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Ethnic tales explore complexities of Japanese experiences

"Rosebud and Other Stories," by Wakako Yamauchi (University of Hawaii Press, $19)

Ethnic writing has all sorts of hurdles, the least of which is language and style. That’s the easy part, at least if you’re a naturally talented writer like Wakako Yamauchi. The problem is that the "ethnic" handle is the spark plug that makes the writing engine fire up, and it’s assumed that the reason the description is "ethnic" in the first place is because there some sort of implicit conflict. Yamauchi, who was interned as a teenager and whose stories invariably touch on the concept of American-Japaneseness, could have plenty of ax to grind if she wished to. Instead, these stories are rueful, observant, often funny and moving. They don’t deserve the ghetto of ethnic pigeonholing, but on the other hand, the concept forms the core of her storytelling. This particular section of the library shelf grows narrower as America grows more multicultural. An interesting dilemma.

"From Okinawa to the Americas: Hana Yamagawa and Her Reminisces of a Century," edited by Akiko Yamagawa Hibbett (University of Hawaii Press, $25)

Hana Yamagawa, born Hana Kaneshi in the tiny village of Tabaru, Okinawa, was part of the great influx of laborers and families that emigrated eastward to the New World. Settling first in Peru, her husband and first child died. Then she remarried and moved to the United States. Yamagawa raised two children born in California, and didn’t return to visit Okinawa until some years after World War II. Although the island was still ravaged, the familiar sights brought back emotions she didn’t know were bottled up.

Edited by daughter Akiko, who added occasional comments, this memoir of an average woman in extraordinary circumstances is refreshingly clear of literary complexities. She tells her story directly and simply, and with power.

"Creating the Nisei Market: Race & Citizenship in Hawai‘i’s Japanese American Consumer Culture," by Shiho Imai (University of Hawaii Press, $38)

What happens when society freezes you out? You create your own society, which is why American cities have Chinatowns and other ethnic enclaves. No matter which society you’re in, however, capitalism has you in its sights. Japanese-Americans, officially disenfranchised by the Exclusion Act, created an "other" America, complete with social mores and capitalist tactics. Money talks, and Japanese-Americans are consumers like everyone else. This overly scholarly study by New York history professor Imai examines in great detail these parallel marketing strategies and how they played out in the islands. Illustrated with several embarrassing advertisements from period newspapers, including, yes, the parents of this paper.

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