Nisei Daughter

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Nisei Daughter



Monica Sone's Nisei Daughter is a memoir about growing up as a Japanese American in the United States prior to and during World War II. The author, born on American soil to Japanese immigrant parents, is a Nisei, or second-generation Japanese American. Herparents, as first-generation Japanese immigrants to America, are considered Issei. Being born in the United States meant that a Nisei was an American citizen, but strict immigration laws prevented any Issei from becoming citizens until long after World War II.

Nisei found themselves torn between their Japanese ancestry and their thoroughly American lifestyles. They often had to serve as cultural or linguistic interpreters for their Issei parents, many of whom had not fully mastered the English language or American customs. Nisei were often criticized by Japanese nationals for abandoning their roots, yet they were unable to fully assimilate into the American mainstream thanks to widespread fear and prejudice toward the Japanese during the first half of the twentieth century.

As World War II approached, both generations of Japanese Americans faced especially harsh persecution along the West Coast, where most had established roots. Sone recounts her experiences as a young Nisei in Seattle in the years leading up to and shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. She chronicles the virtual loss of her rights as an American citizen and her family's forced relocation to an internment camp in Idaho. Nevertheless, Nisei Daughter is hardly a bitter or accusatory book. Instead, it focuses on one family's strength in the face of adversity, and their willingness to sacrifice for the benefit of the country they love.

Although readers often focus on the book's depiction of Japanese relocation and internment during World War II, Sone was also one of the first authors to offer a detailed view of day-to-day life as a Japanese American in the 1920s and 1930s. It is through these mundane interactions that Sone illustrates the process of assimilation, wherein members of a minority group adopt the behaviors and attitudes of the majority population among which they live. In Nisei Daughter, the issue of assimilation becomes especially complex. While most Nisei make great efforts to assimilate, a significant segment of the American population seems to resist, and even thwart, these efforts.

While Nisei Daughter was not particularly successful when it was originally published in 1953, renewed interest in the matter of Japanese internment resulted in a 1979 reprint edition through the University of Washington Press. This edition has spawned the book's widespread popularity, and it is often assigned as required reading in many classes dealing with multicultural issues in America.



Monica Sone was born Kazuko Monica Itoi in Seattle in 1919. Like many Nisei, her name was a bridge between her Japanese past and her American future: Kazuko is Japanese for "peace," while Monica is the name of St. Augustine's mother. She spent her childhood helping her parents run the Carrollton Hotel on Seattle's Skid Row. In 1942, she and her entire family were forced into a Japanese internment camp in Puyallup, Washington. The family was eventually relocated, along with hundreds of others, to Camp Minidoka in Idaho, where many Japanese Americans remained until 1946.

Sone was released from internment in 1943 to work in Chicago as a dental assistant. She eventually returned to college (which she had begun before internment) in Indiana, studying clinical psychology. She married another Nisei, Geary Sone, and the two eventually settled in Canton, Ohio. As of 2006, Nisei Daughter remains the only book Sone has written.


Chapter I: A Shocking Fact of Life

Sone—referred to throughout the book by her first name, Kazuko—begins Nisei Daughter with the moment, at the age of six, that she first realizes she has Japanese ancestry. Before that, she notes that she lived "in amoebic bliss, not knowing whether I was plant or animal," in her family's low-rent hotel on Seattle's Skid Row. She and her older brother Henry are indifferent to the revelation until they learn that their parents have enrolled them in Japanese school, which they must attend every day after grammar school. Kazuko and Henry protest, but they know it will do no good.

The author then tells how her parents came to the United States. Her father, a law student from Tochigi-ken politely referred to as Mr. Itoi, sails to America in 1904 with dreams of continuing his law studies in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He arrives in Seattle and takes a string of odd jobs to save money for his journey to Michigan; eventually, he gives up his dream of Ann Arbor and becomes a business owner in Seattle. Soon after, the author's mother, Benko, arrives in America with her family. Mr. Itoi is impressed by Benko and her sisters; through a go-between, he first asks for the hand of Benko's sister Yasuko. When he learns that Yasuko is spoken for, he asks about Benko. With some persuasion, Benko agrees to marry Mr. Itoi.

The two work together to run a dry-cleaning business until their first child, Henry Seichi, is born. At that time, Mr. Itoi sells the business and buys the Carrollton Hotel, a "flea-ridden" place along the economically decaying Skid Row. The couple improves the hotel as much as they can but still relies on a working-class clientele of "sea-hardened mariners, shipyard workers, airplane workers, fruit pickers and factory workers." A year after buying the hotel, the couple's second child, Kazuko Monica, is born. Brother Kenji William and sister Sumiko follow later.

