W. Anthony Sheppard
Williams College

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  1. In the 1949 Columbia Pictures film Tokyo Joe, Humphrey Bogart portrays an American in postwar Japan searching for his missing wife.1 Early in the film, he thinks he hears her singing the song she always sang, only to discover that it is a recording of her voice. Her song, “These Foolish Things,” will haunt him throughout the film. At one point he hears the song performed by a Japanese nightclub singer in unaccented English and appears momentarily entranced. However, recalling that a Japanese body is producing the music, he rejects the performance.2 [View video] Going downstairs to see the Japanese singer would have only deepened his disappointment. Racial perception is most commonly considered a task for the eyes achieved at the moment anatomical difference is encountered (Gilman 25). Hearing alone is often not deemed trustworthy in the (apparently) crucial process of discerning and classifying race. In fact, visible racial signs can racially determine auditory perception.3 Moments of racial confusion, particularly those arising from a perceived racial mismatch in sound and image, seem to produce a psychological shock as they blur the boundaries between self and other. Seeing an Asian body producing an assumed “white” or “black” sound has repeatedly provoked such confusion, disappointment, or even ridicule in mainstream American popular culture.

  2. The Tokyo Joe sequence offers an apt allegory of the Japanese American social condition. To a greater degree than other minorities in the US,
    Figure 1. Tokyo Joe poster
    Asian Americans remain stuck in limbo as “perpetual foreigners” (Wu 79–129) no matter how white they may sound. As Henry Yu writes: “For Asian Americans, whether you dance an exotic dance or try to waltz like everyone else, you are still exotic” (Yu 203; Also see Takaki 214–216). This perceived doubleness was strikingly illustrated by sociologist Robert Parks in 1926. Upon interviewing a Japanese American woman who sounded perfectly “white” to his ears, Parks remarked: “I was still not able to escape the impression that I was listening to an American woman in a Japanese disguise” (Yu 67). Ironically, in the nightclub sequence from Tokyo Joe we actually are seeing and hearing an American woman producing the music, a woman whose singing voice lacked any trace of a Japanese accent. Not the white woman whom Bogart seeks, but a Japanese American: the Nisei (i.e., second generation) singer Karie Shindo, who at certain points in her career appeared with Lionel Hampton and the Mills Brothers and who was the sister of Tak Shindo, himself barely visible in the background as the accordion player.4

  3. Tak Shindo (1922–2002) led an extraordinary musical career while remaining primarily in the background. He served as arranger, composer, and musical advisor for film, television, radio, and Las Vegas revues. (See the Appendix for a chronology of Shindo’s career.) He released several successful albums in the exotica genre, was a dance band leader who never missed a New Year’s Eve in forty years, performed in recording sessions on koto and on a variety of band instruments, acted in bit parts in Hollywood, served as a translator and tour guide in Japan, was a musical columnist and publisher, studied historical musicology and Asian religions—earning a master’s degree with a thesis on shakuhachi history—and, as an associate professor, taught world music courses and directed jazz ensembles at the college level. Prefiguring the dynamics of 1980s world beat, Shindo suddenly found the mainstream spotlight shining on him in the late 1950s as the representative of Japanese musical culture in Hollywood film and television. Several of his albums from the 1950s and 60s—combining elements of Japanese music with the big band style—received renewed attention in the 1990s as part of the exotica/cocktail/lounge revival. Shindo’s career is significant for the study of Asian American history, musical exoticism and racial representation, and the history of Japanese American jazz. Although he was clearly exceptional and not representative of Nisei musicians, his life and career were fundamentally shaped by the Nisei experience.

  4. Early in his career, Shindo frequently inspired confusion by composing and arranging jazz music. As he put it: “They were just kind of surprised by the fact that I could write jazz; they thought I was just writing some Oriental music. … Frankly, the thing is, whether I’m Japanese, or black, or white, doesn’t make any difference. If you’re born and raised here you know more about jazz than you would [anything else].”5 Shindo’s statement appears to resonate with Ingrid Monson’s observation: “Since whiteness tends to be a sign of inauthenticity within the world of jazz, the appeals of white musicians to universalistic rhetoric can be perceived as power plays rather than genuine expressions of universal brotherhood” (203). Shindo’s claims of racial universalism for jazz and his participation in popular primitivism and orientalism might seem to constitute a “move toward whiteness” on his part. However, this option was never fully viable for Shindo, and his motivation for this particular statement was to lay claim to a musical style generally perceived as lying beyond the boundaries of “Japaneseness.” The insistence on belonging fully to mainstream American culture and the desire to distance oneself from all exotic association were very common Nisei responses to mid-century American racism.

