A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

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

Lena (Sunada-Matsumura) Newlin, University of Wyoming

(Published May 22, 2023)

“Nikkei [Japanese American] history is filled with rebels and rebellions–male and female dissidents who dared, both individually and together to stand up or sit down and say no. And whether we get to know about them or not does not change the fact that they did.” (Shimabukuro 74)

The scapegoating of people of Asian descent by former President Trump for issues such as COVID-19, economic crises, and national security has resulted in record numbers of reported violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the past several years. Although images and stories publicized in main-stream media outlets may suggest the political rhetoric against AAPI is a new phenomenon, the reality is that the United States has a long and dark history of anti-Asian hate. Understanding this history is essential, not only for younger generations of Asian Americans like myself who learned very little about our history through the public education system, but also for AAPI allies who have the authority to redress anti-Asian hate. Mira Shimabukuro's book Relocating Authority: Japanese Americans Writing to Redress Mass Incarceration provides an important text that is perhaps even more necessary and relevant in today’s racial climate than it was when first released eight years ago. Shimabukuro successfully illuminates the multiple ways Japanese Americans used language and literacy not only to survive their oppressive conditions of mass incarceration but also to publicly and privately document their opposition and resistance to one of the US government’s greatest injustices of the 20th century.

This book appeals to audiences at multiple critical, social, and emotional levels, as it demonstrates cultural examples of literacy being used as a tool to demand social justice. As a descendant of Japanese Americans (JA) incarcerated during WWII and as a person with a scholarly interest in rhetoric, the title of the book initially drew my attention. Little did I know, the book’s content would take me on a transformative journey to help me understand my personal connection to this moment in history when more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were unjustly and forcibly removed from their homes and placed into camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed military guards only because of their Japanese ancestry. Potential readers should know that although events that the author rhetorically analyzes occurred more than eighty years ago, her findings have important implications today as vitriol and violence against Asian Americans are at an all-time high fueled by political rhetoric propagated by the Trump administration, alt-right forces, and conservative media outlets. The book serves as both a rhetorical force to dismantle Asian American stereotypes—such as the myths of the model minority and the perpetual foreigner—and a comprehensively researched academic text that manifests a counter-narrative to the commonly held belief that Japanese Americans were submissive and obedient in response to their mass incarceration. As an Asian American reader, at times I found myself wanting to jump out of my chair and yell, “Yes! Me too!” Other times, my academic appetite was sated with Shimabukuro’s rigorous research, references, and inquiry into Japanese American history, rhetoric, and writing to redress mass incarceration.

Shimabukuro weaves together an intellectually robust framework, as evidenced by her nineteen-page reference list spanning diverse academic disciplines. She draws on work by recognized scholars and rhetoricians such as Malea Powell, Jessica Enoch, Krista Ratcliffe, and Terese Guinsatao Monberg. She also relies heavily on scholars of Asian American studies, particularly Japanese American history, including Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, King Kok Cheung and Alice Yang Murray. Finally, she highlights the foundational work of Japanese American activists and leaders, such as Michi Weglyn and Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, that paved the way to the redress movement.[1] The intermingling of historical documents and diverse scholarship by these and other leaders and scholars lays a foundation of interdisciplinary ethos that contributes to the book’s success.

Starting with the title of her book, Shimabukuro effectively establishes a rhetorical tone by reclaiming nuanced terminology and she sets the stage for the investigation to come. For example, “Relocating Authority” draws upon the euphemistic term “Relocation Centers” that the US government promulgated to minimize the harsh living conditions that today are more accurately called “incarceration” or “concentration” camps. “Redress” is also an important term for Japanese Americans; although Shimabukuro uses it in the title to mean “rectify,” redress also refers to a collective movement of activism that spanned decades and ultimately resulted in the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted a formal presidential apology by President Reagan, established the federal Office of Redress Administration, and paid nominal financial reparations to former incarcerees. This reclamation of terminology throughout the book further elevates Japanese American incarcerees’ voices of resistance.

