Now that we're afraid of foreigners again, this book comes as a timely warning of what can happen when we give in to paranoia as national policy. Some politicians, such as the mayor of Roanoke, Va., have mentioned our creation of internment camps during World War II as a good example of what we should do now.
Victor, Mary, Harry, Frank and Pierce Fukuhara were born in the 1920s to Japanese immigrants near Seattle. Victor and Mary were sent to Japan in early childhood, while the three younger boys grew up with an American education. Although the sons were citizens, their parents were legally excluded from citizenship; nor could they own land.
After her husband died in 1933, Kinu Fukuhara took her three sons back to her hometown near Hiroshima, where it was cheaper to live. But Mary returned to the U.S., as did Harry in 1938, settling in California.
Prejudice against anyone who looked Japanese was widespread, especially on the West Coast. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, it was quickly institutionalized further.
The FBI started rounding up Japanese "subversives," and in February 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order giving military commanders the authority to remove suspect populations, alien and citizen, from any area.
In March, another executive order created the War Relocation Authority to construct and manage 10 concentration camps across the U.S. that imprisoned about 120,000 ethnic Japanese in harsh and crowded conditions.
One of those prisoners was Harry Fukuhara, who ended up in a camp at Gila River near Phoenix.
Soon Army recruiters came looking for Japanese speakers to interrogate prisoners and translate captured documents; Harry joined the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section and was sent to its headquarters in Brisbane, Australia. From there, he went to various South Pacific islands, where he witnessed bloody combat and endured tropical diseases.
Until the end of the war, there were hardly any prisoners to interrogate because Japanese soldiers had orders to die rather than surrender. Harry and the other translators needed bodyguards to ward off trigger-happy GIs mistaking them for the enemy.
Meanwhile, Frank and Pierce were called up by the Japanese army, and Kinu lived in ever deteriorating circumstances as the war dragged on.
Alternating chapters cover the different sorts of hardship the American Harry and his Japanese brothers faced, often in mind-numbing detail. Sakamoto is one of those dutiful and rather plodding writers who can't bear not using every bit of research.
The war — and shortly after, the book — ends with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is a well-told episode, experienced by Victor and Kinu, of the devastation of the blast itself and the radioactive black rain that followed.
Harry returned to California, where prejudice had hardly abated. The only outfit that would hire him was the military. He re-enlisted in 1947 and spent the rest of his working life in Japan serving as a liaison between the U.S. and Japanese armies.
It seems to me a satisfying way finally to reconcile two heritages and two identities.
Brigitte Frase is a book critic in Minneapolis and a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Nona Balakian Citation for excellence in reviewing.