Kazuko has fond memories of growing up in the Carrollton, where her family sets aside several of the rooms for use as their own living quarters. Skid Row is her childhood playground, with its union office, Salvation Army, and forbidden burlesque house. Upon entering grammar school, a whole new world opens up to Kazuko: a world of people her own age of many different races. Still, she has trouble reconciling her Japanese ancestry with her thoroughly American attitudes.

Chapter II: The Stubborn Twig

Kazuko and Henry attend their first day of Nihon Gakko, or Japanese school. Upon being introduced to Mr. Ohashi, the principal, Kazuko and Henry are immediately reprimanded for not bowing properly. Despite her resistance, Kazuko soon starts to enjoy her Japanese schooling. Her experience there is quite unlike her days at grammar school, and she even notices that her personality and behavior differ dramatically between the two. While at Japanese school, Kazuko learns to read and write in Japanese and also learns the finer points of Japanese manners and etiquette.

Kazuko and her fellow Japanese students all dislike a boy named Genji Yamada. He is a star pupil, primarily because his parents sent him to Japan when he was young to become immersed in Japanese culture. Now, back in the United States, he is "a stranger among us with stiff mannerisms and an arrogant attitude." His posture is always perfect, and his Japanese writing is beautiful. He is Mr. Ohashi's pride.

There are several workers at the Carrollton Hotel that the Itois consider a part of their family. Sam, "a tall, rugged, blue-eyed retired mariner with a photographic mind," runs a dormitory owned by the Itois next to the hotel. Joe, "a portly, cheerful man with a tiny black mustache," works as a night watchman at the hotel and becomes Mr. Itoi's good friend. Peter, "a soft-spoken, gentle old Bohemian," eventually takes charge of a second dormitory for the family. Montana, "over six feet tall with a tightly curled, black beard growing rampant down over his faded flannel shirt," works as a bouncer at the hotel. One night, when a disgruntled guest calls Mr. Itoi a "Jap," Montana literally picks the man up and tosses him down the exit stairs.

Unfortunately, even Montana cannot protect the family from corrupt policemen. One night, as the family eats dinner, two police officers visit and accuse Mr. Itoi of selling bootleg alcohol. They offer to forget about the accusation if Mr. Itoi pays them fifty dollars. He refuses, and they take him to jail. At the trial, the alleged witness in the case incorrectly identifies another man as Mr. Itoi, and all charges are dismissed.

Chapter III: An Unpredictable Japanese Lady

After attending a children's talent show, Kazuko decides she wants to become a dancer. Her father refuses, believing all American dancers to be lewd and skimpily dressed. Still, Kazuko volunteers to create a dance routine for a Christmas program at grammar school; she secures her father's approval by portraying a fully dressed clown. Even though the performance is well received, Kazuko realizes that dance is not for her.

Kazuko's mother is more accepting of American ways than her father but still has her own struggles. Her main hurdle is the language. Once, while speaking to Kazuko's teacher, she accidentally says that she is Kazuko's "big sister" and refers to a dress she made for Kazuko as "lousy" instead of "loud." Another time, while attending a Mickey Mouse Club meeting, Mrs. Itoi is mistaken for the wife of the Japanese consul without even realizing it; she is whisked away and treated like a dignitary while Kazuko and her younger sister Sumiko fear their mother has gotten lost.

Chapter IV: The Japanese Touch

Although Kazuko and her family celebrate most of the same holidays as white Americans, there is the special holiday for Japanese called Tenchosetsu, or the Japanese Emperor's birthday. For this celebration, Japanese gather together to ceremoniously view a picture of the emperor; it is the only time an image of the emperor can be shown. Kazuko and the other Japanese American children she knows endure the ceremony because their parents demand it, even though the children, having been born in the United States, are all American citizens.

Another more enjoyable event for Kazuko is the annual picnic sponsored by the Nihon Gakko. For this occasion, the entire Japanese American community shows up at Jefferson Park to celebrate with food, games, and traditional folk songs. Mothers cook huge meals and share their food with other families, like a potluck; the children participate in the sort of games and contests common at other American picnics, like a three-legged race and a baseball tournament.

The New Year's holiday for the Itoi family is a mix of Japanese and American traditions. On New Year's Eve, Kazuko's mother makes everyone take a bath so that they can "greet the new year clean and refreshed in body and spirit." They gather together to play a Japanese card game until midnight, when they turn on the radio and sing along to "Auld Lang Syne." They forego the traditional New Year's Day breakfast of ozoni, a thick chicken stew, but must still attend a formal Japanese get-together that tests the children's ability to remain polite.

Chapter V: We Meet Real Japanese

In the spring, the Itoi family takes a ship to visit Mr. Itoi's family in Japan. The children are all excited except for the youngest son, Kenji, who is afraid of the deadly earthquakes that happen there. The children, dressed in American clothing, feel like outsiders; the local Japanese children make it worse by shouting "American-jin!" and throwing rocks at the house where they stay. One morning, Kazuko and Henry are ambushed by several local boys and start to fight. Kazuko feels a special need to defend the name of America: "The land where we were born was being put to a test." A maid puts a stop to the fight, but Henry has won respect from the Japanese boys, who later invite him to join them fishing.

Shortly before they plan to leave Japan, Kenji and Henry both become ill with dysentery, an intestinal disorder that often proves fatal. Henry survives, but young Kenji does not. Once Henry has sufficiently recovered, the family returns to the United States.

Chapter VI: We Are Outcasts

Back in America, Sumiko develops a worsening asthma condition. Mr. and Mrs. Itoi decide to rent a summer house near the beach, hoping that it will improve Sumiko's health. Kazuko and her mother drive to Alki Beach to search for a rental property. They find the perfect house, but when they talk to the owner, they are told that the place has just been rented to someone else. As they continue to search, they hear the same story: either the rent is much too high or the house is suddenly unavailable. Finally, one woman is honest enough to tell them the truth: "I'm sorry, but we don't want Japs around here."

The family settles for a small apartment near Lake Washington looked after by a Scandinavian couple named the Olsens. They are quite sympathetic to Japanese Americans and have many as tenants. Still, anti-Japanese sentiment runs high in the western United States. As the Japanese national army is a quickly developing military power in Asia, Japanese Americans are openly denied service in stores and other businesses, while newspapers carry grotesque cartoons stereotyping Japanese people. Many Nisei, like Kazuko, have an especially hard time accepting such treatment since they are full citizens of the United States. They endure it because they do not want to leave their beloved homeland and because they believe it will soon pass.

Chapter VII: Paradise Sighted

On her last day of grammar school, Kazuko receives a picture from a boy named Haruo. He is handsome and seems to be interested in Kazuko, but her parents strictly forbid her from dating. At the same time, one of Henry's friends, Kazuo, becomes a regular visitor to the Itoi home. Kazuo is American, but he spent much of his time growing up in Japan; he often boasts about how Japan's military could defeat America's military. Annoyed at his arrogance, Kazuko tells Kazuo she hates him and hopes never to see him again. He leaves and does not return. Henry is upset and tells Kazuko that the main reason Kazuo kept visiting was to see her. Years later, she sees Kazuo again. He is more subdued, having learned that Nisei girls do not respond to the arrogant posturing he learned in Japan. Kazuko exchanges letters with Haruo for two years, but she sees him only at the annual Japanese school picnic. Finally, they are at last set to be in the same class at Nihon Gakko. Haruo takes a seat next to her, and everything seems perfect. Then, when they rise to bow to their instructor, they both realize that Kazuko stands a full head taller than Haruo. From that point on, the relationship is doomed.

Eventually, Kazuko graduates from high school and excitedly prepares for college. Her father, sensing the mounting tensions between Japan and the United States, suggests that she attend business school first, "so you can step into a job and be independent, just in case." Kazuko does not want to attend business school, but she feels she must abide by her parents' request. She decides to complete the two years of business school in a single year so she can get to college sooner. She finishes business school ahead of schedule, but then suffers a devastating bout of tuberculosis. She is hospitalized for nine months while she recovers from the dangerous disease. When she is released, she sees that her family has bought a lovely new house on Beacon Hill. She also finds that her brother Henry is engaged to his girlfriend, Minnie.

Chapter VIII: Pearl Harbor Echoes in Seattle

On December 7, 1941, as Kazuko, Henry, and Sumiko rehearse for a church choir Christmas program, they learn that the Japanese have bombed the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Shocked and frightened, the family gathers at home and listens to the radio for additional news. Mr. Itoi dismisses the reports as American propaganda until he hears the same information on a Japanese shortwave radio broadcast.

Japanese men in the United States and Hawaii are promptly rounded up for questioning. The government freezes the bank assets of Japanese nationals like Mr. and Mrs. Itoi; Mrs. Itoi prepares a suitcase for her husband, dreading the day FBI agents will knock on their door and lead him away. The family destroys many of the Japanese artifacts in their house, fearful that they will be mistaken for loyalist spies. In February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, which allows the War Department to remove people of Japanese ancestry from any area they deemed necessary. The Itoi family, like all other Japanese American families along the West Coast, is ordered to dispose of its property, homes, and businesses, and to report to a relocation center. Mr. Itoi searches for someone to care for his business in his absence so he will not lose it.

