AHA 2008: a very limited perspective

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:31 pm

It was a very busy conference for me, but my meetings didn’t leave me a lot of time for panels.1 None, in fact, except for our own, which was great fun. I did get to do some social stuff, including the Cliopatria/IHE dinner, a visit with the Progressive Historian himself and an evening with a college friend that ended up at a used bookstore (see below).

I did think our panel was quite fun, though a bit limited by the absence of Nathanael Robinson (and his paper). That said, though, I think Alan Baumler and Rebecca Goetz did an excellent job squaring the circle of our presentations, a job that would have been complicated by another thesis. One of the members of the audience was a British grad student who’s doing microhistory in the same regions I studied in Yamaguchi: it was a pleasant, but shocking, experience to realize that I’m not going to be the only person who knows something about this.

My own paper is an outgrowth of thinking about ways to connect the history of Japanese emigration with contemporary Japanese immigration issues. The return migration of Nikkei from Brazil, the Philipines, North America, etc., is a striking case: Japan permits easy remigration of these groups because they are expected to be culturally assimilable in a way that Chinese, Korean or Philippine immigrants wouldn’t be, but the assimilation which has taken place over three or four generations has made that considerably more difficult. Why, then, didn’t Japanese authorities (or the Japanese people in general) realize that assimilation would create culturally distinct Nikkei? My theory is that pre-’45 nationalism obscured the normal patterns of assimilation which take place in multi-generational immigrant communities: certainly, out-migration to Hawai’i and the Philippines was thought of like colonial frontier settlement more than as the transfer of population to a new host culture. Histories of emigration and studies of Nikkei communities by Japanese scholars continued to obscure assimilation by focusing on the way in which traditional values and recreated traditional institutions bolstered the overseas community, taking their successes as evidence of innate Japanese qualities — perseverence, education2, cohesion. This is particularly stark when compared with English language histories of immigration, which emphasize assimilation as the very foundation of success in the new host culture, and emphasize efforts at modernization and entrepreneurship.

Manan Ahmed’s paper was much more interesting, a historiography of the tension between conquerers as national heroes and heroic resisters as local icons. The local counternarrative of resistance got very elaborate, as entertaining stories of weaker figures wrecking vengeance on powerful ones often are. Ultimately, as he described it, the heroic invader — heroic from the standpoint of constructing a unified national narrative, anyway — is dehistoricized and turned into an inoffensive (and uninspiring, I’d guess) “unifier” while local resistance is effectively erased from the national narrative.3 In other words, and I don’t remember who said it this way, but someone did, the life is drained out of the biography until the hero becomes “nice.”

I do remember Alan Baumler’s comments drawing the papers together by highlighting their biographical and genealogical aspects, the way in which pre-national figures can be integrated into national self-narratives as ancestors and the way in which shared ancestry can bridge other modern/national divides. The idea that values are inherited through blood is a powerful common error with which we regularly contend. I was just lecturing this week on nationalism, and the way in which it is based on an historical fiction which obscures margins, minorities and migration.4 There was some discussion — initiated by Rebecca, if memory serves — about the way in which many nations cleanse their histories by a similar sort of biographical emasculation or justify invasions and other atrocities by a sort of victors’ hagiography.5


  1. In spite of which, I’m in the running for latest conference blogging []
  2. There’s a whole research program yet to be undertaken with regard to educational values. The standing assumption, based on the high educational achievements of Nisei, is that there was something inherent in traditional Japanese culture which valued education, which is patently untrue for the rural laborers who make up a large portion of the immigrant population. The successor thesis — that the Meiji emphasis on education and “self-help” was the key factor — assumes a rapid transmission of these ideas from city to country which is a bit hard to accept. The basic question of literacy rates among immigrants versus their sending communities isn’t really clear yet, and a fair examination of the other questions really hasn’t been done. []
  3. note some of the similarities to Hiraku Shimoda’s argument []
  4. I didn’t use the alliteration in class, but I’m going to have to remember it for next time []
  5. I was reminded, though I didn’t get a chance to mention it, of the Enola Gay controversy []


Fortune Cookie History

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:46 am

A grad student from Kanagawa University may have cracked the great riddle of Asian cuisine: the origin of the Fortune Cookie! As the NY Times reports, the original fortune cookies may have been produced by Kyoto-area confectioners in the late 1800s.1 The practice — and the distinctive iron grills used to make the sembei crackers, which are part of the historical puzzle — spread to Japanese-owned Chop Suey houses in San Francisco.2 From there, Chinese-owned restaurants began to offer them, and Chinese-owned bakeries supplied them.

Then came WWII, which changed everything.

