LOS ANGELES — In the world of novels about the Japanese American Incarceration experience during World War II, there are only a handful of books available, including Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter, John Okada’s No-No Boy, Yoshiko Uchida’s Desert Exile, and the best known of them all, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and her late husband James D. Houston’s Farewell To Manzanar.
But why have there been so few fictional works about the American concentration camps in which over 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were unjustly incarcerated during World War II?
One look at those four novels mentioned provides a huge clue: each was written by someone who was incarcerated behind the barbed wire of one of those concentration camps—Sone and Okada were incarcerated at Minidoka in Idaho, Uchida was behind the barbed wire at Topaz in Utah, and Houston was imprisoned at Manzanar in California’s Owens Valley. Each of them drew upon their memories of camp, good and bad, pleasant and painful.
Indeed, the Japanese American concentration camp experience is a topic that is a huge challenge for any novelist, in terms of being true to the history, respectful and sensitive to those who endured the injustice, and to telling the story with the appropriate emotional content.
As stated earlier, those who have spent time behind the barbed wire can draw upon their experiences to do justice to the telling the story appropriately. But for someone without that experience, or who did not grow up in a Japanese American family, writing a fictional work based on that history would be a daunting task, and that is grossly understating the challenge. But that is exactly what Erin Carter, who writes under the pen name K.P. Kollenborn, has done in her novel, Eyes Behind Belligerence, published in March 2012.
In Eyes Behind Belligerence, Carter tells the stories of Russell Hamaguchi, Jim Yoshimura, and their families, who lived on Bainbridge Island in Washington, before being forced to leave their homes to be incarcerated at Manzanar. Once in camp, they had to face, not only the harsh conditions, and the gross violation of their Constitutional rights, but also the conflicts generated by differences between them and Japanese Americans from other areas, most notably, those from Terminal Island in Los Angeles.
“The book actually started as a short story [that she wrote] in high school, and I wanted to develop it further,” said Carter. “To keep some historical accuracy, I wanted my [main] characters to come from a small, rural town, where they felt isolated, but for the most part, secure, only to be ripped out of there, and tossed into turbulent circumstances. That’s when I came across Bainbridge Island. That was in 1999.”
Despite her disadvantage of not having any foundation in Japanese American History and culture whatsoever, Carter did a masterful job of expressing the emotions of those incarcerated, both positive and negative, and she vividly described the conditions and indignities that the incarcerees faced on a daily basis.
“I’ve always had an interest in history, going back to my childhood, and I’ve always had an interest in Asian culture,” Carter noted. “On my father’s side of the family, we had missionaries, and some of them spent some time in Hawaii and Japan. Whenever we would visit my grandfather’s house, it had this eclectic mix of French, German and Japanese paintings, a Japanese doll from the turn of the century. I can’t explain it, but I was attracted to it.”
“When I was 14, I started reading about historical fiction,” Carter added. “I wanted to learn more about history, in general, and I had a fascination with World War II. I came across a young adult book, Kim/Kimi, about a girl who was half Japanese and half White. She wanted to learn more about her father, who was absent in her life. When [the book revealed] that her father was in Tule Lake, in a concentration camp, I was floored. ‘What is this? A concentration camp in America?’”
“At first, I just couldn’t wrap my head around the [incarceration]. So I went to the library to do more investigation, and the more I read, the more I felt compelled to learn more. When I read about it, there was something within me that just wouldn’t let go. That was back in 1988, and here it is, 2012. It’s still a part of me that I can’t let go.”
After completing her undergraduate work at Kansas State University, Carter began her work on the book.
“After college—I graduated in 2000, I decided to make that commitment,” she said. “After college, my husband and I drove to Seattle, and Bainbridge Island. I had made some contacts there, like Frank Kitamoto [the President of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community]. He was so open, and so generous, so he was my initial contact.”
Kitamoto set up interviews with former Manzanar [and later, Minidoka] incarcerees for Carter.
“I was very nervous, trekking all the way across the country, to meet people I’ve never met before, and ask them questions about their personal experiences,” said Carter. “But I started with that. I already had an idea about a story line—the friendship between the two boys.”
“Coming back, I started writing, but I was still doing research, because I still felt there were some holes [in her knowledge], so I was still reading a lot,” added Carter. “It took me five years to write the book, between college, getting married, and opening a business, then going bankrupt—all that happened while I was trying to write.”
