Coming to Terms with One’s Identity

The question of identity is one that is marred with a bevy blurred lines. Is identity about the DNA embedded into our bodies? Or does it pertain to the environment we grow in? How do we really identify who we are and what we are? These are black and white questions, rather questions that are dotted with gray dots all over. It is this theme that John Hamamura tries to unravel in his first venture into the world of writing novels.

Color of the Sea relates the story of Sam Hamada, who, like Hamamura, is a Japanese American. Sam was born in pre-World War II Hiroshima, Japan. He was raised by his mother, along with his sister, as their father was living in Hawaii, cultivating their plantation. When Sam was old enough to work the plantations, his father sent for him to help him till the land. Bewildered but filled with anticipation, Sam moved to Hawaii, where he would grow and mature.

From Hawaii, he then again moved to California to study. Just when everything was settled, the Second World War swept Sam and his family, and the entire Japanese American community. As the Japanese air force launched a blitz on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor, America vowed retaliation. Caught in the tumult is Sam and his family. To which nation will Sam pledge his loyalty? Or will the onus be too much to bear for him and his community?

“Sam savors words and phrases on his tongue; to him Japanese tastes familiar, aged and subtle, warm and salty. In contrast English seems youthful, sweet, effervescent, surprising him with pockets that snap, releasing ticklish bubbles.” ~ John Hamamura, Color of the Sea

Hamamura deftly takes the reader through the labyrinthine maze of identity and loyalty through this subtle coming-of-age story about a young Japanese man learning the ways of the West. But the novel is more than just a narrative as it is something more meaningful and more nostalgic for the author. Color of the Sea is a rough retelling of the author’s father’s migration story and how he melded himself into the complexities of Western society.

The ins and outs of identity were thoroughly explored through the Japanese American community. But again, identity is riddled with many complications. When Keiko returned to Japan, she had the flags of the United States and of Japan woven on her inner clothes. She was adamant in her stance that she is both an American and a Japanese. Sam was also locked up in the same quandary. He was mocked in the army but as soon as the army realized his potential, they made him a trainer for soldiers.

It is perhaps unsurprising that honor and loyalty are two of the integral ingredients in this hodgepodge of a narrative. These are values that are deeply ingrained into the Japanese system. The novel also took other themes such as romance and tradition. But it made its heaviest impact when it correlated seppuku (“honorable suicide”), depression with the value of life. It subtly underlined the comorbidities of fighting for honor in relation to established Japanese norms.

Color of the Sea is an ambitious undertaking. Hamamura tried to incorporate as many layers to the story as he possibly could. Whereas he painted a great picture, the finer details were amiss. It is perhaps his attempt at minimalism but there were parts that needed more elaboration. He made the readers jump from one story line to another with brevity that many details were left to the readers imagination. There are long books one wishes to be shorter but then there are also short books readers want to be longer.

“Now you must seek your own wholeness. You must claim what you already are – a star. One star. Do not be overwhelmed by fragments; find the core of light within yourself. The core is compassion. The light is wisdom. Do not be taken by the false and sparkling surface. We are not here to win contests. We are not here to defeat enemies. We are not here to look or sound good. Open your mind. Open your body. Open your spirit.” ~ John Hamamura, Color of the Sea

One of the more interesting facets of the story but was underexplored was its incorporation of the Code of the Samurai. Naginata sensei, regardless of his humiliation, remained steadfast in his commitment to his nation and its descendants, playing the role that is expected of him. It is interesting how one could remain loyal to a code and a tradition that has rejected him. This was one of many themes that could have used more elucidation.

Whilst there were vivid depictions of the brutalities of the war, it was palpable that Hamamura’s stand on the atrocities and hatred of the war stood on a shaky ground. The novel barely conveyed any strong emotions against any group of people which is perhaps due to the author’s background. The sugary and simplistic acts of purity and goodness were ephemeral, rendering some scenes an overwhelming ersatz feeling. This is in contradiction to the evils of war that Hamamura cited at the start of the story.

Despite these glaring disparities, Hamamura’s sublime writing shone through from the onset. He handled every curve with such versatile skill that transitions were barely noticeable. His imaginative and creative writing filled every page with wonderful imagery. Moreover, he was able to capture individual emotions brilliantly. However, the exploration of complex and mixed emotions was very lacking, nonexistent even. The dive into the entire array of the “colors” of the human spirit was quite limited.

“You’re trying to stand between me and the stove because you don’t want me to get burned. But if you don’t allow me to take the risk, I’ll never learn to cook.” ~ John Hamamura, Color of the Sea

For a debut novel, Color of the Sea is a gorgeous one, and at times, a spiritual one. John Hamamura was able to rivet the reader’s attention with his fine writing and vivid depictions. Sure, the story is lacking in many aspects and it could use some more intricacies. But there is a gentility about the entire atmosphere that sets its apart from your typical coming-of-age or immigrant stories.

A fair mix of history and coming-of-age, Color of the Sea showcased Hamamura’s capabilities and the promises his writing holds. It may not be perfect, but it is a fine start to a great career.

Rating:

78%

Color of the Sea was one of the books I picked out of whim during the 2018 Big Bad Wolf Manila Book Fair. Thankfully, it offered something so different that I don’t regret picking it up from the shelves.

Perhaps what sets Color of the Sea apart from the other Japanese I’ve read for my Japanese Literature month is how it greatly differs from the traditional Japanese storytelling. It is this step out of the trope that I found compelling about the story. Although there were still undertones of culture, it was a more contemporary Japanese narrative and style. It was a good book, not great but Hamamura’s writing was just too splendid not to give him credit for this novel.

Book Specs

Author: John Hamamura
Publisher:
Anchor Books
Publishing Date: November 2017
Number of Pages: 321
Genre: Bildungsroman, Historical

Synopsis

Raised in Japan and Hawaii, Sam Hamada has been trained in the ways of the samurai. After graduation Sam strikes out for California and falls in love for the first time with a beautiful young woman named Keiko. But then the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, igniting the war and making Sam, Keiko, and their families enemies of the state.

Sam is drafted into the U.S. Army and sent on a secret mission, but his very identity both puts his life at risk and gives him the strength he needs to survive. Taking us from the lush Hawaiian Islands of the 1930s to the wartime world of madness in Hirsoshima, Color of the Sea is the unforgettable story of one Japanese boy’s coming-of-age.

About the Author

John Hideyo Hamamura was born in 1945 in a U.S. Army hospital in Minnesota. His father’s grandmother and sister were survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

Due to his father’s occupation teaching Japanese American translators, Hamamura’s early schooling took place in Grant Heights, an Americanized neighborhood north of Tokyo. He would spend summer vacations at his grandmother’s house in Hiroshima, barely 2.5 miles from where the atomic bomb landed; Hamamura only learned of this when he was a little older. It was from the vestiges of the memories of this childhood that Hamamura built his first novel, Color of the Sea. Published in 2006, it is also a story of his family.

Hamamura currently lives in Oakland, California.

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