  5. Shindo, however, never entirely separated himself from his exotic status. As he explained: “Everyone is looking for a style. So in my case, I decided being Oriental, I had something I should draw upon and so I decided to go ‘exotic sound.’” What, exactly, did he have to “draw upon”? What was that “something” that he possessed as an “Oriental”? Was it the limited knowledge of Japanese music that he had acquired as a child, or was it the exotic status of “perpetual foreigner” generally attributed to Asian Americans by white Americans? Because he was seen as being Japanese rather than American, Shindo’s “exotic sound” was automatically accepted as “authentic” and his knowledge of the foreign taken for granted. As the Hollywood composer David Raksin told me: “We all went to him when we didn’t want to do something stupid.”6 By helping Hollywood avoid doing “something stupid” on the soundtrack, Shindo provided directors and composers a sense of security that their films were somehow achieving or at least approximating “authenticity.” In attempting to define his musical identity one needs to consider whether Shindo was primarily a product or a producer of musical orientalism and whether his exotic status ultimately proved to be a limiting or an enabling condition for his career. Was he moving musically toward or away from the categories of white, black, and yellow, or did his music point in multiple directions on the racial compass simultaneously?

    A Nisei Musical Education

  6. Susan Asai, Jo Anne Combs, and Minako Waseda have documented the history of Japanese American music in Los Angeles and have discussed the particular duality of the Nisei musical experience.7 Shindo’s musical background clearly illustrates their findings. His mother sang traditional and popular Japanese songs at home and on KRKD radio, and there was a shamisen and a large collection of Japanese recordings in the house. His family lived in Little Tokyo next door to a Japanese classical dance studio and across the street from a movie theater. As a child, Shindo sat in on the dance lessons and was taken to the silent film theater by a neighbor who played violin in the pit. During Japanese films, Shindo heard the narration of the benshi accompanied by shamisen. During the American films he gained his first experience of Hollywood film music. Shindo attended Japanese language school where he was introduced to basic features of Japanese traditional culture. His first public musical performance took place at around age fourteen when he sang “Blue Hawaii” on stage at the Olivers’ Japanese American youth club. In his teens Shindo played E-flat horn in a Boy Scouts drum and bugle corps, receiving private lessons and learning western notation. Finally, of course, like most American teenagers he listened enthusiastically to 1930s swing.

  7. With the internment in concentration camps of some 120,000 Japanese Americans, roughly two-thirds of whom were US citizens, the Nisei were bluntly informed by the government of their perpetual foreignness. As David K. Yoo has stated: “No other second-generation group has had to face the questions of its place in America under the extraordinary conditions that the Nisei encountered” (9). One common reaction was to attempt to assert one’s identity as an American as strongly as possible, often through music.8 Music continued to play a central role in Nisei identity formation, as George Yoshida has shown in his study of dance band music in the camps. For many interned Nisei, performing or dancing to swing music offered a simulation of normality and was an enactment of their hopes of being accepted as Americans. In her autobiographical account of the internment, Farewell to Manzanar, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston recalls her attraction as a young girl to American popular music and her rejection of Japanese traditional culture. At one point during the internment she went to an old geisha in the camp to learn odori (traditional dancing for the Obon festival), but this “occult figure” and the culture she represented proved too exotic for the young Nisei girl and she never went back (109). A most dramatic depiction of the Nisei rejection of Japanese culture occurs in the 1990 20th Century-Fox film Come See the Paradise. After her father has been arrested by the FBI and as her family prepares to leave their home for the internment camps, Lily, the eldest daughter, and her siblings energetically break all of their father’s recordings of Japanese music. This is a poignant and symbolic moment. We have witnessed her father lovingly caring for this collection early in the film and will hear him sing Japanese folk songs in camp as a lament for his lost patriarchy.9 Many Nisei disavowed the inheritance of Japanese music, attempting to avoid yet another stigma of cultural difference.

  8. Had it not been for his internment at Manzanar, Tak Shindo would most likely have become an electrical engineer.10 While he had some musical experience, he had just begun college before Pearl Harbor and had no thoughts of pursuing music as a career. In his July 10, 1942 internment interview, Shindo did not list music under “educational specialization” and “significant activities.” Music does appear under “skills and hobbies,” but only in ninth place after such activities as radio, baseball, and bowling. Asai has referred to the “abnormal opportunities for music making” afforded to the Nisei by their internment (435–36).11 Shindo performed in one of the camp orchestras and took advantage of the camp’s musical education program. Most significantly for his later career, he also took correspondence courses in orchestration.12 Although traditional Japanese music was present in the camps, most Nisei performed and listened to the mainstream popular music of the day.13 However, unlike other Nisei musicians, Shindo never renounced his Japanese musical heritage. At the end of his life, he still owned his family’s Japanese music collection of 78 records, which had been placed safely in storage during the internment.

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Works Cited Appendix


1. This film, with a score by George Antheil, was one of the earliest attempts by Hollywood to portray the postwar Japanese situation. The film is equally notable for bringing the Japanese silent film star Sessue Hayakawa back to the American screen in what has to be his most evil role.

2. Late in the film we see and hear the Japanese vocalist again performing “These Foolish Things” as Joe (the Bogart character) rushes into the nightclub and ascends the stairs, only to discover his Japanese male friend committing ritual suicide. At the moment of discovery, we hear the singer downstairs switch to Japanese lyrics and reach the song’s final cadence just as Joe pulls the sword from his friend’s belly and the sequence ends. This switch in language helps to underscore the friend’s (and the vocalist’s) ultimate otherness.

3. Consider the initial reception of Elvis Presley, Nat “King” Cole, or recent non-black rappers. These performers surprised and provoked some listeners who perceived a disjuncture between their racialized voices heard on the radio and their skin colors observed on TV or in live performance.

4. Karie Shindo (married name Aihara) also had several bit parts in Hollywood films and TV shows. In addition, she participated in a 1960 pageant in Los Angeles which depicted (in four tableaux of music, dancing, and drama) the history of US-Japan relations and the loyalty of the Nisei in World War II. The kotoist Kimio Eto—a famous ambassador of Japanese traditional music to the US—also participated in this performance. (See the article “Program to Tell Story of Japanese Culture.”) A photograph of her performing with the Harry James Orchestra appears in Yoshida, 219. Lionel Hampton also featured the Japanese female vocalist Miyoko Hoshino on his 1964 album East Meets West. Hampton’s band included the Japanese American trombonist Paul Higaki in 1949–1951 and the Nisei vocalist Susumu Takao sang with his band in the late 1940s (Yoshida 209–222).

5. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Shindo are from transcripts of my interviews with him in April and June 2000 carried out at his home in San Dimas, California and on the telephone. I am exceedingly grateful to Sachiko Shindo for allowing me to continue my research in her husband’s papers at her home in January 2004. I am also grateful to Myra Shindo for meeting with me during that research visit to discuss her father’s life and career.

6. Telephone interview on March 9, 2000.

7. Also see Yang. A striking c. 1930 photo of a girl playing a koto in her family’s living room with a piano in the background illustrates the musical duality of the Nisei (Murase 69). On the cultural divergence between the Issei (first) and Nisei generations, see Kurashige.

8. On the general attempt of the Nisei generation to “identify fully with American life” and the role of the Japanese American Citizens League in promoting this goal, see Takahashi, 53–65.

9. This film—ostensibly focused on the plight of Japanese Americans—is primarily concerned with the life of the white male hero and with his interracial love. As Laura Hyun Yi Kang puts it: “The film ends with the happy reunification of Jack, Lily, and their daughter. One reconstituted family with its white male head-of-household is celebrated, displacing the ruptures wreaked upon numerous other Japanese American families by the Internment” (86–87). Marita Sturken similarly argues that the film’s more radical elements are “undercut by its privileging of the story of its white male protagonist, played by Dennis Quaid, whose character allows white viewers to feel atoned through their identification with his apparent transcendence of racism” (40).

10. Shindo entered Manzanar in March 1942 as one of the first one thousand Japanese Americans who had volunteered to evacuate. He primarily worked as a supervisor of fuel oil delivery in the camp, but also had several work furloughs in agriculture and industry in Utah and Idaho during his internment period. His internment ended when he entered the US Army in November 1944. My detailed information concerning Shindo’s internment experience is derived primarily from his WRA evacuee case file housed at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC. I am grateful to Aloha South at the National Archives for providing me with copies of these records. In 1980, Shindo made a self-produced documentary film on the Manzanar internment camp entitled Encounter with the Past that includes rare footage of camp life, including various forms of musical performance.

11. Waseda has made a parallel point: “The internment camps, thus, ironically functioned as a ‘shelter,’ in which Japanese Americans could continue to practice their ethnic cultural heritage” (126). See chapter three in Waseda on music in the internment camps. For information on the organization of music in Manzanar and the regulation of Japanese traditional music performance see Unrau, 573–74.

12. For example, he received a certificate in “Dance Band Arranging” from the University Extension Conservatory, Chicago, on September 11, 1945.

13. Articles in the Manzanar Free Press provide one source of information revealing the diverse musical life found in the internment camps. For example, articles appearing in the summer and fall of 1944 include references to a farewell concert for the instructor of the Manzanar Sankyoku Club; a “Symphony Under the Stars” concert series including an all-Tchaikovsky night, a night of selections from Oklahoma, and an evening of Tommy Dorsey’s music; enrollment opportunities for Japanese folk dancing classes; and an announcement of music classes on European instruments taught by Japanese American instructors. The Japanese section on September 13, 1944 included an article in which the author refers to a recent radio broadcast of opera. This correspondent states that Puccini is their favorite composer and cites La bohème and Madama Butterfly as being “complete in drama, words and music.” The author continues: “Speaking of this reminds me that ever since the outbreak of the war the shadow of ‘Madame Butterfly’ seems to have vanished somewhere.” Microfilmed copies of the Manzanar Free Press are housed at the Japanese American National Museum Hirasaki National Resource Center, Los Angeles, California.




















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