Commercialized "Japanese Americans"

By William Wetherall

First posted 3 April 2007
Last updated 18 March 2009


Robert Davis
New York: Walker and Company, 1989
222 pages, hardcover

A Japanese American woman named Janice Simms is murdered in Golden Gate Park in 1943 with a Japanese sword. A nisei man named Tanizani Kimura, who had been hiding with the help of friends rather than submit to relocation, is caught, charged, convicted, and executed for the murder. The novel opens in 1970, when Kimura's niece, a political activist, finds evidence that her uncle was innocent. The son of Kimura's attorney discovers that the real culprit is still at large and still killing.

Jacket blurb

The dust jacket describes the story like this -- and suggests it will be a rough ride.

In 1943, Janice Simms, a lovely young Japanese-American, was found dead in Golden Gate Park, brutally murdered by a Japanese ceremonial sword. Tanizani Kimura, a nisai [sic] hiding out in his basement to avoid internment, was accused, convicted, and executed as the killer. Now, in 1970, his niece Patti Kimura has evidence that someone else committed the murder and perhaps several others since.

Jack Edwards was Kimura's attorney and has persisted in declaring his innocence, so Patti goes to Edwards for help. Shortly thereafter he is found dead as well, the supposed victim of an automobile accident despite his reputation as an overly cautious driver. His son, Harry Edwards, a cop with the LAPD, is drawn into the investigation and inherits Patti's evidence, a paperback mystery novel that describes the Janice Simms murder in detail not even her lawyer was aware of. The author is a man named Edward Capos, and his version of the crime proves Kimura didn't do it. Unfortunately, neither Capos nor his publisher are anywhere to be found.

Meanwhile, Patti, a political activist, is preparing for a huge public rally against the Vietnam War. The protest is to take place in the same park where the 1943 murder took place, and history could very possibly repeat itself. There's no time to lose.

The killer has to be someone who knew Kimura, which puts all the family friends of Harry's childhood under suspicion -- and his father as well.

Against the backdrop of San Francisco and the upheaval brought on by the pending peace demonstration, Harry begins his painful and painstaking descent into the darkness inhabited by the psychopath Edward Capos, whoever he may be.

The author, we are told, lives in San Francisco, and this is his first mystery as well as first novel. Neither should be held against him.


Not all west-coast Americans who might have been regarded by authorities (if not by themselves) as "Japanese-Americans" were interned. I cannot confirm that there was no case in the real world of a person who, subject to internment, hid away much less committed a crime while in hiding. But this is fiction, and given that "Japanese-Americans" are no different from any other definable population, such a case is plausible.

However, a number of problems in the story, and on the dust jacket, suggest that the author, and the publishers, exploited the contemporary interest in internment camps to make a buck -- which, of course, is not a crime.

"lovely young Japanese-American"

Why the corpse couldn't have been an "ugly old" whatever is anyone's guess.


The dust jacket says Kimura was a "nisai". Once in the story Kimura is described as a nisei (page 74) -- but "nisei" is correctly spelled, and is rendered in plain text, as it had entered the English language long before this novel was written.

"Tanizani Kimura"

"Tanizani" -- neither a typo or stylebook infraction -- is one of the odder fake "Japanese" names I have come across. Not only is "Tanizani" more like a family name ("Tanizaki"), but "zani" (or "sani") is not a plausible linguistic component in Japanese.

The name of Kimura's neice, Patti Kimura, suggests that Davis adopted created her name from names in the news like "Patty" Hearst (1970s) and Fumiko "Kimura" (1980s). At least he didn't call her Wendy Yoshimura -- a radical artist associated with the SLA and Hearst.

Patti Kimura, who appears off an on in the book but is ultimately a minor character, is cast in the mold of a hardened peace activist. She is introduced by one character as "a very pretty girl . . . a college student . . . a graduate student . . . also a political activist" (page 5).

After an article Patti had written about her uncle's case was published in a local magazine, she received from an anonymous sender a pulp paperback mystery novel published several years ago "with a gaudy picture of a half-naked white woman being attcked by an Asian male" (page 6). Patti showed the novel to Jack Edwards, who had been Kimura's attorney in the murder trial. Jack, who takes a new interest in the case, dies in an auto accident that should not have happened.

Jack's son Harry, an LAPD cop, pieces together what parts of the puzzle he can find, and searches for the missing parts. After reading the novel -- Death in the Park by Edward Capos, Pearl Books, New York, 1963 -- he visits Patti at her ghetto apartment in the Filmore district of San Francisco. When the door opens he sees "a small woman in jeans and work shirt and horn-rimmed glasses . . . only her hair, which fell losely over her shoulders and down her back, gave a hint of the female behind the cold stare" (page 28). When he explains his purpose, she relaxes and invites him in.


The novel is only very superficially about "Japanese-Americans". The story of Tanizani Kimura and Janice Simms is briefly told about one-fourth into the book.

First comes a language lesson (page 49).

