Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Revelations About Japanese American Internment

  My latest review for The Bookplex is a historical novel that deals with the impact of internment on two young Japanese Americans and their families.

                                                     The 2012 Golden Mask Award 
                                                     for best indie book I read this year                         
Although I have read a number of novels dealing with Japanese American internment during World War II, Eyes Behind Belligerence seems the most realistic description of the day to day experience of living in the camps.  According to the author’s blog post on Goodreads, she interviewed a number of Japanese American internees. (See Kollenborn's Blog Post) These first- hand accounts are undoubtedly the source of her work’s authenticity.  I also learned about events and people that I hadn’t previously encountered in other reading.  One example is the brief appearance of Ralph Lazo in Eyes Behind Belligerence.  Ralph Lazo isn’t a fictional character.  He is a real 16 year old Mexican-Irish American who accompanied his Japanese American friends to Manzanar  internment camp, and remained there until 1944 when he was drafted to serve in World War II.  His story is quite an extraordinary one, and I might never have discovered him without Kollenborn’s book. 

Of the two central characters, I found Russell Hamaguchi the most sympathetic.  It’s true that he was impulsive as a teenager, but he also had so much heart and integrity.  He cared about people even when they weren’t like him.  This is what allowed him to be a loyal friend to the other protagonist, Jim Yoshimura.   I understood why Jim acted and believed as he did on an intellectual level, but it was difficult to sympathize with him when he repeatedly hurt those who cared about him most.  I feel that Jim’s decisions delayed his maturation.  He remained an adolescent far longer than Russell.

The plot was well-paced for the most part, though there was a slow section when nothing much seemed to be happening.  I realized that this was an accurate portrayal of how the characters’ lives had been placed on hold due to the internment, so I was patient through that portion. 

My only criticism is that there were many un-translated Japanese words.  I could approximate the connotation of some of these words through context, but I would have preferred a more extensive glossary containing all these words and phrases.

I feel that this is an important book for readers who want to understand Japanese Americans.  The descendants of Japanese Americans who were internees have grown up with parents and/or grandparents who were scarred by this tragedy.  We can’t underestimate the impact of these events on them and their community. 


There were a couple of  topics related to this book that I felt the need to research.  

When Russell became involved in a youth gang at Manzanar, I wanted to know more.  I have to confess that I found very little online beyond brief mentions.  There was one mention in an oral history interview, and a couple of others  relegated to footnotes in doctoral dissertations.  I also noted that subversive gangs in Japanese American internment camps was an issue subject to investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee.   There were no web pages dealing with the West Side Story type of youth gang at Manzanar or any other Japanese American internment camp.

For further details about the HUAC investigation see:

House Un-American Activities Investigation

I had better success in finding information about Ralph Lazo. It is important to point out that Ralph had the permission and blessing of his parents when he got on the train to Manzanar.  Ralph had encountered discrimination against Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles.  This caused him to identify with Japanese Americans when they were the subject of  persecution by the American government.  There was a short film made by Nekkei for Civil Rights and Redress  about Ralph released in 2004 called Stand Up For Justice: The Ralph Lazo Story .

For more on the web  about Ralph Lazo see:

Ralph Lazo in his own words

NCRR Page on Ralph Lazo

For more about the film see:

Stand Up For Justice


  1. Where I obtained information about the Terminal Island gang came from these resources which I got from the Manzanar Historic Society: "Manzanar National Historic Resource Study, Volume One and Volume Two." Not much was written about them, however, just comments about them being menacing such as harassing people and stealing, and were often on the administrative list. And on that note, Private Callis is also loosely based on a story I read about where I solider did beat up a Manzanar internee who was returning from work furlough. Director Bridges is too loosely based on Direct Merritt who was friends with FRD; and Ted Tanaka is inspired by Fred Tayama. If you are interested in the historical content, you can find more here: http://kpkollenborn.com/links.htm

  2. Thank you so much. Your website is quite a trove of information that I am just beginning to explore.