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0:07:48 Introducing the Kawamuras

Japanese or American? The Conflict between Issei and Nisei

By LaVerne Zuk

[1] Given the shameful nature of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II as well as the dearth of films on the subject, and with the first financial reparations for the denial of personal justice taking place in 1990, critics opined that it seemed to be an obvious choice to use Come See the Paradise (1990) as a mechanism to teach America an important lesson. But, as one critic starkly put it, "Paradise turns out to be not so much of a drum-beater about displaced persons and injustice but instead a love story, complete with music swelling on the soundtrack with each clinch. . . . The internment situation doesn't even enter the storyline until well into the second half of the film" (Osborne). But, contrary to contemporary expectations (and perhaps to ours) a love story is precisely what director Alan Parker intended. “I didn't make their film,” Parker said: "It's not my job to tell Americans about their own history." "I wanted to do an interracial love story," said Parker. And the introduction to his film is clearly designed to serve his purpose.

[2] Parker has invited us to a party in the first few minutes of Come See the Paradise. We walk in as a play ends, and we watch, listen, and learn about two families, the Kawamuras and the McGurns. What we learn through the series of intercut scenes is that each family is divided by extreme cultural differences. First, the Kawamuras. The older members are traditional Japanese: they follow certain rules of etiquette and dress and show deference and respect according to seniority. The younger members show an understanding of Japanese etiquette yet employ that understanding sporadically or badly, when they aren’t defying it. Their dress is more modern, while their language is always English except for polite niceties. Then the McGurn family cuts into the party -- an Irish American family, one brother blue collar and married, the other educated and divorced. The initial contrasts help us to identify the Issei, or traditional, immigrant Japanese; the Nisei, first-generation Japanese American citizens; and the Caucasian American. This heterogeneity also helps us to comprehend historically the constant conflict the Nisei suffered as the United States struggled to decide whether the Nisei were truly American, while the Irish were accepted with no questions. Beginning the film with the introduction to the Kawamuras and Jack McGurn sets the stage for the clashing of old versus new, traditional versus modern, and Japanese versus American, while leading us to Jack and Lily’s love affair, which creates a nexus between the old, traditional Japanese and the new, modern American.

[3] Mr. Kawamura’s introduction of his family is an excellent demonstration of the Issei-Nisei conflict. An immigrant from Japan, Papa Kawamura is a very traditional Japanese man. His patriarchal society dictates that he rule over his brood, always in charge, never questioned. As he acquaints his friend, and us, with his children and wife, Kawamura makes it apparent that he disapproves of his children’s American ways by degrading each one in turn under the guise of humor or brushing past them as if they are superfluous beings who are in his way. Harry is proudly described as an actor but is quickly demeaned when Kawamura notes, “he thinks he’s Sessue Hayakawa, but all he plays is Chinese houseboys, can you imagine?” (Hayakawa was a famous Japanese actor, one of the few to break into American films in the 1920’s and 30’s.) Lily is chastised for not having chosen a husband out of all the men chasing her. Charlie, Kawamura points out, “is only interested in baseball,” which is, of course, America’s national pastime. Frankie bears the brunt of the denigrating humor when Kawamura declares that “he can’t even speak Japanese. Mind you, his English isn’t too good either.”

[4] As Papa explains how his older children exhibit classic American behaviors, we wonder why. In any American family, these behaviors would be natural. For an Issei, however, embracing these behaviors is like shunning the traditions and values of their ancestors. Kawamura is upset by the Americanization of his children and likely threatened as well. His children are citizens, he is not; they understand the cultural nuances of their world, he does not; the children become more headstrong and independent as they grow older, and Papa loses his identity as patriarch of his world. Conversely, Kawamura’s children are growing up identifying with a world that is foreign to their parents and are publicly ridiculed for it. They want to please their parents, but by virtue of their place of birth, they are unable to embrace the traditions of the old country. America is all they know. Perhaps out of fear of judgment, Kawamura makes fun of them in public to ease his conscience before his Issei peers who may not agree with the Americanization of their youth.

[5] In the spring of 1924, America passed a restrictive immigration act that put annual limitations on the number of immigrants allowed from specific nationalities. The numbers were heavily in favor of western and northern European countries while also “prohibiting the admission of any alien ineligible to citizenship as an immigrant” (Ichioka, “Issei” 244). One societal outcome of this law was the expectation that the Nisei would become a bridge between Japan and America, easing the tension and creating understanding between the two countries. When we meet the Kawamura family, the family is at a strictly Japanese function, and the children barely fit in, almost seeming like outsiders. The Issei do not need that bridge at their own function in their exclusively Japanese club. Papa Kawamura must have bought into the bridge philosophy, though, else the children would have spoken Japanese, been properly respectful, and ultimately a source of pride to their father. Having a foot in both worlds comes with a responsibility that weighs heavily on the elder children. Kawamura does not recognize this challenge that his children face, though he himself created it.

[6] Papa Kawamura created an additional problem when he neglected to teach his children Japanese or to learn more than rudimentary English for himself. A communication gap develops: he is unable to converse with his two youngest children, who look to their older siblings as parental figures instead. If he expresses himself in Japanese, his children will not understand. When he attempts English, he confronts the reality that he’s not very good at it, and he’s ashamed. His fallback position is to use simple language, whether Japanese or English, to get his point across: “I want to play cards, I play cards.” This eliminates his ability to verbalize his reasons to his children, who then misunderstand him and begin to lose respect for him. “The formal, hierarchical Japanese cultural schemata of the Issei [is] frequently off-putting to their more Americanized Nisei children,” say Stephen Fugita and Marilyn Fernandez: “As the Nisei [enter] their teenage years, their decidedly American interests and perspectives [are] a source of tension, and sometimes open conflict, with their parents” (27). As Kawamura leaves to gamble at cards, Charlie and Lily are embarrassed by their father’s disinterest in social appropriateness and attempt to dissuade him. While polite and gentle, their remonstrance is publicly denounced as “American manners” and promptly ignored. “The Nisei thus found himself caught between the two Americas -- the one of his parents’ dream and the one in which he was to live,” writes Daisuke Kitagawa: “The Nisei found himself in a position where he was compelled to be what he actually was not, fighting against all kinds of images he thought others were forming of him. He could not relax sufficiently to be himself, and was driven from insecurity to insecurity” (22).

