by Daniel James Brown
“Why should they lay their lives on the line for a country that had forced them and their parents into bleak concentration camps? Why, if they fought for America, would America not at least release their family members, grant their parents citizenship, and restore their civil rights?”
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, the lives of thousands of Japanese Americans changed forever. Prominent first generation Japanese immigrants—the Issei—were arrested on pre-emptive suspicion of disloyalty. At the same time, many of their sons—the Nisei—were trying to volunteer for military service, only to discover they were barred from enlisting as “enemy aliens” despite their American citizenship. The ban would hold until 1943, at which point the Nisei became subject to the draft, even as many of them were living in concentration camps following their exclusion from the West Coast under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat, follows the exploits of the 442nd Regimental Combat Unit, a segregated unit set up specifically for Japanese American soldiers, and headed predominantly by white officers. Fighting in the European theatre of World War II, the unit served with distinction, taking heavy casualties, and becoming the most decorated unit in the American military.
Brown predominantly focuses on three young Nisei men—Kats Miho, Rudy Tokiwa, and Fred Shiosaki—who volunteered for military service despite the discrimination they faced, although two older Japanese American chaplains also play a prominent role. Many of the young men tried to volunteer shortly after Pearl Harbor and discovered they were barred from doing so. Later the draft would be expanded to include Japanese Americans, and some would refuse to enlist due to the discrimination they and their families had faced. These are the no-no boys, and while they are mentioned occasionally, they are not the focus of Brown’s work. We get glimpses of life in the camps and other trials of those who remained behind through stories of the families and friends of the young men who are Brown’s primary subjects. But the main body of the narrative moves to Europe, where the 442nd served in Italy, France, and Germany.
One interesting aspect of the Japanese internment that Brown teases out in Facing the Mountain is the differences in the experiences of the Hawaiian and mainland Nisei. This comes particularly to light in section entitled Kotonks and Buddaheads, which were the nicknames for the mainlanders and the Hawaiian-born Nisei respectively. Because so much of the working population of the Hawaiian territory was of Japanese descent, it was deemed impractical—even economically catastrophic—to incarcerate them all. Some prominent Issei men were imprisoned, but otherwise the families of the Hawaiian-born Nisei remained largely at liberty. This was a sharp contrast to the harsh realities faced by the families of the mainland boys in the internment camps. Fred Shiosaki’s family was not incarcerated because they lived outside the exclusion zone, but their laundry business was almost destroyed by a boycott. The rifts created by the misunderstandings between the two groups almost tore the 442nd apart before they ever went into battle.
One outlier in Brown’s narrative is Gordon Hirabayashi, who was a conscientious objector even before the conscription of Japanese Americans. While most of Brown’s subjects fought on the battlefield, Hirabayashi fought in the courts, arguing that the curfews, exclusion orders, and evacuation zones were unconstitutional discrimination based on race. Inside the facilities where he was jailed a result, he also fought against the segregation of these institutions, exposing their hypocrisies and absurdities. For example, in a southern prison, Hirabayashi was assigned to be housed with the white inmates, but in a Washington State prison, he was assigned to the non-white dorm. Hirabayashi used these inconsistencies to peacefully agitate for prison reform. Alongside the combat troops, Hirabayashi and the two chaplains form a more philosophical contrast, helping to round out the narrative. Hirabayashi’s story alone would merit a book in its own right.
Sifting through the Densho archives, as well as many more sources such as letters provided by the family of Chaplain Hiro Higuchi, Brown has woven together strands of personal stories that come together to shed light on a vast and complicated chapter in American history. As with The Boys in the Boat, he succeeds in bringing to life the personalities of his primary subjects, while also maintaining a view of the wider historical context in which their stories took place. With none of the main subjects of the book alive any longer—the last, Fred Shiosaki, died in April 2021—the work of organizations such as Densho becomes even more important to preserving the memory of the injustices perpetrated against Japanese Americans during World War II. Brown’s work adds to that with a very readable account of some of those experiences, and a young reader’s edition is also expected in Spring 2022.
You might also like: