Love And Fear Of Japan In Anytown, U.S.A.


By Evelyn Iritani

Morrow x 272pp x $23

Port Angeles, Wash., seems an unlikely setting for a book about relations between Americans and Japanese. Although perched on the Pacific Rim, it is an isolated blue-collar town, a strip of gas stations and fast-food joints on the Olympic Peninsula, 65 miles northwest of Seattle, overshadowed by two big pulp-and-paper mills. It has no Japan experts, no international trade offices, not even a golf resort to attract Japanese tourists.

But on another level it's perfect. In 1988, when one of its mills was acquired by Japan's Daishowa Paper Manufacturing Co., the town's 17,000 residents had to face their resentments and fears about the growing power of a nation many had fought in World War II. Most had stopped thinking about Japan since the bad days when they had to keep lights off at night for fear of a Japanese air attack. Now, a Japanese company was one of the town's biggest employers.

That awkward transition is what attracted Evelyn Iritani, a reporter with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. But Iritani found this Anytown, USA, had ties with Japan that extended back much further than she could have guessed. The personal tales, the friendships, the ambiguities, the humor, and the sorrows she turned up went much deeper than the superficial culture clashes you might expect.

In An Ocean Between Us, formal relations between the two nations are but a backdrop to four fascinating tales of personal encounters between East and West, well told and well worth telling. Like all good storytellers, Iritani builds suspense and tosses in elements of the unexpected. Drawing on scores of interviews on both sides of the Pacific, she weaves a wealth of remembrances into vivid portraits. Her memorable characters include an American accused of spying in Japan, a restaurant owner suspicious of Japan but fond of his Japanese American boyhood friend, a Japanese manager who reluctantly moves to the U.S. but embraces the American way of life, and a woman mourning a sister lost in a bizarre wartime attack.

Surprisingly, the first story begins in 1834. A Japanese ship, blown off course by trade winds, sank near the coast of the Olympic Peninsula. Most on board died, but the Makah Indians rescued three young sailors and made them slaves. Nearly 160 years later, one of their direct descendants, Masao Yamamoto, a feisty, high-velocity man, insists on reciting a Buddhist prayer on the beach and bowing in gratitude to one of the few remaining Makahs, who now export logs and seafood to Japan. "A Japanese man travels thousands of miles to thank the people who rescued his ancestors.... The people who enslaved his ancestors are now economically beholden to the descendants of the people they once enslaved. Who is thanking whom? And for what?" Iritani muses.

The story of Tom Osasa, son of the first Japanese family to settle in Port Angeles, starts out all-American. Growing up in the 1930s, he was part of his high school's in-crowd, playing cards, shooting hoops, dancing to big-band music. Born in the U.S., he seldom felt foreign. But when the war broke out, he and his family, like thousands of other Japanese Americans on the West Coast, were interned behind barbed wire. Rumors circulated that his father, who had returned to Japan, was a spy.

Elsye Mitchell, another child of Port Angeles, met a worse fate during the war. After marrying and moving to Oregon, she was one of six Americans on a church outing killed by a Japanese balloon bomb that had floated across the ocean. In an interesting counterpoint, Iritani also explores the lives of the Japanese schoolgirls drafted by the government to make those bombs.

The book's final story, though, is the one most Americans will relate to best. Dave Hoglund, a paper-mill worker, was sure he'd lose his union contract and job when Daishowa bought his mill. "That's how it always happens," he thought. Instead, Daishowa invested $560 million to modernize the mill, and Hoglund was one of four workers sent to Japan to learn the Daishowa way. But he was no convert to Japanese manufacturing processes. He insisted the American way is best--and was promoted anyway. In a final irony, financially strapped Daishowa decided to shut down 10 paper-making machines and impose huge layoffs in Fuji City, Japan--and keep the Port Angeles mill humming.

Iritani is well-suited to grasp both sides of the U.S.-Japan equation. Her father is a second-generation Japanese American from a Colorado farm family; her mother was born and raised in Japan. Her book, full of irony and twists of fate, shows the complexity of U.S.-Japan relations. "Paper-mill workers whose jobs have been saved by a company from Japan," she writes, "stand in the grocery-store line next to unemployed lumber-mill workers" who blame raw log exports to Japan for eliminating sawmill jobs.

"Port Angeles and Daishowa need each other. The United States and Japan need each other," Iritani concludes. Global trends have forced the people of Port Angeles--and all Americans--to change the way they think about Japan and the Japanese in their midst. They need to look beyond rhetoric to get to know their Pacific neighbors. By conveying the complicated human side of the relationship, Iritani shows the way.

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