An Absent Presence: Japanese Americans in Postwar American Culture, 1945-1960by Caroline Chung Simpson, David Palumbo-Liu
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There have been many studies on the forced relocation and internment of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. But An Absent Presence is the first to focus on how popular representations of this unparalleled episode in U.S. history affected the formation of Cold War culture. Caroline Chung Simpson shows how the portrayal of this economic and social disenfranchisement haunted-and even shaped-the expression of American race relations and national identity throughout the middle of the twentieth century.
Simpson argues that when popular journals or social theorists engaged the topic of Japanese American history or identity in the Cold War era they did so in a manner that tended to efface or diminish the complexity of their political and historical experience. As a result, the shadowy figuration of Japanese American identity often took on the semblance of an "absent presence." Individual chapters feature such topics as the case of the alleged Tokyo Rose, the Hiroshima Maidens Project, and Japanese war brides. Drawing on issues of race, gender, and nation, Simpson connects the internment episode to broader themes of postwar American culture, including the atomic bomb, McCarthyism, the crises of racial integration, and the anxiety over middle-class gender roles.
By recapturing and reexamining these vital flashpoints in the projection of Japanese American identity, Simpson fills a critical and historical void in a number of fields including Asian American studies, American studies, and Cold War history.
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An Absent Presence- CL
By Caroline Chung Simpson
Duke University PressCopyright © 2001 Caroline Chung Simpson
All right reserved.
Chapter One"That Faint and Elusive Insinuation": Remembering Internment and the Dawn of the Postwar
He walked along, thinking, searching, thinking and probing, and, in the darkness of the alley of the community that was a tiny bit of America, he chased that faint and elusive insinuation of promise as it continued to take shape in mind and in heart.-John Okada, No-No Boy
This epigraph, the closing line of John Okada's 1957 novel No-No Boy may ironically serve as an apt beginning for the exploration of the discursive production of internment in the postwar period, asserting as it does the uncertain or transitional status of Japanese Americans in those years. The story of Ichiro Yamada, a Nisei whose desperate efforts to avoid the oblivion of history, to keep merely the "faint insinuation" of an American promise in his ken, expresses faith in the dream of America even as it indicts the miserable terms of a dream viewed from "the darkness of the alley." Yamada, the main character of the novel, returns home to Seattle and a bleak and hopeless situation from a federal prison where he has served out the last years of the war as a "no-no boy"; that is, as one who answered "no" and "no" to questions 27 and 28 on aloyalty questionnaire administered to Japanese Americans in the internment camps. The questionnaire, no less than the initial act of relocation, was a watershed event in the wartime experience of all Japanese Americans. More importantly, however, its use and the responses to it reveal the ambiguous terms and, for Japanese Americans answering the questionnaire, potentially dangerous stakes of the government's attempts to regulate and redefine what it perceived as the "problem" of Japanese American identity.
Required of all internees seventeen years and older, the questionnaire delivered in 1943 dared a population already forcibly incarcerated merely on suspicion of a potential for "disloyalty" to answer in the affirmative to the following charged questions: "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?" and "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign and domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese Emperor, and to any other foreign government, power or organization?" Although officials administering the internment intended the questionnaire to assess the feelings of internees regarding possible release and draft induction, for many Japanese Americans questions 27 and 28 amounted to a catch-22. If they answered "yes-yes" then they were placing themselves wholly in the hands of a government that viewed them as second-class citizens with few if any constitutional rights. If they answered "no-no," as Ichiro does, then they irrevocably sealed their fates as disloyal subjects who were open to punishment. The loyalty oath thus worded was another example of the nation's ignorance of the predicament of Japanese Americans; many wanted to declare full loyalty "but only after the restoration of citizenship rights" stripped from them without due process. It seemed the only alternatives offered by the government were to submit completely to one's second-class status or to engage an active resistance that placed one on the margins of society. Those such as Ichiro who chose to answer "no-no" paid the price accorded to suspect domestic elements in times of war. In the novel his situation mirrors that of his fellow "no-no boys" who exist on the periphery of a periphery, so-called disloyals from an already dubious group.
As the novel ends, Ichiro's futile search for a place in America has barely improved; he is quite literally on the borders of American visibility, walking "in the darkness of the alley of the community that was a tiny bit of America." Ichiro Yamada's vigil, his "thinking, searching, thinking and probing" for "that faint and elusive insinuation of promise" (251) challenges the noble memory of the nation's war efforts by suggesting how the injustices perpetuated at home during the war necessarily arraign the ultimate meaning of victory after the war. But perhaps most fundamental is the way in which the final sentence of No-No Boy, as the last word in Okada's chronicle of the immediate postwar predicament of Japanese American resisters, opens up the possibility of reconstituting the crucial moment in national history of the period of weeks following the announcement of final victory, whether the first hours or the first days, which also declared the heroic ascension of the United States to super-nation status.
