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Reflections on a Career in Japanese American History

October 11, 2016
Robert Chino, in Europe with the US Army Robert Chino, in Europe with the US Army

One of the most gratifying aspects of working on Japanese American history, and especially of focusing on individual biographies, is getting to know various people with whom my work brings me in contact, and taking advantage of our connection to deepen my research.

One of the most gratifying aspects of working on Japanese American history, and especially of focusing on individual biographies, is getting to know various people with whom my work brings me in contact, and taking advantage of our connection to deepen my research.

First, there are the people I met when I was first began delving into the topic, who have gone out of their way time and again to help me. For example, there is Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, the Nisei whose historical research into the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans helped pave the way for the 1988 official apology and redress payment to former inmates. I was put into touch with her when I was a graduate student just beginning my doctoral dissertation, and had no publications or reputation. Aiko and her late husband Jack took me under their joint wings. They discussed historical questions with me, and allowed me to go through their personal library. Aiko regularly told me, “You know so much, Greg, that I can learn from you.” Taken aback by such modesty, I had difficulty stammering out in response, “You have already forgotten more than I will ever know.” When I was doing research on the artist Miné Okubo, Aiko provided me with a folder of unpublished material that Okubo had given her, a set of material that proved crucial to my analysis. Aiko and Jack proceeded to introduce me to a set of friends and colleagues, and asked them to assist me. This was a great service, especally as the idea of calling people up cold and saying, in effect, “I am a non-Japanese American and you don’t know me from Adam—please tell me all about this difficult and painful period in your family’s lives” filled me with dread.

Since I began publishing my scholarly books and popular newspaper columns, I have been additionally fortunate in meeting friends and family members of the people I write about. Peggy LaViolette Powell, niece of the sociologist Forrest LaViolette, shared with me LaViolette’s unpublished photos of the Heart Mountain camp. I met Fred Oyama, who joined his father Kajiro Oyama in a legal challenge to Calforinia’s Alien Land Act in 1948. Fred not only attended a lecture of mine and sat for an informal interview afterwards, but he showed his appreciation by kindly bringing a basket of fresh avocados from the farm he still runs.

Another gratifying meeting that I had was in Paris, with Nisei soldier Robert Chino’s postwar family. I provided information on his youthful exploits as a draft resister. Since Chino’s family members had barely known him, after I spoke about Robert Chino, Chino’s grandson told me that “With all this, getting to meet you is like finding an old Army buddy of Robert Chino’s to tell us about him and his early life.”

One especially poignant example of the importance of such contacts concerns the late Japanese American businessman and journalist Togo Tanaka. In the late 1990s, I interviewed Tanaka over the telephone about his trip to Washington, DC in Fall 1941, during which he had met with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Tanaka explained that he had corresponded with Mrs. Roosevelt afterwards. When he was confined during the war in the Manzanar camp, however, amid the unrest of the so-called “Manazanar Riot” of December 1942, his family had destroyed the correspondence as potentially compromising, and he no longer recalled the content of the letters. After doing a search, I informed Tanaka that there was one letter of his that had survived and was housed in the Eleanor Roosevelt papers at the FDR Library—a letter in which the young Tanaka had informed Mrs. Roosevelt that he was naming his young daughter Eleanor in her honor.

When I offered to retrieve and copy the letter for him on my next visit to the Roosevelt Library, Tanaka willingly agreed. When I returned to the library, I asked to see Tanaka’s letter. The library staff brought me Tanaka’s letter as well as Mrs. Roosevelt’s gracous reply, which I photocopied. What caught my eye, though, was a copy of Tanaka’s wedding photograph, which the newlywed had enclosed. It was the predigital days, but I made the best photocopy I could manage of the photo, and sent it on to Tanaka. I learned later that Tanaka’s wife had died not long before, so he was moved by the wedding portrait—imagine seeing one’s own wedding photo for the first time in 60 years because it had been sent to Eleanor Roosevelt, who had preserved it!

Naturally, I am not able to touch the lives of every family whom I contact through my work, but it is gratifying that the larger history that I seek to tell can have resonance for the smaller family histories of the people with whom I interact. 

Greg Robinson is professor of history at Université du Québec à Montréal. He is the author or editor of several notable books on Japanese Americans, including The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches,  A Tragedy of Democracy, which was awarded the history book prize of the Association for Asian American Studies; After Camp, winner of the Caroline Bancroft History Prize in Western US History, and By Order of the President. He writes a regular column, “The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great,” for the Nichi Bei Weekly in San Francisco and is an active speaker and writer in the public arena and the blogsphere.


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