto notes, something was lost in translation:
Nisei spoke poor Japanese. We could only talk about everyday things with our parents. While Nisei picked up some Japanese culture, they didn’t understand Japanese concepts the way the way Issei understood them.53
Kikuchi recognized this particular tension, but took the opposite tack, encouraging his parents to study English classes in camp “because the young kids are (p.158) growing up and soon they will not be able to talk to them in Japanese.” His brother Jack added: “[Pop] should study it hard because the Issei may be given a chance for citizenship after the war … if they show that they are being Americanized enough.”54 Mixed into this dilution of cultural tradition was Kikuchi’s initial distrust of the Issei and their potential disloyalty. At one point he wrote:
Sometimes when I hear Japanese being spoken I have an urge to shut the whole thing out as if I were in a nightmare experience. I don’t hate the Japanese here, but their conventional ways get me sometimes … They should really let themselves go occasionally, but you can’t tell what is going on behind the Oriental mask.55
With that suggestive last sentence, hinting at the stereotype of Asians as inscrutable, shifty eyed, and the “yellow peril” incarnate, Kikuchi made plain the fact that, contrary to Myrdal’s claim, he put little faith in a fall-back culture “outside America” for Nisei or, alternately, a poverty of culture for African Americans.56
Therefore, in the vast majority of his reflections on the challenge facing Black America, Kikuchi disregarded assertions of innate inferiority (or inability to retain culture) and instead drew attention to the systemic lack of recognition for African Americans, their agency, and their status as “people with problems,” rather than as “problem people.”57 For example, in March 1943, still in camp, Kikuchi recorded a discussion with an ex-serviceman, also Japanese American, who discouraged him from enlisting:
Another Negro I know in Pennsylvania. He work for a white woman. For 10 years after the [Great] war, he sleep with her. She like it. But one day a white man find them in the basement. So she scream “rape.” They take the Negro out and lynch him. They say a white man’s word is better than a black man … What is American? I tell you—it is man with white skin who think all other colors is low class and only fit for slaves.58
Earlier, the same man had exclaimed:
I fight for this bullshit Democracy. They pat me on the back. But after the war, I get kicked in the face. I tried to get a job one time in an iron factory. They tell me: “We don’t want no Japs!” I go all over the country and they say the same thing. Some Americans nice, but they don’t like you behind the back … I don’t have the democracy.59
In juxtaposing these two experiences, Kikuchi acknowledged the frustrations commonly shared by African Americans and Japanese Americans in their struggles to achieve freedom in the face of hypocritical white supremacy: both the Black Pennsylvanian and the Issei veteran were actively denied their rights (in the former case, his life) as citizens. Kikuchi emphasized the veteran’s last sentence, not for its grammatical miscue, but for its literal, active-voice expression: the veteran wants, strives, and struggles for democracy (“I fight for this bullshit Democracy”). He does not simply wait for it, passively, to be handed to him. But (p.159) “this country” does not “keep the promises,” actively, often violently preventing others from possessing, from “having the democracy.”
