An outstanding and innovative Nisei writer, Gene Oishi has movingly portrayed the trauma of the wartime incarceration of the Japanese American community.
Born in 1933 in the small farming town of Guadalupe, California, Oishi grew up within a small yet vibrant Japanese American community in the heart of California. Following Executive Order 9066 and the ensuing incarceration, the community disappeared, with the Oishi family losing their prized farm. Oishi and his family spent the war years incarcerated at the Gila River concentration camp in Arizona. Like other young Nisei, Oishi found the desolate setting and prison conditions to be life-changing, and the experience would affect his worldview thereafter.
After leaving camp, Oishi and his family briefly returned to Guadalupe, where he enrolled at the nearby Santa Maria high school. Although Oishi faced constant discrimination at school, he found solace in playing the trombone with the school jazz band, a passion that would influence his later life. After moving with his family to San Pedro and finishing high school, Oishi decided to enlist in the United States Army. Stationed in the small French town of Verdun (known as the site of a famous World War I battle), Oishi became known as a talented trombone player with the U.S. Army band. His music career, although brief, exposed him to the underground jazz clubs run by black American soldiers.
After leaving the army, Oishi returned to school and received a bachelors in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. He then briefly enrolled at University of Michigan law school, where he met his future wife Sabine. Although Oishi did not complete his law degree, he found an outlet for his passion for writing as a journalist. After taking classes in journalism at UCLA, Oishi began his journalistic career in 1964 as a newsman with the Associated Press. Two years later, Oishi began work as a journalist with the Baltimore Sun.
During mid-1968, while on assignment following vice presidential candidate Spiro Agnew’s 1968 campaign, Oishi became the center of national attention after Agnew called Oishi a racial epithet. Like the incarceration in earlier life, the comment shook Gene as a reminder of his racial difference from white Americans.
Although Oishi spent the following years as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun in Baltimore and Bonn, Germany, the question of his racial identity would lead him to a career as a creative writer. In April 1985, a few years after testifying before Congress’s Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC), Oishi put to paper some of his thoughts on the question of addressing the effects of the incarceration. Published in the New York Times under the title of “The Anxiety of Being Japanese American,” Oishi’s article details his long journey towards visiting the former site of his incarceration at the Gila River concentration camp.
The first important product of his years of ruminations on the question of Japanese American identity would be In Search of Hiroshi. Written as a memoir, In Search of Hiroshi, published in 1988 by Charles Tuttle publishing, digs deep into Oishi’s memory as he searches for his own lost childhood, personified in a character Oishi names “Hiroshi.” Troubled by the incarceration, Nisei, for Oishi, engage in a constant battle of self-suppression of their identity in order to conform to white society. For Oishi, realizing this internal battle allowed him to come to terms with the trauma of the camp experience, and allowed him to continue searching for “Hiroshi.” While preceded by other literary works on camp such as Jeanne Wakatsuki and James Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar and John Okada’s No-No Boy (also published by Tuttle), In Search of Hiroshi was groundbreaking in its psychological analysis of Nisei identity.
In addition to In Search of Hiroshi, Gene Oishi authored the novel Fox Drum Bebop. Published in 2014 by Kaya Press, Fox Drum Bebop explores the themes of his memoirs in a literary form, giving life to the character of Hiroshi from his memoir in the form of Hiroshi Kono.
I was fortunate to recently interview Gene in preparation for the upcoming republication by Kaya press of his book In Search of Hiroshi. In addition to feeling a personal affinity for Gene’s work as someone who grew up near his hometown of Guadalupe, I was impressed by his insightful comments on the incarceration and his reflections on events, both past and present:
Jonathan Van Harmelen: Your books “In Search of Hiroshi” and “Fox Drum Bebop” draw upon your own childhood experiences in Guadalupe. What do you remember about your childhood? Were there any particular events that stand out to you now? What are your thoughts on Guadalupe now?