Chapter IX: Life in Camp Harmony

As evacuation day approaches, Mr. Itoi arranges for someone to manage his hotel. On April 21, they receive the official word: all people of Japanese ancestry in Seattle will be relocated to a temporary camp in Puyallup, Washington, by May 1. Each person is allowed to bring one seabag and two suitcases; they pack only the essentials, like winter clothes, sheets, blankets, and eating utensils. Mrs. Itoi also sneaks a gallon of soy sauce, figuring it will be hard to come by. The Itoi family is officially registered as Family Number 10710, and they are transported by bus to the Washington state fairgrounds in Puyallup. They pass long rows of what look like chicken houses. Someone on the bus notes, "They sure go in for poultry in a big way here." Then they realize that these are not chicken houses—these are their new homes, known collectively as "Camp Harmony."

The five members of the Itoi family share a single room about eighteen by twenty feet. It is bare except for a small wood-burning stove, and individual army cots that are distributed later. The walls do not extend all the way to the ceiling, leaving large gaps for sound to travel throughout the barracks. It rains the first night, and they discover that the roof leaks badly; they also discover that Camp Harmony is built on muddy ground. This spawns a trend of wearing getas, or traditional wooden platform shoes, to keep out of the sticky mud.

Joe, the night watchman at the Itois' hotel, visits them at Puyallup. He brings fresh grapefruit, nuts, and candy bars for the family to enjoy. Looking at the wire fences that imprison them in the camp, Joe says, "I don't like it, to see you in here. I don't understand it. I know you all my life. You're my friend."

Kazuko works as a stenographer at the camp's administration office, and Henry, who had been a medical student before the evacuation, gets a job at the camp hospital. This allows him to be closer to his fiancee Minnie, who also works at the hospital. Just as the family settles into camp life, they are told the entire population of the camp will be relocated to Idaho.

Chapter X: Henry's Wedding and a Most Curious Tea Party

The residents of Camp Harmony arrive at their new Idaho home, Camp Minidoka, during the oppressive heat of August. The accommodations are much the same: one room for the whole family to share, only slightly larger than their previous dwelling. Kazuko, Sumiko, Henry, and Minnie all take jobs at the camp hospital, and Mr. Itoi takes a job as one of the camp's internal policemen. The minister who had served the family back in Washington, Reverend Thompson, moves to Idaho to remain with his congregation. The weather turns bitterly cold as winter sets in, and one member of the camp dies from exposure.

Representatives of the War Department visit the camp looking for soldier recruits among the eligible men. The camp members first react with justifiable hostility; however, a sincere military officer explains that he sees this as an opportunity for Japanese Americans to show the rest of America how much they love their country. Henry volunteers and the families decide that he and Minnie will get married before he is shipped out. The families secure passes to leave the camp for the wedding, which is held at Reverend Thompson's apartment. After the wedding, they return to camp for a large reception. The American-style party is confusing to the many Issei attendees and appears to be a complete failure, but the guests finally relax just as it is scheduled to end.

Chapter XI: Eastward, Nisei

After nearly a year of internment, some Nisei are allowed to leave camp for jobs further east. With the help of a friend, Kazuko is invited to live with a pastor in Chicago and work as a dental assistant there. Her host family, the Richardsons, provide her with a warm and loving home. She writes to Sumiko, Minnie, and Henry—who had been rejected for military service due to his poor eyesight—and urges them to try to find placement outside the camp. Soon after, Henry and Minnie get jobs in a hospital in St. Louis, while Sumiko is accepted into the Cadet Nurse's Corps in Long Island. After being treated badly by her employer, Kazuko quits her job as a dental assistant. With the help of the Richardsons, she is able to enroll as a student at Wendell College in Indiana.

Chapter XII: Deeper into the Land

Kazuko thrives in the multicultural environment she finds at Wendell College. She pays for her tuition by working first as a waitress and later as a secretary for one of the professors. During summers, she returns to Chicago to work as a stenographer. She admits, "Father's foresight in persuading me to go to business school was paying off at last."

During her second year of college, she receives a letter from her parents asking her to return to Camp Minidoka for Christmas. She does and spends days recounting her experiences while her parents, in return, update her on happenings within the camp. As she prepares to leave, she tells her parents how they have taught her to be proud of both her Japanese heritage and her American heritage. She no longer feels like a divided person: "The Japanese and American parts of me were now blended into one."



Segregation, or the separation of people based on their ethnicity, race, or culture, is at the heart of Nisei Daughter. The internment camps created by the War Department are designed to separate Japanese Americans from their non-Japanese counterparts. The interned Japanese are forced to leave the communities they know well, and are taken to areas far removed from other human activity.

