There aren’t many Nisei writers who have achieved literary success of the kind that gets them attention from more mainstream critics. One of the few is Wakako Yamauchi (disclosure: she is a friend of mine) and her plays and writings have been produced and praised for their sensitivity, for their portrayal of life in the Asian American community and for their honesty. She draws on her personal life and her observations of those around her to create a world lived by this particular group in Southern California at a particular time in American history.
It is a world that is fast disappearing, maybe already gone and I think following generations will find that it will not be easy to relate to that world with its hardships and cultural values. But I think that younger people will find Yamauchi’s stories in “Rosebud and Other Stories” depicting slices of life that are very much a part of their past, the lives of the Nisei who bore the brunt of vast changes that overtook them, of special events that other immigrant groups did not go through. First and foremost, Yamauchi never forgets the Issei, the first generation group that came to this foreign land and devoted their lives to establishing themselves in America. It was a pretty hard life for most of them, trying to survive the depression under often hostile conditions, trying to send down roots by forming their own communities with businesses, farms, slowly getting jobs in the outside white community. And then came the incarceration, the war years in which most Issei lost everything that they had managed to accumulate-farms, businesses, jobs, some standing in their various communities, all that they had worked so hard to establish themselves in this often hostile land.
The Nisei, their children, were caught in the middle of assimilating themselves into American culture, but still very much caught up in the value systems of their parents, of the old world. And then the insult, humiliation and the many uncertainties of the incarceration was an added blow to their identities. Yamauchi is very much aware of these Nisei issues as she composes her stories, many drawn from her own experiences. For instance, in “Onna” (woman), she talks about the Japanese concept of womanhood that dictates behavior expected of Japanese women. It is one that is contrary to American standards of individuality and assertiveness. One of the basic tenets of that behavior is “makete katsu,” which means win by losing with grace. She notes that these concepts have pretty much been lost on the next generation, and that they may be gone forever in contemporary Japanese America.
On the other hand, Yamauchi’s very much an American as evidenced by some of her titles: “Rosebud,” in reference to the movie “Citizen Kane,” “Annie Hall,” and “McNisei.” Her writing is whimsical, detailed with everyday situations, and yet imbued with the stuff of the human condition.
One of the basic themes in her stories is the persistence of pieces of the old country, like the food, sushi, tempura, and festivals, obon and cherry blossoms, the ubiquity of Japanese products like Toyota, Honda, Toshiba. And with the complete reversal of feelings toward Japan and things Japanese, one’s ancestry is no longer a negative but almost an asset. The large numbers of hapa children with their integration into American society alarms some who worry about the disappearance of Japanese America.
But the evidence seems to show that it will take a long, long time for this to happen as the kids often pick up the old culture and incorporate it into their lives. We see obon celebrations, Cherry Blossom festivals, mochi tsuki on New Years, and the ubiquity of sushi everywhere. Rosebud is evidence of this, and is a very enjoyable and thoughtful book, a great addition to the literature of Japanese Americans and their evolving yet continuing ties to their past.