[7] Interestingly, Mama Kawamura is all but absent in the introductory scene. Kawamura introduces her quickly, as an aside, and moves on before Mama has completed her bowing. Mama looks shocked and embarrassed at being interrupted and blatantly passed over. She’s given birth to his six children (middle daughter Dulcie is strangely absent from the party and no explanation is ever given as to her whereabouts); apparently Mama’s existence is now just one of convenience to Mr. Kawamura but not worthy of mention to anyone. Youngest daughter Joyce is similarly dismissed with only a mention of her name as Papa moves on to introduce Charlie, Lily, and Frankie. They are interesting omissions, but there is no clearly defined purpose for them, unless it is to demonstrate how the patriarchal Japanese family often overlooked the females except as barter for arranged marriages, which we find out about later.

[8] Other demonstrations of conflict between the Westernization of the Japanese and the traditional values of the elders are frequent. As the play ends, many people come to shake Mr. Kawamura’s hand; it seems he organized the actors to come from Japan to perform. The actors are wearing clothes reminiscent of the British Elizabethan era, giving the impression that they may have been performing Shakespeare. All the actors, however, are Japanese. When the applause ends, a band begins to play and a woman sings a traditional song in Japanese. Though the band looks like a typical 30’s dance band, the sound is muted and vague; all that’s missing is the shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese instrument, a bit like a guitar). When Harry is invited to sing, however, the band kicks it up a bit, and Harry croons out American pop music in a voice without a trace of Japanese accent. Interestingly, whether it’s the Japanese song or the American song, everyone dances in Western style.

[9] While this action continues in the main ballroom, other conflicts are occurring throughout the club. Lily is with friends in a hallway, being flirted with by one of the Japanese actors. He can’t understand why Lily doesn’t speak Japanese; she uses this as an advantage to spurn his advances. When she leaves, the actor is yelled at for flirting by someone we presume to be his father. Lily’s father is having his photograph taken with a group of his friends; the flash from the camera leaves them all groaning and shaking their heads in wonder. Outside the door to the club, Mrs. Ogata is busy kissing a man who is not her husband. Many of the young women stand at the door to watch, giggling and acting vaguely scandalized. We discover that Mr. Ogata is much older than Mrs., implying an arranged marriage, a common Japanese occurrence in traditional households. Mrs. Ogata is tired of being married to an old drunk, so she takes matters into her own hands. When Mr. Ogata finds out, he starts a yelling match with her, and later kills himself to save his honor.

[10] Parker’s use of intercutting scenes through the party accentuates the conflicts between the modern and traditional. One moment we’re observing people eating sushi and speaking Japanese, the next we’re watching young women who speak English and act far less reserved than their parents would prefer. Within the club’s confines, we experience an overlapping of cultures that seem to blend well on the surface but that, over time, cause the loss of family structure. Those who fare the best are the ones who are able to please the elders while embracing the values of their birth country. And then, Parker intercuts more scenes into the party: Jack McGurn has arrived unannounced at his brother’s home.

[11] The character of Jack is surrounded by conflict in the film. He is booted out of his union in New York because he disagrees with their violent methods. His wife left him because he was so angry all the time. His brother won’t even help him: “Trouble sticks to you like shit on a blanket.” Jack leaves to find a job and a place to stay. He becomes the projectionist for Mr. Kawamura in place of Mr. Ogata. Parker’s intentional disruption of the party by Jack’s arrival in Los Angeles is excellent foreshadowing of what conflict Jack will cause within the Kawamura household; Jack meets Lily later in the film, and they fall in love. Mr. Kawamura, however, has arranged for Lily to marry a man to whom he owes many gambling debts. Lily refuses, and she elects to leave the family to elope with Jack. This elopement was part of Parker’s original intent for the film. His main goal was “to do an interracial love story” (Frankel). The initial scenes at the party and at Jerry’s home set the stage for this grand love affair within the time period of a greater conflict: the internment of 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans.

[12] All of these struggles between Americanisms and Japanese traditions in the initial scenes prepare us for the difficulties faced through the rest of the film by the Kawamura family and Jack McGurn. Parker creates a constant straining of ideals between Papa and what he wants for his children and what the children want for themselves. The Kawamuras are a specific, fictional example of the challenges that the Nisei generation faced in 1930s America. Their Issei parents had expectations that were not encouraged or enforced through education. Cultural gaps grew rapidly, culminating in a generation of American citizens who were uncertain which way to step, whether toward their Japanese roots or toward their country of birth. These conflicts come to a head twice; once when Lily elopes with Jack and again when Papa is arrested for being a potential traitor and the family is sent to an internment camp. The family is broken up; no one can agree on what the best course of action is. Dulcie goes so far as to get pregnant out of wedlock. The traditional Japanese home has been blown apart by war; the only way to survive is to honor America and embrace the values demonstrated by the children instead of the parents. The marriage of Jack and Lily and the birth of Minai bring together those values, just as Parker intended.