Gene Oishi: I used to think of my childhood in Guadalupe as the only time in my life that I knew true happiness. Perhaps that only meant that childhood is the only time in anyone’s life when pure happiness and joy are possible, which is why it is so tragic that so many in this world are deprived of it or in one way or another denied its joys.
For me, though, my race added another important element. I lived in what amounted to a self-contained and seemingly self-sustaining Japanese colony. Although I was fully aware of the white world that surrounded us, even participated in it, I was never troubled or even thought much about being Japanese. I was a Japanese boy living in America. My friends were all Japanese, but I did make some white friends in school. The teachers were all white, but they treated us no differently than the white kids, even though they could get rough with Mexican boys. The war, of course, put an end to all that. Later in life, when I was in search of my identity, I looked back to my childhood and the culturally protected bubble I thrived in. When I began writing about it, I created “Hiroshi,” an alter ego, to give me some distance.
My childhood, of course, was not a paradise. I had a quick tempered and domineering father, who could make my life miserable, but he could be affectionate as well. Race was not the issue it would later become. If I encountered racism it was from my parents and other elders in the Japanese community who insisted that the Japanese race was divine, and we should behave accordingly. But I don’t know how seriously we understood that as children, for we had both samurai and cowboy heroes. We celebrated the emperor’s birthday as well as the Fourth of July, Buddhist holidays as well as Thanksgiving and Christmas. As a child I neither saw nor felt any contradiction in that mix.
Later in life, whenever I was distressed, I would find myself saying, “I want to go home.” But where was that? When I visited Guadalupe in the 1980s, it had not changed much, but I could not think of it as home. Too much had changed in my life and how I viewed the world. What I had meant by “home” was a feeling of comfort and safety in being who I was, a child greeting the world around me with a sense of wonder. It was the simplicity and innocence of childhood that I longed for. In that, I was perhaps no different than many others who look back fondly on a time when life was simpler, and a home was where a child could feel protected and safe. The trauma of being forced out that home and put into a prison camp surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by sentries armed with rifles, bayonets, machine guns and search lights was somehow suppressed. I used to say, quite honestly, that all that did not have a lasting effect on me.
JVH: You mention in your work that you spoke at a pre-hearing seminar for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. What did you talk about, and how did you feel about the hearings?
GO: In 1981, because a member of its staff was familiar with articles I had written on the subject, the Congressional Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, asked me to speak at a pre-hearing seminar. The invitation happened to come when I had begun seriously to write an autobiographical novel centering on my wartime experience. I had even given that as a reason for resigning my job as press secretary to the governor of Maryland. So, it was critical time in my life when I had finally summoned the will to seriously examine the impact of the war on my parents, my siblings and me. As it turned out, I was not yet up to the task. I found my lips mysteriously cramping when I talked about my wartime experience. I even broke into tears while writing, most notably when the protagonist at a critical moment in the novel says to himself, “I am Japanese.”
My talk to the Congressional Committee went well as I sketched the events following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — the FBI arresting my father, the mass roundup and displacement of Japanese into barb-wired camps guarded by armed sentries and towers, each with a searchlight and a 50-calibre machine gun. What I thought of as psychosomatic symptoms reappeared when I began speaking of the identity crisis the war and our incarceration had on Japanese Americans, especially children. I spoke of a time when my friends and I watching a war movie broke into applause and cheers when a Japanese battleship was sunk, and invading Marines began killing the “Japs” defending an island. I joined the cheering knowing full well how appalled my mother and those of her generation were to hear their children turning against the Japanese. We simply wanted to be Americans, and to be American you had to hate Japanese.
It was a childish syllogism, but it defined the dilemma that I and no doubt other Japanese Americans faced, subjected as we were to wartime propaganda that depicted the Japanese race as intrinsically evil. “A good Jap is a dead Jap,” it was said. It was when I spoke of these internal psychological challenges that my lips began to stiffen, and I had to grip the lectern with all my strength to keep myself from breaking into tears.
