BY KEN MOCHIZUKI
Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Robert Asahina said his family ended up there since his father had to keep moving “farther and farther east” to find medical schools and employment at hospitals that would accept a Japanese American. In a phone interview from his office in New York, Asahina talked more about his first book, “Just Americans”:
International Examiner: At your reading, you started out by saying, “All your assumptions about why I wrote this book are wrong.” What are those assumptions?
Robert Asahina: There’s an assumption that somehow Japanese Americans know this story through family connections. And, in my case, that was not true at all. Neither of my parents’ families were relocated after Pearl Harbor, and although my father was temporarily in the 442nd, he did the bulk of his service elsewhere. My being Japanese American sort of made some connections easier, and enabled me to make contacts and interview people perhaps a little easier than someone else, but it was not driven by any autobiographical concerns. I think that’s the first assumption.
The second — that I go into great detail in the book — is that a lot of what we think happened after Pearl Harbor is really misunderstood because we’re looking at it backwards through the lens of what happened particularly during the ‘60s — the civil rights movement. A lot of the vocabulary we use to describe that experience, particularly the notion of civil rights, really doesn’t apply to what Japanese Americans went through.
IE: Were you out to prove this point from the very beginning? Or did you start researching, and came to the conclusion that you were going to prove this point?
RA: Whatever happened to the 110,000 Japanese Americans when they were thrown out of their homes was not internment. That’s a very important legal distinction to keep in mind, because internment is a legal process that the government has always had — the right to treat non-citizens differently from citizens. What happened to Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, however, was not internment because it mostly concerned citizens. So, they [the Roosevelt administration] had to invent a whole new language, had to create these powers, and that’s what Executive Order 9066 did. And [the Order] had nothing to do with internment, which had already been invoked not just against a small group of Japanese aliens in the United States, but also against Germans and Italians.
That was something I had no idea of before I started researching this book. I think most people don’t understand that — they still use the term “internment.” It’s not just an academic quarrel — it’s actually a substantive quarrel of what it means to be a citizen.
IE: Were you immediately accepted by the vets you interviewed?
RA: It varied from person to person. The key was getting in touch with some of the organizations: the Go For Broke Foundation in Torrence, [Calif.] and Club 100 and the 442nd Veterans Club in Honolulu. And once I made those contacts, it was pretty easy. I had gone to a 442nd reunion the summer of 2001, and I was sort of immediately taken in by a couple guys. I was struck by how willing they were to talk, and how open they were about making their contacts and their history available to me.
I didn’t have a clear sense of what I was going to do. When I got back [from the reunion], I sort of sat down and put some ideas down on paper, and thought that I really had the makings of a book. And it was literally about half way through I was writing down my ideas that 9/11 happened. And then I understood that what I was writing about wasn’t just ancient history. They were really topics of concern.
IE: Were you working on this book full time? Because to do all the research, interviews that you did and write the book in four years, you were moving fast …
RA: (Laughs) It doesn’t seem fast now. I was working on it full time, but I still had to pay the bills, so I took on some free-lance editing and writing in the meantime. If I really had the time to work straight on the book and nothing else, I could’ve done it in two-and-a-half years or so. But, yeah, it was a lot of research. I went to Hawaii two or three times, was in California probably eight or 10 times. I was in Washington, D.C. and Maryland in the National Archives — probably spent a total of two-and-a-half months down there, spread out over four, five trips.
IE: The vets are in their 80s now — how is their ability to recollect what happened then?
RA: Some remember everything as clearly as something that happened yesterday. Others are very vague. But when you do as much interviewing as I did for this book — and, of course, you’re asking people to recount events that happened 60 years ago — you have to take everything with a grain of salt. Even the clearest memories are often — not so much that they’re wrong – they’re from a certain perspective. And nobody’s understanding of events is complete, so you have to weigh what one person says against what another person says, and, most important of all, against the documentary record that was done at the time. There’s no substitute for going down to do the archival research of the unit histories, the daily reports and so on done by people who were eyewitnesses or once-removed in 1944. That really had to be the bedrock of your research.