Enfolding Silence

The Transformation of Japanese American Religion and Art under Oppression

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Brett J. Esaki
AAR Academy Series
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Brett J. Esaki has a lot to say about silence. And what he says will speak volumes to those interested in American religion, religion and visual/material culture, and religion and immigration from an understudied Japanese-American perspective.

To the outside listener, another’s silence is hard to interpret. It is an impenetrable enigma, an anti-commitment that neither confirms nor denies. From the outside, a Japanese-American’s silent smile can be read as contented assimilation, conformity, even acquiescence to blatant racial profiling and discrimination before, during, and after World War II. From the inside, however, the individual’s choice to remain silent can mean many things: it can be stunned shock to the trauma of internment, a passive-aggressive retreat, a defiant act of resistance to coercion, a dignified and strategic response to repression, a silent signal of resignation (shigata ga nai), or a stoic sign of bravery and endurance (gaman suru). Silence can therefore be many things; it is not merely the absence of speech. It is “non-binary silence,” to borrow Esaki’s phraseology.

Esaki explores the non-binary silences that helped Japanese-Americans navigate the tension between external conformity to America’s unjust legal policies and social structures (gaimenteki doka) and their internal yet silently-held authentic principles (naimenteki doka). It is unclear why Esaki does not also exploit here the semantic potential of the better known terms tatemae (external façade) and hon’ne (lit. “true sound”) that gets stifled and silenced inside the individual for the purpose of social harmony and group acceptance, or in this case, fitting in to America’s so-called model minority. Regardless, Esaki skillfully maps his notion of non-binary silence onto four major periods in Japanese-American history and somewhat stereotypical art forms; 1) the spatial silence of prewar gardening, 2) the existential “silence of the self” as expressed through wartime origami, 3) the temporal silence of postwar jazz, and 4) the verbal silences of modern/contemporary monument making. But what specifically does this have to do with religion?

In chapter 1, Gardening, The Silence of Space, and The Humanity of Judgement, Esaki features the spiritual-but-not-religious [SBNR] garden designer Greg Kitajima, who says that the pruning process should start “in a meditative silence” (58) that allows one to “really see it…let go…[and] listen” (59). This sounds vaguely mystical, New Agey, and maybe even identifiably Buddhist, but Esaki’s spatial analysis never invokes the Heart Sūtra’s nonduality of form and emptiness, or the doctrine of insentient “grasses and trees becoming Buddhas” (sōmoku jōbutsu) that would have strengthened his gardening argument significantly. Likewise, peach farmer Dave Matsumoto’s filial piety towards his father, and his sense that “I just need to stay out of nature’s way,” work with the “plant’s life-force” and strike a “balance” (64) carry distinctly Confucian and Daoist overtones. Unfortunately, however, Esaki’s analysis invokes Shintō instead, which unwittingly contributes to the constructed and wholly modern “greenwashing” of that tradition that John Breen, Mark Teeuwen and others have been deconstructing since at least 2010. Finally, wire sculptor Ruth Asawa mobilizes her own Japanese and American “indigeneity” and Native American “indigeneity” to create tree figures that speak to an ill-defined “contemporary American spirituality” (67).

Chapter 2, Origami, the Silence of Self, and the Spirit of Vulnerability argues that “vulnerability is strength” (76), and that flimsy paper, likewise, when artfully crafted into 1000 cranes, symbolizes enduring love and longevity, as well as the lasting peace of post-atomic Japan. Esaki’s treatment of origami is well researched, but assertions such as “each origami sculpture embodied a kami (Shintō spirit)” (83), and “the concept of Japanese-American kami as a life-force that was identified after developing a relationship with a natural object” such as a tree or piece of paper (112), are a bit exaggerated and tone-deaf to Shintō’s own complicity in the horrific deaths that these paper cranes are designed to pacify. This chapter does, however, finally reflect on the book’s title Enfolding Silence, since like sheets of origami paper, Japanese-Americans in the “potential space” of non-binary silence can enfold and unfold religio-cultural meanings in multiple ways (113). Origami artist Linda Mihara, for example, was raised Methodist in Salt Lake City, Utah, self-identifies as SBNR, but also enters a “Zen-like” state of relaxation and focus during the artistic process, which links her to her ancestral and living communities of pain and healing, longing and belonging (103).

