FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Author Caroline Paul addresses a fan during a book signing event at Border's Books and Music, Ward Centre, for "East Wind, Rain."
Heroism well-known in isles finds a broader U.S. audience
You can't swing a cat in Honolulu without bumping into the legacy of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Battalion, those nisei soldiers who fought for American freedoms even while their relatives were incarcerated in relocation camps. It's the Story That Can't Be Told Often Enough.
By Robert Asahina
(Gotham Books, 2006, $27.50)
"East Wind, Rain"
By Caroline Paul
(William Morrow, 2006, $23.95)
With Robert Asahina:
Tomorrow: Noon, Bookends, 600 Kailua Road
Sunday: 2 p.m., Club 100, 520 Kamoku St.
Tuesday: 12:30 p.m. Bestsellers, 1001 Bishop St.
But don't assume everyone knows about it. According to author Robert Asahina, the story is virtually unknown on the mainland. He ought to know. As a Japanese American hailing from Toledo, Ohio, he knew virtually nothing about the legendary 442nd himself.
"I'm about as mainland as they come," laughed Asahina, who works in the New York book industry. "My own father was very briefly in the 442, but was transferred out to the 7th Armored Division, so it wasn't part of my family history. I never thought about until very recently, in 2000, when President Clinton awarded the upgraded Medals of Honor to the 442 veterans and there was a bit of coverage about it. And, I thought, this is an interesting story."
The result of this piqued interest is "Just Americans -- How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad," a popular history of the nisei soldiers and how their sacrifices influenced American perceptions. It's not so much a recounting as a well-sourced essay on the impact of lingering racist policies.
"What the Japanese Americans did during the war as soldiers was really the key to freeing them from relocation camps. The connection between the two is not often thought about. The relocation by itself is part of the standard modern-history curriculum in American colleges and high schools, but the 442 is ignored. You can't understand the relocation without factoring in the 442, however."
So in the "broadest sense," the goal of Asahina's book was public education, "beginning with myself! There's a tendency to look upon the progress of minority groups in America as following a predictable pattern -- identify a grievance, protest, organize, lobby, work toward legislative change, file constitutional challenges and so on.
"Most minorities learned this process from the civil rights period, but this is not what the Japanese Americans did. They did the opposite, affirming themselves first as citizens by fighting in the war while their protests went nowhere and their constitutional challenges ended in defeat."
Part of the "very complicated story" includes Japanese Americans drafted into the imperial Japanese military, a subject rarely touched upon even in Hawaii. "My uncle had gone to Japan to study and wound up getting a job there, and while he was there he was drafted and wound up fighting on the Russian front. Quite a terrible experience for him."
While researching the book, Asahina made two visits to Hawaii and was "quite astonished that everybody I talked to knew all about the 422, and there were big celebrations and parades. ... A totally different situation on the mainland, where the visibility of Japanese Americans is almost nonexistent."
Asahina also gives space to the "no-no boys," the Japanese Americans who protested loyalty oaths. "It's interesting that there were so many more of them than volunteers for combat. They did so in the name of loyalty to Japan, while the 442 volunteered in the name of loyalty to the United States, yet they're all from the same background."
Not really. Asahina also devotes space to the differences between the "kotonks" and "buddhaheads." "You're from Hawaii, so you're used to a certain form of behavior, but coming from the mainland, Hawaii Japanese are really quite astonishing. They're confident and brash and outspoken, and don't mind standing up for what they believe in."
Sounds pretty American.