Reading Together

What if the entire community read the same book at the same time? Read and discuss David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars with people of all ages and walks of life.


Closing Celebration

Drums and family stories celebrated the conclusion Reading Together’s 2010 season. Held in the beautiful sanctuary of First Baptist Church, the program opened with a powerful performance by Kalamazoo Taiko, a student led drumming group from Kalamazoo College. It was loud, it was festive, it was beautifully precise.

Zarinah el-Amin Naem, coordinator of the Race Exhibit Initiative, thanked Reading Together for selecting Snow Falling on Cedars to begin a community discussion about race. She then introduced guest speaker Frank Kitamoto, president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community Association for his presentation “Putting Human Back into Human Rights: Lessons from the Past to Help us Live in the Now.”

With slides of photographs and quotes, Dr. Kitamoto told the story of Bainbridge Island’s Japanese American residents, beginning with their early years as farmers and going on to the tragic stories of their evacuation and incarceration during World War II. Suspicion. Family heirlooms buried in fear. Abandoned pets. Armed escorts. The dust and desolation of Manzanaar. Births and deaths in strange places. Unwelcome homecomings. Often poignant, at times humorous, the message was ultimately encouraging and hopeful.

After the program, we gathered in the fellowship hall for refreshments and conversation. It gave everyone a chance to view Kodomo Name Ti for one last time before we sent it back to Bainbridge Island. Dr. Kitamoto pointed out many relatives in the photos and gave us background stories about their lives. Oh, and the strawberry farmer I wondered about in a recent post? Well, it turns out he is the very last remaining strawberry farmer on Bainbridge Island.

We are so grateful to the Race Exhibit Initiative for sponsoring our closing event, to First Baptist Church for sharing its beautiful space, to Kalamazoo Taiko for a splendid performance, and to Frank Kitamoto and the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community for sharing their stories.


Lessons from the Past

Stories and Photos

When we were planning activities around Snow Falling on Cedars, we did not expect to run across an exhibition that inspired David Guterson to write his book. When we learned of Kodomo No Tame Ni (For the Sake of the Children) we knew it was an opportunity not to be missed.

This pictorial history of 100 years of life on Bainbridge Island was created in 1988 by the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community Association (BIJAC). It is dedicated to Issei and Nisei generations (the immigrants and their children) and is a legacy to their descendants so that Sansei and Yonsei (third and fourth generations) may understand their heritage. The exhibit has traveled to countless classrooms in Washington State and to historical museums all across the country. In 1993, the National Education Association presented BIJAC with the Ellison S. Onizuka Award which recognizes outstanding achievement in promoting human and civil rights.


When we set up the exhibit in early March, my coworkers and I spent time looking at the photos and reading the text. Because we’d read Snow Falling on Cedars, we already had some background history and this made the photographs even more meaningful. One image that continues to draw me is an oversized photo of a farmer holding out a big tray of strawberries. He is smiling, the strawberries are beautiful, and in the background are long and lush rows of strawberry plants. I cannot help but think about Kabuo’s dream to raise strawberries and how a piece of land had such a sad part in Guterson’s story. But the unnamed farmer is a real person. Real, too, were the circumstances that led him to be taken away from his livelihood on Bainbridge Island. I wonder if there was a strawberry farm for him to return to after being in the camps?

Another photo in the exhibit is that of a family sitting outside. A little boy wearing a woolen cap is clutching a toy tractor. Both boy and tractor have paper tags that were used to identify people and possessions as they were evacuated. We’re going to meet that little boy in just a few days. He is Dr. Frank Kitamoto, president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese Community Association. Dr. Kitamoto is our featured speaker on April 15 as we conclude this season of Reading Together.

Don't miss this beautiful collection of images and stories. For the Sake of the Children will be on display at KPL until noon on April 14. Its final showing will be the evening of April 15 at First Baptist Church.


Kodomo No Tame Ni - For the Same of the Children

Korematsu v United States

On February 19, 1942, executive order 9066 designated how the United States military should handle military operations and protect against sabotage and espionage. It prescribed military areas and determined who may be excluded from these areas. This executive order resulted in the evacuation and internment of some 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry. Persons with even 1/16 Japanese ancestry were placed into so-called War Relocation Camps.

One man did not abide by the order. Fred Korematsu refused to report for his evacuation. He was eventually caught and shipped to the Topaz camp in Arizona. A local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union in northern California took up his case which went before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Dr. Mark Hurwitz spoke on March 31, explaining Korematsu v. United States giving us a crash course in presidential executive orders during times of war. As an associate professor of political science at Western Michigan University, Hurwitz teaches classes in constitutional law, and always discusses Korematsu v. United States.  Inevitably some of his students will be surprised to learn about the evacuation and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“Students come to me with a dumbfounded look, saying ‘I had no idea.’” Teaching Korematsu v. United States is Hurwitz’s way of making sure history does not repeat itself.

