25 November 2013

Comic Book Tells of Nisei Soldiers' Service, Humility

Oahu-based writer and entrepreneur Stacey Hayashi didn't start out to write a comic book about World War II—particularly one filled with disarmingly cute characters drawn in a style called "chibi." Inspired first by family and friends' war service, she wanted to tell an unflinching story about the Nisei soldiers—Japanese-American soldiers who fought in Italy, France, and elsewhere—as a feature-length film.

If the world is lucky, it might still be a Hollywood movie someday. This is, after all, a story that should be told again and again.

When Hawaii's film economy turned cloudy in the late 2000s, however, Hayashi was worried that years of research into a screenplay would go to waste. "It's not like you can bind a script and have people read it," she says. "And then it hit me ... a comic book! It would be like storyboards, sort of."

The 30-something Hawaii native teamed up with artist and Rhode Islander Damon Wong, to create and publish "A Journey of Heroes"—an educationally accessible and emotionally powerful graphic novel about second-generation immigrants who put their country first, no matter the cost. In the wake of Japan's Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese-American citizens struggled for opportunities to serve their country. Too often, their efforts were met with distrust and racial discrimination.

The Nisei soldiers—the word connotes "second generation"—include the 100th Infantry Battalion (100th Inf. Bn.), and the 442nd Infantry Regiment (442nd Inf. Reg.). In World War II Italy, the 100th Inf. was, for a time, attached to the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (34th Inf. Div.). In addition to wearing the patch, the soldiers even painted the Red Bull symbol on their helmets. The unit was celebrated as the "Purple Heart Battalion," due to the number of its members who had been killed or wounded while fighting the enemy.

The 100th Inf. Bn. trained at Camp McCoy, Wis., and Camp Shelby, Miss, and fought as part of the 34th Inf. Div.'s 133rd Regiment in North Africa and Italy, including battles at Mount Cassino, Anzio, and Rome. After Rome, it became part of the larger 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team (100th/442nd R.C.T.). The unique, combined numerical designation was a special recognition of the 100th Inf. Bn's previous military accomplishments.

Later, at great cost in lives and casualties, the 100th/442nd Inf. RCT would famously rescue a "lost battalion" of Texas's 36th Inf. "Arrowhead" Div.

Nisei soldiers also include those who served with Military Intelligence Service (M.I.S.). These Japanese-American soldiers served as translators, and trained at Camp Savage and Fort Snelling, Minn.

In addition to battlefield heroics and tragedies, "Journey of Heroes" also offers moments of humor and light-heartedness. Initially, for example, there are language- and culture-barriers between the "Buddhaheads" from Hawaii and the "Kotonks" from mainland states:
"Jus cuz you soun' like one haole no mean you mo bettah dan me!" 
"How am I supposed to know what you're talking about, you crazy Hawaiian?"
Later, those differences are erased when the troops are taken on a field-trip to visit an internment camp. During World War II, the American government detained Japanese-American citizens in camps, and deprived them of their freedoms and properties. With dinners and dances, the internees hosted the troops. From those experiences, the soldiers took lessons of patriotism, thanksgiving, and humility.

"Some were very angry at being put in these camps, and rightfully so," says the narrator, "but I noticed the Japanese philosophy of 'shikata ga na'—it can't be helped—at work. They also reminded me of my parents at home, who said "Gaman"—to endure hardships with grace. [...] We based a real unit after that. From then on, we were all in this together."

The "Journey of Heroes" comic is drawn as a manga, similar to black-and-white comics originating in Japan. Rather than a gritty or realistic style, Hayashi and Wong opted for cute characterizations, called "chibi."

Using the friendly-looking cartoon characters meant they could soften the story without dumbing down the facts. That was important, because Hayashi's objective was always that "Journey to Heroes" could be used in libraries and classrooms. "Yes, it's a book that's going to have war and violence in it, but I didn't feel that that was the lesson," Hayashi says. "To me, the true story is the story of [the veterans'] character, and what they did in the face of racism and adversity ..."

"Also, because they're so cute—like the vets themselves—as the reader, I think maybe people are sometimes sadder ... like, how can something so awful happen to this guy who is so cute?" she says. "Even when you meet the vets themselves [in person]. Sure, some of them are tough, gruff old men you don't want to mess with, but they are also so friendly, so cheerful, so generous and gracious and playful, it's hard to believe that these guys were also tough soldiers."

When "Journey of Heroes" was first published as a 30-page comic in 2012, some 5,000 copies were donated to Hawaiian schools and libraries. The content is suitable for ages 10 and up. A second run of the comic is anticipated in late 2013, with additional new pages. One notable innovation: As individuals and organizations, World War II veterans and their supporters often sponsor distribution of the comics into classrooms—putting history in the hands of today's young people, in a fresh, tangible, and unforgettable way.

An introduction to the book by the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, himself a 442nd RCT veteran, reads in part:
We were unlike most other soldiers because we bore the responsibility of bringing honor to our families' names, and proving that Americanism was not a matter of skin color, but a matter of heart and mind.
To purchase a copy of "Journey of Heroes," visit the website here. Cost is $10 each, plus shipping and handling. There is also a 5-mintute movie-style trailer for the comic book posted on YouTube here, and embedded below in this blog-post.

There is also a Facebook page for the comic book here.

To learn more about sponsorship opportunities, visit the website here, or view a 5-minute YouTube video here.

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