A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Uncovering Community Literacy, Agency, and Political Resistance through Cultural and Community Specific Methodologies

Charlyne Sarmiento, University of California, Santa Barbara

(Published December 18, 2018)

Review of Mira Shimabukuro’s Relocating Authority: Japanese Americans Writing to Redress Mass Incarceration 

In Relocating Authority: Japanese Americans Writing to Redress Mass Incarceration, Mira Shimabukuro examines how Nikkei (a term used to describe Japanese descendants across generations) use writing-to-redress to resist their mass incarceration during World War II. [1] Using methods familiar to scholars in composition and rhetorical studies—feminist rhetorical methods, archival recovery, interviews, and rhetorical analysis—Shimabukuro brings forth a more powerful understanding of what is often deemed as Japanese Americans’ quiet acceptance and admirable US loyalty. She does this by presenting a new methodology that challenges the cultural logics that inform what counts as literacy, agency, and political resistance.  And as Shimabukuro advances throughout her book, such cultural logics limit a rigorous culturally and historically specific understanding of literacy and cultural resistance. Drawing from her main method of “rhetorical attendance,” Shimabukuro uncovers countless examples of individual and collective writing that Nikkei generated during their incarceration. It is through rhetorical attendance that Shimabukuro is able to discover and redistribute a rich rhetorical tradition of writing-to-redress that has led to social change and can spur continued Nikkei activism.

Throughout Relocating Authority, Shimabukuro recovers how Nikkei incarcerees used writing such as diaries, note-taking, manifestos, petitions, and letters as acts of dissidence while also advancing theories and research methods that attend to transnational literacy practices, which she argues, are always in the process of being revised by its subjects. Shimabukuro’s project in the tradition of cultural rhetorics provides a theoretical lens for researchers to move beyond essentializing minority communities and their literacy practices and instead presents people as active agents in shaping their own literacy. This book will be useful for community literacy scholars, feminist rhetorical scholars, and Asian/American rhetoricians who may find existing methods in the broader field of composition and rhetoric as limiting in their research on and with minority and/or transnational communities. Most importantly, this book will also be significant for scholars committed to sharing knowledge uncovered through their research back to the communities they are studying. Recently, I attended a public talk in Los Angeles’ Japanese American Museum located in Little Tokoyo, where Shimabukuro presented her work to a predominately Nikkei audience. This commitment to sharing her work with the community is reflected throughout her book.

Building on the work of feminist rhetorical scholars such as Terese Guinsatao Monberg, Jaquelyn Jones Royster, and Malea Powell, Shimabukuro proposes a new rhetorical model that tends to the researcher’s intersubjectivity and cultural memories. In Chapter 1 she proposes rhetorical attendance as an alternative to Krista Ratcliffe’s rhetorical listening. The latter, she writes, is “highly individualized, between one another/speaker and one reader/listener in one moment of exchange” (15). In contrast, “rhetorical attendance” makes visible literacy-in-action and attends to what writing does—the multiple voices involved in writing, the intertextual development of how texts come to being and those who are involved, and the less visible and more quiet examples of writing that are both personal and public. But how do we see what remains less visible, less obvious?

To illustrate what “rhetorical attendance” looks like, we can read Shimabukuro’s own performance of rhetorical attendance as a model. For example, she threads her own memories of attending redress events; conversations with Nikkei activists; conversations with her father, a redress activist and writer for Nikkei community newspapers; the literature that catalyzed her investigation into “writing to redress”; and the research trail that led her to research the National Archives and conduct interviews with former incarcerees or their children. These memories are presented in multiple genres throughout the book, but they are featured most prominently in Chapter 1, providing a visual and auditory experience of what Shimabukuro presents as rhetorical attendance.  Perhaps as researchers we have also developed our research questions and commitments from our experiences; however, the method that Shimabukuro advances is a systematic approach that honors and values “the explicit infusion of personal memory and cultural know-how that, together, create a felt sense about the ways we conduct research” (27).  For example, Shimabukuro threads textual artifacts that have informed or reflect her commitment to researching writing-to-redress, including her own poetry, an annotated list of events and places that informed her project, a passage of her dissertation proposal, and passages written by former incarcerees. She positions these texts as essential knowledge that led her to pursue her project. Throughout her book, Shimabukuro reflects on her memories of her community grappling with their unconstitutional incarceration in “internment” camps and the questions that arose for her during her research in the archives. These are important details for our field, which often calls for more rigorous and transparent research.

In Chapter 2 Shimabukuro highlights how the act of redistributing community knowledge back to its community through writing can allow oppressed groups to reclaim authority. She does this by introducing Michi Weglyn and Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, two former incarcerees who were known as the mothers of redress and who also had no formal academic research training. According to Shimabukuro, despite Weglyn’s “personal memory and cultural know-how” as a former incarceree allowed her to search the National archives, the Library of Congress, and the Pentagon to uncover textual evidence that led her to write Years of Infamy, a book that catalyzed the activism that eventually led to Japanese reparations (27). This uncovering of knowledge led to a domino effect of reclaiming authority. 