When magazines and newspapers covered the spontaneous V-J or "victory over Japan" parties on August 15, 1945, the mood was reported as undeniably upbeat and the nation appeared utterly united in celebration. In major cities such as New York and Chicago, American GIS and civilians were depicted flooding the streets and, in a tumult of raucous cheer, blocking traffic, chanting, setting off firecrackers, honking their horns, and "singing, shrieking and shouting" in what Life magazine called "an orgy of frenzy and fun." Decades later, when the nation observed the fiftieth anniversary of V-J Day in 1995, all three major television networks and CNN replayed the same scenes from Life, including the now legendary Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph of the young white sailor capturing a white nurse in an impromptu victory embrace. If anyone doubts the persistence of the initial nostalgic renderings of the postwar period, the fiftieth-anniversary recycling of the familiar cliches of national history reveals that they were apparently intact a full half century later. This entrenched, familiar context of a nation's overwhelming triumph seems to leave little room for the defeated and depressed mood of No-No Boy, with its contrasting portrait of Japanese American disaffection and dispossession as an "American" condition unfolding outside the umbrella of national jubilation. For Ichiro, there are no happy homecomings, no victory parades. As emblems of the postwar antiheroic, both Ichiro's story and the memory of the historical event of internment that defines his American postwar future are, in the words of Marita Sturken, "absent from the litany of World War II images." No-No Boy offers a picture of Japanese Americans after internment that logically "presents an image both too disruptive and too domestic to conform to the war's narratives" of the nation as a symbol of individual liberty at home and of freedom abroad.
In light of No-No Boy's potential for fracturing the nostalgic or official remembrance of postwar jubilation, George Lipsitz characterizes Okada's narrative of male Nisei experience during the 1940s and 1950s as a prime generator of "counter-memories," alternative processes of memorializing the past that he deems essential to the progressive renegotiation of national history and identity. Emerging from such narratives, "counter-memory is a way of remembering and forgetting that starts with the local, the immediate, and the personal. Unlike historical narratives that begin with the totality of human existence and then locate specific actions and events within that totality, counter-memory starts with the particular and the specific and then builds outward toward a total story" (emphasis added). For Lipsitz, the ethnic American novel in particular is not only a source of counter-memories, but it often offers these alternative narratives of nation and history in order to question the "use of the past" in a manner that "speaks to present day intellectual concerns with time, history, subjectivity, and fragmentation" (215). Although Lipsitz acknowledges the importance of poststructuralist theories of the fragmentation of narrative and subjectivity to his argument for the ethnic novel as counter-memory, he is also quick to distinguish his concept of counter-memory from Michel Foucault's famous definition of "counter-history" as a process of "recording the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality" (emphasis added). Lipsitz contends that Foucault's refusal to admit any coherence in historical events "could just as easily obscure real connections, causes and relationships-atomizing common experiences into accidents and endlessly repeated play." "Events matter," Lipsitz concludes, "and describing them as accurately as possible (although never with certain finality) can, at the very least, show us whose foot has been on whose neck" (214).
David Palumbo-Liu indirectly endorses Lipsitz's misgivings about the poststructuralist embrace of historical and subjective indeterminacy, which he suggests encourages us to overlook the material conditions that lead to an awareness of racism. Palumbo-Liu argues that postmodernity in general consistently "harbors within it a particular anxiety with regard to race and culture" that often motivates its celebration of disunity and ambiguity as a paradoxical means of avoiding recognition of social injustices and political hierarchies. Seen in this light, Foucault's theory of the unlimited potential of counter-history may appear "haunted by the loss" of the unified or dominant subject, a loss that Palumbo-Liu specifically links to the proliferation of late-twentieth-century critiques of racial and sexual privilege and, more concretely, the increasing presence of the voices of people of color and women in national debates. Thus, although poststructuralist theorists may commend the cultural potential of this loss of subjective coherence, their fascination is ultimately dubious "since the loss is not mourned" and thus not identified as the ironic symptom of a pervasive social anxiety over the passing of a certain mode of white male privilege. In their separate analyses of such postmodern theories, both Lipsitz and Palumbo-Liu contribute to a healthy skepticism of poststructuralist perspectives of history and narrative. They expose its tendency to broadly proclaim the condition of postmodern fragmentation in vaguely universal or strictly aesthetic terms, and thus its potential to efface the continuing effects of political struggles emanating from racial violence or economic disenfranchisement.
