Futatsu no sokoku

Japan's pop "Roots" fails to cast
new lilght on minority problems

By William Wetherall

See also Sanga moyu

A review of
Yamasaki Toyoko
Futatsu no sokoku (Two homelands)
Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1983
Three volumes

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 122(41), 13 October 1983, pages 62-63

Blue phrases were cut from the FEER version.
Purple phrases were added to the FEER version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the FEER version.


"Hey, Jap! Don't move!"

"Don't shoot! I'm an American! My parents are Japanese, but I'm a nisei. I was born in America and I have American citizenship."

"That may be true, but until you bleach yourself white, a Jap's a Jap!"

The place is a desert prison in the United States, defender of freedom, champion of liberty, enemy of tyranny. The time is a few days after Pearl Harbour, but more than a year before the phrase "a Japan's a Jap" was uttered before the US Congress by Lieutenant-General John L. DeWitt, commander of the Western Defence Command and the man most responsible for the mass incarceration of Japanese immigrants and their American descendants on the US West Coast in 1942. Ironically, at the time of this scene DeWitt was fighting California's yellow-peril lobby with eloquent words like "An American citizen, afterall, is an American citizen.".

But whatever the facts of the case, this is the scene with which Toyoko Yamasaki begins her latest bestseller, Futatsu no sokoku (Two homelands), just released in three hardcover volumes after more than three years of serialisation in a major Japanese weekly magazine. A popular novelist with a knack for anticipating controversial issues such as the Lockheed scandal, Yamasaki has caught the wave of local interest in overseas Japaneses and their descendants, and is set to ride it through a 50-hour TV version to be shown next year every Sunday night on NHK, Japan's semi-public national network.

Until recently, the Japanese public has shown little interest in so-called Nikkeijin, or "persons of Japanese descent" in other countries but particularly first-generation immigrants (issei) and their second, third, and fourth-generation descendants (nisei, sansei, yonsei). Some publicity was generated in the late 1960s by the minority-group movements on US campuses, and in the early 1970s by comparative "national character" studies that viewed Nikkeijin communities as fossils of Japanese social values in the early 1900s. But the present Nikkeijin boom was given its biggest impetus by the Japanese translation of Alex Haley's bestseller Roots, and the showing in 1977 -- repeated in 1979 -- of a fully dubbed version of the ABC-TV dramatisation of this story of a black Americans search for his ancestors. Few of the dozens of articles which reviewed the series, or interviewed Haley when he went to Japan to promote his book, failed to connect the experiences of blacks with those of yellow Nikkeijin in the white US.

In a heterogeneous country like Japan which has several minority groups totalling around five percent of its population, the ruutsu buumu should have generated more concern among Yamato majorities in the plight of the victims of their own racism. But the suffering of Kunta Kinte and his lineal descendants merely stimulated the nascent Nikkeijin boom, which has helped to educate Yamato majorities about the struggles of Nikkeijin in North and South America, but has also nurtured an ethnocentric sympathy towards them.

A good candidate for the first emulation of Roots would have been the story of Japanese potter Chin Jukan (Sim Sugwan), who traces his Korean Ancestry 14 generations back to 1604 when the first of his line migrated to Japan in the wake of a Japanese retreat from war-torn Korea. But instead the "ruutsu buumu" gave birth to tear-jerkers such as Taichi Yamada's Amerika monogatari (Tales of America), an NHK melodrama which followed the lives of three generations of a Japanese American family in southern California. Poorly written, cast and produced, the 1979 series irritated Nikkeijin who saw it televised in Los Angeles. The final segment, which portrayed the courtship and marriage of a Japanese American woman and a black man who overcame the objections of both families but particularly hers was criticised. Yoshimi Ishikawa, a Japanese expert on immigration history, thinks that the showing of such a mixed marriage as an ideal typifies Japanese ignorance about US racial problems.

In addition to many TV documentaries, most of them about the U.S. concentration camps for persons of Japanese (but not German or Italian) descent and the current drive by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) for indemnities, hundreds of books and articles have directly dealt with Nikkeijin. Richard Kenmotsu, an American in Tokyo who has collected practically all Japanese publications on Nikkeijin, estimates that only about two-dozen such books were published in Japan between 1947 and 1970. But about three-dozen appeared between 1971 and 1976, while around one-hundred have been brought out since 1977. Most of the two-dozen titles translated from English appeared before 1979.

Futatsu no sokoku, which took Yamasaki five years to research and write, draws heavily on many original and translated Japanese sources, but also reflects her study of English-language materials in US archives and interviews with Japanese Americans who experienced World War II in the concentration camps (officially called "relocation centres") and in the Pacific, Hiroshima, and later in occupied Japan. But the story, which centres on the life of a Japanese American journalist in the period 1941-1949 is told through the eyes of a writer who in her won words "laments the manner in which the kokoro [heart, sensitivity, feeling] of Japanese people is becoming desolate and is being lost."

Ms. Yamazaki is particularly upset by "the way in which even the very natural kokoro of loving one's homeland, particularly the country where one was born, has been weakening [in Japan]." She views her novel as an effort "to grapple with the theme of what a homeland is"; and in her own calligraphy on promotional bookmarks she defines one as "that warm, gentle terra firma, the country which is our mother, which gave birth to our lives and our comrades."