When a group of people is segregated from the larger society, it generally does not receive access to the same quality of amenities or services as the rest of the population. In Nisei Daughter, each family of internees is required to live in a single room within larger barracks, devoid of insulation or plumbing. Although the internees staff their own schools and medical facilities within the camp, they are routinely denied basic supplies like lumber and tools. For instance, when Henry's fiancée wants to purchase a dress for their upcoming wedding, she must get special permission to leave the camp and visit a nearby town. In these ways, the camps more closely resemble prisons than communities. Even in the face of such treatment, the internees continue life as well as they can manage. Early into the internment, Kazuko's father holds an especially optimistic view of the situation when he notes, "The government gave me the first vacation of my life and no one's going to interfere with it."


Prejudice toward Japanese Americans appears throughout Nisei Daughter. In chapter II, when Mr. Itoi refuses to refund a hotel guest's money after he uses a room for most of the day, the man tells Mr. Itoi that he is a lawyer and will have Mr. Itoi arrested. He assumes that a Japanese immigrant like Mr. Itoi does not know American laws; however, Mr. Itoi—once a law student in Japan—reveals that he is knowledgeable and will not be fooled.

Later, when tensions grow between Japan and the United States, white Americans routinely eye fellow citizen Kazuko with suspicion simply because of her appearance. She observes, "I felt their resentment in a hundred ways—the way a saleswoman in a large department store never saw me waiting at the counter." Before they have even met her, strangers judge her to be in league with the enemy.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, FBI agents raid the home of another Japanese American, Mrs. Matsui. When they cannot find her husband, they assume she is hiding him because he is a spy. After scouring the place, the agents discover that Mr. Matsui had died years before. This sort of widespread prejudice even prompts Chinese Americans to begin wearing badges identifying themselves as Chinese so they will not be mistaken for Japanese.


Nationalism, or devotion to one's own country above all others, is an important theme throughout Nisei Daughter. It is a source of pride, a source of resentment, and a source of conflict.

The Itoi children, even before they are aware of their Japanese ancestry, are proud to be American. "I had always thought I was a Yankee," Kazuko notes of her childhood. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, most Japanese Americans cooperate fully with the government in spite of their persecution, believing that their sacrifice will contribute to the war effort and help the country they love achieve victory. However, after being placed in internment camps, some Japanese Americans become understandably resentful. When a War Department representative visits the Minidoka camp and asks for volunteers to fight in a Japanese combat unit, the reaction is initially negative. As one young man puts it, "First they change my army status … because of my ancestry, run me out of town, and now they want me to volunteer for a suicide squad so I could get killed for this damn democracy." Still, many young men eager to prove their loyalty to the United States—including Kazuko's brother Henry—volunteer for the unit.

Misguided nationalism is also undoubtedly one factor motivating the white Americans who call for the internment of Japanese along the West Coast. They believe that the presence of these immigrants from the land of the enemy poses a direct threat to national security, though the author notes that "there had not been a single case of sabotage committed by a Japanese living in Hawaii or on the Mainland during the Pearl Harbor attack or after."

Nationalism, of course, is not limited to the United States; it also leads to conflict when the Itoi family visits Japan. Native Japanese children, convinced that the Japanese Americans have forsaken their loyalty to Japan, criticize the visitors, vandalize the home where they stay, and ultimately taunt Kazuko and her brother Henry into a fight.


Assimilation is the process by which a minority population integrates itself into the majority population around it. This can mean adopting new habits of social interaction, changing one's diet, and learning another language. In Nisei Daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Itoi embrace all of these changes to some degree. They dress like typical Americans, and in their pantry, rice and soy sauce stand "next to the ivory-painted canisters of flour, sugar, tea and coffee." They use both chopsticks and traditional western tableware.

The Itoi children, having been born in America, assimilate far more quickly and fully than their parents could ever hope to do. On one New Year's Eve, for example, Mrs. Itoi considers making the traditional Japanese holiday meal of buckwheat noodles. The family rejects this idea, and they eat apple pie instead. When Mr. and Mrs. Itoi tell Henry and Kazuko that they will attend Japanese school after regular school each day, Kazuko protests; she does not want to learn about being Japanese because she sees herself as American.

Since the Nisei children have already thoroughly assimilated into American culture, they are shocked by other Americans who view them as foreigners. Though they have done everything possible to fit in, their physical features betray their ancestry to those who seek to exclude them. As S. Frank Miyamoto writes in his introduction to Nisei Daughter, "Thus a Nisei was American, but not truly a part of American society. A Nisei was certainly not Japanese, but Japanese influences seeped into aspects of his character and behavior." They want nothing more than to be seen as American, yet even their own government, at least during World War II, takes an active role in preventing that assimilation.


