Cynthia Kadohata

A Place to Belong

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A Place to Belong Summary

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A Place to Belong is a 2019 historical children’s novel by Japanese-American author Cynthia Kadohata. Set in the immediate wake of World War II, it follows Hanako, a young Japanese girl, who travels with her family from America back to Japan. Hanako and her family return home after spending four years imprisoned in a series of internment camps along the west coast of the United States, including the massive camp at Tule Lake in Northern California. Hanako’s family is part of thousands of Nikkei people, members of the Japanese diaspora, who were wrongfully imprisoned as part of the wartime anti-Japanese propaganda campaign in the United States. Hanako’s family hopes to repatriate to Japan after suffering at the hands of the American government but soon finds that they underestimated the extent of the devastation of Japan during the war. Kadohata based the novel on the real-life story of Yasuko Margie Sakimura, who lived as a girl in the internment camps before making the arduous journey back home.

A Place to Belong moves back and forth through time, detailing Hanako’s childhood starting with the December 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, which immediately made life harder for hundreds of thousands of people of Japanese origin, regardless of citizenship status, wealth, or location. Families were divided and imprisoned in various internment camps. At the time of the bombing, Hanako lived in Los Angeles, where her mother and father ran a restaurant in Little Tokyo, the Weatherford Chinese & American Cafe. Her family was briefly sent to a temporary internment camp. Luckily, she was not separated from her parents or brother, Akira; they were all relocated together to a camp in Jerome, Arkansas. From Jerome, they were moved ultimately to Tule Lake internment camp in Modoc County, California. The camp was densely overpopulated, at one point housing more than 18,000 people. The prisoners tried to organize and protest, but most of their efforts only led to crueler punishment. In the racist paranoia of the day, every prisoner was presumed guilty of espionage or some other form of treason.

Back in the present day, Hanako and her parents are on a huge ship to Japan. They plan to find Hanako’s grandparents’ farm outside the city of Hiroshima. They have heard about the large bomb that was dropped on the city, but have little knowledge about the extent of its destruction. Aboard the ship, Hanako is deprived of personal space and privacy, making things harder as it speeds across the vast ocean into an unknown future. In mid-January, 1946, they dock in Uraga Harbor, Japan. They take a schooner to shore, then board a truck that moves them to an army barracks. The following morning, Hanako and Akira discover that their luggage has been misplaced. Now without clothes and the extra money their mother had hidden in their seams, they board a train to Hiroshima. Here, Hanako is appalled and distraught to see the absolute ruination of the once-thriving city. The family boards yet another train into the countryside, arriving at the station near Hanako’s paternal grandparents’ farm.

At the farm, Hanako and Akira meet their jiichan, or grandfather. Though it is the first time they have ever met, they are immediately filled with love for each other. Luckily, Hanako’s jiichan speaks decent English, allowing them to communicate directly about their distinct experiences of World War II. Over the following months, Hanako’s family struggles to make ends meet. Her parents realize that there is little left for her or Akira in Japan, and look for ways to secure their return to America. Hanako’s father learns of an American lawyer named Mr. Collins who specializes in helping repatriated Japanese revert to American citizenship, using the argument that the Nikkei have been virtually forced to repatriate. Hanako feels conflicted about the prospect of returning to America: though it is likely the only place she will survive, she never wants to say goodbye to her grandparents. Nevertheless, she and her brother return to America. At the end of the novel, Hanako reflects that she has survived by learning to accept whatever fate brings to her. Kadohata’s novel imagines the modern homeland as an ever-changing idea, claimed through perseverance and sacrifice, rather than a sentimental or romantic destination.