Chapter 3 on Jazz, the Silence of Time, and Modes of Justice is structured like a musical composition. It features an expository Introduction and two repeating Form sections that progress through the echoing histories of jazz and Japanese-African-Native-American multiracial blues (e.g., Anthony Brown). The Turnaround section on ma, the silent “betweenness” of notes that makes up the rhythmic waves of racism, precedes the Coda that enfolds the search for justice within the silence of time. The Ensemble section focuses on the 2006 Minidoka Swing Band of Portland, Oregon, named after the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho, but it is within the Solo section dedicated to Anthony Brown that religion is most explicitly referenced. Like Kitajima and Mihara before him, Brown too is drawn to the Zen philosophy of non-dualism that embraces multiplicity and difference. He acknowledges, however, that Zen mindfulness is not always calming, but also makes one acutely aware of the annoying irritants and microagressions in life, and even magnifies them further. His jazz highlights these blue notes in his experience without resolution, but with continuing authenticity and witness.

Finally, unlike the organic growth of gardens, the pliability of paper, or the ephemerality of music, chapter 4 on Monuments, the Silence of Legacy, and “Kodomo Tame Ni” [sic] explores the permanence of Japanese-American monuments that literally set their silent legacy in stone “for the children’s sake” (kodomo no tame ni). But how well can these stones speak of Japanese-American silences, and communicate them across intergenerational silences as well? Esaki analyzes the spatial designs and descendants’ reactions to Robert Murase’s Japanese-American Historical Plaza in Portland, OR and Isamu Noguchi’s abstract sculpture-court To the Issei (first-generation immigrants) in Los Angeles, CA. My principal concern with Esaki’s analysis in this chapter is his insistence that there exists “an indigenous method of illustrating Japanese-Americans’ enduring primordial spirituality” (170), and that this “spirit of Japan,” this “legacy of a vital, primordial spirit – the energy of spiritual indigeneity [is contrary to America’s] thoroughly modern, destructive, and consumptive spirit of nationalism” (199). This rhetoric of blatant Japanese exceptionalism based on purported ancient spiritual principles, however, itself participates in Japan’s nationalistic and highly problematic postwar restitutive project called Nihonjinron or “Japanese-ness,” which Noguchi’s own mixed heritage belies. In the Epilogue, Esaki acknowledges that future generations may indeed eschew the power of non-binary silence and instead “embrace exceptionalist and nationalist ideologies from Japan and the United States” (211), but he himself should be careful not to inadvertently embrace the same kind of ethnic and cultural essentialism in referencing an indigenous Japanese “inner spiritual core” (211) that undergirds the very ideologies he so rightly criticizes. Esaki’s other prognostications are far more comforting: that future generations may instead deepen the value of non-binary silence in solidarity with other oppressed hybrid identity groups, or that they will continue to do both, as the new second-generation (shin-nissei) Japanese-American whiz-kid-turned-model-minority Hollywood success Oka Masi has done.

Just as Shusaku Endō’s award-winning novel Silence (and its screen adaptation by Martin Scorsese) teaches us that apostasy can turn into redemption, and just as the old adage from the Daodejing cautions us to “know the yang but keep to the yin” in order to ensure the survival of a small state (or marginalized minority group in this case), the message here is clear: weakness can wield power, the meek can inherit the earth, and self-effacing silence can itself constitute one’s greatest achievement. Although sometimes “silence ironically ends up reinforcing systems of domination, even the same systems that the strategy of silence seeks to resist” (209), infinite potentialities are also enfolded within the womb of silence, and hence infinite possibilities can emerge and unfold from it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Pamela D. Winfield is associate professor of religious studies at Elon University.

Date of Review: 
May 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brett J. Esaki is assistant professor of American religions at Georgia State University.


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