Japanese Immigrants in America

In 1854, the Treaty of Kanagawa, which allowed for trade with the United States, ended Japan's two hundred years of relative seclusion from foreign trading partners. Within a few decades, many Japanese had relocated to Washington, Oregon, and California to work for railroad companies and other booming industries. This influx became even greater after the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which prohibited Chinese people from entering the United States. Until then, the Chinese had played an important part in the development of many industries along the West Coast.

By 1907, paralleling events with Chinese immigrants decades earlier, West Coast landowners and businessmen called for a halt on all Japanese immigration to the United States. The American and Japanese governments settled on an informal agreement, and Japan stopped issuing passports for new laborers. However, Japanese "picture brides" were still allowed to travel to America to meet their pre-arranged husbands. In 1913, Japanese people were banned from owning land in California after white farmers feared they might be driven out of business. In 1924, all immigration from Japan was officially halted. This ban remained in place until the 1950s.

Japanese and other Asian immigrants were summarily denied the right to citizenship since they did not meet the naturalization requirement of being "free white persons." However, the children of Japanese immigrants born on American soil were automatically recognized as U.S. citizens.

In recent decades, Japanese immigration has fallen well below past levels, with other Asian nationalities appearing in much larger numbers. Although Japanese Americans can be found across the United States—primarily due to the West Coast exodus caused by internment during World War II—the largest established communities are still found in Hawaii, California, Oregon, and Washington.

World War II and the Internment of Japanese Americans

On December 7, 1941, when Japanese bombers attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the United States was home to over one hundred thousand Japanese Americans. The majority of these were full American citizens, born in the United States. (The rest, despite living in the United States for many years, were prohibited by law from becoming citizens.) American military leaders feared that spies operating among them—citizens or not—would cripple their efforts to wage war against Japan.

Despite the fact that his own State Department officials reported no threat from Japanese people on the West Coast, President Franklin Roosevelt was convinced to issue Executive Order 9066. This order allowed the War Department to remove anyone, of any ethnic makeup, from "exclusion zones" that were deemed to be of military significance. The War Department then declared all of California, most of Oregon and Washington, and part of Arizona as an exclusion zone and announced that anyone of Japanese ancestry within the region would be forced to relocate. Hawaii was noticeably absent from the relocation, despite the fact that one-third of its population was Japanese. Some historians claim this is because removing the Japanese from this territory would have been economically devastating to the region.

These Japanese Americans were required to rid themselves of their assets—homes, businesses, and other valuable property—before reporting to their local relocation center. In many cases, the bank assets of Japanese nationals were frozen even before relocation. Internees were frequently held in temporary barracks until more permanent camps were finished in Idaho, Utah, Colorado, California, and other states. The camps offered bare-bones barracks with no insulation or personal plumbing and no appliances or furniture beyond a single wood burning stove in each dwelling. Weather at the camps ranged from extreme heat during the summer to extreme cold during the winter. Most of the internees, having spent their entire lives in temperate West Coast regions, were ill equipped for such conditions. The camps wsurrounded by wire fences monitored by armed guards, and contraband materials such as tools were routinely seized from internees.

By 1943, some college-age Nisei internees were allowed to leave the camps if they could provide proof of an employment offer or acceptance to a college outside the exclusion zone. Several hundred Nisei men volunteered for U.S. military service alongside Japanese volunteers from Hawaii; their unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, became one of the most decorated combat units in American military history. The majority of internees were allowed to return to the West Coast in 1945. Many thousands of these, left with nothing to return to on the West Coast, started new lives in areas throughout the rest of the United States.

The legality of creating an "exclusion zone" (and the subsequent internment camps) was challenged in the 1944 Supreme Court case Korematsu v. United States. The court ruled in favor of the government, pointing out that extreme measures were sometimes necessary in times of war. The case was appealed in 1983, and the ruling was finally reversed. In addition, several U.S. presidents, beginning with Gerald Ford in 1976, acknowledged that the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II was unnecessary and wrong. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that allowed for compensation in the amount of twenty thousand dollars for each living internee who filed a claim. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush approved additional reparation funds and issued a formal apology to all internees.

Several of the former internment camp sites, including the Minidoka camp at which the Itoi family was held, have been marked by historical monuments that aim to educate Americans about this often-overlooked event in their history.


