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By Otsuka, Julie
New York: Anchor Books, 2002
144 pages

Bob Corbett
July 2015

While this book is billed as a novel, it reads much more like either a piece of autobiography, or an article about what it was like for a Japanese family to have been sent to and lived in a U.S. detention camp during World War II.

The father had already been detained on his own, but not the rest of the family. Mom, daughter, about 12, and a younger son, about 7 were sent to a camp in the Utah desert. It was 100 to 110 degrees most days in the summer and bitter cold in winter. They lived in a very small one room dorm with no running water or electricity.

They did receive frequent letters from the dad who is in a more southerly camp. However, his letters never really mentioned anything much about the conditions of his camp, other than that the weather was decent.

They had been upper middle class. Life was difficult in the prison camp, but they were relatively well treated and protected. There would have been definite dangers living in the “outside” world during the war. Some of the other prisoners said: “Life was easier . . . on this side of the fence.”

They were given conflicting reasons for their imprisonment depending upon who was talking with them:

“You’ve been brought here for your own protection, they were told.

It was all in the interest of national security.
It was a matter of military necessity.
It was an opportunity for them to prove their loyalty.”

After detailing a bit about the camp and the differences suffered in summer and winter, the book quickly jumps from second year of imprisonment to after the war. They were sent home with $25.00. At home their bank account had been frozen, so, since they had heard nothing about the release of the father, the woman went to work cleaning houses and such domestic type work.

Back at home their own home where they had lived for years they were shunned by their neighbors and the news was full of stories of brutal Japanese treatment of American prisoners of war. Even some vandalism was done to their home.

In December of 1945 the father was released. They had had four years of separation. He was 56 but looked much older and was simply a broken and beaten man, lost.

Again, while billed as a novel, it reads more like a documentary, but a very fascinating one. While I was only 6 when the war ended, I certainly knew of the interment of the American Japanese during the war, but I had no idea of the details of it, and this work was able to paint a very clear and sad picture of what happened. There is an irony that while the imprisonment had always seemed to me to have been excessive, this work makes it very clear that it was also a safety device to protect Japanese Americans from very real dangers within the American society.

The account, again, I just have a hard time calling it a novel, even though it is subtitled as such. While short, it is nonetheless a detailed account and paints a vivid picture of the mother and her two children in the Utah desert. The reader never learned anything really about the father’s detention, but even to the end of the novel, sometime in 1946 the situation of the family at the center of the account had never even come near returning to any normalcy “back at home.”

I think this account, which is relatively short and a quick and easy read is quite worth the time and effort. It paints a very clear and touching picture of this footnote to the history of World War II and it is done in a very matter of fact manner with a good deal of clarity and virtually no “complaining” at all.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett