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5 Japanese American WWII historical novels to inspire you

Japanese American WWII novels

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Author Constance Hays Matsumoto guest posts today to honor the diverse culture and history. She co-authored Of White Ashes with Kent Matsumoto, her husband. The novel, set in WWII, is inspired by actual events in the authors’ family.

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Author Constance Hays Matsumoto guest posts: 5 inspiring Japanese American WWII historical reads

As a White woman, born and raised in Baltimore, I once knew little about Japanese American history and culture. Now, twenty-seven years after meeting my husband Kent Matsumoto, I consider myself well versed in both.

In truth, I still have no appetite for many of the culinary delights of Kent’s culture. Artistic in presentation, sushi and anko (red bean paste) confections continue to deceive this writer’s palate.

In sharp contrast, my appetite for books about Japan and the WWII Japanese American incarceration is wide and varied, and my bookcase overflows with many great titles. These are my favorite novels:

When the Emperor was Divine

1. When the Emperor was Divine

Julie Otsuka

Otsuka’s debut novel When the Emperor was Divine is an example of the craft of emotional fiction at its best: deeply moving prose that conveys great meaning over the course of its 144 pages. This story follows the arrest, incarceration, and after camp experiences of a family uprooted from their home and splintered—the father sent to a remote location in Lordsburg, NM, and the mother and children to Topaz, UT.

I treasure this book because my mother-in-law, Reiko Odate Matsumoto, a Japanese American incarcerated during WWII, gave it to me. She inspired the development of the protagonist in Of White Ashes, and I cherish her memory.

The Last Year of the War

2. The Last Year of the War

Susan Meissner

Meissner’s story The Last Year of the War follows Elise (of German descent) and Mariko (of Japanese descent), teenagers with dreams of futures beyond the barbed wire fences of incarceration. The Last Year of the War immerses readers into the harsh realities endured by teenage girls incarcerated during this shameful period of U.S. history.

The injustice. The shattered friendships. The threat of repatriation.

Reiko was a young teenager when she was incarcerated in Jerome, AR, and later Tule Lake, CA. I truly love this heartwarming and inspiring book and credit Meissner for helping me to feel what Reiko may have felt when she endured similar experiences.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

3. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Jamie Ford

When I say, “I’ve written a novel on the Japanese American incarceration,” most respond, “Oh, like that book Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet… I loved that book!” I love it too, the second novel about the WWII Japanese American experience given to me by my dear Reiko.

Perfectly titled, Ford’s debut novel is an evocative marriage of bitter and sweet—a bitter account of loss, injustice, and racism balanced with the sweetness of childhood innocence and young love.

Bridge of Scarlet Leaves

4. Bridge of Scarlet Leaves

Kristina McMorris

McMorris’s words weave together like the complex movement of violin strings creating rich and complex music in this tender novel about the harsh realities of war, injustice, and love. This is Bridge of Scarlet Leaves.

Her characters of the Greatest Generation are realistic and well-developed with complicated dynamics, including dueling loyalties, fractured families, sacrifice, and interracial marriage (like mine) at a time when those marriages were shunned or illegal.

Looking for more history-related reads? Check out this interview with historian Holley Snaith.


5. Phantoms

Christian Kiefer

Phantoms is a rare and honest account of a Japanese American soldier who fights the Japanese, only to be welcomed home to an ongoing war fighting racial prejudice. War delivers many punches. Soldiers returning home from war to face the knock-out punch of hate and racism may be haunted by that final blow for a lifetime.

In sophisticated prose, Kiefer braids the stories of two racially-different American men—one returning from WWII and the other from Vietnam— who live through perilous times and endure the trauma of secrets, war, and divided families and communities. Kiefer’s writing is masterful!

Of White Ashes book cover
Of White Ashes by Constance Hays Matsumoto and Kent Matsumoto

About today’s writer, Constance Hays Matsumoto

Meet today’s guest writer, Constance. Constance Hays Matsumoto and her husband Kent Matsumoto are the co-authors of the debut WWII Japanese American historical fiction, Of White Ashes (May 2023, Apprentice House Press).

Inspired by the true stories of the authors’ family, Of White Ashes crosses oceans and cultures, illuminating the remarkable lives of ordinary people who endure seemingly unbearable hardship with dignity and patience. Their experiences compel us to reflect on the resilience of humanity and the risk of history repeating.

Learn more about the authors, events, and resources at Matsumoto Books. You can also reach out to Constance Hays Matsumoto directly there through a Contact form.

Also, connect with author Constance Hays Matsumoto on social media. She is on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

5 thoughts on “5 Japanese American WWII historical novels to inspire you”

  1. Much needed literature, especially at a time when current generations seem uneducated about WWII.
    My other half is half Japanese, and his family were all incarcerated during the war.

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