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An Interrupted Heritage : STUBBORN TWIG: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family, By Lauren Kessler (Random House: $25; 368 pp.)

January 09, 1994|Donna Kato | Donna Kato, based in San Jose, writes frequently about the Japanese-American community

Here is a book that entices readers first to look at the pages of photographs slipped into a middle chapter. One studies the dress and faces of the Yasui family through nearly 100 years, then comes away with a curiosity: Who are they? What makes them so compelling?

Part social history and part family biography, "Stubborn Twig" traces the tragic and triumphant saga of a Japanese-American family. Lauren Kessler transports us to another era, accurately and vividly, then places Yasui family members within that time frame, letting us get to know one or two of them. Sadly, most of these vignettes center around an economic hardship or a racial conflict that ultimately ends in the humiliation of a Yasui.

"Stubborn Twig" is an uncomfortable book to read. For Japanese Americans, learning about the racism that confronted the Yasuis may be a reminder of similar incidents in their own families. The book personalizes events in American history that are easier to acknowledge if the facts remain faceless. With the Yasuis, we get to know fathers, sons, mothers and daughters.

The author's background as a journalism professor is reflected in her clean, organized writing style. Although Kessler writes with sensitivity about a family she has known as personal friends, there is an objectivity that seems to keep us from getting too involved with a character. We can empathize, but we can't quite embrace any of them.

Perhaps this is because the book is broad in scope, encompassing nearly a century and the points of view of more than a dozen characters. In making sure that readers understand the historic context, Kessler sometimes fails to give us the personal motivation behind a character's actions or feelings.

"Stubborn Twig" opens with a textbook explanation of the circumstances that led to Asian immigration at the turn of the century. It then shifts focus to Masuo Yasui, who sails from Japan to join his two older brothers already working on a railroad crew around the Northwest. Unlike most Japanese men who simply wanted to earn and save money to return to Japan, 16-year-old Masuo intends to make America his home even though laws bar him from becoming a citizen.

By the time Masuo is 21, he has left the railroad to work as a cook and a houseboy. He has converted to Christianity and speaks semi-fluent English. Settling in Hood River, Ore., he talks his brothers into opening a general store to serve the needs of the area issei (first generation Japanese) migrant farm laborers.

At age 25, Masuo sends for his bride, a woman he knew as a child. Shidzuyo Miyake and Masuo have not seen each other in more than a decade, but have been corresponding for two years.

Landing in Tacoma in September of 1912, Shidzuyo begins married life in a foreign country as the wife of a man with a rather uncertain future.

Kessler tells us that Shidzuyo was a teacher in Japan, a rare accomplishment for a woman of that time. It's clear that she's headstrong and bright, throwing away any chance of a conventional marriage to come to America. But Kessler doesn't give us a hint of what must have been going through Shidzuyo's mind as she disembarked from the ship, seeing a new country and a new husband for the first time. From this point on, Shidzuyo becomes a wife and mother, disappointingly relegated to the background of the Yasui tale.

A year after her arrival in Hood River, Shidzuyo gives birth to a son, Kay, the first of nine children born to the couple. Masuo, meanwhile, begins acquiring orchard land in the name of his offspring. With his business savvy and command of the English language, he is also becoming an important force in the development of Hood River's fruit industry and a respected adviser to the area's Japanese farmers. But because of his Asian face, Masuo cannot gain full acceptance into a society that still considers real Americans to be those of European descent. While the majority of the white Americans in Hood River are portrayed as greedy and prejudiced, there are those, such as lawyer E. C. Smith, who are loyal friends to the Japanese Americans even through the internment years.

Here, too, Kessler could have enriched the story by letting us know why residents such as Smith risked ostracism and financial disaster to help the Yasuis. Because there were so few Caucasians who spoke out in behalf of Japanese Americans (especially during World War II) their names and deeds are of great interest.

The Yasui children, the second generation, grow up in a volatile and contradictory environment. Their parents instill in them the Japanese virtues of self-sacrifice and discipline, but at the same time encourage them to fit into the sphere of their white classmates. They are given a mixed message to be overachievers but always to remember their second-class place in America.

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