Herzig-Yoshinaga was inspired by Weglyn’s work, which sparked her quest to recover archival documents untouched by other researchers. Through her own rigorous research of the archives and rhetorical attendance, Herzig-Yoshinaga uncovered clear evidence that the US government knew that ordering the mass incarceration of Japanese was unconstitutional and that they intentionally tried to cover up their wrong by revising and sometimes destroying original documents. Discussing the relationship between Weglyn and Herzig-Yoshinaga’s work, Shimabukuro presents a powerful example of how uncovering once inaccessible knowledge and sharing it with the community can lead to further activism and recovery of their personal and political agency. This chapter will be most relevant to scholars who are not only committed to research that engages with the communities of study, but who may also personally identify with the social injustices that are rooted in their research project. As outlined in her first and more theoretical chapter, Shimabukuro differentiates her methods from historical ethnography. She writes, “rhetorically attending one’s subject requires an explicit awareness and mention that culture and experience inform our decisions about when to ask question and when to stay silent, about how to contemplate the implications of our work and anticipate the feelings of those with whom we stand” (27).

In Chapter 3 Shimabukuro calls for an understanding of the political and material conditions of Nikkei in the United States as well as the broader transnational context of Japanese literacy networks. She argues that exploring these contexts can provide “a broader rhetorical context for writing-to-redress” (74). For example, Shimabukuro identifies earlier examples of “writing-to-redress” that were smaller in scale but served as examples of incarcerees using writing to protest the living conditions they found unacceptable. Some examples include private writing, petitions, and written complaints, which Shimabukuro writes could be understood as the “rhetorical training grounds for subsequent, broader-versioned writing-to-redress that challenged the entire logic of mass incarceration” (68). Such literacy networks included but were not limited to community newspapers, literary clubs, and associations, which collectively illustrated the high rates of literacy across multiple generations in both Japanese and English. As Shimabukuro argues, these literacy networks prior to the war “helped create and foster a transnational but US-based community orientation towards the use of writing to navigate one’s social political, and cultural circumstances” both before and after the war (62).  This context sets the stage for the next chapter, where Shimabukuro introduces a culturally specific Nikkei rhetorical ethos.

As Shimabukuro outlines in the previous chapter, writing played a significant role in Nikkei life. However, in Chapter 4 she challenges the cultural logics that equated the lack of noise by Nikkei incarcerees with the absence of resistance or agency. To do this, she first discusses the contested meaning of gaman, one common interpretation being “a call to internalize or accept oppression without complaint” and a more recent one found in the Japanese American National Museum’s Encyclopedia of Japanese American History that Shimabukuro describes as “a revision of gaman’s connotation from passivity to strength” (80). Rather than rely on these definitions and conclude that Nikkei incarcerees who used personal writing to reflect on their anger and struggles had no agency, she characterizes the countless examples of personal writing as a “Nikkei ethos of survivance,” a way to use writing to “survive + resist” oppression (Powell, 2002)” (82). By analyzing both personal and public writing in the archives, Shimabukuro underscores that she did not see private writing-to-gaman as separate or in direct opposition from more public writing. Instead, she argues that one’s individual writing led them to later develop the inner strength to participate in collective writing to resist and make right the conditions of incarceration. 

In Chapter 5, Shimabukuro discusses how collective public writing-to-redress emerged from community organizing, spurring what she calls “amassing authority.” Through rereading social science scholarship on camp resistance, conducting research in the archives, and listening to one archive’s online video histories, Shimabukuro uncovers countless examples of Nikkei public writing-to-redress. Most significantly, she uncovered how such writing was written collectively and spurred by collective struggle, in this case the physical and psychological oppression of being incarcerated. Through her analysis of various drafts of such writing, she argues throughout this chapter that writers and participants in public writing-to-redress drew from multiple sources to gain authority to reach their wider audience. Those interested in archival research will find that Chapter 5 powerfully outlines, in great detail, a discursive approach to Shimabukuro’s research methodology of rhetorical attendance. It also further demonstrates how rhetorical attendance can make visible any writing that traditional rhetorical frameworks would miss or deem passive and that, in the context of Japanese incarceration, were “rhetorically forgotten, and/or archived away from mainstream accounts of history” (53).

Shimabukuro explicitly talks about how she drew from personal memories that informed her research methods and what texts to include in her search for public writing-to-redress. For example, when searching the archive, Densho: The Japanese American National Museum, Shimabukuro writes, “my rhetorical attendance began with my choice to include this online archive of video histories” (116). Shimabukuro describes this process by first remembering conversations where her stepmother, Alice Ito, who had worked for the Densho and had been one of the first employees to work on the digital archive of video histories, talked about how the video histories were transcribed. Shimabukuro remembers that she “knew Densho was accumulating memory to pass on, to make use of, and to enable others to know a community as well as a community know itself. …[T]he videos histories were painstakingly transcribed, coded, and cataloged before being made available to the public. As such, [she] knew [she] could search hundreds of video histories that had been collected ethically and in the community’s interest” (116). It was through this rhetorical attendance that Shimabukuro was able to not only find and analyze examples from various Nikkei organizations, but also listen carefully to the voices of the community she was researching.

