May 11, 2012


Title: Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life
Author: Diane C. Fujino
Publisher: Critical American Studies, University of Minnesota Press

Book Review By Abayomi Azikiwe
Libya 360°

This is a combined autobiography and biographical account of the life and times of Richard Aoki, a Japanese-American, who along with his parents spent time in an internment camp in the United States during World War II. The book covers an important time period in history when the civil rights, left and black power movements had a tremendous impact on the political structures of the country.

Born on November 20, 1938, Aoki was three and a half years old when his family was relocated to the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, just twelve miles south of San Francisco. They were later transferred to the Topaz, Utah concentration camp.

This fact of U.S. history which is often deliberately overlooked as a key component of the war mobilization against Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7,1941, lays bare the false notions of American democracy and the myth of non-discrimination against the “ideal Asian-American community.” The strain of the internment camps led to the separation of Akoi’s parents which had a tremendous impact on his life as a youth in the aftermath of the war.

Aoki and his brother would live with his father in Utah and later in Oakland. However, another traumatic occurrence took place when his father left town when he was a teenager leading him back to living with his mother and reestablishing a relationship with her.

His mother was a working class woman who raised her sons on a salary of less than two dollars an hour during the 1950s. He grew up in the predominantly African American community in West Oakland but had strong interaction and mentorship from other males in his family including a grandfather and uncles.

He would join the military prior to finishing high school and later the reserves. He read voraciously but admits to harboring a false consciousness. When he voted for the first time in the 1960 elections it was for Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate for president.

Akoi described himself at the time as anti-communist and even read the philosophical writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Soon afterwards he would pick up a book by Eugene Victor Debs, the socialist organizer and candidate for president during the early 20th century.

He found the writings of Debs inspiring and would then go on to study the history of the labor movement involving the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He landed a job in a factory during this period and participated in a strike.

However, it was during the Watts Rebellion of August 1965 that he learned a lesson in both race and class politics in the United States. Akoi recounted that “I remember when Watts busted loose in 1965. I was working in this one factory where 90 percent of the three hundred people working the line were White southerners. Half of them didn’t show up for work the day after the Watts riots.” (p. 86)

Akoi goes on to say “I asked the forman, ‘We got to get the show on the road. Where the hell is everybody?’ He said, ‘Man they’re at home in Richmond or wherever in the tract homes, and they got their front doors barricaded and their guns out for that invasion coming in from Watts.’ I said, ‘There ain’t going to be no invasion coming from Watts.’”

He therefore concluded that “on the one hand, these coworkers of mine were strong union people, you know proletarian-oriented, class-conscious workers. But when it came to race, half the workers, being White southerners, were freaked out over Watts. I was stunned.”