In Nisei Daughter, author Monica Sone likens her dual identity as a Japanese-American to having two heads. Not only is she distinctly different from other Americans (at a far less racially tolerant time), but her life brings together two radically different cultures which require her to wrestle with each aspect of her identity, which she finally resolves in adulthood.
From the outset, Sone (then named Kazuko Itoi) makes clear that she feels American and found her Japanese identity embarrassing or inconvenient as a child. At age six, her first encounter with her heritage is negative; forced to attend Japanese school after her regular schooling, she laments: “Terrible, terrible, terrible! So that’s what it meant to be Japanese – to lose my afternoon play hours!” (Sone 4) Generally accepted in her clamorous, working-class waterfront neighborhood, Kazuko makes clear from the start that racial identity matters little, and she does not understand racial identity until it is imposed on her.
Japanese school underscores the duality of Kazuko’s life by teaching not only Japan’s language but also its behavior, requiring her to act one way there and another way elsewhere. She explains, “I found myself switching my personality back and forth like a chameleon. At Bailey Gatzert School, I was a jumping, screaming, roustabout Yankee, but at the stroke of three . . . I suddenly became a modest, faltering, earnest little Japanese girl with a small, timid voice” (Sone 22). She considers herself an American and chafes at the strict Japanese discipline, claiming that “I was too much the child of Skidrow” (Sone 28); her rowdy American behavior clashes with her ancestral culture, which mandates silence and deference.
She and her family, which operates a Skid Row hotel, are already outsiders because of their Japanese ancestry, but living on Seattle’s rough waterfront (replete with itinerant laborers and hard drinkers) during the 1920s and 1930s further underscores this. While her father has assimilated to some degree in order to run his business – Sone claims, “being oriental had never been an urgent problem to us, being in Skidrow” (Sone 113) – her mother has not. She speaks only minimal, broken English and occasionally embarrasses Kazuko, such as when she has an awkward conversation with Kazuko’s teacher and when she accidentally ends up at a party for the Japanese consul instead of at the theater to meet her children). In addition, they hear occasional racial slurs from neighborhood drunks, and Seattle’s corrupt police try to frame Kazuko’s father for bootlegging simply on a white drunkard’s word.
In addition, the Itoi family is outsiders in Japan, despite being ethnically Japanese, because their language and manners are foreign. While visiting her paternal grandparents (who, because of strict immigration laws, are barred from entering the United States), Kazuko finds her ancestral land foreign (her father admits they are not “real Japanese”) and people there treat her as an alien. She comments, “I had been impressed . . . but I had felt I was an alien among them” (Sone 108); if she was two-headed in Seattle, she is an even stranger creature here because she is culturally and behaviorally different, more assertive and outspoken than traditional Japanese females. She finds even less acceptance here than in America; her older cousin treats her disdainfully (for which Kazuko slaps her), and local children jump her and her brother Henry, who fight back with surprising tenacity. Some comments, “we knew this was no ordinary fight. The land where we were born was being put to a test” (Sone 98), underscoring how she and the “real Japanese” see her and foreshadowing the war that comes over a decade later.
Aside from some small incidents, Kazuko does not recount a childhood scarred by bitter prejudice. The incidents become more frequent and obvious, as she grows older, such as when her parents try to rent a seaside cottage for the summer. With one kind exception, no whites dare to rent to them; most avoid explaining why, though one says bluntly, “I’m sorry, but we don’t want Japs around here,” which feels to Kazuko like a blow (Sone 114). As Japanese-American relations decay, she becomes even more a scapegoat, and the burden of being “two-headed” becomes much heavier: “Gradually I learned in many other ways the terrible curse that went with having Japanese blood. . . . Japan and the United States were no longer seeing eye to eye, and we felt the repercussions in our daily lives” (Sone 118).
Japan’s invasion of China turns the local Japanese from foreigners to pariahs, and her family’s peers become divided about America; one even leaves the United States for Japan, where he is foreign but can at least find suitable work without racism. Sone describes in detail how it felt to have prejudice (which she had rarely felt as a child) closing in on her as a teenager, and she finds the demure silence she is taught to assume a growing burden: “Something compellingly Japanese made me feel it was better to seem stupid in a quiet way. . . . I envied my fellow students who clamored to be heard” (Sone 131). Stricken with tuberculosis, she learns to become more open and assertive when housed with white patients, who coax her out of her culturally-induced shell.
The burden of her dual identity culminates in the wake of Pearl Harbor, when Japanese Americans were blamed as a group for the attack. Sone recalls, “An old wound opened up again, and I found myself shrinking inwardly from my Japanese blood, the blood of an enemy” (Sone 146). Already ambivalent about her ethnicity and feeling far more American than Japanese, Kazuko sees her already-precarious world turn to chaos; the FBI harasses local Japanese, they are forced to destroy their Japanese items, and Executive Order 9066 forces the Itoi family into campus at Puyallup, Washington, and later Minidoka, Idaho. The duality has become unbearable – “Once more I felt like a two-headed freak, a Japanese and an American, neither of which seemed to be doing me any good” (Sone 158-159).
At the end, she achieves some degree of peace with her identities. After a year’s internment, Kazuko is released to attend college in Indiana (her siblings leave camp as well, leaving only her parents, still classified as enemy aliens) and she gradually puts it into perspective. Once ashamed of (and confined by) her ancestry, she realizes the sacrifices her immigrant Issei parents made and tells her mother, “It’s really nice to be born into two cultures, like getting a real bargain in life. . . . I used to feel like a two-headed monstrosity, but now I find that two heads are better than one” (Sone 236). Education, maturity, and pride in the face of adversity lead Kazuko to forgive America its transgression against Japanese Americans and to let go of her ambivalence and bitterness. Her identity is no longer inconvenient or confining for her, but enriching. She ends with optimism: “I was going back into [America’s] main stream, still with my Oriental eyes, but with an entirely different outlook, for now I felt more like a whole person instead of a sadly split personality” (Sone 238).
Throughout Nisei Daughter, one finds a theme of being an outsider and ultimately seeking peace with the mainstream. Throughout her childhood, Sone moves from considering her identity an inconvenience (for non-racial reasons) to becoming more sensitive to how her culture set her apart from other Americans, and later to feelings of betrayal and ultimate acceptance of who she is. As an adult, she assesses her experiences and finds that having a dual identity has given her a perspective and pride that few others can share, and she is able to let go of any resentments at the racism she experienced. The book’s title, though in reference to herself, also mentions her role as daughter – not only to her parents, but also to an ancestral culture that she finally learns to balance with her American self, appreciate for how it has shaped her, and accept as something more than a hindrance.
Sone, Monica. Nisei Daughter. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979.