Ms. Nakamachi is still unsure how exactly fortune cookies made the jump to Chinese restaurants. But during the 1920s and 1930s, many Japanese immigrants in California owned chop suey restaurants, which served Americanized Chinese cuisine. The Umeya bakery distributed fortune cookies to well over 100 such restaurants in southern and central California.

Early on, Chinese-owned restaurants discovered the cookies, too. Ms. Nakamachi speculates that Chinese-owned manufacturers began to take over fortune cookie production during World War II, when Japanese bakeries all over the West Coast closed as Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps.

Mr. Wong pointed out: “The Japanese may have invented the fortune cookie. But the Chinese people really explored the potential of the fortune cookie. It’s Chinese-American culture. It only happens here, not in China.”

The war also served to popularize the fortune cookie

they were encountered by military personnel on the way back from the Pacific Theater. When these veterans returned home, they would ask their local Chinese restaurants why they didn’t serve fortune cookies as the San Francisco restaurants did.

The cookies rapidly spread across the country. By the late 1950s, an estimated 250 million fortune cookies were being produced each year by dozens of small Chinese bakeries and fortune cookie companies. One of the larger outfits was Lotus Fortune in San Francisco, whose founder, Edward Louie, invented an automatic fortune cookie machine. By 1960, fortune cookies had become such a mainstay of American culture that they were used in two presidential campaigns: Adlai Stevenson’s and Stuart Symington’s.

It’s such an American tale. It’s all there: entrepreneurship, food, racism, migration, war, marketing, invention, industrialization and orientalism.3 I can’t wait to tell my students.

(Crossposted, of course)

  1. I’m immediately reminded of the rickshaw, which everyone associates with China but which was actually invented as the jinrikisha in Japan at the opening of the Meiji era. There is evidence in the Times article going back to the early 1800s, though. []
  2. Japanese in North America were much more likely to be from Kansai than Japanese in Hawai’i []
  3. Also the obsession with national origins, Japanese-Chinese competition, the value of open archives, the historiography of food culture and the power of media to shape a historical finding. []



Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:42 pm

I was looking over the new US Census name frequency lists [via] and noticed that there were no obviously Japanese names in the top 1000.1 In fact, the highest ranked one I could find was “Tanaka” (tied for #4160 with “Cornish”), followed closely by “Nakamura” (#4203), “Sato” at (#4276) and “Yamamoto” at #4289 (tied with “Schoonover”). That’s it for the top 5000. Looking at a list of most common Japanese names: “Suzuki” came in at #6045, “Watanabe” at #6295, “Takahashi” at #6378, “Ito” at #6998, “Saito” at #72492 , “Kobayashi” at #8097, and “Yamaguchi” (not on the top-ten list, but I seem to come across it a lot) at #10273.3

In other news, I just sent off my very minor corrections to the galley proofs of the Japanese-language translation of my Japanese Diasporas chapter. Kudos to the translator, who had to deal with sentences like “Should the quasi-legal warnings of the kokoroegaki or the official gravitas of Hara’s proclamation fail to impress, Yamaguchi emigrants were also required to sign contract-like pledges of good behavior.” and “Though there was some ebb and flow in the sugar plantation workload, it was not the cycle of temperate agriculture to which the Japanese were accustomed.” When I have to write in Japanese, I try very hard to think in Japanese, but when I’m writing in English, the last thing I’m thinking of is translatability. Anyway, it’s quite a thrill to see the work moving towards a new audience.

  1. I might have missed one, but I’ve looked twice. I didn’t count names which could be Japanese, phonetically, but which I’ve never heard used as Japanese names, at least not frequently. []
  2. a three-way tie with “Danforth,” “Florio,” and “Krieg” []
  3. “Dresner,” in case you’re wondering, is ranked #42912 (that’s not a typo: I’m in mid-five-digits), and my extended family accounts for almost two percent of the Dresners in the census. []


Giant Robot Exhibition

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 12:13 am

The Japanese American National Museum once again displays its amazing ability to hone in on topics of widespread interest while still staying true to its mission in its new exhibition, “Giant Robot Biennnale”!


From the website:

Developed in collaboration with Eric Nakamura of Giant Robot and the Japanese American National Museum

In celebration of its 50th issue and in collaboration with the Japanese American National Museum, the pop-culture magazine Giant Robot has assembled works by ten cutting-edge artists from around the country in Giant Robot Biennale: 50 Issues. APAK | Gary Baseman | David Choe | Seonna Hong | Sashie Masakatsu | Saelee Oh | Pryor Praczukowski | Souther Salazar | Eishi Takaoka | Adrian Tomine


The curator of the exhibition and owner/co-editor of Giant Robot is Eric Nakamura, a fascinating character who has been pursuing his passions in the pages of this amazing magazine for the past 13 years. Part of what is exciting about his work in the magazine is that his and other authors’ articles perfectly measure the pulse of Asian and Asian American pop culture as a living, breathing entity rather than as a somewhat stale object of scholarly enquiry. Rather than linking interest in Japanese video games and J-pop stars with the now common stereotype of the urban otaku teenagers locked in their rooms, Giant Robot exposes the likes and dislikes, the artistic and musical travels, and the subtle but omni-present cultural politics of diverse individuals who identify with Japan while not being contained by it.

