Naomi Hirahara’s haunting new historical mystery, Clark and Division, follows Aki Ito, who refuses to believe the police’s conclusion that her sister Rose killed herself and begins to investigate the death on her own. Set in the titular Chicago neighborhood during World War II, Clark and Division lays bare the trauma and injustice of Japanese American incarceration and displacement. Hirahara, who has studied and written about this peirod of American history for decades, shares why this compelling, infuriating story demands to be told.
Imagine that you are 20, uprooted from your lifelong home in Los Angeles with your family to a dusty detention center next to a region called Death Valley in California. Your crime is not even your nationality, because you were born in America. It is your ethnicity, because your country is at war with Japan. Your parents are Japanese immigrants who cannot become U.S. citizens even if they want to, because the Japanese cannot be naturalized. After being confined with 10,000 other Japanese Americans, you are released to the then-second largest American city, Chicago.
This is the circumstance of my fictional family, the Itos, in my historical mystery, Clark and Division, as well as that of real Japanese Americans who crowded into Chicago from the 10 incarceration centers in the deserts and swamplands of the U.S. The city’s population of Japanese Americans surged from 400 before World War II to 20,000 by the mid-1940s. The U.S. government and sympathetic faith-based organizations wanted to move the Japanese Americans, who once had vast farming and fishing operations on the West Coast, from camps to the nation’s interior, since the West Coast was a “military area” that the “excluded” Japanese Americans were not allowed to return to. Chicago, with its industrial operations and central location, served as a perfect temporary home for these exiled people. Accused of being “the enemy,” they would still work in defense factories and were even drafted into the U.S. Army from the camps, revealing the senselessness of the accusation that they were a threat to national security.
I’ve been interviewing and writing stories about the WWII Nisei (second) generation for the past 35 years in newspaper articles, nonfiction books, noir short stories and even a contemporary mystery series featuring an aging Los Angeles gardener and atomic-bomb survivor. Many Japanese American “resettlers” were young adults in their 20s whose immigrant parents, who faced more of a challenge to receive clearance, remained in detention centers. As a result, these Nisei newcomers were young, single and without parental supervision, perhaps for the first time in their lives. They had transitioned from confinement with people of their same ethnic group to freedom in a multiracial city notorious for gangsters, gambling and graft.
It’s no wonder that chaos would befall this community: babies born out of wedlock, abortions (which were illegal at the time), a peeping Tom, a stick-up man and finally a “sex maniac” who attacked several Nisei women. All of these activities were documented in a 1946 community report but not spoken of in detail in oral histories.
Without any firsthand accounts, I turned to my imagination and my past friendships with these formerly incarcerated people to fill in the gaps. A crime novel, all based on true abbreviated accounts, can cut through to the truth of a people’s pain and resiliency. The biggest mystery within Clark and Division is not a simple whodunit, but the mystery of why a nation and its political leaders abandoned the citizens and legal residents who needed them the most.
Author photo by Mayumi Hirahara.