On Nov. 7, 2023, Chin Music Press will release its latest book, Fighting For America. The most recent edition in its series of graphic novels (We Hereby Refuse, Those Who Helped Us), Fighting for America offers a stirring portrayal of six Japanese American vetåerans — all hailing from the Pacific Northwest — covering from their incarceration experiences in the Minidoka concentration camp, through their military service in Europe and the Pacific.
With text by Lawrence Matsuda and moving images illustrated by artist Matt Sasaki, who also worked with Frank Abe, Tamiko Nimura, and Ross Ishikawa on We Hereby Refuse, Fighting For America is a valuable read for young audiences to learn more about the World War II experiences of local Japanese Americans the sacrifices made by Nisei soldiers.
Author Matsuda is no stranger to teaching the public the history of incarceration. Born at Minidoka, Matsuda grew up in postwar Seattle and attended University of Washington. He taught for several years, later becoming principal, at Sharples Junior High School, where he fought to include Asian American studies in the school’s curriculum.
In 1970, Matsuda helped organize one of the first exhibits about the wartime incarceration, The Pride and the Shame, at the Seattle Museum of History and Industry, influencing the future Redress movement of the following decade. In 1972, he worked on the campaign for John Eng, Washington State’s first Asian American state legislator.
In the years since, Matsuda has lectured at schools across the country about the wartime incarceration and its legacy today. He is also the author of several collections of poems and novels about the wartime incarceration, including Shape Shifter: A Minidoka Concentration Camp Legacy, and My Name is Not Viola. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Jonathan van Harmelen: Let’s start with what inspired you to write Fighting for America. What got you started on this project, and why do it as a graphic novel?
Lawrence Matsuda: Well, to start, back in 2013, I was speaking with Paul Murakami, who works with the Nisei Veterans Committee, and he expressed his concern with me that many of the Nisei veterans were dying off. He asked, “How can we preserve those stories? How can we get them out there?” I told him that what we could do is we could interview them and make a graphic novel. And he asked, what’s a graphic novel? I told him it’s like a comic book.
To finance our book, I suggested that we look for grants, and because the Nisei Veterans Committee does not provide grants, I suggested we go to the Wing Luke Museum for support. They helped submit a couple of grant applications on our behalf. One went to the National Park Service, which was accepted, and we received another grant from the state. That’s how we were able to finance the project, and that led to the initial run from 2015. Our project was also produced into several short films, with one winning a regional Emmy in 2016.
After that initial run, the Wing Luke committee stayed together. One of the committee members, Debbie Kashino, said, “We should do something about those people who resist it. That should be another graphic novel.” So, I wrote some generic thoughts for a grant, and the Wing picked it up, submitted it, and it became a funded project. That’s where We Hereby Refuse came from.
One other person on the committee, May Sasaki, said, “Not only should we have something about those who refuse, we should have something about those who helped.” The series now provides the whole perspective of those who volunteered, those who helped, and those who resisted. That led to the series with Chin Music Press and the reprinting of Fighting for America.
JvH: There have been several books published recently, such as Daniel James Brown’s Facing the Mountain, that talk about the experiences of Nisei soldiers. What’s unique about Fighting for America that distinguishes it from other books on JA soldiers?
LM: We specifically picked people from the Pacific Northwest. Most of the 442nd stories that you see out there are about either Hawaii or California. We purposely worked with the Nisei veteran’s organization in Seattle. Out of the six people, five were still alive at the time we worked on the novel, so I was able to interview them. The one veteran we couldn’t interview was Shiro Kashino because he had already passed, and so I interviewed his wife and his daughter. Vince Matsudaira also produced a great film on Shiro called Kash, which was quite helpful.
We also tried to present a variety of different soldiers. We had infantry men, we had two medics, which I think is different from most histories. One of the medics, Jimmie Kanaya, was a German prisoner of war. There’s irony in that he was a prisoner of the Germans while his family were imprisoned in the U.S. We also had one translator with the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), Roy Matsumoto, who was in the Pacific. Very little has been written on the MIS because their story, in part, was kept secret by the military until 50 years after they served.
JvH: It has been eight years since the book was initially produced. For this current reprint, has the message changed much? Is it more relevant today than when it came out in 2015?
LM: The message is certainly the same, but times have changed. I think that what you’re seeing now is a changing view of patriotism. Many Nisei soldiers, like the ones in Fighting for America volunteered right out of camp to serve. The question now is, would any readers today volunteer out of the camp today to serve? I don’t know. America is a lot different now than it was even eight years ago. For me, fighting for America meant fighting for justice and liberty. Now, to some people, fighting for America means you go storm the Capitol. There’s a real division.
I used to say many years ago that there are two Americas, and I was living in the one with less justice. I used to think that was controversial, but now it’s not. We are clearly living in at least more than two Americas. This book is more important now for divided America because our book is about these Americans, who volunteered out of concentration camps, and still believed in this country. When we talk about incarceration, there are 120,000 stories, all different. For the 442nd, there are 13,000 stories. They may all be very similar, but they are all different in their own ways. And that is what this book highlights.