Choosing the camp to focus on was difficult.
“It was a toss-up between Manzanar and Tule Lake because both have very interesting and turbulent histories,” she noted. “But the main reason I chose Manzanar was because it was the most photographed [of the ten American concentration camps], so I had all these visuals I could use. I was also fascinated by the [Manzanar] Riot, and what it meant, personally and politically.”
Carter even delved into Japanese culture, which is necessary to understand how the Issei (first generation Japanese Americans, immigrants from Japan) and Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans, the American-born children of the Issei) related to each other, and she did so right off the bat.
In the first chapter, Carter wrote about the suicide of Jim’s older brother, John, immediately shining a bright light on the customs of the Issei and the Nisei, and the patriarchal nature of the Japanese family unit.
“I wanted to first show the tragedy of Jim, and to then understand that with this tragedy he had to endure—the suicide of his brother, and how it just lingered throughout the whole book, [influencing] the decisions that he made, and being a very bitter person,” Carter explained. “It had already made such an impact in the beginning, and it resonated throughout the book.”
Carter’s handling of John’s suicide, and his family’s reaction to it, is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, Carter hit a home run throughout the book in her descriptions of the cultural differences between the Issei and Nisei. She detailed the difficulty the Issei had in adapting to life in the United States, and how their children, the Nisei, were caught between their parents and mainstream American culture. As evidenced by her close attention to detail in this regard, Carter realized that it is essential to understand the cultural differences between the Issei and Nisei in order to understand the Japanese American Incarceration experience.
“What I was trying to do was to [immediately] develop an awareness of the cultural differences that begin in a very personal setting, but later, explodes into a very large setting,” she noted.
Whether it was the describing the trip from Bainbridge Island to Manzanar, the conditions in camp, the lack of freedom, relationships, Carter’s writing shines bright in this particular area, as she vividly brought to life so many aspects of camp life. She even went into the conflict between different groups at Manzanar, the infamous loyalty oath, and the decision Nisei men had to make—whether to enlist in the US Armed Forces or to resist the draft. To be sure, Carter’s treatment of the camp experience was very thorough.
Carter even described in great detail the arrest of Issei men right after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. She told the story of how Russell’s father was taken away by FBI agents, and how unscrupulous agents terrorized his family, and ransacked their home.
But this was one area where Carter’s writing failed, in that while she effectively related the hardship caused by the arrest of Issei men that their families had to endure, especially their wives, she completely ignored the fact that the arrest of Issei men was not a knee-jerk, panic reaction by the United States Government. Rather, the FBI was carrying out a plan devised long before Pearl Harbor was attacked—a calculated plan to immediately deprive the Japanese American community of its leadership. Moreover, once in camp, suddenly, Nisei men were forced to fill that void, generating conflict with the remaining Issei men, as well as Kibei men (Japanese Americans educated in Japan).
To be sure, even though she did a brilliant job of describing the arrest of Mr. Hamaguchi, how frightened and worried Mrs. Hamaguchi was, not to mention Russell’s anger, by ignoring this point, Carter swept an aspect of the camp experience that is crucial to understanding this history completely under the proverbial rug.
As stated earlier, Eyes Behind Belligerence focuses on two young Japanese American men from Bainbridge Island in Washington, which was a rural, rather isolated community. But once they arrived at Manzanar, they became part of a much larger community, one comprised of Japanese Americans, mostly from the Los Angeles area.
Carter highlighted the differences and conflicts between the Bainbridge Islanders and those from Terminal Island through the often violent conflict between Russell and Shikami, a thug from Terminal Island.
“That was part of the attraction—the isolation of Bainbridge Island, and having a community and culture there that was different from [Japanese Americans] in California, and Terminal Island, [in particular],” Carter explained. “In speaking with [Kitamoto], he said that a lot of people didn’t feel comfortable around [Japanese Americans] from California. They didn’t like how they seemed a little more aggressive, especially in their politics, and they weren’t as laid back, so they felt intimidated.”
Carter certainly paints a colorful picture of that conflict, but at the same time, readers get nothing more about the Terminal Islanders. Given that Japanese Americans from the Los Angeles area, including Terminal Island, made up the majority of those incarcerated at Manzanar, to mostly ignore them is another glaring omission, even though the primary characters are from Bainbridge Island.
