Columns & Blogs

Book overturns mistaken assumptions

“Relocating Authority” by Mira Shimabukuro

It is 2016 in the USA, a country that prides itself on being the land of the free, with liberty and justice for all, yet large segments of our population continue to feel disenfranchised.

This, tragically, is nothing new. Just look back at colonial and pioneer engagement with Native Americans, generations of African American enslavement, the long struggle to secure women’s right to vote and equal rights under the law, and hostility and suspicion toward successive waves of immigrants.

This is where books can help break down those barriers and build bridges of mutual regard. In the privacy of your own home, you can open up a book, see words that were set down by somebody who might look different than you or think differently than you do, and give patient and due consideration to their ideas and feelings.

Let me propose Mira Shimabukuro’s new book, “Relocating Authority,” as an example.

Shimabukuro is a lecturer at the University of Washington/Bothell campus, and the daughter of longtime civil rights activists.

Her book revisits documents, letters and journals that were written by individuals who had been subjected to mass imprisonment shortly after imperial Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. To most of us now, the federal government’s forced “internment” of tens of thousands of people of Japanese ancestry – virtually all of the Japanese Americans living along the West Coast in 1942, and more than half of them American citizens by birth – seems like an extraordinarily unjust measure. Yet that community, under extreme duress at the time, complied.

Shimabukuro discusses the cultural concepts of “shikataganai” and “gaman” – (roughly translated as “it can’t be helped” and “accept it”) which were invoked with some regularity, and which seemed to sustain the community through its imprisonment. But she also discovers that the private writings she examines from that time contain much more passionate dissidence – “complaints, angst, swearings, bitterness, protests, and resistance” – than she had been led to expect.

When the stereotype of Japanese American inmates as passive, as a “model minority” that didn’t complain, is turned on its head, gaman begins to take on an alternate meaning, connoting endurance rather than passive acceptance. And as it turns out, the willingness of so many to record their complaints in private, even if they did not always voice them in public, ultimately led to some redress, long after the fact.

So why revisit this embarrassing moment in American history? The best answer is: to learn from it. Ignorance is easy – and it is wrong. There is so much wisdom we can derive from the past.

“Relocating Authority” is an academic work, and the first few chapters, which lay out Shimabukuro’s theoretical basis and methodology, may be challenging for the general reader. I tried skipping ahead, but realized I had to turn back and absorb what I could from the earlier pages in order to understand the revelations that surface later in the book. Note to fellow readers: Patience pays off.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at