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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

December 14, 2011

Written by C.N.

The Ugly Side of Selective Memory & Revisionist History

Last week, the U.S. commemorated the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese military that led to the U.S.’s entry into World War II. Of course, the attack was a watershed moment in U.S. history — Japan’s unjustified and heinous act led to the deaths of 3,000 human beings, united the U.S. like never before, and in the end, was the start of Japan’s downfall as a imperial military power.

Unfortunately, the Pearl Harbor attacks also prompted the U.S. government to strip 120,000 Japanese Americans of their legal rights and imprison them without any due process, based largely on the “fear” that Japanese Americans would be loyal to Japan and engage in espionage or treason against their adopted U.S. homeland.

This entire “internment” episode has been recounted and analyzed over the years, most notably by the bipartisan Congressional “Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians,” which ultimately conducted a thorough investigation and in their final report titled “Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians,” finally concluded that the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II was a “grave injustice” and resulted from “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” Congress then approved and distributed a reparation payment of $20,000 to all surviving Japanese Americans who were imprisoned. To my knowledge, this is the only instance in which the U.S. government has officially apologized and provided monetary reparations to any of the injustices that they’ve committed in its history.

Heart Mountain WWII prison camp © Hansel Mieth & Otto Hagel

As it turns out, this week’s anniversary commemoration unfortunately prompted some to once again bring up the old argument that there was a logical rationale to the U.S.’s imprisonment of Japanese Americans, or that it was even completely justified. For example, in a museum review of Heart Mountain Interpretive Center (in Wyoming, site of one of the prison camps) in the Dec. 9, 2011 edition of the New York Times, ‘art critic’ Edward Rothstein engages in such musings.

Specifically, Rothstein uses a few historical examples of misdeeds by Japanese and Japanese Americans to argue that “the threat was palpable” and that therefore, there was a “rationale” for the U.S.’s subsequent imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese Americans. While Rothstein does state, “I am not suggesting that such factors justified the relocations,” the tone of his piece displays an ignorant accounting of the entire collection of historical facts surrounding how isolated incidents of Japanese and Japanese Americans misdeeds were exaggerated and generalized to an entire population, how many allegations of espionage and sabotage by Japanese Americans were never substantiated and even completely fabricated, and how similar and even more pernicious acts by Germans and German Americans were largely ignored.

Unfortunately, Rothstein’s piece is a sad example of selective memory, if not outright revisionist history. The examples he cited as providing “rationale” for the mass imprisonment are of dubious historical accuracy and value and even if valid, only reinforce and perpetuate the tired notion that the acts of a few can be taken out of context and generalized to an entire population. In response to Rothstein, I would like to share the responses of some of my colleagues who provide a more clear and comprehensive picture of the supposed “palpable” threat of Japanese Americans after the Pearl Harbor attacks:

In his attempt to understand the wartime removal of Japanese Americans, Edward Rothstein (“the How of Internment, but not all the Whys”, NYT, December 9) repeats a set of falsehoods and distortions about its causes. He insists that because Japan engaged in widespread espionage, and decoded Japanese messages (in reality a mere handful) spoke of contacts, surely Japanese Americans were implicated in espionage. In fact, Tokyo’s spymasters shied away from using Americans of Japanese ancestry, whose loyalty to Japan they rightly suspected, and made use of non-Japanese. Col. Kenneth Ringle, the prewar agent of the Office of Naval Information who broke the most important Japanese spy ring in Los Angeles and was in a position to know the facts, was an outspoken defender of the loyalty of Japanese Americans.

Similarly, Rothstein declares that the Japanese “threat was palpable” since a Japanese submarine had sunk American shops and shelled a California oil field. In fact, only a single American ship was sunk, compared to the hundreds sunk by German submarines off the East Coast, and the single shelling incident took place after the order to remove Japanese Americans had already been issued. Worse, Rothstein argues that the “treasonous” conduct of a Nisei couple in Hawaii validated the fears of government authorities about West Coast Japanese Americans. The absurdity of this statement is easily demonstrated by the fact that there was no mass roundup of the large Japanese community in Hawaii itself.

Although he insists that he is not justifying removal, cultural critic Rothstein sadly displays not only a carelessness toward history, but reveals how much the baseless ideas about “Japanese” disloyalty that led to mass removal still remain in the culture.