On the other side of the coin, Carter was brilliant in her examination of the loyalty questionnaire, and how it impacted the incarcerees.
That questionnaire had two infamous questions that wreaked total havoc on the entire community:
Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?
Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign government, power, or organization?
Carter recognized the importance of those questions, and their impact.
“You don’t have to be a Japanese American to read those questions and think they’re stupid,” Carter stressed. “They were crazy. To be stripped of your [Constitutional rights], and then, after about a year, to be handed these questions to determine if you’re loyal or not? It was such an insult.”
“The other question it brought up was, where did that leave the [Issei if they answered ‘no’ to those questions]? It would have left them without a country, without a home.”
Carter’s deft handling of the loyalty questionnaire led to the strongest, most powerful aspect of the book, where she highlighted the deep conflict within the community caused by the questionnaire, between those who chose to prove their loyalty by volunteering for military service, and those who chose to resist the draft, protesting the denial of their Constitutional rights.
To Carter’s credit, this was exactly what she had in mind.
“The two friends have some friction between them, because they both have very different ideas about what they should do next, especially as they were moving into adulthood,” said Carter. “Just as they are coming of age, this questionnaire enters their lives, and makes an impact on the direction they decide to go.”
Indeed, the two friends argued about their decisions, just like many Nisei men did at the time. Russell quickly volunteered for military service, and would join the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which fought gallantly in Italy and France, becoming the most decorated unit of its size in US military history. Meanwhile, Jim refused to answer the questionnaire, and ended up being sent to the Tule Lake Segregation Center, stripped of his citizenship.
While Japanese Americans had to endure the intense racism that was one of the primary causes for their unjust incarceration, Carter appropriately pointed out that not only were they victims of racial discrimination and hatred, but they were guilty of it, too.
“The title of the book includes the word, ‘belligerent,’ which is not only about society being belligerent towards Japanese Americans,” Carter explained. “But it’s also about how people, in general, were belligerent towards each other.”
In the book, Carter brilliantly describes how Russell and Shig, who were in basic training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, were on a bus in which a Native American soldier refused to move to the back of the bus, as Rosa Parks did at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Carter also deals with the fact that African Americans served in segregated military units, and with Shig’s prejudices against Pilipinos.
“I wanted to show something that was very human in all of us, as ugly as it might seem, and give the reader something to think about, and to evaluate the humanity of it all,” she said. “That’s why there were characters who were prejudiced within their own community, and then you had the incident on the bus in the South.”
One of the lesser known aspects of Manzanar’s history is that it had an orphanage, known as Children’s Village. It was the only orphanage in the ten American concentration camps, and Carter did a good job of incorporating it into the story, even though Children’s Village also represents a missed opportunity in the book, not to mention that it brings up another serious omission.
One of the main characters of the book was Naomi, an orphan at Manzanar, who developed a relationship with Russell that was closer than just being friends, even though you could not say that they were seriously dating.
Naomi became a key character in the story, which was highly refreshing because no one ever talks about Manzanar’s 101 orphans, who ranged from infant to young adult. But what was disappointing is that once the Bainbridge Islanders transferred out of Manzanar to the Minidoka concentration camp, Naomi vanished into oblivion.
Why not give Naomi’s character greater depth by keeping her as Russell’s romantic interest, even after his family transferred to Minidoka, and after the war? That would have added a dimension to the story that has not appeared in other novels about the camp experience, and would have given a bit of a voice to Manzanar’s orphans that has, so far, been very, very muted.
Although writing Naomi’s character out of the story after Russell’s family leaves for Minidoka represents a missed opportunity, even worse is that Carter failed to question why orphans were incarcerated at Manzanar in the first place. After all, these people were obviously not a threat to national security. Instead, they personified the real reasons for their incarceration: race prejudice, wartime hysteria, economic greed, and a failure of political leadership—a point that should have been made in the story, somehow.
As interesting as Jim and Russell are, the most intriguing, fascinating character in the book is Tomiko, a Bainbridge Islander who eventually marries Jim.
From the first chapters of the book, readers quickly learn that she is not your typical Nisei woman. Instead, she is assertive and outspoken. Among all the characters in the book, she is the wisest, smartest and most perceptive. Tomiko was even assertive in a romantic nature with Jim, before camp and while they were at Manzanar, which is not something one would expect from a Nisei woman at the time.
