In her book Transforming the Past: Tradition and Kinship Among Japanese Americans, Sylvia Junko Yanagisako argues that Japanese American kinship is the outcome of a process of negotiation between Issei and Nisei, between the past and the present, between Japanese and American culture. The Nisei use the same words and concepts as their Issei parents to evaluate the real world, they attribute, however, a different meaning to these words and concepts. In order to make sense of their world, they interpret the mass culture they are exposed to on the basis of their own folk history.
Like any other work, Transforming the Past has both strengths and weaknesses, some of them more important than others. In this essay, I want to point out those strengths and weaknesses that I believe to be most important.
As far as the structure is concerned, Transforming the Past is a quite well organized book. It looks at the three aspects of marriage, filial relations, and siblinghood and kinship in a very organized way, namely by first describing the Issei views, followed by the opinion of the Nisei.
Regarding content, the most important strength is the fact that culture is used as the primary unit of analysis. This sets Transforming the Past apart from sociological studies and considerations of social anthropology. Moreover, rather than as passive objects, people are shown as active subjects of history. We are confronted with a very dynamic concept of culture that involves both Issei and Nisei, the past and the present, Japanese and American culture. This system works in both direction, i.e. both Issei and Nisei constantly change their views as a reaction to their experiences and exigencies. In addition to that, this dynamic nature does away with fixed categories that do not exist anywhere anyways. Even though Yanagisako describes two extremes of viewing the world, she makes clear that reality is located on a continuum between these two extremes. What I also consider to be a quite favorable aspect is the fact that Yanagisako implies a continuity of the present with the past instead of arguing for a complete rupture with the past. In other words, Japanese American concepts do not replace their ancestors’ Japanese concepts but rather redefine them in the light of their own experiences. This also brings with it the idea that social change is not at all isolated from but closely linked to history. History is not of secondary importance but one of the main factors that change society. Finally, in her conclusion, Yanagisako draws a parallel from Japanese Americans to other groups, not necessarily ethnic groups, in the United States. She does this in order to explain the, at first sight, contradictory idea of unity in diversity of modern American society. Unity, in her explanation, can be accounted for by the fact that everyone, no matter where they live, what religion they believe in, what their ethnicity may be, is exposed to the same influences of modern American society. Diversity emerges through the ways members interpret these influences according to their own experiences and past. At the same time, the book also portrays the positionality of Japanese Americans in relation to history, their parents and partly other Japanese Americans, as well as their multiplicity, when it comes to different behavior and assessments in different situations. This is, for instance, the case when talking about marriage: when talking about the relationship to their children they will emphasize the Japanese aspects of their marriage, such as rules, whereas, when talking about the relationship to their parents, they will stress the American aspects of their marriage, such as love.
Despite all the strengths, I think that there are certain weaknesses that have to be mentioned regarding Transforming the Past .
First of all, without looking at the content of the book, Yanagisako’s style of writing is a rather dry one, a style that does not encourage a reader to read the whole book. Of course, studies based on interviews will certainly not be as interesting as the interviews themselves, but in my opinion it is still possible to write about one’s interpretations in a more interesting way than Yanagisako did.