Yet despite these considerable limitations, Foucault's critiques of history and subjectivity continue to offer some very useful, even if provisional, strategies for complicating the operations and functions of power and language, of history and memory or counter-history. In addition to his skepticism, Lipsitz's "concern with time, history, subjectivity and fragmentation" indirectly affirms poststructuralism's insistence on exploring the complexity of subjectivity and narrativity. Even as he rejects Foucault's concept of counter-history, he remains open to the need for critical deployment of its insights, primarily by reconnecting its project with the historical terms of material and social struggle, however shifting or contradictory these terms may also prove to be. As Ann Stoler argues, we need not follow Foucault's controversial prescriptions "with exegetical care" in order "to explore how his insights might inform our own" analyses of popular discourses and national histories that are clearly affected by increasingly abstruse conditions of dislocation and alienation. Put another way, understanding "whose foot is on whose neck" does not preclude the importance of recognizing the instability of forms of domination and discrimination, as Foucault no doubt did. In fact, a reconsideration of Foucault's critiques of history and language in light of recent revelations may offer vital directives for approaching the ambivalence in discourses that emerged to redefine and remember Japanese American subjectivity in the wake of internment and for considering the potentially powerful impact of these discourses on the emerging concept of postwar national identity.
In her groundbreaking reconsideration of Foucault's theories of race and racism, Stoler argues that his late College de France lectures on "racisms of the state" reveal his concept of counter-history as "not simply a search for the discontinuities of history as so many commentators have claimed, but a more challenging analytic concern with the tension between rupture and reinscription, between break and recuperation in discursive formations." She deems "one of the hallmark features of his work" his concern with "the discursive bricolage whereby an older discourse of race is 'recovered,' modified, 'encased,' and 'encrusted' in new forms" (61). Foucault opened his lectures, which represent his most extensive and final commentary on the functions of racism in national or "statist" discourse, with an elaboration of his understanding of the oppositional histories that grew out of the "historical knowledge of struggles." In it Foucault "rejects the notion of power as repression" of these counter-histories in order to understand the shifting function of counter-histories within a discourse of national identity. Foucault argues instead that: "in fact, those unitary discourses which first disqualified and then ignored them [counter-histories] when they made their appearance, are, it seems quite ready now to annex them, to take them back within the fold of their own discourse and to invest them with everything this implies in terms of their effects of knowledge and power". Foucault's evolving interest in the ambiguous historical and discursive functioning of counter-histories was ultimately connected to his interest in how the state, or the modern nation, reclaims or "annexes" such histories. The discovery of links between Foucault's concept of counter-history and critiques of national racism makes his theories of counter-history particularly relevant to comprehending the ways in which popular discourses about Japanese American internment tried to reclaimthat event as an unstable counter-historical narrative "within the very unitary discourses [it] opposed" (206).
Thus, the conflict between race and nationality that often framed the narrative of Japanese American internment was coincident with the then current anxieties about gender and class, including in particular anxieties about American manhood. The primacy of the situation of the "no-no boys" indicates, for instance, that the historical narratives of Japanese American men's resistance was often cohered as part of more visible fears about the state of national masculinity in the postwar period. The concern with white masculinity in particular has been remarked by a number of cultural critics of the period, who point predominantly to the cinematic exploration of the instability of white masculinity in major films from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Kaja Silverman was among the first to examine the masculine crises in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), a story of returning white war heroes from different social and economic backgrounds who struggle to find their function in a postwar nation that seems devoid of the gallant opportunities and ideals that defined the war effort. Marita Sturken's argument about the disturbing effects of the Japanese American presence in the 1955 film Bad Day at Black Rock, in which Spencer Tracy plays an investigator who stumbles across the murder of a male Japanese farmer in a western town, similarly builds on the recognition of doubts about the state of white masculinity in these years. Although the farmer, Komoko, is never seen in the film (he remains "an absent presence"), the dilemma of Japanese American persecution that his name evokes initiates the film's questioning of the myth of noble masculinity so often associated with the American West and the white cowboys who are ultimately found guilty of Komoko's murder.
Excerpted from An Absent Presence- CL by Caroline Chung Simpson Copyright © 2001 by Caroline Chung Simpson. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
David Eng, author of Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America
David Palumbo-Liu, author of Asian/American: Historical Crossing of a Racial Frontier
Meet the Author
Caroline Chung Simpson is Associate Professor of English at the University of Washington.
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