Greg Robinson
Associate Professor of History
Université du Québec a Montréal

I write this disappointed letter in response to Edward Rothstein’s December 9, 2011 piece, “The How of an Internment, but Not All the Whys.” Notwithstanding the express reason for this piece (as a review), I was particularly struck by Mr. Rothstein’s incomplete and incendiary reading of not only U.S. history but Japanese American history. Dismissing the “now standard” evaluation of the internment as the “result of wartime hysteria and racism,” Mr. Rothstein offers an allegedly “clearer understanding of the prewar Japanese-American population” rooted in familiar characterizations of yellow peril takeovers, perpetual foreign frames, and traitorous subjects. What is especially remarkable and distressing is that Mr. Rothstein manages – quite irresponsibly — to take NYT readers “back in time” to aforementioned “wartime hysteria and racism.”

Cathy J. Schlund-Vials
Assistant Professor, English and Asian American Studies
University of Connecticut

I teach Asian American Studies to graduates of this city’s k-12 system, and I am continuously disheartened by the many young people who have never heard of Japanese American internment, or, if they have, possess no meaningful understanding of the nature of the event. With that lack of information in mind, I was appalled to see your paper repeat long since discredited misinformation in apparent disregard for rigorous scholarly work, and the trauma inflicted upon thousands upon thousands of individuals and families who did nothing but look like “the enemy.” Despite his assurance to the contrary, Edward Rothstein’s review of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center implies that we should explore long since debunked (dare I say “fringe”) theories that justify the racial stereotype of Japanese Americans as inherently treasonous, and thereby make excuses for what scholars agree is a racially motivated and shameful event in U.S. civil rights history.

Jennifer Hayashida
Director, Asian American Studies Program
Hunter College, City University of New York

In Edward Rothstein’s review of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center (“the How of Internment, but not all the Whys”, NYT, December 9) he declares that the unconstitutional incarceration of over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry was “a geographic rationale, not simply a racial one.” Yet Mr. Rothstein fails to account for the fact that mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans did not occur at the site that propelled the U.S. into WWII—Hawaii. Indeed, all reputable scholars of the Japanese American Internment note that it was war time xenophobia and racism that spurred Executive Order 9066—an order that never specified ethnic ancestry and that effectively nullified the constitutional rights of every person living on the West Coast during WWII. FDR ordered the military to target Japanese Americans using EO9066. If that’s not a racial rationale, I’m not sure what is.

Jennifer Ho
Associate Professor
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Unfortunately, as a country, we are now poised to repeat the same mistake that was committed 70 years against Japanese Americans. Specifically, Congress is currently debating the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2013. One of the proposed provisions is to give U.S. government authorities the ability to arrest and indefinitely detain anybody who they deem to be a threat to national security — including U.S. citizens — without charging them with a crime or giving them a trial. In other words, it would basically legalize what happened to Japanese Americans after the Pearl Harbor attacks.

Fortunately, there is opposition to these provisions from both sides of the political spectrum. If you also oppose these provisions, I urge you to contact your Representative and Senator and tell them to vote against these provisions. As George Santayana’s quote goes, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”


March 14, 2011

Written by C.N.

Donations & Resources for Japan Earthquake & Tsunami Victims

In light of the disasters from the recent earthquakes and tsunami in Japan, if you would like to make a donation to help those in need, here are some links to respected organizations to make your donation, along with a couple of links to more information about locating victims:

Cherry Blossoms at Itsukushima Jinja Shrine, Japan © Rudy Sulgan/Corbis

Also below are a few links to stories and news articles around the internet about the disaster and its effects on Asian Americans:


February 10, 2011

Written by C.N.

Posts from Years Past: February

As I and my colleagues in New England continue to dig ourselves out of another snowstorm, here are some posts in this blog from February of years past:

  • 2010: Connecting Toyota and Asian Americans
    Looking at the larger sociological context surrounding Toyota’s recent troubles and its cultural connections to Asian Americans.
  • Winter cranes © Li Yu/Corbis
  • 2009: Using Immigrants to Stimulate the Economy
    To stimulate our economy, perhaps we should let in more Asian immigrants.
  • 2008: Another Example of East-West Convergence
    McDonalds restaurants incorporating feng shui — capitalism and natural harmony coexisting or just lipstick on a pig?
  • 2007: Controversy Over Childrens Book
    Cross-ethnic and nationalist tensions get reignited over the award-winning book So Far From the Bamboo Grove.
  • 2006: Toyota Joins NASCAR
    Toyota’s announcement that it will participate in NASCAR, the most popular form of motor racing in the U.S., poses a challenge to the sport’s all-White, American south-based culture.
  • 2005: Multiracial Commercial Images
    Images of racially-diverse and multiracial Americans are becoming more common, but how representative are they of the realities of the U.S. racial landscape?
  • 2003: in Defense of Ignorance
    Asian Americans react to Rep. Coble’s ignorant and misinformed defense of the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during WWII.