At the time of its initial publication in 1953, Nisei Daughter was one of the only notable memoirs written from a Japanese American perspective. Critics were generally favorable in their discussion of the book. A reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, quoted on the cover of the reprint edition, enthuses "The deepest impression this unaffected, honest little story made on me was one of smiling courage." In "American Uses of Japanese American Memory: How Internment Narratives are 'Put into Discourse,' " Brian Lain quotes Georgianne Sampson's review for the New York Herald Tribune, which calls the book "warmly affecting and entertaining," and notes that it seems to be "composed more with love than with protest."

Still, the book is not without its faults. A reviewer for Newsweek writes that "the book has an unfinished air" and suggests that "it does not do justice to the Japanese or to the Americans" (quoted in Lain). Whatever the reason, sales of the book during its first printing were modest, and the book was quickly forgotten. It was out of print for over twenty-five years before renewed interest in the Japanese American internment brought it back to the public's attention in the late 1970s. The 1979 reprint was issued by the University of Washington Press, and has remained steadily popular ever since. On the Nisei Daughter webpage on the University of Washington Press website, Sone is noted as writing with "charm, humor, and deep understanding." S. Frank Miyamoto, who wrote the introduction to that edition, calls Nisei Daughter a "lively, ingenuous, and charming book." Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide calls the book "ideal … for young adults," and rates it as "highly recommended" (quoted in Lain). Still, some modern readers have expressed the opinion that the book deals too gently with the issue of Japanese American relocation and internment.


Greg Wilson

In the following essay, American popular culture writer Wilson examines Sone's depiction of white Americans in Nisei Daughter and argues that their overly positive portrayal serves to weaken the impact of the internment tragedy in the mind of the reader.

There are precious few literary accounts of the tragedy that befell Japanese Americans at the hands of their own government during World War II. Monica Sone's Nisei Daughter is certainly one of the best-regarded, despite the fact that only about one-fifth of the rather slim book covers the author's own experiences in internment camps in Washington and Idaho. Those looking for a hard-hitting account of this appalling, government-sanctioned impri-sonment may be left unsatisfied for another reason as well: the author's depiction of white Americans—especially during wartime—is surprisingly gentle. In fact, the relative absence of animosity expressed by whites in the book may lead someone without an understanding of Japanese culture to regard it with a certain amount of suspicion.

The negative portrayals of white Americans' behavior toward those of Japanese ancestry in the book are so few, in fact, that each can be mentioned here in some detail. Almost all take place before World War II, and most are qualified by the author in some way. The first occurs when a guest at the Itoi family's hotel demands a refund for his room, even though he has stayed there most of the day. The man, who is referred to as a "grizzly bear," calls the author's father a "damn Jap," and threatens to turn him in to the police. However, the man gets his comeuppance at the hands of the hotel's bouncer, who removes him from the premises by tossing him down a long stairway.

The next incident involves two police officers looking to extort money from the author's father. They interrupt the family dinner and accuse Mr. Itoi of selling bootleg alcohol. The police call him "Shorty" and "Charlie" (likely a reference to Charlie Chan, though the term was later used for different reasons to refer to Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War), and take him to jail when he refuses to pay a fifty-dollar bribe. Still, the author makes it clear that this incident had little to do with ancestry, and was a common occurrence on Skid Row where the family lived; just before this, she describes how she and her siblings would often see police shaking down drunks—white drunks, the reader can assume—for whatever pocket money they had.

The most dramatic and sweeping negative portrayal of white Americans occurs when the family attempts to rent a summer beach house so the author's young sister, Sumiko, can get fresh air and sunshine to improve her asthma. The family does not know that the people in the area in which they are looking are not hospitable to Japanese people. They are repeatedly told that empty houses are no longer for rent, or scared off with quotes of exorbitant rates. One woman says flatly, "I'm sorry, but we don't want Japs around here." Aside from this one instance, though, the author notes, "They all turned us down politely." Even when the white proprietors behave despicably, the author feels the need to soften the blow by complimenting their method of delivery.

In the months leading up to World War II, with relations between Japanese and whites undoubtedly tense, there are only a few brief incidents mentioned: two uses of the word "Jap," a couple of instances of service denied to the author at a store and a lodge, and the occasional cold stare from a white stranger. Even after Pearl Harbor, as government officials are arresting and holding Japanese Americans without just cause, the author relates the rather tame story of a Japanese woman whose husband had died years before: government officials show up and ransack her shop looking for the husband, but when they realize he is dead, they are apologetic. After Executive Order 9066 is issued, the author quotes some generic racist statements without attribution, but notes that the family "had dismissed these remarks as just hot blasts of air from an overheated patriot."