In the following excerpt, Kikuchi went further by endorsing the activist model set by African Americans during the last postwar period, seeing the potential for like-minded Japanese Americans to follow suit. He wrote, “[Bill Sasagawa] said that the Negroes only get things because they fought for their rights and we should do the same.” Kikuchi’s friend cited World War I and the intense racial climate generated by white resentment of Black migrants’ coming north to fill wartime jobs. He remembered that Black soldiers returned from their tours of duty, having fought for democracy abroad, with little evidence of it at home. Kikuchi continued:
After the war the Caucasians made a determined effort to drive all Negroes out. The returning Negroes refused to turn in their guns, but used them instead to stand for their rights. Bill did not mean to say that we should use guns, but that we should fight for what was ours and we would, if we really felt like Americans and believed in the democratic principles.60
As Nisei looked to the Black model of oppositional politics and resistance, African Americans likewise began to feel incipient solidarity with their recently incarcerated fellow citizens. For example, the satirist Schuyler—never known to shy away from controversy—repeatedly expressed his support of Japanese Americans in his Pittsburgh Courier columns, going so far as to predict their internment the day after Pearl Harbor, based on his intimate understanding of how American racism operated.61 Writing just as the evacuation was under way, he opined that the incarceration “may be a prelude to our own fate. Who knows?”62 Marc Gallicchio, however, reminds us of the precarious nature of this unified sentiment: “Despite general agreement on the injustice of the relocation, blacks faced with overcrowding in Los Angeles and San Francisco moved into the abandoned houses of the cities’ ‘Little Tokyos’ and worried about the original inhabitants’ return.”63 African American organizations waded into the issue, but with expected caution. As Allison Varzally’s history of interracial California points out, only one official release came from the NAACP during a chapter conference in LA.64 While a few individuals within those organizations protested the incarceration from the start, David Levering Lewis characterizes Walter White and other civil rights leaders as fearful of being collectively “tarred with the brush of anti-patriotism.”65 Given such precedent and context, Kikuchi’s interactions with African Americans—during internment and relocation—demonstrate similar ambiguity and contradiction. On balance, though, Kikuchi faced slightly less conflict and more cooperation. For example, early during internment, amid a number of African American visitors to camp, Melvin Stewart, a classmate of Kikuchi’s from SF State who was also planning to enter social work, spent time with his friend. Kikuchi had already expressed how upset he felt about Tanforan administrators formally recording the names of these suspicious African American (p.160) friends and neighbors, as if a fifth column were forming right then and there in San Bruno.
When [Stewart] saw all the Negroes around he said, “You know who are your real friends now. A lot of us are behind any movements that will fight this thing because we have had to face a lot ourselves and so are opposed to anything so un-American … We know you Nisei are just as loyal as we are. The color of the skin is no indication of loyalty—we can testify to that.”66
Thankfully, however, the two racialized groups shared much more than oppression at the hands of a fearful, tin-eared majority.
Commenting on another development that same day, Kikuchi wrote:
The Negroes are coming down in increasing numbers. Peter Ray, a well known dancer who used to perform with Duke Ellington’s band, came to see Mornii and the other jive boys, and he drew a great crowd by his dancing exhibition.
Kikuchi then remarked on the “Afro-Americanization” of the camp’s youth culture:
The jitterbug craze is still strong with the young kids and for them nothing else exists … Last night at the dance they were all dressed up in their draped pants and bright shirts. These boys are really extrovert and many of them speak the same jitterbug language with the facial expressions which they copy from the Negroes.67
Around the same time, he wrote to a friend:
The little girls and young kids still think this is a picnic and they spend all their time putting on “face stuff” and dressing up in their best slacks and then strolling around the tracks to draw admiring ohs and ahs from the sharp boys—some of whom are now under the S.F. Negro “Club Alabam” influence. They wear these pants that come way up to their necks and drop down to choke the circulation at the ankles.68
Both Catherine S. Ramírez and Luis Alvarez have recently reexamined the history of the zoot suit, wartime youth culture, and the riots of 1943, noting the multiracial use of the suit (by both genders) and the countercultural symbol it came to represent within younger communities of color. Undoubtedly, these oppositional practices, like wearing the zoot or club hopping around taxi dance halls, violated the time-honored customs of respectability and deference expected by whites in many major cities. Nonetheless, Alvarez adds: “Like Mexican American and African American zoot-suiters who clashed ideologically with the Mexican American and African American middle classes, Japanese American zoot-suiters articulated a cultural politics that rejected their inferiority and were skeptical of the desire to be like the rest of U.S. society.”69 Writing in his regular (p.161) column “From Here to Yonder,” Langston Hughes weighed in on the LA zoot suit riots of 1943, condemning the white mobs that invaded communities of color, targeting zoot-suiters but beating up by-standing war workers and students in equal measure. Conveying to his readers of various colors that “we’re all in the same boat,” he cautioned that the mob mentality could easily lead rioters down the slippery slope:
From the saffron-skinned Japanese-American citizens of Los Angeles to brown-skinned Mexican-American citizens is only a step … From the brown Mexicans to the vari-colored Negroes is only a step, too … Logically speaking, color has nothing to do with citizenship or democracy. But prejudice and the mob-spirit pay logic no mind. The zoot-suits on a handful of kids are a nice excuse for reactionaries … to start a campaign of big headlines in the [LA] press against the Negro and the Mexican people.70
In contrast to the wartime and postwar expectation that only tension would mark the interactions between communities of color living cheek by jowl in ever-changing cities, a fair number did not at all feel hostile toward their new neighbors but rather acknowledged that they shared common threads of history.