Each chapter in the book offers insight, context, and provides examples into how Japanese Americans used writing to oppose and resist the conditions of their imprisonment. Shimabukuro’s data and analyses come from private sources such as diaries, poetry, and personal papers written by incarcerees, as well as public sources including petitions, letters to newspaper editors and camp administrators, and manifestos. To begin, in Chapter 1, the author introduces a historical perspective on the systemic racism faced by Asian Americans predating WWII such as anti-Asian immigration and exclusion acts that set the stage for racial stereotypes of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners and non-native English speakers. She connects this racialized landscape to ongoing contemporary social justice struggles, including, but not limited to, a lack of Asian American authors and representation in the fields of composition, literacy, and rhetoric studies. She acknowledges that although multiple texts documenting Japanese American camp experience have been published in the past decades, this is the first analysis of camp writing as a form of literacy or rhetoric. As such, these forms of writing illustrate a culturally relevant rhetorical analysis model of intersubjective receptivity through what she terms “rhetorical attendance,” a methodology that transcends traditional analyses of seeing what is visible and listening to what is said. Instead, Shimabukuro performs rhetorical attendance by paying attention to, being present at, taking care of, applying herself to, and stretching toward “what had already been done in JA [Japanese American] studies in both academic and community-based sites of scholarship” and then focusing solely on “resistance” (22-23). It is through this model that Shimabukuro analyzes the rhetorical uses of literacy throughout the book.

Through the analysis of multiple private and public texts, the author powerfully and effectively shatters the myth that there was little to no opposition or dissidence to the mass incarceration among the Japanese American community. Further, she boldly cries “racism” at the prevailing suggestion that Japanese Americans as a community were naturally inclined to comply with or accept oppression because of inherent cultural, or even biological characteristics. In Chapter 4, the author dissects and rhetorically analyzes the Japanese term gaman, which in simple terms has been translated to mean “endure” or “persevere,” but, within the context of Japanese American incarceration, has been interpreted both academically and within the Japanese American community to be a “passive code of silent suffering” in the face of oppression. This term has been contextualized to explain the perception of why more incarcerees did not protest their forced removal or talk about their experiences in camp afterward. However, Shimabukuro rhetorically attends to “gaman and through this process redefines it to have a connotation of “strength, endurance, self-discipline, an awareness of others, and the ability to keep the future in sight” (110). She invokes Malea Powell’s concept of “survivance” (survive + resistance) through her rhetorical discussion of themes and analyses of private writings in the form of poetry, diaries, and personal papers and suggests that incarcerees used literacy for “survivance,” which she terms “Writing-to-Gaman” (26, 82). The author skillfully weaves this concept throughout the book to demonstrate incarcerees’ use of literacy to oppose their oppression.

Another salient concept comes through Shimabukuro’s rhetorical attendance and analysis of public writing-to-redress produced by groups of Japanese Americans through coalitions and committees. She suggests that Japanese American members of the community, through their shared experience of forced removal and incarceration, gained a felt sense of their right to rebel, which she terms “collective authority.” This collective authority inspired a rhetorical rebellion where incarcerees united themselves and became empowered to use writing as a form of speaking out publicly against their conditions. Shimabukuro contends that this shared sense of rhetorical agency was the impetus behind the formation of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, a multi-generational resistance coalition of 275 men, whose public forums, printed bulletins, and manifesto opposing the US military’s draft of incarcerees ultimately resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of its 7-member steering committee (144-45). She effectively connects this concept of collective authority to multiple examples of writing-to-redress throughout the book.

Although much of the scholarship into public opposition to JA incarceration has highlighted men, Shimabukuro spends all of Chapter 6 focusing on the role of women in camps writing-to-redress. She rhetorically attends the little-known yet powerful advocacy work by a group of more than 100 first-generation Japanese immigrant women (Issei) incarcerated at Minidoka, who called themselves the “Mother’s Society of Minidoka.” Despite being denied American citizenship and considered enemy aliens by the US government, these mothers of US-born American citizens flexed their muscles of rhetorical agency by writing a letter-petition demonstrating their opposition to the Selective Service for their sons. Shimabukuro asserts that these non-citizen women in the camps were actually the first to use their collective authority and publicly oppose the draft. Further, she discusses and rhetorically analyzes how they even “rewrote to redress the initial letter-petition penned for them by a male citizen lawyer, a document they deemed ‘too weak’” (166). Ultimately, although the petition-letter was unsuccessful at stopping the draft of their sons, the Women’s Society of Minidoka was successful at using literacy to document their survivance; and by including their work in her book, Shimabukuro not only elevates their feminist voices, but she uses their power to set up an impassioned conclusion.

