Daniel James Brown’s Facing the Mountain, A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II, is the rich telling of the plight faced by Japanese Americans during WWII.
Just as he did in his highly successful Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown brings a cultural cadre of young men to life in Facing the Mountain, intimately connecting the reader with their aspirations, their dreams, and their disillusions. This time, however, Brown’s subject is not the Olympics and the pursuit of gold medals. Rather, it is the much more serious plight faced by Japanese Americans during World War II and the particular dilemmas faced by the Nisei, sons of Japanese immigrants who loved America and who found their lives uprooted after December 7, 1941.
Brown picks a handful of men coming of age when they must make defining decisions about their lives. Kats Miho, for example, grew up in Hawaii. When war broke out, his parents were successful hoteliers and he was an ROTC student at the University of Hawaii. Almost immediately, Kats’ Japanese-born father was shipped to an internment camp in Oklahoma. Kats, stripped of his ROTC status because of his race, was devastated. Fred Shiosaki’s family owned a prosperous laundry just outside of Spokane, Washington. Rudy Tokiwa’s parents were successful farmers in California’s Steinbeck country, although they didn’t own the land they leased. Because they didn’t live near the coast, the Shiosakis were allowed to keep their business; the Tokiwas weren’t so lucky. They lost everything and spent the war years interred in inhospitable Arizona heat. These families, all ill-treated by the U.S. Government, had much to resent. But when that same government decided to conscript the Nisei, their sons readily volunteered for combat duty. Gordon Hirabayashi, a student at the University of Washington, refused. He spent much of the war in federal prison, arguing that it was unconstitutional to incarcerate Japanese Americans while at the same time insisting their sons join the war effort.
Facing the Mountain is an account of racism, but it is also the story of heroism. Gordon, who fought the legal system all the way to the Supreme Court, was one kind of hero. Kats, Fred, Rudy, and many others in Brown’s pages were the heroes of war. They joined the Army and served with distinction in Italy, France, and Germany. In fact, the men of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, comprised solely of Americans of Japanese descent, were among the most decorated heroes of World War II. “Just over 0.11 percent of the U.S. military force, [they] earned 4.4 percent of the Medals of Honor.” Through two excruciating chapters, Brown retraces their bravery and all they endured. He spends time extoling their chaplains, too, men like Hiro Higuchi whose emotional letters to his wife probe deeply into the traumas of battle.
I only have space to mention a few of the young men Brown follows, although these are among the most prominent. I might also draw attention to another dimension of Facing the Mountain, though. Brown truly individualizes the men’s experiences. Those from Hawaii, who had never faced much prejudice and who had no idea about life in the stateside internment camps, were much more happy-go-lucky than those from the mainland who had suffered prejudice throughout their youths and whose immediate families were suffering even more. A chapter titled “Kotonks and Buddaheads” (mainland Nisei and Hawaiians) examines their conflicting attitudes, as well as their interactions with one another.
In sum, Facing the Mountain pays homage to a segment of American citizenry treated badly by our government, but whose philosophical and ethical heritage served them well. I finished the book with a sense of Nisei strength and Issei (their Japanese-born parents) perseverance. I remember my mother telling me more than once how badly she felt about the way Japanese Americans had been treated. She grew up in the Kent Valley in Washington state at a time when it was filled with Japanese truck farmers and long before it was paved over by Boeing. She loved her playmates, wondered what had happened to them, and always regretted not taking more of a political stand when the U.S. government forced so many of their families into euphemistic “relocations.” Readers of Facing the Mountain will feel that regret, too, as Brown’s pages so poignantly portray. – Ann Ronald
Also published by Daniel James Brown: Escape to the Tatras: A Boy, A War, A Life Interrupted; The Indifferent Stars Above; Under A Flaming Sky; The Boys in The Boat; Those Who Inherit the Will of The Damned.
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