(11.) Kikuchi, diary entry, September 2, 1942 (CKP, box 11, 3:647).
(13.) Kikuchi, diary entry, September 4, 1942 (CKP, box 11, 3:654).
(14.) Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993), 196.
(15.) Kikuchi, diary entry, September 3, 1942 (CKP, box 11, 3:653).
(16.) Kikuchi, diary entry, September 5, 1942 (CKP, box 11, 3:660).
(20.) Arthur Hansen, personal communications to the author, December 24, 2009, and November 28, 2010.
(p.255) (21.) Paul Spickard, “The Nisei Assume Power: The Japanese Citizens League, 1941–1942,” Pacific Historical Review 52:2 (May 1983): 157.
(28.) Kikuchi, diary entry, November 4, 1942 (CKP, box 12, 4:1086).
(30.) Kikuchi, diary entry, November 4, 1942.
(32.) Kikuchi, diary entry, December 22, 1942 (CKP, box 12, 4:1581–2).
(33.) Kikuchi, diary entry, December 23, 1942 (CKP, box 12, 4:1591).
(35.) Kikuchi, diary entry, December 15, 1942 (CKP, box 12, 4:1513–14).
(37.) See Masako Osako, “Japanese Americans: Melting into the All-American Melting Pot,” in Ethnic Chicago: A Multicultural Portrait, ed. Melvin G. Holli and Peter d’A. Jones (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995), 423.
(38.) The foundational historiography includes Quintard Taylor, “Blacks and Asians in a White City: Japanese Americans and African Americans in Seattle, 1890–1940,” Western Historical Quarterly 22:4 (1991): 401–29; and Gary Y. Okihiro, Margins and Mainstreams: Asian Americans in History and Culture (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1994). Two recent anthologies tackle the subject: Fred Ho and Bill Mullen, eds., Afro Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections between African Americans and Asian Americans (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 2008); and Heike Raphael-Hernandez and Shannon Steen, eds., AfroAsian Encounters: Culture, History, Politics (New York: NYU Press, 2006).
(39.) Wilder, personal communication to the author, January 2005.
(40.) Moon-Ho Jung and Greg Robinson, personal communication to the author, American Studies Association Conference, 2003, Hartford, Conn.
(41.) Kikuchi, diary entry, September 12, 1942 (CKP, box 11, 3:688–9). See John W. Dower, War without Mercy: Race, Power, and the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon, 1986), and Akira Iriye, Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War, 1941–1945 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981).
(42.) Kikuchi, diary entry, September 12, 1942 (CKP, box 11, 3:687–8).
(43.) See Richard Wright, The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (Cleveland: World, 1956).
(44.) Kikuchi, diary entry, November 12, 1942 (CKP, box 12, 4:1205–6). This entry is the source for all quotations in this paragraph and the next one.
(47.) Kikuchi, diary entry, September 12, 1942 (CKP, box 11, 3:687).
(48.) Kikuchi, diary entry, November 9, 1942 (CKP, box 12, 4:1163–4).
(56.) See Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978); Tera Hunter, To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1997); Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1943); and Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2000).
(57.) See Cornel West, “Black Strivings in a White Civilization,” in Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Future of the Race (New York: Knopf, 1996), 53–112.
(58.) Kikuchi, diary entry, March 17, 1943 (CKP, box 12, 6:2300–2301).
(61.) Jeffrey Ferguson, “The Newest Negro: George Schuyler’s Intellectual Quest in the Nineteen Twenties and Beyond” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 1998), 85.
(62.) George Schuyler, “The World Today,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 25, 1942.
(64.) Allison Varzally, Making a Non-White America: Californians Coloring Outside Ethnic Lines (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 2008), 125.
(68.) Kikuchi, letter to [D.], dated May 2, 1942, (CKP, box 11, 1:7). Club Alabam was one of the jazz clubs in the Fillmore District of San Francisco.
(69.) Luis Alvarez, The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 2008), 85; Catherine S. Ramírez, The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 2008).
(70.) Langston Hughes, “From Here to Yonder,” Chicago Defender, June 19, 1943.