Reading Together Blog

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

Senator Daniel Inouye: Nisei veteran

We received a kind letter from Senator Daniel Inouye, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations. A few months ago, we invited the longtime senator from Hawaii to visit Kalamazoo during Reading Together. Senator Inouye is Nisei (second generation Japanese American) and a distinguished veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He was the first Japanese American to be elected to Congress, and has served in Congress since 1959.

Senator Inouye was a medical volunteer at Pearl Harbor. In 1943, he discontinued his medical studies at the University of Hawaii to join the U.S. military. Serving with the 442nd RCT, he was distinguished by his many acts of courage and leadership, receiving multiple injuries and losing his right arm.

Senator Inouye was sent to convalesce in Battle Creek where he became friends with another soldier and future U.S. senator: Bob Dole. A third U.S. senator also stayed there during World War II: Philip Hart of Michigan. The building, also known as the Battle Creek Federal Center and the Battle Creek Sanitarium, was renamed in 2003 to the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center.

For his service during World War II, Senator Inouye was conferred the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. In June 2000, he was awarded the Medal of Honor:

“Second Lieutenant Daniel K. Inouye distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action on 21 April 1945, in the vicinity of San Terenzo, Italy. While attacking a defended ridge guarding an important road junction, Second Lieutenant Inouye skillfully directed his platoon through a hail of automatic weapon and small arms fire, in a swift enveloping movement that resulted in the capture of an artillery and mortar post and brought his men to within 40 yards of the hostile force. Emplaced in bunkers and rock formations, the enemy halted the advance with crossfire from three machine guns. With complete disregard for his personal safety, Second Lieutenant Inouye crawled up the treacherous slope to within five yards of the nearest machine gun and hurled two grenades, destroying the emplacement. Before the enemy could retaliate, he stood up and neutralized a second machine gun nest. Although wounded by a sniper’s bullet, he continued to engage other hostile positions at close range until an exploding grenade shattered his right arm. Despite the intense pain, he refused evacuation and continued to direct his platoon until enemy resistance was broken and his men were again deployed in defensive positions. In the attack, 25 enemy soldiers were killed and eight others captured. By his gallant, aggressive tactics and by his indomitable leadership, Second Lieutenant Inouye enabled his platoon to advance through formidable resistance, and was instrumental in the capture of the ridge. Second Lieutenant Inouye’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit on him, his unit, and the United States Army.”


Letter from Senator Inouye

Important Conversations

The treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II is a central theme of Snow Falling on Cedars. The book and its events are ideal springboards for discussions about race and racism. But it’s not always comfortable to talk about these subjects, and so people sometimes retreat.

One of our partner organizations is the Kalamazoo YWCA, the first and oldest YWCA in Michigan. Following a mission to eliminate racism and empower women, the YWCA offers a number of programs about racism and diversity. Maria Drawhorn, YWCA’s Chief Program Officer, very deftly led a conversation about race March 2. Beginning with a discussion of characters and incidents in Snow Falling on Cedars, she then moved to questions that allowed participants to examine how racism can be systemic or institutionalized. When participants were put into small group discussions, they seemed reluctant to stop talking.


The Kalamazoo community will be talking about race and racism over the next year. Snow Falling on Cedars was selected as a complementary prelude to an exhibit opening in October 2010. Race: Are We So Different? uses history, science and stories to understand what race is and is not. Read more about the exhibit and the community initiative that has been working to develop programs and conversations about this important topic.


Race: Why Are We So Different?

Racial Prejudice

PBS is again airing The National Parks, a magnificent series by Ken Burns about how this country’s national parks came to be. Episode 5: Great Nature (1933-1945), includes a story about Chiura Obata, an artist who was inspired by Yosemite. He was one of some 120,000 Japanese Americans sent to internment camps. While at Topaz, Obata started an art school for others incarcerated at the camp. Go here to learn more about his story and view some of his artwork. Episode 5 can be viewed online for the next few days, or you can check out the entire series from KPL’s collection.

Racial prejudice toward Japanese Americans is a prominent theme in Snow Falling on Cedars. Join us for A Conversation About Race on March 2, in a discussion led by staff from the Kalamazoo YWCA’s program on racial justice.


The National Parks