July 5, 2010

Written by C.N.

Posts from Years Past: July

You might be interested to read the following posts from July of years past:

  • 2009: Reflections on a Multiracial Buddhist Retreat
    One of my most controversial posts — In an otherwise refreshing and renewing multiracial Buddhist family retreat, two incidents with racial overtones highlight unconscious racial dynamics still present in American society.
  • 2008: The New Yorker’s Obama Cover
    The New Yorker’s controversial cartoon cover of Barack and Michelle Obama as terrorists brings up a range of reactions from conservatives and liberals.
  • 2007: Allowing Non-Citizens to Vote
    Should immigrants who haven’t become citizens yet be allowed to vote in elections?
  • 2006: “Cute Culture” in Japan
    Looking at the rising popularity of “cute culture’s” effect on Japan’s mentality toward outsiders.
  • 2005: Native Hawaiian Sovereignty
    Looking at the contentious debate about whether to grant Native Hawaiians sovereignty rights.
  • 2004: Jumping the Gun
    Racial paranoia fed by terrorist fears leads to a sad case of racial profiling.

May 12, 2010

Written by C.N.

Links & Announcements #26

Here are some more announcements and links out that have come my way relating to Asians or Asian Americans. As always, links to other sites are provided for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply an endorsement of their contents.

Migration Information Source: Spotlight Reports

The Migration Policy Institute is a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. that studies immigration issues, trends, and policies in the United States and around the world. They also maintain an online journal called the Migration Information Source. They have recently compiled a collection of summary reports (“spotlights”) on numerous immigrant populations and communities in the United States, including about immigrants from Mexico, China, India, Vietnam, El Salvador, and other countries. Definitely worth a look.

Call for Participants: Documentary on Vietnamese Refugees

My name is Pat Clark and I am a graduate film student at San Diego State University. I am producing a documentary film which centers around individuals involved in the evacuation of Saigon April 29, 1975. I am interested in telling the story from both the American and Vietnamese perspective.

I have already secured interviews with a few individuals but I am looking to find as many as possible. If you know of anyone who would be willing to share their story on camera please give them my contact information or I would be happy to contact them and explain my project in greater detail. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me. I appreciate your help!

Thanks,
Pat Clark
patclark1@gmail.com

Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington

The Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington is honored to be one of 25 finalists for a share of the $1 million National Trust for Historic Preservation/American Express Partners in Preservation grant for noteworthy historic sites in Puget Sound!

It’s fast and easy to help the JCCC win the grand prize: Vote for the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington – and please vote once a day until May 12! Please invite everyone you know to help by joining our Facebook page, our Twitter page, or our website.

As the legacy home to the oldest “continuously” operating Japanese Language School in North America and safe haven for displaced Japanese Americans after World War II, to today’s lively, active center of cultural programs, the NW Nikkei Museum, Japanese Language Library and more, the Partners in Preservation grant will help renovate the National Historic Register buildings and support the center’s Japanese heritage programs to grow and flourish.

Programs and issues we are actively addressing include Multiethnic and multicultural families and heritage, Asian American family genealogy and histories, local NW Nikkei history, LGBTQQIA in the API community, Shin Issei, incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during WWII and many others.

Our past special events have included traditional arts, crafts, games and music including origami, making windsocks (koi nobori), family heritage day, calligraphy and lawn water games; NW Nikkei Museum exhibit of more than 1,700 wooden dolls (kokeshi); display of samurai armor (yoroi) and more, with special performances of Karate, Taiko and Judo.

Petition to Create National Immigrants Day

I have started a petition to designate a new federal holiday as National Immigrants Day to commemorate the contributions made by all nationalities of immigrants in the building of our country and would like to forward the link here to you for possible publicizing or signing.

