Migrating to the "Broiler Belt": Japanese American Labor and the Jim Crow South in Cynthia Kadohata's Kira-Kira

By Cha, Frank | The Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Migrating to the "Broiler Belt": Japanese American Labor and the Jim Crow South in Cynthia Kadohata's Kira-Kira


Cha, Frank, The Mississippi Quarterly


Most of the southerners are friendly when they see my name or face knowing I'm a helpless foreigner.

--Yamamoto, second-generation Japanese American chicken sexer, Pinetown, Georgia (Kim 54)

LOCATED A FEW MILES SOUTH OF DERMOTT, ARKANSAS, ON HIGHWAY 165 is a small concrete monument marking a stretch of land that served as the Jerome Relocation Center during World War II. Three hundred miles northwest of Dermott is the headquarters of Tyson Foods in Springdale, Arkansas. Linking these two rather disparate sites are Japanese American communities that played a significant role in the development of the Southern poultry industry and in the history of segregation. The expansion of poultry production in the South occurred at a time when Japanese Americans faced uncertainty following World War II internment. Struggling to reintegrate themselves into their former communities, many chose to travel across the country in search of work and a viable home. Among their destinations was the South because poultry businesses sought cheap labor for their growing operations. Cynthia Kadohata's 2004 children's novel Kira-Kira provides crucial insight into the overlooked experiences of Japanese Americans living in the post-World War II South as they grapple with exploitative labor practices and segregation. The novel depicts a young Japanese American girl as she moves from Iowa to a predominantly white Georgia town after her parents become migrant laborers. She witnesses the alienating effects of segregation through the mistreatment of Japanese poultry workers but also discovers a sense of community beyond race-based affiliation as the migrant workers forge an alliance with working-class whites. Unlike more common coming-of-age narratives set during Jim Crow that operate within a distinct white-black racial binary, Kira-Kira exposes the inconsistencies found within the cultural and legal systems of segregation through its focus on the Japanese American experience and the formation of new modes of association and acceptance. The novel represents an alternative story of the region's racial past, one that highlights the power of Jim Crow while also contesting its logic of difference.

In the years following World War II, poultry production emerged as one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States; chicken became a viable option for inexpensive and available meat. Following a vertical integration model, large-scale companies such as Tyson Foods merged with smaller, more localized businesses. Crucial to the industry's expansion was the cluster of hatcheries and processing plants across the South. Seventeen states stretching from Texas to Delaware make up the region commonly referred to as the "Broiler Belt" for its high production of broilers: chickens specifically raised for table consumption. Faced with failing cotton and apple crops, numerous rural Southern farmers transformed their businesses into poultry farms. (1)

By 2004, Broiler Belt states made up 90 percent of the total production; Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas were the top four states (Pratt and Niculita 507). Japanese migrant workers became a valuable labor source because many of the techniques and procedures utilized by the major poultry companies originated in Japan. The Japanese invented vent sexing, a method in which male and female chicks are distinguished and separated at an early age, in the early 1930s. Given the efficiency of this method as opposed to the traditional and slower practice of feather sexing, American hatcheries and processing plants brought over Japanese representatives who would provide courses on sexing techniques to both American and Japanese American laborers. While Latino workers make up a large percentage of the lower-level and more dangerous positions in today's poultry plants, Japanese Americans have been a pertinent fixture in the ever-growing Southern poultry industry. (2)

Kira-Kira documents how Japanese Americans contended with exploitative labor practices of the South's poultry industry and negotiated the intricacies of Jim Crow segregation. …

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