Kira Kira: Essay Q&A
Is the picture presented in the novel of the poultry industry accurate?
The novel has been well researched, and the picture the author presents of the poultry processing plant and the hatchery is historically accurate. Katie has been told that “poultry was one of the biggest industries supporting the economy of Georgia,” (p. 88) and this statement is as true today as it was in the 1950s, when much of the novel is set. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, “Georgia produces 24.6 million pounds of chicken and 14 million eggs” per day, and the “statewide economic impact of the industry is an estimated $13.5 billion annually.” The poultry industry began to grow large in Georgia during World War II (1939-45). Around that time the number of farms in Georgia devoted mainly to raising chickens increased, in at least one county, nearly twentyfold. This development was mainly concentrated in northern Georgia. The people who worked in the processing plants and hatcheries were mainly rural women (when Katie peers into the factory she sees only women workers there). According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, “the pay was low and the work highly repetitive, unhealthy, and dangerous.” Employee turnover was high, and in some plants bad working conditions led to demands for unionization, exactly as happens in the novel. For example, in the 1950s workers at J. D. Jewell, one of the biggest companies, voted for representation by the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen. Some of union representatives were attacked, which showed, as in the novel, how strongly the companies at the time resisted unionization. Today, the majority of workers in Georgia’s processing plants are immigrants from Latin America. Working conditions are greatly improved when compared to the 1950s.
2. What place does the expression kira-kira have in the novel? What is the challenge for Katie regarding kira-kira?
Kira-kira, the Japanese word that gives the novel its title, means glittering or shining. It is the first word that Katie learns, and it is taught to her by Lynn. Katie loves the word and uses it to describe anything she likes, from the beautiful sky to puppies and butterflies. What Lynn is really trying to express by the word, however, is a certain depth, or essence, or magical quality that things have, and which she seems to have a gift for seeing. She sees into the wonder of the world, and kira-kira expresses that wonder, that sense of inner beauty and radiance that attaches itself to things. Katie sees kira-kira in Lynn’s eyes. The stars embody kira-kira, and Lynn and Katie often lie on their backs at night and gaze at them. However, after Lynn gets sick, seeing the kira-kira in everything becomes much harder. Katie makes a sad effort to do so on Halloween night when she dresses as a fairy godmother and throws glitter off her dress onto Lynn and says “Kira-kira!” But they both know it is not the real thing. After Lynn dies the light goes out of life for the Takeshima family for some months. But when they take a vacation to California and see the Pacific Ocean, just as Lynn had always wanted to, some of the magic of life returns. And so does kira-kira. Katie hears the chirping of a cricket and the cawing of a crow, as well as the whistling of the wind, as kira-kira. This is the legacy her sister has left her, as she herself realizes: “My sister had taught me to look at the world that way, as a place that glitters, as a place where the calls of the crickets and the crows and the wind are everyday occurrences that also happen to be magic” (pp. 243-44).
3. How do the Japanese characters show that they are loyal to their cultural heritage? Are Mrs. Takeshima’s fears about what may happen to her daughters justified?
As part of a very small racial minority living in Georgia, the Takeshimas do their best to preserve their own cultural heritage and pass it on to their daughters. Katie learns many Japanese words and ideas, such as the Sode Boshi, the “kimono sleeve in the sky” (p. 23) that is called the constellation Orion in the West; she also learns how to make rice balls, called onigri in Japanese. She picks up the idea (from her parents, no doubt, with their traditional idea of a woman’s role) that unless she learns how to make onigri, no one will marry her. Lynn appears to know some Japanese, since she sings the “Rabbit on the Moon” song to Katie in Japanese.
The Japanese people in the town all celebrate the New Year together because it is the biggest holiday in Japan. Mrs. Muramoto serves sake and mochi. Katie learns that the first dream a person has in the New Year is considered important and is called hatsu-yume. Watching the first sunrise of the new year is the traditional way to celebrate in Japan, but that has lapsed over the last few years because the men work so hard they are too tired to observe it. This gives a clue about how hard it can be to maintain old cultural traditions in a new land, where lifestyles are different.