Thank you,
Steve Johnson
sejn@att.net


April 15, 2010

Written by C.N.

New Books: Visual & Literary Expression

As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. A book’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its complete contents.

In recent decades, mainstream American culture and Asian artistic expression have increasingly intersected with each other, leading to the increased popularity of such visual culture genres such as anime, remade Asian horror movies, stylized kung fu films, etc. These new books explore this emerging phenomenon from a sociological point of view.

From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe, by Peter Y. Paik (University of Minnesota Press)

From Utopia to Apocalypse, by Peter Y. Paik

Revolutionary narratives in recent science fiction graphic novels and films compel audiences to reflect on the politics and societal ills of the day. Through character and story, science fiction brings theory to life, giving shape to the motivations behind the action as well as to the consequences they produce.

In From Utopia to Apocalypse, Peter Y. Paik shows how science fiction generates intriguing and profound insights into politics. He reveals that the fantasy of putting annihilating omnipotence to beneficial effect underlies the revolutionary projects that have defined the collective upheavals of the modern age.

Paik traces how this political theology is expressed, and indeed literalized, in popular superhero fiction, examining works including Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel Watchmen, the science fiction cinema of Jang Joon-Hwan, the manga of Hayao Miyazaki, Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, and the Matrix trilogy. Paik presents these fantasies as social constructions concerned with questions of political will and the disintegration of democracy rather than with the psychology of the personal.

What is urgently at stake, Paik argues, is a critique of the limitations and deadlocks of the political imagination. The utopias dreamed of by totalitarianism, which must be imposed through torture, oppression, and mass imprisonment, nevertheless persist in liberal political systems. With this reality looming throughout, Paik demonstrates the uneasy juxtaposition of saintliness and cynically manipulative realpolitik, of torture and the assertion of human dignity, of cruelty and benevolence.

The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation, by Thomas Lamarre (University of Minnesota Press)

The Anime Machine, by Thomas Lamarre

Despite the longevity of animation and its significance within the history of cinema, film theorists have focused on live-action motion pictures and largely ignored hand-drawn and computer-generated movies. Thomas Lamarre contends that the history, techniques, and complex visual language of animation, particularly Japanese animation, demands serious and sustained engagement, and in The Anime Machine he lays the foundation for a new critical theory for reading Japanese animation, showing how anime fundamentally differs from other visual media.

The Anime Machine defines the visual characteristics of anime and the meanings generated by those specifically “animetic” effects-the multiplanar image, the distributive field of vision, exploded projection, modulation, and other techniques of character animation-through close analysis of major films and television series, studios, animators, and directors, as well as Japanese theories of animation.

Lamarre . . . examines foundational works of anime, including the films and television series of Miyazaki Hayao and Anno Hideaki, the multimedia art of Murakami Takashi, and CLAMP’s manga and anime adaptations, to illuminate the profound connections between animators, characters, spectators, and technology.

Working at the intersection of the philosophy of technology and the history of thought, Lamarre explores how anime and its related media entail material orientations and demonstrates concretely how the “animetic machine” encourages a specific approach to thinking about technology and opens new ways for understanding our place in the technologized world around us.

The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, by Josephine Lee (University of Minnesota Press)

Unfastened, by Eleanor Ty

Long before Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, long before Barthes explicated his empire of signs, even before Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado presented its own distinctive version of Japan. Set in a fictional town called Titipu and populated by characters named Yum-Yum, Nanki-Poo, and Pooh-Bah, the opera has remained popular since its premiere in 1885.

Tracing the history of The Mikado’s performances, Josephine Lee reveals the continuing viability of the play’s surprisingly complex racial dynamics as they have been adapted to different times and settings. Lee connects yellowface performance to blackface minstrelsy, showing how productions of the 1938–39 Swing Mikado and Hot Mikado, among others, were used to promote African American racial uplift. She also looks at a host of contemporary productions and adaptations, including Mike Leigh’s film Topsy-Turvy and performances of The Mikado in Japan, to reflect on anxieties about race as they are articulated through new visions of the town of Titipu.

The Mikado creates racial fantasies, draws audience members into them, and deftly weaves them into cultural memory. For countless people who had never been to Japan, The Mikado served as the basis for imagining what “Japanese” was.

Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History, by Yunte Huang (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Charlie Chan, by Yunte Huang

Chronicling the fraught narrative of one of Hollywood’s most enduring cinematic detectives, English scholar Yunte Huang uncovers the untold story of the real “Charlie Chan,” a bullwhip-wielding, five-foot Chinese-American detective whose raids on opium dens and gambling parlors transformed him into a Hawaiian legend. Huang, in fact, has created a historic drama where none was known to exist, brilliantly juxtaposing Chang Apana’s personal story against a larger backdrop of territorial Hawaii, torn apart by virulent racism.

As Huang demonstrates, Apana’s bravado and heroism inspired not only E. D. Biggers, a Harvard graduate turned celebrity mystery sleuth, to write six best-selling Charlie Chan novels, but Hollywood to manufacture over forty internationally popular Chan movies starring a wisecracking, grammatically challenged detective with a knack for turning Oriental wisdom into singsong Chinatown blues.

Examining hundreds of biographical, literary, and cinematic sources, both in English and in his native Chinese, Huang has created with Charlie Chan a literary tour-de-force that places “the honorable detective” on a larger stage, in the process presenting Asian-American history in a way it has never been told before.

Unfastened: Globality and Asian North American Narratives, by Eleanor Ty (University of Minnesota Press)

Unfastened, by Eleanor Ty

Unfastened examines literary works and films by Asian Americans and Asian Canadians that respond critically to globality—the condition in which traditional national, cultural, geographical, and economic boundaries have been—supposedly—surmounted.

In this wide-ranging exploration, Eleanor Ty reveals how novelists such as Brian Ascalon Roley, Han Ong, Lydia Kwa, and Nora Okja Keller interrogate the theoretical freedom that globalization promises in their depiction of the underworld of crime and prostitution. She looks at the social critiques created by playwrights Betty Quan and Sunil Kuruvilla, who use figures of disability to accentuate the effects of marginality.

Investigating works based on fantasy, Ty highlights the ways feminist writers Larissa Lai, Chitra Divakaruni, Hiromi Goto, and Ruth Ozeki employ myth, science fiction, and magic realism to provide alternatives to global capitalism. She notes that others, such as filmmaker Deepa Mehta and performers/dramatists Nadine Villasin and Nina Aquino, play with the multiple identities afforded to them by transcultural connections.

Ultimately, Ty sees in these diverse narratives unfastened mobile subjects, heroes, and travelers who use everyday tactics to challenge inequitable circumstances in their lives brought about by globalization.

The Decolonized Eye: Filipino American Art and Performance, by Sarita Echavez See (University of Minnesota Press)

The Decolonized Eye, by Sarita Echavez See

From the late 1980s to the present, artists of Filipino descent in the United States have produced a challenging and creative movement. In The Decolonized Eye, Sarita Echavez See shows how these artists have engaged with the complex aftermath of U.S. colonialism in the Philippines.

Focusing on artists working in New York and California, See examines the overlapping artistic and aesthetic practices and concerns of filmmaker Angel Shaw, painter Manuel Ocampo, installation artist Paul Pfeiffer, comedian Rex Navarrete, performance artist Nicky Paraiso, and sculptor Reanne Estrada to explain the reasons for their strangely shadowy presence in American culture and scholarship.

Offering an interpretation of their creations that accounts for their queer, decolonizing strategies of camp, mimesis, and humor, See reveals the conditions of possibility that constitute this contemporary archive. By analyzing art, performance, and visual culture, The Decolonized Eye illuminates the unexpected consequences of America’s amnesia over its imperial history.


February 17, 2010

Written by C.N.

Connecting Toyota and Asian Americans

As I’m sure almost everybody has heard about, these past few months have not been good for Toyota. Due to a variety of quality control issues, accident reports, and several fatalities involving many of their models, Toyota has recalled over 8.5 million vehicles worldwide, one of the largest mass automotive recall in history. With each passing day, new media scrutiny, and every piece of bad publicity, Toyota’s reputation continues to plummet.