"What kind of man was Kimura?" Harry said.

"Ki-moo-ra. Not Kim-era." Rhodes turned from the window where he was standing. "A noble man, Harry. Or a fool."

Everyone in the neighborhood seems to have known that Tanizani Kimura had gone into hiding rather than report to Tanforan Race Track, including friends like Jack Edwards, who came to Doc Rhodes for help. Jack began working on a legal brief to challenge the constitutionality of the relocation order. In the meantime, Kimura was to stay in his home and out of sight. This went on for two months, until Kimura was arrested -- for murder.

"married to a Caucasian . . . therefore . . . exempted from the relocation"

They also knew Janice Simms, who according to the story was not subject to the relocation order (page 51).

"Nobody but Jack would touch this case, and even he was reluctant."

"I don't understand. Why?"

Janice Simms. The victim. She was a friend. We all knew her."

You mean she was helping Kimura too?"

No, she wasn't part of that. She was also a Japanese-American, but she was married to a Caucasian, and therefore was exempted from the relocation. She was a pacifist and a patriot and an outspoken critic of the internment. Jack knew her well, and he was reluctant for that reason."

Kirk Mitchell, in Black Dragon (1988), published a year before Kimura, includes a scene in which a "Japanese-American" woman tells her "white" lover that one of the reasons she couldn't marry him was that "California has a statute that would nullify our marriage even if we went to a justice of the peace in another state" (Mitchell 1988, paperback edition, page 401) -- which was not true. See review of Black Dragon for details on status of miscegenation in California's Civil Code at the time.

"Americanized for a Japanese"

Jack's friends, including Kimura's relatives, meet at his funeral in San Francisco. Yoshiro Kimura, Tanizani's brother and Patti's father, came up from San Jose. Yoshiro had submitted to the reclocation order, and Patti had been born in an internment camp.

After the funeral, Harry visits Max and Hilda Aronson at their bookstore on Post Street. They had known Kimura and had met Janice (pages 60-62).

"Doc told me you two helped keep Kimura out of the relocation center. Is that right?"

"Unfortunately." This was Hilda. "He should have gone. But we were beginning to hear stories about Germany. People lumped things together . . . . He was a Japanese in America, like a Jew in Germany. Even before Pearl Harbor there was terrible prejudice. . . . That poor nurse, Janice Simms. She was also Japanese, you know."

"What kind of man was Kimura?"

"A quiet man. Perhaps baffled, dazed." Hilda closed her eyes.

"I don't think he fully understood what was happening," Max said. "It was all a nightmare."

"Did either of you know Janice Simms?"

"I met her once at Doc's," Hilda said. "A lovely person. Very Americanized for a Japanese girl in those days."

"Was it common then to walk alone in the park at night? For Americanized girls?"

"She was on her way to work, to the hospital," Hilda said.

Peter "Dutch" Fleming -- "a tall, handsome black man, with gray hair and a look of permanent sadness on his face" -- tells Harry that Kimura "was still very Japanese" -- after Marjorie Crawford tells him she thinks Kimura was born in Fresno (page 64).

"I'm suprised you didn't know that"

Marj also tells Harry something he did not know about Simms and Doc (page 624.

"By the way, did you know that Doc Rhodes used to work with the Simms woman?"

"I thought Doc was at a military hospital then."

"He was at the Naval Hospital on the other side of the bay, yes. But he still worked at U.C. A queer bird, that man. Janice Simms was a nurse and worked at U.C. with him. I'm surprised you didn't know that."

"Japanese gardner -- nisei"

Later Harry visits Alexander and Ellen Mitchell in Berkeley (page 74).

"What kind of man was Kimura?" Harry asked.

"A Japanese gardner. A nisei. Also, to his friends, something of a Buddhist priest."

"He was a fine gardner," Ellen said.

The plot thickens. Someone makes an attempt on Patti's life. Harry wonders where Dutch was that night. Marj assures him Dutch is a good man. (Page 151)

Born in the U.S.A. . . . in 1889

A few pages later Harry begins reading the file on Kimura's 1943 murder trial (page 160). And later yet he reads Kimura's own testimony, the beginning of which the narrator paraphrases like this (page 189).

Born in 1889 on a farm in Stanislaus County, he and his younger brother had lived there until the lease had been lost. He had only a few years' formal education, but had been taught to read and write Japanese as well as English. He'd been in the army for six months in 1918, but had never been outside California. He'd moved to San Francisco in the twenties and worked in the nursery business. Kimura had worked hard. He had specialized in landscape gardening.

I won't spoil the ending -- except to say that the plot twists and turns as Harry discovers one fact after another -- in an order that suits the needs of a narrative that is too frequently awkward and simply amateurish, even for a Walker Mystery by a new face.

All in all, the story reads like a slow-release sleeping pill that leaves one drowsy and sleepless. And it has the stamp of a novel contrived mostly to exploit the growing popularity of "relocation camp" stories -- which peaked with .