Milton Murayama‘s first work, All Asking for is my Body, quickly gained underground popularity, and later became recognized as a bona fide classic, often noted as a substantial contribution to Asian-American literature. The outstanding (albeit short) book is a snapshot of the life of Japanese Americans living in Hawaii in the years leading up to the bombing at Pearl Harbor and World War 1. While the work is a snapshot of a specific family, Murayama captures the overall experience of Japanese Americans living in a quasi-colonial world: their struggles, their joys, and their entwined histories.
The two most powerful aspects of this book is the way that older and younger generations combine and clash, and how this minority group dealt with economic and social repression. The setting, prose and characters all work to provide a clear and astounding image of a world not often brought into view.
Murayama’s work tells the story through the first-person perspective of Kiyoshi, the second—born son of a Japanese family who came to Hawaii early in the 19305 to work on plantations.
His older brother Tosh, who is stubborn and rebellious, starkly contrasts Kiyoshi’s general contentment with the family‘s life on the island. This is the first (and perhaps most obvious) manifestation of the differences between the issei (first generation Japanese Americans) and the nisei (to which the brothers belong). This main difference between the brothers, it is apparent, comes from Tosh feeling the pressure of being the oldest, and thus “stuck” with the responsibilities of the family.
In contrast, Kiyoshi seems to be relatively comfortable with the changes and similarities between the two generations 7 he understands the goodness of the “old“ while accepting that he and his siblings belong to the “new” ways. This tension and resolution is also made apparent in Murayama‘s prose: while he writes in modern English, the characters all converse in Hawaiian pidgin creole.
This, even more so than the brothers’ relationship, captures the growing partition between the two generations. Equally paramount to Murayama’s work is the way in which he deals with the segregation of Japanese Americans on the whole. Even before Pearl Harbor, Kiyoshi‘s family feels trapped not only by the limitations of work, but also by the crushing debt on the family (that Tosh is pressured to take responsibility for). The debt and low wages, it is clear, is a systematic approach to keeping families like Kiyoshi’s in check‘ these politics of race, ethnicity, and class play out fully when Tosh and Kiyoshi are forced to leave school in the eight grade in order to work, helping their family to pay off their debt. It is clear that the story of this family is not merely limited to this narrative; instead, it is a symptom of the plantation system and the xenophobia that was in full force, even before the internment of Japanese American people following the attacks at Pearl Harbor.
While the attacks themselves are mentioned online briefly, the reader is left to fill in the implications the book ends, however, on a note of hope: Kiyoshi is able to win enough money to pay off the family’s debt. This not only frees the family from their duty, but also frees Kiyoshi to live out the life he seeks 7 in the outside world. Written in hindsight of the struggles that Japanese American community faced (both before and after internment), Murayama‘s work gives clarified insight into a family in Hawaii, and the internal familial changes charged with social repression. Much like John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, this book conveys the story of thousands by relating the narrative of a few in essence, all IAsking for is my Body is a narrative packed with personal power and social meaning.