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Book Review


Yasutaro (Keiho) Soga, Life Behind Barbed Wire: The World War II Internment Memoirs of a Hawai'i Issei. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008; 255. $26.00 (paperback).

     The publication of Yasutaro Soga's Life Behind Barbed Wire, which had originally been released in Japanese in 1948 as Tessaku Seikatsu, is indicative of a dramatic swell of interest in World War II-era internment over the past several years. Brian Masaru Hayashi's Democratizing the Enemy (2004), Stephen Fox's Fear Itself (2005), and Alice Yang Murray's Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress (2008) are just three examples of recent scholarly monographs that take internment as their primary object of study. Hardly limited to the academic sphere, the internment research boom has been spearheaded by state and federal politicians, whose efforts prompted then-President George W. Bush to sign off on a bill in 2006 authorizing $38 million of federal funds to preserve the entire internment camp system. At the same time, citizens groups in Wyoming, Utah, and Hawai'i have seized the initiative by taking steps to protect and even restore the remains of previously neglected camp structures. The question that remains is what is fueling this growing awareness of wartime internment. Clearly, a generation of Japanese Americans who came of age in the wake of the civil rights movement has pressed the state to acknowledge and rectify the abuses suffered by their parents and grandparents in the 1940s. To this can be added the simple passage of time, and the growing pressure to catalog the testimony of aging camp survivors before their time has passed. However, one must also wonder whether the events of 9/11, coupled with two protracted wars in the Middle East, have provoked anxiety over the prospect of internment anew on American soil, sparking a reexamination of our nation's recent past.

     Life Behind Barbed Wire effectively complicates the dominant narrative of the Japanese American internment experience. While the majority of academic studies on internment have focused on Nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans, Soga's narrative provides his readers with fascinating insights into the mentalities of the less numerous Issei, or first-generation Japanese immigrants, the majority of whom were Japanese citizens during their period of internment. Furthermore, as a Hawaiian resident, Soga's experience differed greatly from Japanese Americans on the continent. Specifically, President Franklin Roosevelt's February 1942 Executive Order 9066, which provided the impetus for the forced relocation of 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, had little if any impact on the lives Japanese Hawaiians living under martial law in the middle of a war zone. Whereas mainland Japanese received their marching orders in the spring of 1942, Soga and other preselected Japanese nationals in Hawai'i were greeted at their homes by armed military policemen on the very evening of December 7, 1941, less than twelve hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor (25). Soga's "Pacific Ocean paradise" was thus transformed into a living "hell" in an instant (26). In Hawai'i, practical demographic concerns precluded the blanket internment witnessed on the mainland, as Nikkei (people of Japanese descent) constituted 37% of the total population. On the other hand, since measures in Hawai'i almost exclusively targeted male community leaders, for the 2,392 total Japanese Hawaiian detainees, internment meant being ripped apart from their families for years on end, typically separated by the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean (10-11).

     Readers will immediately recognize that Life Behind Barbed Wire is a far more dependable historical source than the typical published memoirs, for a variety of reasons. First of all, the translation and republication of Soga's original text is actually the result of a collaborative academic undertaking. Kihei Hirai translated the original manuscript from Japanese into English, while Dennis M. Ogawa of the University of Hawai'i and Tetsuden Kashima of the University of Washington crafted the foreword and introduction, which help situate the author's individual internment experience in a broader historical framework. It is also important to point out that Yasutaro Soga was a writer by trade. At the time of his incarceration in 1941, the sixty-eight year-old Soga had been the managing editor of Nippu Jiji—a local semiweekly newspaper—for thirty-five years. The author's journalistic expertise is self-evident throughout the narrative, and readers will be struck by the detailed complexities with which Soga observed and recorded the events unfolding around him. He is not without his prejudices, as evidenced by his repeated complaints about Jews based largely on hearsay (83, 99, 136). Nevertheless, and despite his unabashed support for imperial Japan, the author is not loath to acknowledge the benevolence of his American captors (117).

     Rather than resorting to a discourse of victimization and resentment, Soga presents his fellow Issei prisoners as men intent on preserving their Japanese culture, heritage, and pride. He traces his own five-year odyssey away from his wife and children, as he was shuttled between three separate detention centers: from a military installation on Sand Island in Honolulu Harbor to a War Department facility in Lordsburg, New Mexico, and then to a Justice Department internment camp in Santa Fe. The facilities on the mainland were far superior to those found on Sand Island, featuring libraries, canteens, baseball fields, tennis courts, and even golf courses. However, the camps' barbed-wire fences and watchtowers served as omnipresent reminders of the loss of freedom, as prisoners anxiously awaited the arrival of letters from family members, which Soga describes as the "greatest source of happiness for an internee" (111). Displays of Japanese cultural identity and patriotism, taking the form of sumo tournaments, noh theatrical performances, tanka poetry, and the celebration of national holidays, allowed interned Issei to "eradicate that interminable sadness hiding somewhere in [their] hearts" (104). Such activities, which included applause for Japanese military victories, the singing of the Japanese national anthem, and enthusiastic banzai cheers, were generally permitted by the camp guards, with the notable exception of an attempt (on the part of POWs) to hoist a Japanese flag in honor of the Meiji Emperor's birthday (103).

     Although Soga emphasizes journalistic objectivity at the expense of emotional self-discovery, his memoirs can serve as a valuable resource for educators working at either the high school or collegiate levels. Life Behind Barbed Wire could be used to examine discrimination in an Asian American Studies course, to discuss international law and human rights in a Political Science or International Studies course, or to explore the tensions of captivity in a course on internment literature. The text is saturated with themes and concepts that call out for transnational comparisons with other internment, POW, or concentration camp experiences. For instance, the author reveals an assortment of differences that divided Japanese internees into factions, not only along Issei/Nisei lines, but according to their religious beliefs, family origins, national loyalties, date of arrival, or prior place of residence (since the New Mexico camps housed Japanese shipped in from Latin America and Hawai'i). Teachers might also choose to focus on the destruction of nuclear families, the sudden loss of liberty, or the process of dehumanization, made visible through the assignment of identification numbers, tiresome roll calls, and clothes stamped with numbers in white paint. At the same time, readers can appreciate the Japanese internees' struggle to maintain their human dignity and national pride, either by contrasting themselves against German and Italian captives, running a camp newspaper, keeping pets, or holding handicraft exhibitions for local residents. Finally, educators can complement Soga's written testimony with a virtual tour and a vast collection of photographs available on the website of the Manzanar National Historic Site ( With this powerful combination of resources, we can help our students understand how internees like Yasutaro Soga learned to find happiness in small things—a full stomach, a hot shower, clean clothes, or a letter from home—and ignite their curiosity about (and concern for) what goes on behind barbed wire and closed doors around the world today.

Alan Rosenfeld is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Hawai'i – West O'ahu. He can be contacted at


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