After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, over one hundred thousand Japanese-Americans were forced to leave their homes and were relocated to internment camps scattered across the American west. Centering on two families with differing loyalties, this historical novel traces the events and relationships of a community of Japanese-Americans in the context of WWII racism, from the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor through the three years they spent in the Manzanar internment camp, as well as the consequences they faced upon their release.
Both Goro “Russell” Hamaguchi and Jim Yoshimura must face decisions concerning who to trust, who to defend, and who to perceive as an enemy, and both their personalities and family backgrounds influence their choices to a great extent. Tight-knit and following strict, yet largely unsaid, rules, especially after his brother’s suicide, Jim’s family is less entwined in society than Russell’s; Russell, as a matter of fact, has adopted an American nickname, only called Goro by his immediate family. With more freedom than Jim, Russell is less focused on his studies and has a non-Japanese girlfriend, as well as American friends. While some characters, in particular both of the boys’ mothers, are often clichéd, their purposes are evident.
But after the attack on Pearl Harbor, both teenage boys encounter racism and gang violence from those who trusted them before the attack, and even by fellow Japanese-Americans who struggle with their identity. Because Jim is introverted, he sticks to the beliefs with which he was raised, focusing on the past, while Russell, who has been immersed in American culture his entire life, fights the prejudice that appeared seemingly overnight with all his conviction. At Manzanar, Jim and Russell find themselves focusing on the same aspects of their lives they did before their internment (girls, friends, family arguments) but with racism, violence, and unjust uprooting as a new background to their day-to-day problems.
While loyalty to America versus loyalty to Japan is the most apparent divider between the groups at the camp, it is, in the end, a matter of consequence. More important than taking sides during the war is discovering a personal identity in the face of oppression. Though Russell continues to assert his American loyalty and Jim questions the intentions of American society, it is not the choice of side one takes (American or Japanese) but it is the loyalty to one’s beliefs and the courage to forgive both sides fighting in the war that mark an individual as “good” or “bad.”
At 450 pages (with quite small font) Eyes behind Belligerence goes into great detail about the relationships between family, friends, and the community, though it can be slow and often engage clichéd dialogue. Frequent and unnecessary similes scatter the text, and grammatical errors occasionally distract. Because the setting of the novel—especially within the internment camp—is incredibly important, both physically and socially, the reader may often be left wanting in this regard. The length of the novel does not make it "epic;" it simply makes it long. It's the profundity of a novel that puts it into the category of epic, and this book is not quite there.
However, the beautifully developed characters, their incredible relationships, and their emotional bonds and histories transcend the downfalls in the mechanics of the writing, bringing to light a sense of community. The reader can easily point out the thematic intricacies of the story, which were certainly Kollenborn’s purpose in this thoroughly researched novel, but a more profound message has the potential to reveal itself if a tighter focus—particularly concerning setting and dialogue—enhanced the relationships between the characters.
Despite its flaws, Eyes behind Belligerence is an inspiring story of loyalty, not to a national identity but to the family and friends in the community, with whom one shares a bond of suffering.