It’s also worth noting that as Giant Robot has increased its subscription base and attracted more attention and funding, Eric and his partner have become serious patrons of local and international artists, setting up galleries and improving their communities in various ways. I wish more academic institutions approached community relations the way these entrepreneurs do!


Diasporic Remnants

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:22 am

I’m always interested in interesting tales and connections regarding the Japanese diaspora. Here’s a couple that I’ve run across: New research on Japanese settlers in Korea; Jorge Luis Borges, the great surrealist, married a Nikkei Argentinian woman late in life; Japanese post-WWII settlers in the Dominican Republic abandoned by both governments. I love being part — a small part, but nonetheless — of the diaspora studies movement. We’re complicating the history of the world, chronicling the wonderful diversity of seemingly simple things. [continued...]



Reminder to self: Complicating History

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:31 am

This is an old-fashioned web-log post: links that I don’t want to lose in the ether or the depths of my Eudora folders. Both are from Japan Focus, and both have to do with complicating our view of Japanese history.

The first is a conceptual and migratory complication, which I’m always in favor of, by Chris Burgess: “Multicultural Japan? Discourse and the ‘Myth’ of Homogeneity”. Burgess does a bit of deconstruction on both Nihonjinron and its attackers, problematizing both homogeneity and diversity. Then he talks about migration, but goes beyond the usual platitudes by addressing actual numbers and even coherent international comparisons! I’m not entirely convinced — limiting the migration discussion to in-migration always makes me a little wary — but that’s why I want to go back and read it again another time.

The second is Aaron William Moore’s “Essential Ingredients of Truth: Soldiers’ Diaries in the Asia Pacific War”, which includes not only a substantial discussion of WWII diaries, but also a contextual discussion of the tradition of diary-keeping in modern Japan, especially the military, a discussion of the publication of military diaries in Japan, and then concludes with a discussion of wartime military diaries from other countries, so as to put the Japanese diaries in the fullest possible context.

Go, read, and come back and discuss, perhaps? Perhaps not.

Update: Nobuko Adachi — editor of the recently reviewed collection of Diaspora studies in which I had a chapter1 — graces this week’s Japan Focus with “Racial Journeys: Justice and Japanese-Peruvians in Peru, the United States, and Japan”, which tells the story of the WWII era deportation to the US and interment of Japanese-Peruvians, and the slow realization by the governments involved that a grave injustice was done. She then goes on to discuss the dekasegi and other return migration (including that most famous Japanese-Peruvian, Alberto Fujimori) and the crisis created by Japan’s economic slowdown. Interesting stuff.

  1. In spite of the very positive review, the book’s rank at Amazon is just on the cusp of the top million…. []


Hawaiian Kanji

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:48 am

No, I’m not going to show you some cartoon of a spam musubi or a “remove your shoes” sign. This is, apparently, serious stuff: Educators working with the Hawaiian language revitalization and immersion movements have begun to use Kanji — and Japanese language generally — as a teaching tool for the Hawaiian language.

In spite of the fact that this press release came from my own institution, I actually know nothing about this. It’s wild stuff, but it has some very interesting pedagogical and cultural and linguistic foundations. There is a PDF from ‘Aha Pūnana Leo (‘APL) which has a great deal of detail and examples, including the one mentioned in the press release.

The core of the program is that both Hawaiian and Japanese are, phonetically speaking, syllabic languages, and that there are a lot of Japanese in Hawai’i, including relatives and ancestors of students in the Hawaiian program. The teachers who designed the program, aside from instilling respect, understanding and aloha in their students, wanted to use the ideographic characters to emphasize the syllabic nature of Hawaiian, as opposed to the alphabetic system of Roman letters. After assigning basic characters to each of the forty-five syllables of the Hawaiian language, they went on to teach the students more kanji by meaning, as well as conventional Japanese language instruction.1

I have to admit, it seems like a terribly roundabout way of handling the languages.

