Citizenship as Metaphor: Curating the Japanese-American Familial Counter-Archive

Illness is the Nightside of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner of later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identity ourselves as citizens of that other place.

—Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor

All families have secrets, and mine is no different.

Nestled within my grandparents’ home is a hallway lined with old photographs. The images form a non-linear timeline of sorts—a carefully curated projection of where we have come, and where we will go. In one faded photo, the prize selection out of the bunch, stoic-looking Japanese men in western suits and women in kimonos stand proudly next to a newly-installed gas pump in Nawiliwili, Kauai. On a small island of 32,000 residents, this photograph would serve as their alien claim to citizenship, to be used, processed, and rearticulated across generations as the origin point of our American story.

For many Japanese-American families living in the shadow of World War II, the metric of belonging has long been cast in fiscal terms. The photos on my grandparents’ wall work to reinforce the very stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Graduation photos from UC Berkeley, a trio of weddings in the late eighties and early nighties, and a gaggle of racially ambiguous grandchildren increasingly gesture toward a narrative of assimilatory upward mobility.  I love these images. And, over the years, I was actively  trained to see myself within their frames.

Most recently, I returned to the dimly lit hallway  to consider the visual coding of stigma within Japanese-American family album histories and its implication in the development of family counter-archives. Two converging fact-finding missions led me to his place: the first, a request for a family medical history; the second, a deep-seated curiosity about how my grandparents understood their own racial identities following World War II’s  anti-Japanese hysteria. What materialized over the course of the many coded conversations was the understanding that the visual landscape of stigma maintains its own persistent, cultural fictions. We know the weight of these fictions, as we simultaneously inherit and create them. But, how often do we actually see them?

Although much has been written on the persistent inter-generational stigma stemming from JA incarceration and its clear links to the construction of the “Asian model minority” as an assimlatory and passive subject, little has been done to show how state-induced stigmas are also self-policed within familial material cultures. This is not to suggest that the editing out of stigma within family album histories is a particularly Asian-American quality, but rather that internalized tensions around race and citizenship will be more legible in some familial archives than others. The (re)constructions of Japanese-American familial narratives of national belonging offer particularly rich sites of inquiry, given the dramatically shifting understanding of Japanese citizenship from the 1924 Exclusion Act, to JA Incarceration in the 1940s, to the influential redress movement in the 1970s.

 My interest, then, is to locate a familial archival that is in contest with the national and familial gaze—to study the pictures not displayed, and what their absences reveal.  By working towards the creation of  a family album history that purposefully expose silences next to successes, and private illnesses and trauma alongside public points of pride, I hope to critique the ways in which even vernacular images re-inscribe a visual genealogy of stigma.


                     Case Study: Imag(in)ing the Family Counter-Archive

Here is what I know: My great-grandmother is beautiful. She has also been, for the majority of my life, completely invisible.

Today, she lives in a small cardboard box tucked in a closet. She is breathtaking—dressed in two, separate, ornate wedding gowns to mark her arrival in Honolulu, and more significantly, her entrance into a new family. Though not an explicitly arranged marriage, I am told that it was certainly a surprise for her—the youngest of four daughters plucked out of the kitchen while making tea, surveyed, and then selected by the man invited to marry her oldest sister.


I find that my readings of these images are distracted by my own projections. I cast the space between her and her husband as a sign of emotional sterility instead of mere convention. I wonder who helped her with her hair and her makeup, and if, perhaps, she had traveled with her mother or sisters to the islands in order to alleviate the burdens of managing a new home. Or, if the women who prepared her were strangers, an adopted exchange of female friendship to fill a temporary need. I look at this woman, who I am a part of, and think to myself, “She looks so Japanese.”

When I show my mother these images, we are both shocked. I, by the fact that she has memories of this woman, and she by the presence of these photos, which she had never seen. She explains, quickly, that she and her siblings would visit her grandmother once a year when they still lived on the Island, usually around the holidays. The visit required a trip to the local sanatorium.

In the absence of material objects, I turn to closely-kept memories. When I was little, long before such a phrase meant anything to me, my grandfather would tell us stories about how he witnessed Pearl Harbor from the roof of his childhood home: a large building with a wrap-around deck, seated proudly on the top of a hill. He was a young boy at the time and thought the commotion must have been a fireworks display or a training simulation at the local base. It was only after his father yelled for him to come down and hide that he realized something was wrong. This was the singular story he would tell us of the War: Awe, followed by realization.

Almost twenty years later, I ask him what happened next. He responds using the fewest possible words. His mother was in the house, too, he notes, and immediately began to pack. She had two small children under her wings—my grandfather and his younger sister—and then another son, the oldest, in Kyoto. She predicted, correctly, that the demarcating borders of now-at-war nations would soon dissect her family. Her escape was stopped, and she soon fell ill. It would take another eighteen years for my grandfather and his brother to meet again. I imagine it was an intense reunion, as the two brothers switched between broken English and broken Japanese, unable to fluently speak the other’s tongue.

We do not often tell this story, though it is certainly an origins, and it is certainly American.I try to imagine myself as a mother with children on both sides of a war. I allow myself to think that in the absence of neutrality, perhaps insanity is the only remaining logical response—a form of apolitical space.

We are left to wonder. We hold her in our hands, and place her on the wall.