The story unfolds as though Yamasaki had listed all the misfortunes that could possibly have struck Japanese Americans, and heaped every one on the proud but fatigable back of the morally outraged protagonist, Kenji Amoh, born in the US, educated for 10 years in Japan, and graduated from a California college. Kenji's troubles begin with Pearl Harbour, when he is arrested in Los Angeles on suspicion of being a spy. When cleared of charges that should never have been made, he joins his family in a concentration camp where he finds himself on both sides of the pro-Japan/pro-US fence.

Kenji marries Emy, an "Americanised" compatriot, but he really loves Nagiko, who like his wife has never been to Japan but somehow possesses the "Japanese sensitivities" he appreciates. Nagiko marries his best friend, Charlie. The expected conflict between Charlie's crass "American" personality and Nagiko's refined "Japanese" character results in divorce, and when she "repatriates" to Japan with her parents, they are killed at Hiroshima and she later dies of leukaemia.

Isamu, one of Kenji's brothers, swears loyalty to the US and is killed in Europe. Kenji, who enlists for duty in the Pacific, wounds Tadashi, a brother who was in Japan at the start of the war and was forced to fight in the imperial army. Although assured after the war that he could regain the American citizenship he had lost because he had fought for Japan, Tadashi feels an obligation towards the dead comrades to live as a Japanese, albeit in Charlie's fast-moving world.


Unknown to Kenji, Emy is raped by a white beast with golden hair on his chest, and becomes an alcoholic. She joins him in Japan, but old jealousies towards Nagiko and her new self-hatred merely add to his burdens as a monitor (corrector of misinterpretations) at the international military tribunal in Tokyo. When the war-crimes trials end, Kenji is interrogated by counter-intelligence agents because he publicly called the tribunal "unfair". Paranoid hallucinations now complicate a sleepless and drunken depression; and feeling betrayed by the country he had fought for -- and by Charlie, who had collaborated with counter-intelligence -- he shoots himself while apologising to his parents for "being unable to find my own country like Isamu and Tadashi did."

The third novel by Yamasaki to draw plagiarism charges, Futatsu no sokoku is flawed by errors which suggest her lack of intimacy with the subject matter. Many of the "Hey, Jap" episodes that punctuate her story appear to serve no purpose bu to ensure that the reader gets her obtrusive message: the white world is hostile towards Japan and misunderstands the "superior talents of the Japanese people."

The story is flawed by errors which suggest Ms. Yamazaki's lack of intimacy with the subject matter: ethnic derogatives not used until the 1960s, incorrect placenames, contrived situations, and strange dialogue. Many of the "Hey, Jap" episodes that punctuate her story like soap-opera bed scenes and police-beat car chases appear to serve no purpose but to ensure that the irregular reader gets her obtrusive message: the white world is hostile towards Japan and misunderstands the "superior talents of the Japanese people" -- words exchanged between Kenji and Nagiko while admiring the gardens of a temple in Kyoto "unfrequented by foreign tourists". Yamazaki does not hide her praise of "Japanese spirit" as when Kenji dug up a samurai sword he had buried at his Los Angeles home, held it in his hands, and "regained his bonds with his fatherland Japan, and felt the surge of his Japanese blood."

When Kenji weeps at Hiroshima, a white officer reminds him that not all of Hiroshima's victims were Japanese: the dead included twenty or thirty American POWs. Kenji, his lips trembling, replies that one-hundred times this number of American victims of Japanese descent had been forgotten by their own country at Hiroshima. Because she believes that the bomb was a racist and inhumane act against a homogeneous Japan, Yamazaki fails to mention that thousands of Koreans died in the holocaust, many of them conscript laborers.

Outraged also by the treatment of Japanese war criminals, Yamazaki is the voice behind Kenji's criticism that the Tokyo Tribunal was a victor's court too impatient to exact revenge to uphold the principles of justice he had fought for. But Yamazki, who believes that Japan is a monoethnic state, observes as an omnicient narrator that "the way Japanese even now look askance at wartime foreign minister Shigenori Togo's Korean ancestry is different from the way that whites discriminate against the yellow race." The reader is assured that Japanese feel about minorities today as they did before the war when, "with damp feelings peculiar to Japanese people, they looked askance at the nisei as children of emigrants, and disparaged Chinese with derogative names."

But while one cannot belittle the uncomfortable roles that Japanese Americans chose or were forced by circumstances to play in the defeat, occupation and reconstruction of Japan, the theme of brothers and loyalties divided by war is too ancient and too universal to earn Yamasaki much critical acclaim. To evoke tears simply because some ethnic cousins have suffered racial discrimination and have anguished over their national identity fails to advance our understanding of human nature, or to reduce the possibility of another world war. Nor does a work that exploits Nikkeijin so that Japanese can vicariously suffer their sorrows, and narcissistically re-examine the Pacific War, improve our understanding.

Japanese today are increasingly prone to shed tears in self-pity and forget their own contributions to the miseries of imperialism and war. But the inclination of Yamato Japanese to view the US concentration camps, the atom bombs, and the postwar Occupation as ethnic affronts is a measure of their capacity to excuse their own national violence, to forget that not matter what the motives, discrimination is discrimination, death is death.

The experiences of Japanese immigrants and their American descendants are more poignantly and convincingly portrayed by Japanese American and other writers in a number of more reliable accounts in English and also Japaneses. But as an entertainment novel written for rush-hour commuters through the lens of a TV camera, Futatsu no sokoku is bound to stimulate more Japanese interest in Nikkeijin. And greater Japanese concern about overseas cousins may hasten the day that pluralistic ideals take root in Japan, where ethnic problems are officially swept under the threadbare rug of homogeneity.