In looking at the larger sociological context of Toyota’s struggles, there are a couple of questions that come up. First, as many observers have wondered, to what extent are Toyota’s problems due to them basically becoming too arrogant and viewing themselves and their products as invincible? That is, Toyota (along with several other Asian automakers) have weathered the current recession and in fact, the past several years, much better than U.S. automakers such as General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford, mainly by producing many high-quality, fuel-efficient cars. But did Toyota’s success make them complacent? As one example of this criticism, AutoBlog reports:

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has absolutely blasted the Japanese giant, calling it “a little safety deaf” and noting he was upset that NHTSA officials had to fly to Japan “to remind Toyota management about its legal obligations.” That’s just the tip of the spear stuff, too. Check out the shaft:

Since questions were first raised about possible safety defects, we have been pushing Toyota to take measures to protect consumers. While Toyota is taking responsible action now, it unfortunately took an enormous effort to get to this point. We’re not finished with Toyota and are continuing to review possible defects and monitor the implementation of the recalls.

In fact, as MSNBC reports, Toyota’s apparent initial lack of urgency to respond to the growing criticisms may be characteristic of many large Japanese who have also risen to the top of their industries, only to find that when you’re on top, there’s only one way to go — down:

Toyota is the latest Japanese corporate icon making headlines for all the wrong reasons. News of the automaker’s massive vehicle recalls over faulty gas pedals in the U.S. came just days after Japan Airlines, a once proud flag carrier, filed for bankruptcy, saddled with billions in debt.

Sony has lost its lead in consumer gadgets to the likes of Apple Inc. and has suffered its own quality mishaps. Honda, Japan’s No. 2 automaker, is recalling 646,000 cars worldwide because of a faulty window switch. . . . Taken together, Japan Inc.’s stellar reputation for quality has taken a hit — just as China is about to overtake it as the world’s No. 2 economy and rising South Korean companies compete ever more aggressively.

What went wrong with the economic giant that arose from the ashes of World War II? The problems that confront Toyota, Sony and JAL differ, but experts say their struggles have some common themes: the perils of global expansion, a tendency to embrace the status quo, and smugness bred from success or a too-big-to-fail mentality.

“Arrogance and some complacency came into play, driven by the idea that their ranking as No. 1 producer of quality goods wasn’t at risk,” said Kirby Daley [chief strategist at Newedge Group]. . . . The global economic crisis helped to expose weaknesses, he said. “There was nowhere to hide.”

Clearly, Toyota has a lot of work to do in order to regain customers’ trust and to rebuild their image for making safe and reliable cars. But beyond that, does Toyota’s recent problems affect Asian Americans?

In my classes, I often use Toyota as an analogy and metaphor for the Asian American community as a whole — both have been in the U.S. for a while but early on, were looked upon with curiosity, derision, and even hostility. Toyota and Asian Americans as a whole were seen as strange foreigners who probably had no future in the U.S. and pesky nuisances to “traditional” Americans.

Nonetheless, both were persistent and determined and after years of mostly quiet hard work, were able to eventually establish themselves as mainstream Americans and in many ways, outperform their “traditional” American counterparts. Nowadays, both Toyota and Asian Americans are poised to make unique contributions to American society and its economy as globalization continues to evolve in the 21st century.

But now that Toyota is in a major consumer and public relations crisis, do its struggles reflect negatively on Asian Americans? With racial/ethnic tensions heightened during the recession, will some Americans use these recent events to launch or intensify some kind of anti-Toyota, anti-Japan, anti-Asian, or anti-foreigner backlash movement?

Inevitably, I suppose there will be some Americans with that kind of mentality and motivation. It’s also likely that Toyota’s sales will take a while to rebound, both as a result of this particular crisis and because of the recession in general. But ultimately, and perhaps in contrast to some of my past pessimistic posts about racial/ethnic relations in the near future, I predict that Toyota will recover and become even stronger, just like the recent history and successes of Asian Americans as a community.

I believe this because Toyota has decades of experience and history behind them — they are not new to this industry, and they have weathered recessions before. Let us remember that Toyota is not the only automaker that has experienced mass recalls or bad publicity before. For example, just in the last decade, Ford has recalled over 14.5 million vehicles for various defects and for those who remember, back in the 1980s, Audi’s U.S. sales and overall corporate image virtually collapsed over high-profile allegations of unintended acceleration involving their 5000 model.

To put Toyota’s situation into further perspective, Toyota is firmly established in the U.S. as an American company — it currently employs around 150,000 American workers in their factories, offices, and dealerships. If Toyota were to fail, so would many American workers, families, and communities. Finally, part of Toyota’s culture is built around a collective mindset that focuses on long-term progress and shared participation that has resulted in sustained growth and prosperity through the years.

