Books / Reviews

The unbelievable true story of a Japanese family that went to war with itself

by Nicolas Gattig

Special To The Japan Times

During the endgame of World War II, Harry Fukuhara, a member of a Japanese-American unit of the U.S. military, was tasked with teaching new recruits about the enemy. The servicemen training to invade Kyushu asked how to distinguish the Japanese from Chinese.

“The enemy looks like us,” answered Harry and his team, all born and raised in America.

Midnight in Broad Daylight, by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto
464 pages
Harper Collins, Narrative nonfiction.

It’s one of many mind-bending moments in the stunning new book “Midnight in Broad Daylight: A Japanese American Family Caught Between Two Worlds.” A factual story of disrupted lives during wartime, it raises deep, timeless questions about loyalty to one’s country and family.

“I hope that readers will consider their own heritages,” says author Pamela Rotner Sakamoto, a historian and teacher based in Hawaii. “On some levels, this story could happen to many families with immigrant roots. I never imagined how frighteningly relevant it would be today about the dangers of scapegoating.”

The tale centers on Harry and Frank Fukuhara, the American-born sons of Japanese immigrants in Auburn, Washington. When their father dies at the height of the Great Depression, their penniless mother, Kinu, takes the brothers to Hiroshima, where they join two Japan-raised siblings to finish high school. But soon Harry and Mary, estranged in Japan and fearful of losing their U.S. citizenship, return to America.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor splits the family irrevocably. As war erupts between Japan and America, Harry and Mary — profiled as “enemy aliens” of Japanese origin — are sent to internment camps. After months behind barbed-wire fences, Harry gets out by volunteering for a language unit of the U.S. military. He helps retake the Philippines, and is slated at last to join the invasion of the Japanese mainland.

Meanwhile, his brother Frank is drafted involuntarily into the Japanese Imperial Army and assigned to a suicide unit in Kyushu. A showdown looms between the brothers, but then the atom bomb is dropped on Hiroshima — where their mother still lives with her relatives — unleashing “a midnight in broad daylight.”

Pitching an outrageous real-life drama like this as fiction might have made a publisher balk, but with a novelist’s sense of pacing and pulsing, at times lyrical, language, Rotner Sakamoto weaves a seamless mosaic of historical research and personal accounts.

“The balance between facts and narrative drive was one of my greatest challenges,” says Rotner Sakamoto, who revised numerous drafts during a period of more than 10 years. “A traditional history would have been easier, but I wanted to connect with the reader. For each scene, I asked myself how much background would people want to know?”

And the background is stunning. We see the abandoned Little Tokyo of Los Angeles just after the attack on Pearl Harbor — “once-packed eateries looked forlorn with empty tables; going-out- of-business sales proliferated overnight as owners sought to move deeper within California to evade exclusion” — and then the anti-American frenzy in Japan, where elementary schools burn thousands of dolls once gifted by Americans, “their glassy blue eyes melting in crackling bonfire.”

Some of the strongest passages are on the loss of normalcy in wartime Hiroshima. Foodstuffs are rationed — “I don’t want any until victory” was the government slogan — and all available iron is collected to make weapons, to the point where “priests unscrewed temple bells from their mountings … and mailmen detached mailboxes from their posts.” All along, there is speculation among residents why so far they’ve been spared from American bombings. Are POWs held in Hiroshima? Or perhaps President Truman’s cousin?

When the bomb finally drops, the details make for harrowing accounts. Historical facts of the bombing are well-known, yet the fate of the Fukuharas will keep readers turning pages. Throughout the book, the narrative is impartial yet deeply moving, a genuine empathy marking both the Fukuharas and the author.

“For me, the lives of Harry and Frank represent an embrace of biculturalism,” says Rotner Sakamoto. “Both in Japan and America, they respected the other nation and tradition. They were truly global citizens before globalization became a trend.”

Still, a keen ambiguity is in part what makes the book compelling. Harry considers America his “authentic place in the universe,” yet he grows up there vilified, then interned and disenfranchised. Even fighting for America in the war, the members of his Japanese-American unit are referred to as “tamed Japs.”

Meanwhile, in Hiroshima, Frank is bullied because he was born in America. After the war, he renounces his Japanese citizenship, spending the rest of his life in Nagoya as an American permanent resident.

Most people agree that truth is stranger than fiction. But this astonishing history, a milestone in cultural studies, shows that life can be more complex than common notions of national allegiance.