There’s an interesting historical side note to this, though. As I wrote in my dissertation2:

Hawaiian King Kalakaua visited Japan in 1881 and made three proposals which, although they were rejected, endeared the Hawaiian monarch to the Japanese authorities. The offer to revise their treaty to eliminate extra-territoriality was rejected so as not to interfere with similar negotiations with the Great Powers. An impulsive offer by King Kalakaua for a marriage alliance between his niece and an Imperial Prince (ages six and fifteen years, respectively) was turned down after a show of due consideration. Finally, a “Union and Federation of Asian Nations and Sovereigns” which would have given Japan a platform to demonstrate leadership and build prestige in the Pacific was rejected as endangering the generally good relationship between Japan and the United States, which had particularly strong interests in Hawai’i.

Hawai’i and Japan might have had a much closer relationship, and there might have been even more Japanese influence on the islands than there already is. There is also considerably more influence the other way than most people realize. There is an extensive Hula halau (school/team) network in Japan, whose members regularly visit Hawai’i to study with local teachers and immerse themselves in the culture.3 The Japanese government has even promoted the Hawaiian shirt (in its Okinawan form, officially) as a cool answer to the problem of work attire, and there are still lots and lots of Japanese who come to Hawai’i for honeymoons and vacations who could do some good for the economy and ecology of both countries by stocking up.

Sheer geography and the history of Japanese migration to Hawai’i has created an interesting — and definitely under-studied — relationship. One that could be shaped anew by a really creative reimagining of language pedagogy. Or it could be a complete dead end.

  1. as the press release points out, one of the criticisms of the Hawaiian immersion program is that it seems somewhat limited, in terms of economic potential after graduation. Japanese, of course, is the road to riches. At least that’s what it says in the big print. []
  2. p. 20. The citation is to Hilary Conroy’s The Japanese Frontier in Hawai’i, pp. 50-52 []
  3. one of the best Hula dancers and Hawaiian singers I’ve seen recently was a Japanese woman who teaches Hula in Japan []


Japanese Diaspora at ASPAC

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:33 am

As I mentioned here and here, I had some great discussions about the question of diaspora at ASPAC. The dividing line between Asian studies and Asian American studies is starting to blur, and I think that’s going to be very productive.

That was actually one of the main points of Jane H. Yamashiro’s lively talk on “The Japanese Diaspora?: Rethinking connections between people of Japanese ancestry”: that disciplinary boundary-crossing is productive, but that the very different origins, political and disciplinary stances of Asian Studies and Asian American Studies raise problems. Fundamentally, each views the question from a very different place, with a center of focus that affects the kind of issues which are possible to study and discuss. One example of the problem is in terminology: are people of Japanese ancestry who go to Japan “return migrants” or “foreigners” or “going to the homeland”? This is precisely what Yamashiro studies: the experience of Japanese Americans constructing a new identity as they live long-term in Japan, but the very naming of such an experience prefigures some of the answer: how can a first-time visit be a “return” unless identity is more ancestral than individual? And she explicitly rejects the term “diaspora” because, she argues, it fixes the center of the Japanese American experience in Japan instead of in America.



Girls’ Day 2007, Hilo

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:45 pm

The Hawai’i Japanese Center had an open house today for Girls’ Day, and I brought my camera. I didn’t make my 5-year old sit through the boring speeches, but once they were over we all had fun wandering the exhibits (actually, when you do it with a 5-year old, you’re not “wandering” but “examining in great but sometimes random detail”) and eating mochi and brownies.


Discover Nikkei

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 8:42 pm

I’ve been working on a project with the Japanese American National Museum for my seminar “Japanophilia,” and have gotten to know their amazing website Discover Nikkei. As Japanese studies expands beyond its traditional boundaries, resources like this one become increasingly valuable to teachers and students. The buzzword in recent years is, of course, transnational, and I can’t think of a better place to begin exploring what that means than this site.

Five sections serve as doorways into a huge array of content. The first tab, “What is Nikkei?” asks many of the questions that visitors are likely to have in mind, but the site doesn’t presume to answer them, which opens up the possibility that students can answer them themselves as they make use of the available resources. “Community Forum” contains articles and an extensive bulletin board, with posts in English, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese, which all visitors can register to access. “Real People” contains video interviews with Japanese Americans, ranging from Issei storytellers to Sansei entrepreneurs like Eric Nakamura, co-founder of Giant Robot. “Nikkei Resources” is an impressive Wiki with information on just about every Japan- and JA-related topic you can think of, including war brides, lesson plans, Japanese food, manga, and Nikkei Veterans. The last section, “Make History,” is in some ways the most exciting, because it allows users to upload content, create collections of data, “curate” online exhibitions, and in various other ways become knowledge producers and historians.

The students in my seminar are going to be researching gardens and nurseries in the L.A. area that exhibit Japanese design or that are the result of JA activities. Eventually, this content will be uploaded to the “Make History” section of the website, probably under the “Nikkei Album” subsection, where we will be able to curate our photographs and analysis into a mini-exhibition that will connect to a JANM exhibition planned for the summer.

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