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Race and Identity in Milton Murayama’s “Plantation Boy”

The novel Plantation Boy

Literature is often a reflection of society as seen through the writer’s eyes. In his works, the author usually tries to convey an idea, his understanding of a particular problem, or the entire worldview. Sometimes, the path of fiction leads the author far back reassessing all his life experience and creating a long narration full of drama, humor, controversy, and philosophy. The same path carried Milton Murayama as it led Tolstoy, Bradbury, Hemingway, and many others before him. The novel Plantation Boy continues the author’s book cycle about the hardships of a Japanese family in Hawaii focusing on Toshio, an ambitious young man, who resents the life conditions he happened to be born into and tries to force his way into the brighter future. His path and the misfortunes he and his kin experience mirror the similar tensions that are happening across the globe, which is why it is crucial to make sense of every piece of knowledge on the topic.

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The book vividly outlines the questions of racial and ethnic relationships, as the plantation inhabitants represented a mixture of cultures not always managing to find common ground. Additionally, the author brings up an issue of identity in its generational and ideological aspects enlightening the conflict between the younger and the older population of plantation workers.

Race and Ethnicity in Cross-cultural Engagements

Most people associate themselves with one of the races, ethnicities and perceive the world through a prism of one culture. These deeply sensitive matters are sometimes related to evil tongues to escalate disputes and put the opponent out of temper. Historical tensions between nations or within them often result in conflicts and mutual negativity among the representatives of these nations or specific groups when they are forced to make contact. The tense relationships between the white Americans and the Japanese have a historical background of the overall invasive approach and imposition of their interests through trade along with colonization issues over China (Nish 22).

In the novel, the author illuminated such conflicts in the form of the confrontation between the haoles, a pidgin word for white people, and Japanese Americans. The contemptuous view of the former towards the latter is vividly illustrated by the situation when the protagonist of the book, Toshio, drives his employer, Charles, to the airport. There he hears the conversation, where he is being related to as “a boy,” “Malayan tiger,” and “trade number” (Murayama 131). Charles’ friends stress his junior position in society, make a mistake in identifying his ethnicity implying no difference between Asian workers, and associate a person with a thing or an animal. This fuels Toshio’s anger towards all white people, which is, however, not destructive but creative. The force of his resentment pushes him to learn and put more energy into his job instead of doing nothing. He strives to show them “who needs who” by working hard and earning his position in the white society not to be like his parents (Murayama 131).

The mutual prejudices between haoles and non-haoles and overall exploitation of labor naturally inspired a kind of unity among Asian plantation workers in Hawaii. It is a common behavior among people to unite against a common enemy during the war, though in this case, the ‘war’ meant strong opposition between the abusers and abused, who had common interests regarding their working life quality. Above that, generally heavy working conditions, among other things, provoked Filipino and Japanese plantation workers, for example, to organize strikes against International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Murayama in his book claims, “They cannot use one against the other” possibly meaning that the mutual hardships united the two ethnicities too well for anyone to try to separate them (71).

However, the Japanese did not always manage to find common ground among themselves. Many Hawaii experts claim there were tensions between Hawaii-born Japanese and Mainland U.S. Japanese originating from the Second World War conflict based on cultural, language, and stereotype issues. Murayama supports that idea in his book, where he writes about the fights and quarrels between them, which were quite frequent. The letters that Toshio’s brother writes him from the war suggest that he was beaten for no reason by kotonks and later repaid them in kind (Murayama 31).

Additionally, the Novel narrates about minor hostilities and mockery occurring between the Okinawans and the mainland Japanese. Toshio mentions that naichi people despised Okinawans, which was manifested through the male students, who avoided befriending girls from the island (Murayama 8). McCormack and Norimatsu state that this antipathy came from the historical rivalry, separatism, and even military actions between the Ryukyu Kingdom and Japan (2-4).

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Cross-generational Conflicts in the Novel

Relationships between children and parents, the elderly and the youth, have usually provoked vivid discussions in the literature. The undying universal interest in this topic may be explained by the fact that the change of generations has been happening since the dawn of civilization and the need for communication between them has always persisted. People, who live in certain world conditions, usually acquire a set of beliefs that may not apply to the changing environment thus making them ‘the previous generation. ‘The new’ generation, in turn, is usually born into a different world sometimes with no desire or ability to access the values of the past. This conflict is evidenced by the survey responses provided by Mathews and White, which generally featured the “old-fashioned way of life” of the elderly population, whereas the younger people were characterized as “inconsiderate” and “self-centered” (1).

In the book by Murayama, the generation gap is presented from the perspective of the plantation mentality. The first generation of Hawaii Japanese immigrants, Issei, were mostly raised as gaman, which is a Japanese word for a Buddhist-related mindset, which supposes the ultimate tolerance for life and non-resistance to difficult circumstances. The first-generation plantation workers have mostly accepted their fate and do not try seeking a better life being the bearers of the plantation mentality, while some representatives of the new generation, Nisei, try to overcome it. Toshio works very hard to achieve his goal while having no support, which brings him to conflict with his parents. In a flash of anger, he tries to convey his idea to them saying that they do not want to progress and improve their living conditions, and they will never leave this plantation alive (Murayama 14). However, Toshio’s attempts to reach them failed. If the person of age has lived in a particular way for long, there is rarely a chance to change this.

The New Identity

The children of the first Japanese immigrants were already born on U.S. soil. They learn the English language, go to American-style schools, and therefore acquire American values, which are often juxtaposed to the reality of plantation life. Seeing the radical mismatch between what life is like for the haoles and what it is like for them, some of them seek to improve their conditions to be decent members of white society. That is, by itself, may be seen as an American way of life – when hard work yields better living conditions.

Toshio thinks of himself as a man, who can break the vicious circle despite the circumstances and force the Americans to respect him. He directs his anger against both: haoles and his parents. The former for not giving him and his people credit and the latter for not seeing the dire state of their life. This transitional state between the two worlds, presumably, makes him believe even harder that he is different and gives him the powers to fight. Ultimately, he realizes that there is no point in pretending to conform to any of them, developing his way and identity because he sees it as the only way to conquer the plantation mentality (Sudo 311).


Discussions on topics of race, identity, culture, and ethnic conflicts, perhaps, seem to be one of the most controversial and multifaceted as many fictional, scientific, and media sources have tried to address them. The novel Plantation Boy by Milton Murayama is yet another attempt to look at them. Toshio’s life story appears to be a constant struggle against oppression with no allies and no approval. His path may show how hard it may be to overcome prejudices that seem to be set in stone.

Race as a uniting factor, despite having some bright moments, appears to have its limitations when it comes to different ethnic groups striving to win the place in the sun for their own. As for the identity, Toshio with his example seems to demonstrate that freedom of choice may be worth far more than someone’s approval since he saw that there would be no end to the “plantation plot” (Murayama 88). All things considered, Murayama seems to have managed to convey one more insight into several pressing topics in the social agenda clearly stating the point of the necessity to fight the colonial state of mind and prejudices in a strive to freedom.

Works Cited

Mathews, Gordon, and White, Bruce. Japan’s Changing Generations: Are Young People Creating a New Society? Routledge, 2012.

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McCormack, Gavan, and Norimatsu, Satoko O. Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012.

Murayama, Milton. Plantation Boy. University of Hawaii Press, 1998.

Nish, Ian. Alliance in Decline: A Study of Anglo-Japanese Relations, 1908-23. A&C Black, 2013.

Sudo, Naoto. Nanyo-orientalism. Cambria Press, 2012.

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