To understand the court case, Dr. Hurwitz explained, one must understand that the President of the United States, has a great deal of latitude in times of war. The expansion of war powers began with President Lincoln during the Civil War and had expanded over the decades. After the Japanese Empire’s attack on Pearl Harbor, there was a “real and legitimate fear that the West coast would be attacked. Defense contractors were decimated. The military was a sitting duck.”


Recognizing that the President has power beyond what is in the Constitution and being unwilling to interfere with Congress or the military, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to uphold executive order 9066. It was not unanimous decision, however. There were three dissenting justices: Robert Jackson, Owen Roberts and Frank Murphy (former governor of Michigan).

Years later, the United States made an official apology for the internment and paid reparations of some $1.2 billion. In 1998, Fred Korematsu was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.

 “Defining Moments: Frank Murphy, Fred Korematsu, and the Internment of Japanese Americans During World War II” Is a documentary produced by the Michigan Bar Association and Michigan Government Television. Among those interviewed in the documentary are Iwao and Mary Ishino of East Lansing, who were our guests for the March 25 program about the internment.

If you’d like to read the proceedings of Korematsu v United States, pay a visit to KPL’s law library.


Korematsu v. United States

Evacuation and Incarceration

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s executive order number 9066 resulted in the evacuation and incarceration of some 120,000 Japanese Americans to what were called War Relocation Camps. On March 25, we were privileged to meet two men who spoke about their experiences in these camps.

Professor Sadayoshi Omoto, a native of Bainbridge Island, was enrolled at the University of Washington when he was evacuated to Manzanar. He began his slide lecture with photos of the Bainbridge Island evacuation and internment. Omoto described the ever present dust storms at Manzanar, and the barracks that held multiple families and offered no privacy. The monotony of it all.

Omoto brought slides that showed life in the internment camps as depicted by artists. In “Homage to Mary Cassatt,” Hisako Hibi painted a mother bathing her child in a small dishpan. A painting by Chiura Obata shows the long line of barracks with two lone figures in the snow. In another, an elderly couple is surrounded by ruin in an image that portends the coming of the atomic bomb.

Concluding his presentation, Omoto held up an honorary diploma granted by the University of Washington in 2009 to all Japanese American students whose studies were disrupted by their internment. He called it a “long journey home,” a long journey for him, but also for the University in finally recognizing the injustice done to its students. Professor Omoto graduated from Oberlin College. He is a retired professor of art history from Michigan State University.

Professor Iwao Ishino was a studying architecture at San Diego State College when he was sent to Poston camp in Arizona. There he met his wife Mary to whom he has been married for 65 years. He lived there for two years before being drafted into military intelligence work at the Pentagon. These experiences during the war led Ishino to study anthropology at Harvard. He is a retired professor of anthropology at Michigan State University.

Ishino’s presentation centered on a theme of “unintended consequences,” and took the form of questions to the audience. If you were given an order to leave, what would you take and what would you leave behind? How would you take care of people’s health? What would you do about babies born in the camp, or orphans brought in? How would you care for people’s mental health? What about the crops ready to be harvested? He related the story of how his wife’s poultry farm and been given to friends for safe keeping. After the war, the family learned the farm and its land had been turned into a residential area.

These were important stories for us to hear. The audience asked many questions after the program and stayed to meet the speakers. We extend our thanks to the Ishinos and Omotos for traveling to Kalamazoo.


Internment and Service Stories

Guest post: Friendship Remembered

We feature this guest post from Miranda Howard, a librarian at Western Michigan University and a member of the Reading Together Steering Committee.

“Our steering committee discussions regarding the treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII always brought to mind a letter my mother received in celebration of her 80th birthday in 1997.

My sister contacted many of my mother’s long-time friends, asking them to send their thoughts on their friendship with my mother to be compiled into an album for a gift. This letter that came to mind was from Mariko and expressed how important my mother’s friendship was to her during the war.

My mother often spoke of her friends Mariko and Jun Inouye, two people with a baby I remember from old 1940s photographs. Jun, raised in Hawaii, son of a Japanese professor, was a Northwestern Dental School classmate of my father’s. When the dental students were told of tuition remission if they joined the Navy or Army, my father was accepted into the Army. Jun was not, due his Japanese heritage, even though his brothers in Hawaii were drafted.

Mariko’s parents were taken to an internment camp in a western state.

My older brother was born in Jan. 1942, just after the US entered the war. Mariko and Jun soon had a son as well. Mariko found that salespeople in stores were unwilling to serve her as a customer because she was Japanese. Going into a department store in Chicago and Evanston, Illinois, to purchase baby clothes and other necessary baby items became a racial intimidation for her. Mariko’s letter for my mother’s 80th birthday told of my mother’s kindness to her in 1943, 54 years earlier, when my mother gave her baby items for her son because my mother understood the discrimination Mariko was facing.

