Two letters to Clifford Uyeda

Correspondence concerning Yamasaki, NHK, and JACL

By William Wetherall

Written March/April 1984
Posted 26 January 2006

During the commotion in Japan and the United States over Yamasaki Toyoko's novel Futatsu no sokoku and NHK's dramatization Sanga moyu, I began to correspond with Dr. Clifford Iwao Uyeda (1917-2004), a retired San Francisco medical doctor at the time, and later a president of the National Japanese American Historical Society (NJAHS). I had long known Uyeda by reputation, for he was well-known in the Bay Area as a human rights activist. He was also known for supporting the position of Japanese Americans who opposed the draft during World War II because of the internment of westcoast Japanese Americans.

So I was very honored to have the opportunity to share thoughts on a number of social issues with Uyeda in 1983 and 1984. Over a period of several months, we exchanged a number of typed letters. Here I am enclosing two of my letters to him, as they contain notes I was then compiling in preparation for writing an article which eventually appeared as "Dual nationals caught in a storm over their Mt. Fuji inheritance" in Far Eastern Economic Review, 124(23), 7 June 1984, pages 40-42.

First letter

13 March 1984

Dear Dr. Uyeda:

Thank you for the xerox of your letter to Barry. As a former resident of San Francisco and Berkeley, and a long-time PC reader to boot, I am an admirer of your devotion to human rights, not only of Japanese Americans but of others. I fully share your concern with the images which tend to be created by Yamasaki's novel and NHK's series. I have also commented on the danger of mixing sympathy with ignorance. But I am also looking at these popular culture entities as manifestations of revisionist history, and am currently writing an article along these lines for Far Eastern Economic Review.

Yamasaki is primarily concerned with the theme of patriotism in the context of Japanese society and culture. She also agrees with an increasing number of Japanese intellectuals and politicians who wish to reinterpret the meaning of World War II or the Pacific War (these and other names for the "event" vary with the revisionist).

While history is always being revised, and while the war should be no exception, I feel that Japanese Americans are being used to get at themes which Yamasaki admits in writing that she was afraid to deal with through the eyes of a mono-national Japanese character because of criticism she might engender from Japanese who might misread her intentions as "reactionary" or otherwise rightist. Hence, she says she settled on the idea of a dual-national, bilingual and bicultural nisei (who turns out to be a kibei rather than a "representative" nisei) through whose eyes she can conveniently tie together the anti-Asian (particularly anti-Japanese and anti-Japanese American) discrimination in the U.S., with U.S. foreign policy vis-a-vis Japan and Asia, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, and the Tokyo Tribunals -- and by implication the entire occupation and the aftermath that has led to an "Americanized" affluence which has "poisoned" the traditional sense of patriotism.

No novelist could ask for a better story line. But in assuming that she could spend a couple of years reading a few documents, and interviewing a few camp survivors (mainly to rip off personal anecdotes with which to flesh out what is otherwise a "public domain" understanding of what happened during the 1940s), and expect Japanese Americans to be unified in their gratefulness -- her "rescue fantasy" got the better of her. She simply miscalculated, and so did NHK, because (as you say) they are sympathetic but really haven't done their homework.

I am also concerned about the Japan Chapter. While National Headquarters has a political angle owing to the timing of the novel and TV series with the final rounds of the Redress Commission, the Japan Chapter is in an ideal position to sponsor open debates in order to draw out impressions from people who are here who can follow the series firsthand (and, in some cases, can also read the book and examine all that Yamasaki has been publishing about her motives and grievances with "Americanized" sansei). But some of the Japan Chapter members seem to have committed themselves to a defense of Yamasaki, possibly out of a conviction that the novel is harmless if read as entertainment, but probably also because they know Yamasaki personally and would be embarrassed if the organization they are members (if not officers) of were to take an official critical stand against the work.

I am personally committed to freedom of expression, and do not endorse the idea that the NHK series should not be shown in the U.S. But I do feel that, before it is shown (and I see no need to hurry), something along the lines of "Learning From Shogun" should be published as a media and school guide for people interested in unraveling its many incongruencies with reality in 1940s North America and East Asia.

I will send you the "Sanga Moyu as Prime-time Revisionism" article when finished. If I can be of help in your endeavors, please do not hesitate to write.


[Signed William Wetherall]

Second letter

4 April 1984

Dear Dr. Uyeda:

Thank you for your informative letter of 19 March. The latest twist in the Futatsu no Sokoku / Sanga Moyu debate over here is that Ms. Yamasaki is publicly expressing great dissatisfaction at the way NHK has "adapted" her novel. Her displeasure with JACL continues unabated.

Your point about the use of Dr. Peterson is well made -- one that a non-physician would not have immediately if ever thought of. I suppose Yamasaki figured that any white person would do -- and chose a doctor merely because such a person facilitated her plot -- he and Kenji have to meet in the U.S. when he provides Kenji's child with the needed penicillin, and they re-meet at Hiroshima where he shares Kenji's outrage over the atomic slaughter, and then offers to obtain information about the latest leukemia treatment for Nagiko.