Chapter 6 demonstrates the power of rhetorical attendance and triangulating data in order to understand how those with very little power, in this case Issei (first or immigrant generation) mothers who did not have the cultural capital of US citizenship, used collective writing to demand social justice. In this chapter, Shimabukuro discusses how the mothers in the Minidoka incarceration camp collectively revised a letter-petition that demanded that their Nisei sons should not be drafted to fight in the war.  In the letter, the mothers also called out the US government for denying their sons’ rights as US citizens while drafting them to fight in a war that saw them as enemy aliens. Prior to Shimabukuro’s research, the English version of the letter translated by Nikkei lawyer, Min Yasui, was thought to be the only one to exist. The women had called on Yasui to help them draft the letter.  However, Shimabukuro rhetorically attended to her sources—the collections of the Japanese American Evacuation and Relocation Study (JERS),and the prior research by progressive Asian American Studies scholars who, while cautious about JERS because it was sponsored by the War Location Authority, still believed that it could be used as a source as long as the researcher triangulated the data. This attendance led Shimabukuro to JERS fieldworker James Sadoka.  Without his detailed ethnographic notes, and without Shimabukuro seeking out Sadoka’s writing as a resource, the most warranted story of the mothers of Minidoka would have not been found. The mothers of Minidoka’s agency and their explicit demands would not have been uncovered, and their revisions would have not been seen. As Sadoka documented, the mothers sought to revise Yasui’s weak wording that relied on emotional appeals, whereas the mothers’ original letter written in Japanese “us[ed] reason and logic to make an ‘intelligent’ case for both their children’s and their own ‘feelings’. Doing so, they hoped to prove their children’s loyalty and explain their current feelings of disillusionment” (181). By uncovering the bold rhetoric of the mothers of Minidoka, Shimabukuro subverts the gendered identity of motherhood that would have left Issei women’s agency and writing-to-redress invisible.

In Chapter 7, Shimabukuro traces how uncovering writing-to-redress can lead to rhetorical activation. In other words, personal writing, writing-to-gaman, and public writing have the power to catalyze generations of Japanese Americans who were not incarcerated during WWII to participate in continued community activism. In earlier chapters Shimabukuro makes the point that identifying significant amounts of writing-to-redress is “more than encod[ing] or preserv[ing] a response” (30). We see the impact writing-to-redress continues to have with examples outlined in her final chapter: Frank Chin’s 1981 article on the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee (200); Sansei activist Frank Abe’s essay that cites a passage from the Fair Play Committee’s manifesto (201); and Mitsuye Yamada’s personal writing that she wrote while incarcerated in Minidoka, which was later widely published as poetry and inspired countless Asian American activists poets (208).

Throughout Relocating Authority, Shimabukuro foregrounds each chapter with personal yet political stories that both led her to pursue this research and that also guided her through her research. In scholarly work, such stories are often found in the footnotes of our published work or in our own private notes. However, as demonstrated in Relocating Authority, these personal and political stories allow for a much-needed framework for exploring community literacies and resistant rhetoric, not for the sake of research on communities but for the “collective empowerment and social change” (21) developed by working with communities. This book gives researchers powerful tools and insights on how to attend to researching community rhetorics and to working collectively with those participating and advocating for social justice. 

Charlyne Sarmiento’s interview with Mira Shimabukuro, June 4, 2018. 


In this interview Shimabukuro talks about her thoughts on community engagement and research, gives advice to emerging scholars and graduate students pursuing projects that engage with the literacy practices of communities, and talks about the ways folks in writing studies can use writing to redress in the classroom.

Download Transcript 

[1] Shimabukuro writes in Relocating Authority that she uses the term mass incarceration rather than the more popular term internment: “While terms like evacuation and relocation are particularly problematic for their harmless tone, the inaccuracy of the word internment significantly hampers our understanding of the injustice” (10).  Drawing from the Densho’s use of terminology, a non-profit organization that has collected oral histories of Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II, Shimabukuro explains that the term “internment” misleads us from the reality of 120,000 people of Japanese descent incarcerated. Moreover, as the Densho writes, “[i]nterment refers to the legally permissible detention of enemy aliens in [a] time of war . . .  [Yet] two thirds of the Japanese Americans incarcerated were US citizens.”

Works Cited

Monberg, Terese Guinsatao. “Listening for Legacies or, How I Began to Hear

Dorothy Laigo Cordova, the Pinay behind the Podium Known as FANHS” Representations: Doing Asian American Rhetoric, edited by LuMing Mao and Morris Young, Utah State UP, 2008, pp. 83-105.

Powell, Malea. “Rhetorics of Survivance: How American Indians Use Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 53, no. 3, 2002, pp. 396–434, doi:10.2307/1512132.

Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change among African American Women. U of Pittsburgh P, 2000.

Shimabukuro, Mira. Relocating Authority: Japanese Americans Writing to Redress Mass Incarceration. UP of Colorado, 2015.