2014 / Book review: With honesty, a “Nisei daughter” recollected the conflicted feelings

Nisei Daughter

Author:  Monica Itoi Sone

New Introduction Written by Marie Rose Wong

University Washington Press, 228 pages

Book Nisei DaughterBook review byJune Aochi Berk

Kazuko (Monica) Itoi Sone’s recollections as a young second-generation Nisei is told with simplicity and prose-like remembrances.  Kazuko-chan’s detailed descriptions of the people and places in her childhood in Seattle are served with a flair that only youth and humorous interpretations of the customs of growing as a marginal second generation can be enjoyed.

She shares with the reader descriptive details of what it was like living in a small Japanese community in Seattle, and her conflicts of thinking like a young American daughter while being infused with the Japanese culture that her parents wanted to impart to her.   With humor and charm, she goes back and forth from Japanese phrases to English, often giving the reader lessons of the two different languages she naturally learned as a child.

Kazuko then turns to the somewhat painful memory of her first experience of visiting Japan. She is not quite “Japanese” in Japan, but instead she finds she is looked upon as a foreigner.  These experiences are sometimes perplexing, and other times, laughter becomes her best outlet for the confusing differences in the culture and her feelings of trying to adjust, or not adjust, to being “Japanese.”

The WWII years for a young woman just coming of age as a Nisei daughter is the first time she seriously reflects on being a marginal person, not quite Japanese like her parents, yet not quite American as she sees her friends.  

These are times of questioning what America stands for when it comes to individual civil rights.  What she learned in her high school, and what actually happens to her and the thousands of Japanese and Japanese American who are uprooted from their homes and forced into concentration camps are the deep questions she reflects on as an American-born citizen. 

The disappointments, the anguish, and her frustrations to the unanswered questions are remembered with a sense of irony – being behind barbed wires, yet seeing acts of loyalty that she also shares for the country she loves.

The most moving experiences are those when she first comes out of the concentration camp, afraid of what to expect, but then is comforted by the kindness of so many. Her subsequent return to once again visit her parents who are still behind barbed wires in camp, and then her final moment of leaving the “camp” she knew as home, she is now ready to go forward into a future and enroll in an Eastern college, as a blended Japanese Nisei and American person, filled with optimism and hope

While her autobiography is a very personal account of her experiences growing up in Seattle, and her internment and her subsequent rebuilding of her life “after camp,” I was disappointed that it did not include more insight into her life as a marginal second-generation daughter to first-generation Issei parents.  

The values that were instilled in the Nisei, even without being overtly taught those values that the first generation “Issei” brought with them during the Meiji era and passed on to their children, were significant, I believe, in the make-up of the strength and foresight that the Nisei’s were able to build into their own character so that they were also able to persevere in spite of many challenges and obstacles they faced. This thought is also expressed in the Introduction to the 1979 Edition (pg xiii) written by S. Frank Miyamoto.

I had hoped that Monica Sone would give the readers more insight into her personal relationship with her mother:  recollections of her mother’s history, what she remembers about her mother, and the challenges that the first-generation Issei woman endured, and how those experiences molded Monica’s inner spirit that ultimately gave her strength and perseverance to build her own life “after camp.”  She does recollect with honesty the conflicted feelings of trying to be an individual where individualism in her culture is not encouraged.

As a young woman, Kazuko Monica Itoi leaves her home in the internment camp secure in her feelings of being a blended person.  She recalls with humanness and understanding her own unique autobiography as a Nisei daughter that endears her to the reader in a memorable genuine respect for the gift she leaves behind in writing Nisei Daughter.  

June Aochi Berk, a Nisei, was born in Hollywood in 1932 as Yasuno Aochi. During the WWII, her family was sent to a concentration camp in Rohwer, Arkansas for three years. Currently June lives in Studio City with her husband. She has five children and nine grandchildren.