BOOKS: ‘We Hereby Refuse’ Speaks Truth to Power to Young Readers

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By EDWARD IWATA, Special to The Rafu

We live in an age of shameless appropriation, when the privileged can profit from other cultures and their suffering as easily as signing a book or movie contract.

So it is encouraging to see that the authors of the new graphic novel “We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration” (Wing Luke Museum and Chin Music Press) are talented Japanese American creatives with the credibility and cultural knowing to tell our authentic tales.

They do not parachute like colonizers into a strange new land. They do not exoticize and commodify others for personal and commercial gain.

Rather, the authors have lived the flesh-and-blood history of Japanese Americans for generations. They claim our stories and ancestral memories without apology. They always have been there to bear witness.

Veteran journalist Frank Abe (resisters.com) is director of the PBS film “Conscience and the Constitution” and an American Book Award winner for “John Okada: The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy.”

Tamiko Nimura (tamikonimura.net), a Sansei and Pinay, is a literary and ethnic-studies scholar from the University of Washington who tells stories of people of color.

Ross Ishikawa (rossishikawa.com) is a young, Seattle-based animator working on a graphic novel on his parents during World War II. And Seattle-based Matt Sasaki (mattsasaki.com) is the artist of “Fighting for America: Nisei Soldiers.”

At the heart of “We Hereby Refuse” are age-old questions that are more relevant than ever. Who are we as Americans? How do we define true patriotism? And what role does political dissent play in our nation?

When the U.S. government forced 110,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps during World War II, a cadre of resisters at Tule Lake and other sites fought the incarceration and the Army draft of Japanese Americans.

Their stories are not as well-known as the legendary “Go for Broke” 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion of all-Nisei combat troops. But their place in U.S. democracy as political dissenters is equally important.

“We Hereby Refuse” highlights the bold stands of three iconic Japanese American resisters of that era:

Jim Akutsu, a draft resister and the inspiration for Okada’s groundbreaking novel “No-No Boy.” Hiroshi Kashiwagi, a late poet, actor and playwright who was forced to renounce his U.S. citizenship but later regained it. And Mitsuye Endo, who challenged her incarceration in a landmark case in the U.S. Supreme Court.

While not as famed as other historic civil-rights figures, the three belong in the pantheon of American political dissenters who rose up for the rights of all.

For educators and parents who seek first-rate literature for youths and young adults, “We Hereby Refuse” makes a valuable teaching tool amid the raging debate over ethnic studies and the culture wars.

The book is not a left-wing or right-wing diatribe, but a balanced account that will lead to dialogue on the failings and strengths of U.S. democracy.

Legal scholars call the WWII incarceration the greatest violation of civil rights in U.S. history. Yet, Japanese American resisters armed themselves with their fragile constitutional rights and artistic freedom to battle persecution. Their heroic stands are a lesson, a moral North Star, for Americans of all faiths.

For readers who love graphic novels, “We Hereby Refuse” joins a growing number of titles that address timely social-justice issues and other volatile topics ignored in earlier eras. Disney and Dr. Seuss it ain’t.

The book’s message is even more critical today, when civil rights and immigrants’ rights remain under fierce attack. “It happened to us,” the co-authors write. “We refuse to let it happen again.”

As democracies erode worldwide, “We Hereby Refuse” speaks truth to power for young readers of all colors and creeds. It is a moving tribute to the Japanese American resisters, and an urgent call to carry on their spirit.

Edward Iwata is a California-based journalist, a former USA Today business writer and former co-director of Stanford University’s Okada House, an ethnic theme residence hall that offers programs on Asian American topics.

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