Shimabukuro closes the book with a rhetorical call to action to reference the Japanese American writings to redress as motivators for current social activism. She argues that despite the perceived lack of short-term effectiveness of the literacy activities conducted by incarcerees, the writings to redress remain powerful motivators for current and future rhetorical social activism. She introduces the concept of “resistance capital” that suggests that actions of resistance can be passed down through generations and facilitate an expansion of resistance into the future (199). She discusses examples of rhetorical literacy forces inherited by descendants of incarcerees to further the resistance in current times; and in an embodiment of this resistance capital, she shares a powerful personal manifesto where she reconciles her own history with Japanese Americans incarceration, personally relocates authority through literacy, and writes to redress. As a fourth generation Japanese American like Shimabukuro and as a descendant of JA incarcerated in multiple camps, I draw strength from this concept of inherited resistance capital that has inspired not only this review but my personal writing-to-redress as I recently left behind a 22-year career to return to graduate school for the purposes of writing my family history.

Despite the difficult historical reality of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, I loved every minute of my experience reading this book. However, there are several considerations I would offer to potential readers. First, to fully comprehend all aspects of this work, the ideal audience may be somewhat narrow. Some of the academic text may come across as quite dense with her comprehensive literature reviews infused into each chapter and detailed descriptions of research methodology. (Indeed, this book grew out of the author’s dissertation in composition and rhetoric.) Additionally, readers who lack the historical background and nuanced language of Japanese American history in this country may struggle with keeping up with the author’s fluency of references to key Japanese American cultural and mass incarceration details. Despite this, readers should still be able to sufficiently follow Shimabukuro’s presentation since she is generous in her explanations. Furthermore, anyone interested in seeking more information on the subject can easily choose from any of her nineteen pages of references, mostly related to Japanese American incarceration.

Despite the scholarly rigor put into this book, if somebody is searching for a strictly theoretical or empirical text, this isn’t it. The author artistically incorporates her personal identity and experiences into her research, such that, at times, it feels a bit memoiresque. In my opinion, however, this literary strategy provides a nice balance for the reader, offering a humanistic experience of this historical racial injustice, and its intergenerational impact.

Finally, as previously mentioned, this book was published in 2015 and recounts a history eight decades old, which may lead some readers to question its appeal to contemporary issues. However, the current racialized landscape in America brought on by numerous incidents and forces (George Floyd’s murder and other victims of police brutality, anti-immigration policies, pandemic-related racism, objections to teaching of critical race theory, etc.) has resulted in many Americans seeking truth and reconciliation of our country’s racist history and therefore makes this book even more compelling today. The author’s rhetorical analysis of writing to redress can serve as a reminder of the importance of literacy and rhetoric in social justice activism. It was apparent and necessary during WWII, and it remains that way today.

I invite you to see this review as a call to action. To readers who identify as Japanese American incarcerees, as well as friends, family, and/or descendants of incarcerees: read this book. To readers who identify as historians, scholars, or academics in the field of rhetoric and composition: read this book. To readers who identify as creatives, advocates, and activists for social justice, read this book. I raise my fist (and my pencil) in solidarity.

[1]  For further context surrounding Shimabukuro’s project, see Enoch on the importance of archival memory in recovering rhetorical contributions, Ratcliffe on rhetorical listening in the interest of cross-cultural exchange with the intent to understand, and Monberg on the meaning of rhetorical performances in response to historical and contemporary wrongs. Among JA scholarship, see Hirabayashi on camp resistance, Cheung on articulate silences and attentive silence, and Murray on historical memories; see both Weglyn and Herzig-Yoshinaga on the redress movement.

Works Cited

Cheung, King-Kok. Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa. Cornell UP, 1993.

Enoch, Jessica. “Remembering and Forgetting: The Archive’s Contests over Public Memory.” Conference on College Composition and Communication, 1 Apr. 2008, New Orleans. Conference presentation.

Herzig-Yoshinaga, Aiko. Interview by Larry Hashima and Glen Kitayama. Densho Visual History Collection, 11 Sept. 1997, ddr.densho.org/media/ddr-densho-1000/ddr-densho-1000-16-1-transcript-00bc9a1b0a.htm. Accessed 24 April 2023.

Hirabayashi, Lane Ryo. 1998. “Re-Reading the Archives: Intersections of Ethnography, Biography, and Autobiography in Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement.” Peace & Change, vol.23, no. 2, 1998, pp. 167-82. doi.org/10.1111/0149-0508.00079.

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.

Murray, Alice Yang. Historical Memories of the Japanese Americans Internment and the Struggle for Redress. Stanford UP, 2008.

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

Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.

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

Weglyn, Michi. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps. William Morrow, 1976.