JVH: You wrote an article titled “The Anxiety of Being a Japanese Americans” for the New York Times in 1985 that detailed your memories of camp. What was it like writing the article? And what inspired you to write it?
Weeks later, I rewrote that presentation as a newspaper article, which was published by The Baltimore Sun. Shortly after that, I was asked by The National Geographic to write an article on the resilience of the Japanese American community to recover so quickly from the devastating wartime experience. I accepted the proposal even though I knew what was expected was a feel-good success story of a strong and resilient people. Such a story was possible, but as it turned out, not by me.
As I traveled to Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Hawaii and elsewhere, even the site in Arizona where my family and I were incarceration, interviewing scores of Japanese Americans covering a span of three generations, I found that the wounds of the wartime experience were far from healed. Economic recovery had not cured the emotional wounds.
Oddly, the first immigrant generation, the issei like my father, who had been economically ruined by the war, were the least emotionally conflicted. It was the second generation, like me, and the third, that of our children, who were still struggling emotionally. I found that I was not alone in my confusion over my identity and repressed fears, anger and doubts about myself and my country. That was the article I presented to The National Geographic which quickly rejected it with a generous “kill fee.” When I submitted a condensed version of the article to The New York Times Magazine, it was published with the title “The Anxiety of Being Japanese America,” which did not please me, but had to admit suited its content. The publication by the New York Times, made me think that my story might have some national import after all. I set aside my novel and wrote instead a memoir, In Search of Hiroshi, which was published by the Charles E. Tuttle Company in 1988.
JVH: Since you have written a number of articles and books on the topic of incarceration and identity, do you feel the story of the incarceration has changed over time? Do you feel that more people, whether Japanese American or not, are reading about it?
GO: Even as the mass incarceration was happening there were a few who had grave concerns about its constitutionality, especially, as we were to learn later, in the U.S. Department of Justice, but such concerns were not enough to override the President’s wishes and popular demands.
I do believe there has been a gradual reexamination of that period beginning, I think, with the great civil rights movement beginning in the 1950s, when the country, or at least a significant segment of it, began examining how deeply racism was imbedded in our history, institutions, and culture.
Before I began writing about my own experience, much of my thinking was influenced by books written about the history of bigotry and racism by scholars and black activists. If there is more interest in the Japanese American experience it is a byproduct of the general interest in racial inequality and its history, what is nowadays called critical race theory. It’s frightening that there is a movement developing in the country that sees such an inquiry as a threat and want to suppress it. It is a threat, of course, because it undermines white supremacy. Japanese Americans were imprisoned not only because we were at war with Japan, but because we were not of the white race. As it is often pointed out German and Italian Americans were not treated in the same way.
JVH: You mention in The New York Times article that Sanseis (Dwight Chuman in this case) believed that Nisei men were ”confused young men who succeeded by selling their self-hatred and disappearing into the mainstream mentality.” Is that statement still true today?
GO: Dwight Chuman was a young man with the self-assurance and stridency of youth. I doubt that he would express himself as bluntly today, but I quoted him because he expressed, if too harshly, the frustration of forward-thinking sansei over what they saw as the timidity of their elders to assert more openly and aggressively their racial and ethnic identity. He was a Japanese counterpart of the Black Panthers.
The truth of the matter is that we nisei are fading from the scene, and the younger generations are losing their distinctive ethnic identity and becoming part of the mainstream. What still sets us apart is our race, which we experience today not so much as Japanese, but as Asian or simply non-white. When Donald Trump blamed the Chinese for the COVID pandemic, not just Chinese but Japanese, Filipinos, Vietnamese and other South Asians came under attack. We are merging into “a people of color” who combined with Blacks and Hispanics will soon be the majority in our country. With this growing diversity the mainstream itself will continue to grow and change. I see this as a positive trend. We have already reached a point where sushi is as American as pizza.
A new edition of Gene Oishi’s “In Search of Hiroshi” will be republished by Kaya Press, with the release date planned for Fall 2022.