In other words, Toyota — like Asian Americans as a whole — has accomplished too much to give up now. As a metaphor for Asian Americans, I expect Toyota to learn from their mistakes, overcome the difficulties they face, be patient and aggressive in pushing forward, and continue their long record of success. They still have much to contribute to American society and we as Americans still have much to gain from them in many ways.


February 3, 2010

Written by C.N.

Orientalism in Mainstream Book Covers

For those who are unfamiliar, “Orientalism” is a term used by academics and cultural critics that generally refers to a set of biases, stereotypes, cultural images, and popular portrayals of Asians and/or Asian Americans — individually, nationally, or institutionally — as exotic, hypersexual, submissive, effeminate, dangerous, and/or inferior. Orientalism is frequently manifested in the overrepresentations of Asians and Asian Americans in mainstream TV shows and movies as one-dimensional geisha, ninja, prostitute, or martial arts characters.

As another examples, my fellow sociologist bloggers at Sociological Images alerted me to an interesting post by Caustic Cover Critic (CCC) that examines stereotypical elements in mainstream books and novels about China or Japan:

If you’re designing a cover for a book by a Chinese or Japanese writer, or with a Chinese or Japanese setting, it seems that there are some compulsory elements which must be included. For variety’s sake, there are four elements, but you MUST use at least one of them. Advanced designers, of course, may use two or more.

To summarize CCC’s post, the four elements (with some example covers) are:

#1: Blossoms

Element 1: BlossomsElement 1: BlossomsElement 1: Blossoms

#2: Fans

Element 2: FansElement 2: FansElement 2: Fans

#3: Dragons

Element 3: DragonsElement 3: DragonsElement 3: Dragons

#4: A Woman’s Neck

Element 4: Woman's NeckElement 4: Woman's Neck

As you can see, these elements are present in books that are written by both Asians/Asian Americans and non-Asians. In other words, even Asian and Asian American writers are not immune to Orientalist tendencies. In those cases, my guess is that such Asian/Asian American authors are “encouraged” (or perhaps even “compelled”) by their publishers (who are almost always American) to create these kinds of Orientalist covers to appeal to American perceptions and stereotypes of China, Japan, and other Asian countries and societies.

Either way, it is indeed sad to see that at least judging by these book covers, mainstream American society sees Asian and Asian American culture in such a one-dimensional and stereotypical way. As one of my colleagues once said to me, “It’s exhausting to be exotic.”


December 10, 2009

Written by C.N.

Posts from Years Past: December

You might be interested to read the following posts from Decembers of years past:

  • 2008: The Impact of Racial Diversity on College Students
    A new study shows that having a college roommate of a different race increases overall racial tolerance, except when your roommate is Asian American.
  • 2007: The Rise of the Nguyens
    New Census data points out that one of the fastest-growing surnames in the U.S. is the most common one among Vietnamese Americans.
  • 2006: Rejected Asian American Applicant Sues Princeton
    An Asian American applicant sues Princeton University for rejecting his admissions application and how his suit has evolved into another battle over affirmative action.
  • 2005: Model Minority Expectations and Suicide
    The intense pressure from families and society of living up to standards of high achievement can be overwhelming and has led many young Asian Americans to take their own lives.
  • 2004: Inter-Asian Sentiments
    Examples from popular culture in both Japan and South Korea illustrate the contradictory nature of inter-ethnic relations between Asians of different ethnic groups.

October 28, 2009

Written by C.N.

Role Reversal: China and Japan Relations with U.S. Changing

Ever since World War II, the Asian-Pacific political and military landscape has been pretty stable from the U.S.’s point of view — Japan has been the U.S.’s staunch ally while China looms as possible threat and enemy to the U.S. However, we might be seeing this situation change in opposite directions — China and the U.S. moving closer together while Japan starts to increase its distance from the U.S. In regard to the former, as Reuters reports, the Chinese military (no less) says it wants closer ties to the U.S.:

At the start of a visit to Washington, Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the People’s Liberation Army Central Military Commission, said military ties were generally moving in a “positive direction” and defended China’s fast-paced military development as purely “defensive” and “limited” in scope. . . .

Xu’s visit, which will include a tour of major U.S. military bases, including U.S. Strategic Command, was meant to give a boost to military-to-military dialogue, which Beijing resumed this year after halting it in 2008 to protest a $6.5 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. . . . Last week, Gates said better dialogue was needed to avoid “mistakes and miscalculations.”