Mrs. Takeshima fears her daughters will grow up without any links to their Japanese heritage. She regrets how un-Japanese they seem and warns them about not growing up behaving like “floozies”—the local women who smoke cigarettes and swing their legs in an undignified way. Mrs. Takeshima hopes eventually to send the girls to Japan so they can learn how to be feminine—an event that seems unlikely, given the family’s limited finances.
All in all, it seems like Mrs. Takeshima is fighting a losing battle in attempting to inculcate in her daughters a deeper awareness of Japanese cultural ideals. They both seem American to the core. Katie seems destined to grow into a typical American teenager. At the age of twelve, when her father takes her to Lynn’s grave site, she and her friend Silly perform and dance to some songs they have learned, including such American pop classics as “Hit the Road Jack” and “Twisting the Night Away.” There is nothing Japanese in that.
4. How does the author contrast her characters, and how does the relationship between Katie and Lynn change over the course of the novel?
Cynthia Kadohata sharply differentiates her characters and sets up contrasts between them. Katie’s father is almost the opposite of his brother, Katie’s Uncle Katsuhisa. They are so different that Katie says it was hard to believe they were related. Mr. Takeshima is a calm, deliberate, thoughtful man; he is “mild, like the sea on a windless day, with an unruffled surface and little variation” (p. 11). He rarely gets angry with his daughters, for example, and he is a responsible family man, totally dedicated to providing for his family. He is silent much of the time. Uncle Katsuhisa, in contrast, is loud, talkative, and demonstrative. He is ambitious and thinks highly of his own abilities. He is also impetuous. Katie says that he “didn’t look before he leapt, didn’t think at all before he made decisions” (p. 12).
Both Katie’s mother and Uncle Katsuhisa are presented as quiet, rather delicate women, but Mrs. Takeshima is contrasted with the blunt-spoken union organizer, Mrs. Kilgore. The “bad” Mr. Lyndon who exploits his workers is contrasted with the “good” Hank Garvin who saves Sammy from the trap. The shallow and pretentious Amber, who befriends Lynn and then drops her is contrasted with Silly Kilgore, who proves to be a good friend to Katie.
Lynn is four years older than Katie, so naturally enough, Katie looks up to her when she is very young. Lynn teaches her many things, like the meaning of the word “antebellum,” and Katie thinks she is a genius (which is what Lynn told her) who is always right. Lynn teaches her always to feel a sense of wonder about the world. Katie gets many of her ideas from Lynn, such as a desire to go to college. If Lynn was going, she would go too. However, after Lynn gets sick, their relationship shifts. Katie, the younger one, becomes more like the big sister, doing everything she can to make Lynn feel better and to ensure that she takes her medicine.
5. Why does Katie steal the nail polish, and what are the consequences?
When Katie is very young, her parents tell her that stealing is the second worst thing that a person can do. (The worst is hitting someone.) But at one point in the novel, Katie deliberately steals. It happens when Lynn is very sick and tells Katie that she wishes she had some pink nail polish. Katie’s only desire is to get Lynn what she wants, but she has no money. So she goes to the store and steals some polish. She finds it very easy to do and feels no guilt or remorse. She does not even consider whether her actions might be wrong. She just wants to look after her sister. Lynn is pleased with the varnish and Katie has no regrets about what she has done. She does not get away with it, however. The next day a woman comes to the house and identifies Katie to her mother as the thief. Her mother pays the woman for the varnish and promises that Katie will be punished. Mrs. Takeshima is deeply upset by what Katie did and feels that her family is falling apart. It is then that Katie starts to feel guilty—she is seeing the effects her actions have had on her mother. Her father makes her go to the store and apologize, and the store manager gives her a lecture. It is hard to condemn Katie for the theft because her only thought was to keep her seriously ill sister happy, and stealing the polish was the only way she could think of to do that. For her, love is more important than a small bottle of nail polish.