Academic journal article MELUS

Internment and Post-War Japanese American Literature: Toward a Theory of Divine Citizenship

Academic journal article MELUS

Internment and Post-War Japanese American Literature: Toward a Theory of Divine Citizenship

Article excerpt

World War II presented American men with an opportunity to serve their country and thereby demonstrate their patriotism. This avenue to proving one's national loyalty became a double-edged sword for Japanese American males and radically impacted how this group envisioned and reconceptualized their relationship to the nation during and after the crisis of citizenship and national identity forced by the war. (1) The brave and groundbreaking services of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) notwithstanding, American women of Japanese ancestry endured their own gender-specific challenges to negotiating a new understanding of Japanese American female citizenship that did not involve military service to the nation. Two works--one by a Japanese American woman and one by a Japanese American man--illustrate this essay's argument: that although socially constructed ideologies of gender determined the specific trials and tests Japanese Americans faced during World War II, responses to the marginalization of Japanese American citizenship can be characterized as exemplars of what I term "divine citizenship." Textual performances of divine citizenship bear witness to wrongs committed by the state against its subject while also modeling a renovated relationship between the state and the (wronged) citizen--a relationship in which reconciliation and forgiveness might occur.

Although disparate in style, tone, narrative structure, and time frame, Mine Okubo's Citizen 13660 (1946) and John Okada's No-No Boy (1957) challenge the default notion of citizenship as a universal category. (2) These books can also serve as test cases for inquiry into how gender affects citizenship formation and revision. The title of Okada's work implies a gender specificity to the act of citizenship, while the title of Okubo's work obscures gender under national identity, a universalizing move that renders less visible her focus on how gender impacts citizenship. Begun while Okubo was in camp, Citizen 13660 reflects needs paramount during internment: to endure and negotiate the crisis. Writing post-war, Okada may have had sufficient critical distance to engage with issues of reconstruction. In the internment camp experience Okubo represents, females enjoy a latitude in gender norms, though they are still constrained in their ability to realize fully their identity as citizens. (3) Okada's novel takes up the question of the Japanese American's post-war relationship to the state and locates the particular challenges for men in a masculine context of military service and patriotism. At the same time, the novel treats female Japanese Americans as tools for personal growth, reifying their status as passive and maternal, paying little attention to their struggles to reframe citizenship. Both books underscore the existential angst that followed the government's actions and the way these actions forced Japanese Americans to question their identity and their relationship to the state. In this sense, Okubo's experience in the camps and Okada's treatment of the period after their dissolution offer parallel portrayals of citizenship reformulation during and after crisis.

As works of Asian American literature, these books speak to specific historical events that loom large in Japanese American consciousness. As American texts, they offer a glimpse at how relationships among the nation, particular ethnic groups, and individuals are shaped, challenged, and reconfigured. Finally, as texts in which gender issues are linked to the internment, these books demonstrate how ties between a nation and its citizens are structured by ideologies of gender. This last point responds to those critics--most notably Shirley Geok-lin Lira, Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, and Jeffrey J. Santa Ana--who have called upon scholars to consider how Asian American texts link race and gender. (4) Wong and Santa Ana, in particular, underscore the need for critics to produce "historicized critical analyses of Asian American gender and sexuality" (214) in order to theorize American national identity. …

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