Color of the Sea by John Hamamura

Writer John Hamamura has spent a lifetime exploring duality and divesting what he calls the “architecture of the yin and yang.” Color of the Sea, Hamamura’s wonderful debut novel, is the culmination of decades of writing and research. With lyricism and grace, Hamamura succeeds in portraying the competing heroism, nationalism, and racial hysteria of Japan and America during the Second World War. His hero Isamu “Sam” Hamada is a Nisei GI, a kibei of samurai stock who leaves his family in Hiroshima at age nine to work on the sugar plantations with his father. Sam is an idealized Nisei, “tanned, lean and hard, reflexes honed sharp as a samurai’s sword,” with tremendous discipline attained from years of martial arts training. His fluency in Japanese and skill in martial arts eventually land him a position as a translator and trainer for the US when the war breaks out. Hamamura skillfully balances Sam’s story with that of his love Keiko Yanagi, a modern, young, feisty, “samurai woman,” who seems as skilled at jitterbugging in California as she is in wielding a naginata in Japan. Keiko is inspired by the “funny, sexy, clever and maternal” Japanese American women in Hamamura’s life, and she is likeable and compelling. The parallel narratives of Sam and Keiko distinguish Color of the Sea from many previous Japanese American WWII novels — John Okada’s No No Boy comes to mind — that present predominantly male perspectives of war and combat.

Hamamura’s family history and his unusual childhood experiences in Japan and America inform the complex sensibilities of his novel. His father was a WWII translator for US Army Military Intelligence who trained officers for covert intelligence operations against Japan, bravely persisting even when his wife’s family was interned in Arkansas and his own family was trapped in Hiroshima. After the bombing of Hiroshima, Hamamura’s father managed to re-enlist in the Army and move his family to Japan so that he could help his mother and sister rebuild their lives after the bomb. John Hamamura thus spent his early childhood on a US Army base overlooking Hiroshima’s devastation. Hamamura recalls how strange it was to be inside the US Army base, “behind a wire fence,” and know that he was an American, but that family and friends who were Japanese were “outside.”

When Hamamura’s family returned to the United States from Japan, he soon discovered that his life in Lodi, California was constrained by an “invisible barbed wire fence.” Hamamura explains, “inside the wire fence we were Japanese and outside the wire fence they were all American.” He articulates this confusion through his Color of the Sea character Keiko, who moves to Japan after the war. She is “permanently disfigured by the memory that in America she had been branded Jap… distrusted, despised, imprisoned.” Yet with her “American passport and clothes,” she is an enemy of “shattered and prostrate Japan.” These competing identities, the “puzzles” that Hamamura feels characterized his Nikkei experience, preoccupied him so much that only creative writing and poetry provided release. In college, a switch from engineering to creative writing made Hamamura’s priorities official, and decades later as he continued to perfect his craft, the narratives that shape Color of the Sea began to emerge in his writings.

Hamamura’s background bestows him with tremendous understanding of both Japanese and American psyches. Hamamura’s first novel is an accomplishment because he does not bind the narrative to nation or gender, but dips and weaves between female and male, Japan and America. He writes in Color of the Sea:

People who’ve lived all their lives in one country never understand how much they share with people from other nations. They don’t understand humanity. They judge others according to their own cultural beliefs, and they’re blind to their own flaws. One must leave home in order to fully understand the meaning of home and the kinship of all the peoples of the earth.

This sentiment is central to this novel. As the characters move from Japan to Hawaii to California and back to Japan, their geographic rambling reveals the conflicting pressures of Japanese American identity. In Hawaii, hero Sam Hamada witnesses the haole luna reduce his boisterous, proud father to a “cringing monkey.” In the military, Sam endures initial taunts from his US sergeant who calls him “Jap Boy,” yet suffers abuse from Japanese soldiers who scream, “We have no respect for any Japanese who allows himself to be used as a pawn of the Americans.” Through Sam and his other characters, Hamamura is able to reveal the extent to which both nations mapped the global conflict onto the bodies of Japanese Americans.

The novel is powerful, but it is not without some melodramatic moments. The range of settings, characters, time periods, and geographies contribute to the book’s effectiveness, but also spread it thin. The most glaring example is when Sam embarks on a covert military intelligence operation in Okinawa and must confront a cave full of desperate Japanese soldiers hiding Japanese intelligence secrets. When the Japanese soldiers threaten to kill him “like a dog,” Sam responds with a Japanese expression: “Sometimes a person faces terrible choices because of a conflict of loyalties.” And just like that Sam cuts the tension, the Japanese soldiers become pensive, and willingly surrender. It is too neat. Overall, Sam is almost too perfect, a bit like the Nisei version of Mulan or Luke Skywalker. There is even an Obi Wan Kenobi moment when Sam’s martial arts sensei Fujiwara-san comes back from the dead to advise Sam: “… And once more he hears Fujiwara-san’s voice. Someday… when you are beaten and exhausted and all is lost… you will hear my voice in your ear. ‘Isamu, go the distance.” Luckily, these moments are not frequent. Color of the Sea has the attention to language and delicate imagery we would expect from a writer with poetic training, and only occasionally does Hamamura go over the top. Such observations as “Keiko weeps, sobs with joy, as her virginity blossoms into the red peonies of womanhood,” made me squirm uncomfortably in my seat. For the most part, however, Hamamura’s writing is subtle and effective.

This is a forceful portrayal of Japanese and American nationalistic hysteria, and of perseverance and survival; much of the novel’s depth stems from Hamamura’s ability to convincingly capture the dual sensibilities of both nations and their cultures.