I am enclosing four documents which show different ways that Yamasaki has answered the inevitable question about her motives, and why she did not use a Japanese character. The following translations are very literal.

Item 1

NHK, Sanga Moyu, January 1984, pages 49-51
Article by Yamasaki Toyoko
Citation from page 49

At first, I considered writing on this theme, making Japan the stage and making a Japanese person the hero; but that would have been too straight, and it would have become monotonous as a human drama; and besides I feared that if I made a slip it would have been misunderstood as a reactionary conception.

Item 2

Nichibei Jiji, 1 January 1984, New Year's Supplement, pages 1-6,14-15
Interview with Iwao [?] Numekawa [?]
(citation from page 3b)

 . . . if I were to write something, making a Japanese person the hero [and showing this hero as someone who embraced] a strong love for [his] ancestral country [Japan], because everyone has been severely abused by militarism during the war, [they] would [call it] right wing, [or otherwise] shoe rejection reactions before reading it. Therefore I threw [them] a curveball, [by] making [the hero] a nisei person [who] was so splendid [in the way he] spent his lifetime and risked his life on the question, what is an ancestorland for a human being, for an individual, [that the readers would be forced to ask themselves[ what about Japanese people [and their sense of patriotism]? And doing this they would probably have a sense of shame and [a felt need for] reconsideration [of their present lack of love for their ancestorland Japan].

Item 3

Purejidento, February 1984, pages 242-247,249,251
Article by Yamasaki Toyoko
Citation from page 242

At first I had considered making Japan the stage and [having] a Japanese person [be] the hero. But were I to do that, it would have been too direct, and if I had made a slip, it would have become a textbook on morals, or something didactic. This, for a novelist, would be a problem.

Item 4

Shosetsu Shincho, March 1984, pages 70-84 (citation from pages 81-82)
Discussion with novelist and historian Matsumoto Seicho
Citation from pages 81-82

Had I written it, making a Japanese person the hero and cutting [?] frontally, it would have been conventional, and not dramatic. So I made the hero a nikkei nisei who stood between two ancestorlands, Japan a country which is a father, and America a country which is a mother; and encompassing into one [four] themes -- the nikkeijin concentration camps during the war, the Philippine battle ground where brothers shoot at each other, the Hiroshima atom-bombing, and the Tokyo Tribunal -- [I] have asked the question what is an ancestorland.

These translations need polishing. They could be reworked to suit your citation purpose and style. I have worked them together in sort of a "collage" as shown in the enclosed manuscript of an article I intend to submit to Far Eastern Economic Review (though enclosed manuscript is only a draft; I must shorten it and take into account some recent materials (for example the just-published Shukan Gendai article, which I have enclosed, and Sharon Noguchi's article, also enclosed). Feel free to cite my article, but without reference to FEER (it may never be published).

I believe that Ms. Yamasaki is genuinely interested in Japanese Americans, with whom she claims blood ties. The Nichibei Jiji interview, probably not as toned down as the much-edited Bungei Shunju discussion with Masayo Duus, shows strong tendencies to cling to nikkeijin as doho or racial/ethnic siblings born of the "same cells"; she has used similar language and made similar statements in the novel, and in promotional advertising, and she made direct appeals in such terms before her Japan Chapter JACL presentation -- though people who followed Sen Nishiyama's English translation could not have gotten her message, because he (unwittingly, I suppose) glossed over things she said which would have sounded racist in English.

But I feel that Ms. Yamasaki's contact with Japanese Americans, though intense, has been too restricted and brief -- and with too many ulterior motives -- to have given her a truly intimate conception of the complexity of the people she has pressed into service in her bid to rekindle in her Japanese compatriots an ethnic pride she feels has been poisoned by economic prosperity and Americanization. This, too, is a "collage" from various comments she has made. She used the word "poisoned" at her Japan Chapter JACL presentation; equivalents of "economic prosperity" have appeared in all statements; and she said that "everything [in Japan] is an imitation of America, and [the people in Japan] are only Americanized Japanese" in the context of the discussion of motives in the Nichibei Jiji discussion (p. 3b).

As a "Mishima generation" intellectual she is terribly upset at what is going on in Japan today. And she blames this on economic prosperity and Americanization, which have resulted in a loss of proper love for Japan as an ancestorland, and by implication a loss of Japanese culture. Of course, her strongly revisionist view of history also puts much of the blame for the war on the United States. While she also criticizes what Japan did in China, and Korea, she has said many things which could only be said by someone who is essentially ignorant about how ethnic majority Japanese treated ethnic minority (particularly Okinawan, Korean, and Taiwanese) Japanese before and during the way. Part of her disenchantment with NHK may be that she feels the network has excessively compromised her revisionist theme. But we will not know until all the episodes are shot, edited, and shown.

Thanks again for the various drafts of your articles.

Respectfully yours,

William Wetherall

[Signed William Wetherall]