To this day I still find my mother's kindness to her friend heartwarming, but am surprised and embarrassed that the Chicago and Evanston of my youth, places I always thought of as progressive communities, were as prejudiced as other regions in America.” 


Miranda Howard, Reading Together Steering Committee


On March 22 our exloration of Japanese culture continued with origami.

Our instructor was Michiko Yoshimoto, Japan Outreach Coordinator at the Soga Japan Center of Western Michigan University, and a member of our Steering Committee. Michiko explained that this traditional folk art is handed down from mothers to children – boys as well as girls learn how to fold paper into beautiful creations. She demonstrated a box that could be fashioned from old newspaper or magazine pages to hold orange peelings, cherry pits, or the like when snacking.

Our patterns began with a simple cup that would be cute for holding snacks at a party. Then we learned how to make the square box. After that, we made a tiny piano and chair, a star and a finished with a very complicated rose. Swans and cranes joined the party, too.


Origami: Japanese Paper Folding

Shodo: Japanese Calligraphy

Among the programs offered this season are a handful of opportunities to learn about Japanese culture. On March 16, we learned about shodo, the way of writing the Japanese language.  

Our instructor was Michiko Yoshimoto, Japan Outreach Coordinator at the Soga Japan Center of Western Michigan University, and a member of our Steering Committee. She explained the basics of understanding the Japanese writing system.

  • Katagana is comprised of symbols each of which represents a sound (similar to an alphabet).
  • Kanji is a compound form created from a group of Chinese characters.
  • Hiragana is a related alphabet that is used to represent words of other languages.

Shodo is written with a special brush and black ink. The discipline of shodo involves concentration. One must maintain a straight posture and hold the brush perpendicular to the table. Each stroke is deliberate and precise. Delicate flourishes may appear spontaneous, but they are specific and prescribed. That’s why years of practice are required to achieve correct form.

I enjoyed the short time we had to practice writing a few words. In spite of the challenge, it was more calming than frustrating.


Shodo: Japanese Calligraphy

Meeting David Guterson

Some 500 audience members were on hand to hear and meet David Guterson on March 17. In an on-stage interview with Dr. Nicolas Witschi of WMU, the award winning author of Snow Falling on Cedars answered questions about the book, his writing habits, about Bainbridge Island, about literature for high school students, and about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Guterson wrote Snow Falling on Cedars some 25 years ago, a labor 10 years in the making. He carved out time in summers, on weekends, and early in the morning to write. Now a full-time author, he still writes daily out of habit.

“It’s important to work every day.” Some days, he said, nothing happens, but “it’s important to be sitting there when something happens.”

Guterson was asked how the exhibition “For the Sake of the Children” (on display at KPL through April 14) came to inspire Snow Falling on Cedars. He said he first saw it on display at Bainbridge High School where he was a teacher.

“The exhibit helped people understand visually —and therefore emotionally—what happened. I realized I was looking at faces of people I knew. They were a reality, not an abstraction.”

Guterson said he was pleased that his book has inspired communities to explore and remember what happened to Japanese Americans.

“Just the idea that all of this is happening here, the exhibits at the library, I feel really good about that.”


David Guterson in Kalamazoo

Examining Good Literature

What qualities contribute to a book’s lasting value? Can we predict what will become a classic?

On March 9, Dr. Nicolas S. Witschi of Western Michigan University’s Department of English was our guest speaker for “The Book as a Literary Classic.”  Describing Snow Falling on Cedars as a “complex and rich book for evaluation and interpretation,” he said it contains many qualities consistent with good literature. Here are some highlights:

  1. Sophisticated techniques. The framing narrative is a murder trial. As the trial unfolds, we learn other stories as well, so not only do we see the progression of the trial but we know the events that led up to it. Guterson adds depth and richness with a plethora of “structured binaries” — the push and pull of paired opposites such as just/unjust, true/untrue, war/peace; past/present; young/old; power/powerlessness; chaos/control.
  2. Evocative detail. Guterson’s texture of language and words “develops a tapestry.” In one example, the author describes a natural setting that also mirrors a character’s state of mind.
  3. Literature that informs the novel. Snow Falling on Cedars is “keenly aware of its literary forebears,” Dr. Witschi said, offering a short list of influential titles, among them: Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, Sense and Sensibility, and Winesburg, Ohio;
  4. Multiple themes. Snow Falling on Cedars is a romance, a murder mystery, and a story of endurance amidst hardship and racial prejudice. It also is the story of an artist coming into his own. At the end of the book, we get the sense that Ishmael has changed, has found himself as a writer, gaining a sense of where his place should be. And as Ishmael begins to write, we are left to ponder what will become of him as a writer?


Book as a Literary Classic

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