“I wanted to show the diversity of people, their humanity, and their ability to rise above stereotypes,” Carter said about Tomiko.
On the other side of the coin, Russell’s little sister, Bethany, was an example of where the book falls short. In this case, Carter went into great detail about how the camps affected the Issei and Nisei, including teen-age youth. But she practically ignored the effects of the camps on children.
Although Bethany was not one of the primary characters, given all that Carter covered in the book, it seems quite odd that Bethany’s character was given so little attention or depth.
Did she make any friends in school? Did she play in the firebreaks? What did she talk about with her friends? What else did she do, besides staying in the barracks? What problems did young children face in camp?
To virtually ignore the impact on a child like Bethany is a serious omission, even while acknowledging that this book is not intended to cover 100 percent of this history—at least a little more depth could have been given to Bethany’s character—this may be the biggest point where Carter misses the mark.
A point where the book shines is how Carter had Russell and Shig become part of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team—the 522nd is best known for being the first of the units to reach Dachau, one of Nazi camps where Jews were exterminated during the Holocaust.
“I thought it would be a significant opportunity to have Russell and Shig—they’re fighting for their country, but then, to come across another form of concentration camp, not to provide any answers, necessarily, but to show the irony of their situation.”
As you can see from what has already been reported here, Eyes Behind Belligerence has quite the up-and-down track record in terms of strong points and rather glaring weaknesses, and this review can only scratch the surface. In fact, there are more serious problems with the book, including:
- Some awkward, if not inaccurate use of the Japanese language.
- A large amount of typographical errors and misspelled words in the first and second editions (the third edition shows improvements in this area). It should be noted here that this book is self-published by Carter. As such, she did not have several editors and proofreaders to go over her manuscript with a fine tooth comb that a big publishing house would provide.
- A handful of historical and geographical inaccuracies that do not have a severe impact on the book.
- The circumstances of the Manzanar Riot were changed to add drama and create a greater “hook” for the reader. Sadly, the author went overboard here, taking too much creative license with the Manzanar Riot, giving readers a very distorted view of what really happened.
- President Franklin D. Roosevelt is painted in a bit of a sympathetic light regarding his role in the decision to incarcerate Japanese Americans on the West Coast, even though he was ultimately responsible for this grave injustice.
- The book fails to note that even though the US Government provided basic necessities in the concentration camps, such as Manzanar and Minidoka, it was the incarcerees themselves who had to provide all the other services and amenities that we all take for granted in our daily lives. For example, the various gardens at Manzanar, not to mention the chicken and hog ranches, were not provided by the War Relocation Authority. Rather, they were built by the incarcerees themselves, who were expected to be self-sufficient, by and large.
As mentioned earlier, a significant reason for these problems is that Carter was not already well-versed in this history, either by being part of the Japanese American community, or by having been otherwise immersed in the history for many years.
Carter recognized that she had some serious challenges facing her, and knew there would likely be problems with her book. Nevertheless, she believed that it should be written and published, anyway.
“I do have a disadvantage, not being of the Japanese American community,” Carter noted. “I knew there would be flaws. Without having anyone to help, I went ahead and got the story out, instead of agonizing over parts of the book that may have problems.”
“I know that it’s not going to be perfect, and that there are going to be inaccuracies, unintentionally,” Carter added. “I tried, to the best of my ability, to keep the integrity of everything, as much as possible, through resources that were available to me.”
“The question was, is it a good enough story to publish, where the majority of readers will gain something and learn something from it? That was my goal, even though I knew I faced some limitations,” Carter added.
Carter certainly raises the key question: Do the problems with the book completely overshadow the story it tells?
In the final analysis, the answer to that question depends on who the reader is.
Indeed, if you are well-versed in Japanese American History, especially the concentration camp experience, the problems with the book that have been detailed in this story, along with several others that were not mentioned, will stand out like the proverbial sore thumb.
But for everyone else, while flawed, Eyes Behind Belligerence tells a powerful story about a part of American History that too few people know about. With the book’s positives outweighing its negatives, it’s one that everyone should read.
Kollenborn, K.P. Eyes Behind Belligerence (second edition; third edition may be available now). 2011, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4701681-6-2. ISBN (e-book): 978-1-4524711-4-3.
The views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
LEAD PHOTO: Image of book cover courtesy Erin Carter/K.P. Kollenborn.
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