By contrast, the positive portrayals of white Americans are abundant throughout the book, most particularly when the author is finally able to leave the internment camp during the war. Furthermore, these are invariably lengthier and more detailed passages than the negative portrayals. All of the white men who work for the author's father at the hotel seem particularly tolerant; during the family's internment, one of them visits, bringing fresh fruits, candies, and expressions of sorrow at their confinement. The many people who help Sone gain freedom from the camp are described in loving detail. Here is a description of a man whose family boards the author after her release:

Dr. Richardson came out of his study, beaming. He was a great oak of a man, tall and solidly built. The rugged cut of his features, his deep vibrant voice, everything about him revealed a personality of strong purpose and will.

The author even counterbalances some of her scant negative portrayals of West Coast whites with more glowing depictions of white Americans in the Midwest. The following scene, set in Chicago, serves as an effective rejoinder to the time she was ignored at a department store counter in Washington:

Sometimes there were decided advantages to having an Oriental face, especially when shopping. When I stepped into a department store or market, a clerk would spot me instantly and rush up to wait on me, burning with curiosity. The clerks were invariably sociable and pleasant and they complimented me on my English.

Interestingly, the author reports this as a positive experience, but makes no mention of how the "compliment" on her English is based on the prejudiced—and incorrect—assumption that she is not a native speaker.

In a memoir, of course—especially one written while the characters within it are very much alive—it is not uncommon to focus more on those who have made a positive impact on one's life. It is also possible that the author subscribes to the simple philosophy, "If you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything at all." Then again, most who subscribe to such a philosophy have probably not spent years unjustly imprisoned.

This oddly gentle treatment of white Americans reaches a climax at the end of the book, when the author returns to the Minidoka internment camp to visit her parents for Christmas. Just before she leaves, the three discuss the situation of the Japanese in America. Her mother says, "When the war came and we were all evacuated, Papa and I were heartsick. We felt terribly bad about being your Japanese parents." To someone without an understanding of the Japanese culture, this statement may seem ridiculous. The parents are blaming themselves for being Japanese? Equally frustrating are the author's own thoughts about her parents as she leaves the internment camp: "I wondered when they would be able to leave their no-man's land, pass through the legal barrier and become naturalized citizens. Then I thought, in America, many things are possible." Indeed, in America, many things are possible; unfortunately, some of those things are reprehensible, and should not be quite so easily excused lest they be forgotten.

It is worth mentioning that the most violent race-based conflict in the book does not involve white people at all; it happens when the author and her family visit their relatives in Japan. The local Japanese youths brazenly slur the visitors with cries of "America-jin! America-jin!" and throw rocks through the paper walls of the house where they stay. One morning, the author and her older brother are confronted by several of the local boys, and a fight ensues.

Why, one might ask, do white Americans get off so easily in Sone's memoir? Perhaps this can all be explained by the distinctly Japanese tendency toward extreme diplomacy that sometimes seems, to an outsider, to border on self-punishment. For example, at a potluck picnic, the author relates a plea her mother makes to another Japanese woman: "I'd like to have you try some fried chicken. I did a very poor job on it, but please take pieces to your family."

Perhaps it has something to do with the book's original 1953 publication date. This was a time of nationalist fervor, when the United States was battling a new Asian foe (the Communist Chinese, via North Korea) and Senator Joe McCarthy was riding high on his quest to ferret out "un-American" activities. Japanese Americans were undoubtedly eager to reaffirm their patriotism, especially in light of their home country's eagerness to revoke their most basic rights only a decade before. Such a desire could at least explain the insistent flag-waving found at the end of the book.

Then again, it could simply be that the author's individual encounters with white Americans were not representative of the greater, abstract national consciousness. This is a common occurrence in matters of race: those in the ethnic or racial majority often consider themselves "good people," and treat individual members of a minority as equals. At the same time, they allow terrible things to happen to the minority group as a whole, as if it were somehow beyond their control. This may be the most insidious kind of racism, because it is so hard to pin to a slab and dissect.

Sone should not be criticized for writing a memoir that has become, by virtue of its uniqueness more than its quality, required reading for those curious about the Japanese internment tragedy. However, impressionable readers might assume that her feel-good account is the full story; at the very least, instructors who include the book as part of their curricula should also demand a more critical and detailed examination of these events than this book can ever provide.


Lain, Brian, "American Uses of Japanese American Memory: How Internment Narratives are 'Put into Discourse,'" University of North Texas, (January 4, 2006).

Miyamoto, S. Frank, Introduction, in Nisei Daughter, by Monica Sone, University of Washington Press, 1979, pp. xi, xiv, originally published by Little, Brown in 1953.

"Nisei Daughter," University of Washington Press, (January 6, 2006).

Sone, Monica, Nisei Daughter, University of Washington Press, 1979, originally published by Little, Brown in 1953.