This is a story of a bittersweet first love between a Chinese boy, Henry Lee, and a Japanese girl, Keiko Okabe, in Seattle, Washington in the early years of the Second World War. But more importantly, it is the story of the massive relocation and internment of the Japanese people, many of them second-generation Americans, by the government of the United States.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, there was a great deal of anger and fear towards Japanese Americans.
President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 (February 19, 1942) authorized the Secretary of War and U.S. armed forces commanders to declare areas of the United States as military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded,” although it did not name any nationality or ethnic group. It was eventually applied to one-third of the land area of the U.S. (mostly in the West) and was used against those with “Foreign Enemy Ancestry” — Japanese, Italians, and Germans. In March of 1942, the War Relocation Authority was created to: “Take all people of Japanese descent into custody, surround them with troops, prevent them from buying land, and return them to their former homes at the close of the war.”
Even before the Japanese-Americans were relocated, their livelihoods were seriously threatened when all accounts in American branches of Japanese banks were frozen.
On May 19, 1942, western Japanese Americans were forced to move into relocation camps by Civilian Restrictive Order No. 1, 8 Fed. Reg. 982.
120,000 men, women, and children were rounded up on the West Coast. Three categories of internees were created: Nisei (native U.S. citizens of Japanese immigrant parents), Issei (Japanese immigrants), and Kibei (native U.S. citizens educated largely in Japan). The internees were transported to one of 10 relocation centers in California, Utah, Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, and Wyoming.
These Japanese Americans, half of whom were children, were incarcerated for up to 4 years, without due process of law or any factual basis, in bleak, remote camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Families were crammed into 20- by 25-foot rooms and forced to use communal bathrooms. No razors, scissors, or radios were allowed. Children attended War Relocation Authority schools.
On December 17, 1944 , Public Proclamation No. 21, effective January 2, 1945, allowed evacuees to return home, just ahead of two new Supreme Court decisions finding that citizens should be allowed to go home after proving their loyalty. Rejoining society was difficult for many. Each individual received a $25 payment and transportation tickets at the time of release. Many detainees discovered that their pre-1941 communities had vanished, and their homes and businesses were lost.
In Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, chapters move back and forth from the past to the present as we learn the story of how Henry, now fifty-six, lost Keiko because of the relocation and because of his father’s hatred for the Japanese. Henry had heard all his life about the invasion of the Japanese into China, and subsequent murder and butchery by Japanese troops. But Henry was American, and he knew first-hand the cruelty and injustice of racial hatred, on account of the treatment he himself received at his mostly white school. But his father would not countenance any fraternizing with “the enemy.” Henry was rebellious, but not enough to break the chains of tradition and obligation that were so deeply impressed into his character. Part of his secret love for of jazz was its freedom from form; the ability of the notes to take off and soar over the city in carefree, sensual delight; its absolute indifference to class, race, sex, or culture.
As the book begins, Henry’s [Chinese] wife, Ethel, has been dead six months after a seven-year struggle with cancer. As the story progresses, we learn about Henry’s son Marty, and their efforts to be a family after Ethel’s death. To Henry’s chagrin, they echo the struggles Henry had with his own parents. And we learn about Henry’s past, and what happened to Keiko.
In the end, Henry does “what he always did, find the sweet among the bitter.”
Evaluation: If this book doesn’t cause you to break into the Kleenex box, you’re a stronger person than I. Highly recommended!
Published by Ballantine Books, 2009