Xu said U.S.-Chinese military relations have improved since President Barack Obama took office in January and can be expanded further.

As an example of the latter development (Japan and U.S. relations moving farther apart), the Brookings Institute describes how Japan’s new government is looking to do things a little differently than its predecessors:

Among the changes sought by the [Democratic Party of Japan, DPJ] is a new approach to the Japan-U.S. relationship. In a statement made both before and after the election, [new Prime Minister Yukio] Hatoyama has pledged to build “a close and equal relationship with the United States,” which implies that the new government will re-examine the current relationship with Washington.

He has also proposed an idea to create a so-called “East Asian Community” . . . [that] would include such countries as China, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, and the ASEAN countries, but would exclude the U.S. . . .

[DPJ co-founder and former leader Ichiro] Ozawa’s basic argument is that the [Japan’s] overseas deployment for international peace activities should be carried out based on UN resolutions, rather than on alliance-based agreements with the United States. His basic idea is “Japan has to have an equal relationship with the U.S. It should have its own voice.”

This approach is already causing some concern in Washington, and it will certainly cause stress in the Japan-U.S. relationship when in January the DPJ will terminate the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s refueling activities in the Indian Ocean which support U.S. and coalition activities in Afghanistan.

We should note that both articles make clear that the status quo is still in effect for now. That is, big differences and suspicions remain between the U.S. and China and that the overall political relationship between Japan and the U.S. is still strong. Nonetheless, these developments demonstrate that international relations can change rather quickly.

In fact, this rapid pace of international political and military evolution seems to be one of the basic characteristics of the Asian-Pacific region in the age of 21st century globalization. On the heels of apparent increased tensions between China and India, flux and fluidity are likely to be the normal dynamic of the region for the foreseeable future.

As always, such changes can create both dangers and opportunities for different actors and parties. This includes Asian Americans, who may have the chance to play a greater role in helping to shape these changing political, economic, and cultural landscapes.


July 2, 2008

Written by C.N.

Is Criticism Against Japan’s Whaling Unfair?

I’ve written before about almost universal criticism against Japan’s continuing program of hunting whales in defiance of international conventions. However, as National Geographic points out, Japan is not the only country that continues to hunt whales.

Specifically, both Norway and Iceland hunt whales as well, in much the same way that Japan does — for commercial, not “scientific” reasons and in defiance of international agreements. Therefore, we have to ask the question, why is Japan singled out for international criticism when few also mention Norway and Iceland’s whaling activities?

Japan is the “head of the zombie and needs to be cut off,” said Willie Mackenzie, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace U.K. “It’s very, very clear that, internationally, Japan is behind the drive towards commercial whaling.” . . .

Yet Norway and Iceland also have substantial whaling programs—and do so not under the auspices of research but commercially, flouting IWC rules that have banned such activities since 1986.

“Japanese people feel that, yes, maybe there is a little bit of racism in the way in which we are considered in comparison with the way Norway or other whaling nations are treated,” said Noriko Hama, a professor of economics at Doshisha University in Kyoto. . . .

According to IWC figures, Japanese ships killed 866 whales in the 2006-2007 season, a haul that included minke, fin, sei, and sperm whales—the most of any nation. Norway placed second with a total catch of 545 whales. . . .

Norway and Iceland confine whaling to coastal regions inside their own waters, but Japan is the only nation that still exploits Antarctic seas, now an internationally recognized sanctuary for whales.

The article points out that much of the scorn directed at Japan is focused not just on their actual whaling activities but also on Japan’s political maneuvers to try to block or reverse international agreements on whaling limits.

It is disappointing that Japan continues to support whaling and I can see that they seem to be compounding the antagonism against them by trying to use their influence in a heavy-handed way. At the same time, I also find it a little disturbing that virtually all of the criticism against whaling is directed at Japan, with little mention of Norway and Iceland.

Unfortunately, this is a tough issue to disaggregate. It’s similar to criticism against China’s human rights abuses and its occupation of Tibet — are China’s critics genuinely concerned about Tibet and human rights, or are they just using these issues as the basis to express their anti-Chinese prejudice?

In the same way, Japan certainly deserves criticism for its whaling activities and defiant actions. But their critics also need to be fair and at the least, explain clearly why European countries such as Norway and Iceland don’t receive nearly the same level of condemnation.