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Hunt for the Bamboo Rat (book)

Creators: Graham Salisbury

Book cover. Courtesy of Wendy Lamb Books
View in the Densho Encyclopedia

Young adult novel by Graham Salisbury based on the wartime exploits of Richard Sakakida , a Nisei intelligence agent in the Counter Intelligence Corps who was captured by the Japanese in the Philippines.


As the novel begins in the summer of 1941, Zenji Watanabe has just graduated from McKinley High School and lives with his family in the Pauoa Valley section of Honolulu, while working as a forklift driver. His older brother, Henry, is nineteen and works as a bookkeeper while going to college part time, and his sister Aiko is fifteen. His Issei mother had immigrated from Okinawa, his father having died in an industrial accident a decade prior. One day, his old ROTC commanding officer from McKinley visits and tells Zenji to report the following morning for a possible job. When he does, Zenji is quizzed in Japanese by visiting officials from Washington, D.C. He returns and takes a series of tests, and is one of the top two scorers on the test. Brought to Fort Shafter, he told that he will be joining the army and doing top-secret translation work in the Philippines. Because he is only seventeen, he needs his mother's permission to enlist, which she grudgingly grants. At a going away party organized by Henry, he meets a young woman named Mina who is the daughter of a family friend, and they immediately hit it off.

Zenji leaves for the Philippines, where he meets the other top scoring Nisei, the wise cracking Freddy Kimura, who grew up in Maui. They are given code names; Zenji is the "Bamboo Rat," Freddy, "Spider." In Manila, they are assigned to blend in with the local population. Zenji ends up at a Japanese hotel where he befriends Japanese businessmen and reports daily to a fake job that allows him to gather more information around the city. He files reports via a hotel mail box and makes surreptitious visits to the local military headquarters. He eventually lands a job at the local Japanese consulate, working for another Nisei, Benny Suzuki. But after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and on Manila, the Americans are forced to vacate. In Bataan, Zenji is given a change to evacuate to Australia, but insists on giving up his seat to Benny, since he has a family. Zenji's unit is eventually surrounded by the Japanese, and surrenders; he becomes a prisoner of the Japanese. As a Japanese American, he comes under particular scrutiny and is tortured. But drawing on determination he didn't know he had, he survives and plots out a way to to escape.

The novel includes a brief author's note in which Salisbury explains that the Zenji, Freddy, and Benny were all based on real people, Richard Sakakida, Arthur Komori, and Clarence Yamagata, respectively. He writes, however, that, "It is a fictional account of some of his exploits; I invented the characters, the dialogue, and many of the events." There is also a glossary of Japanese, Hawaiian, and Ibaloa phrases (he comes across Ibaloa speaking tribesman in a Philippines jungle later in the story), a list of additional resources, and acknowledgements.

Background of Book

Author Graham Salisbury (1944– ) was born in Philadelphia, but mostly raised in Hawai'i, where his family has long roots going back to the early 1800s. His father, Henry Forester Graham, was a naval officer who survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but who was later killed when his plane was shot down in the Pacific on Graham's first birthday. Salisbury grew up on the windward side of O'ahu and also in Kailua-Kona and Kamuela on the Big Island where he boarded at Hawaii Preparatory Academy from the 7th grade. Taken by music at a young age, he pursued a music career in the 1960s, recording as part of the well-known Sunshine Pop band The Millennium and also as a solo artist under the name "Sandy Salisbury." He also worked on a deep-sea fishing boat and as the skipper of a glass-bottom boat. He eventually went on to graduate from California State University, Northridge in 1974 with the intention of becoming a teacher. He cites a reading of Alex Haley's Roots "which changed my live forever," inspiring him to become a reader and eventually a writer. After graduating with an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Norwich University in 1990, he published his first novel for young adults, Blue Skin of the Sea (1992) to great acclaim. It set the template for his future books in that it was set in Hawai'i and was a coming of age story with a teen-age boy as protagonist intended for an audience of teenage boys. [1]

Hunt for the Bamboo Rat is Salisbury's fourth book that focuses on the Japanese American story. His first, Under the Blood Red Sun (1994), about a Nisei teenager in Honolulu in the early part of World War II, gained great acclaim and inspired a sequel, House of the Red Fish (2006), as well a movie adaptation (2014). Salisbury also wrote Eyes of the Emperor (2005), which, like Bamboo Rat , was based on a real story of Nisei World War II military heroism.

Historical Accuracy and Response

Though the story sticks to the Sakakida's real life story in broad outline, Salisbury also makes some key changes. Zenji is a few years younger than Sakakida, likely to create a larger role for Zenji's mother, including the scene in which she has to give her approval for him to enlist at age seventeen. Zenji's family and friends are also made Okinawan, whereas Sakakida's family came from Hiroshima prefecture.

Reviews for Bamboo Rat were uniformly positive, with reviewers citing "the suspense that he [Salisbury] skillfully develops and resolves," calling it "[f]ast-paced and compelling" and "[a] gripping saga of wartime survival." [2] However two reviewers cite what Dean Schneider of Horn Book Magazine calls "somewhat of a disconnect between the prose style, which is appropriate for younger readers, and the mature content," particularly the scenes of torture. [3]

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho
Borrow/Download from Internet Archive

Find in the Digital Library of Japanese American Incarceration

Hunt for the Bamboo Rat

This item has been made freely available in the Digital Library of Japanese American Incarceration , a collaborative project with Internet Archive .

Might also like: Mission in Manila: The Sakakida Story (film)

Media Details
Author Graham Salisbury
Pages 325
Publication Date 2014


Bush, Elizabeth. Bulletin for the Center of Children's Books 68.3 (Nov. 2014): 173–74. ["Although the dialogue-rich text is accessible to younger readers, the complexity of Zenji’s cat-and-mouse game and the intensity of the torture scenes suggest a more mature audience with some background knowledge of World War II."]

Bush, Gail. Booklist , Sept. 15, 2014, 55. ["Fans of Salisbury's other titles in the Prisoners of the Empire historical fiction series will relish the suspense that he skillfully develops and resolves."]

Butler, L. Lee. School Library Journal , Sept. 2014, 131. ["Fast-paced and compelling, this title will be enjoyed by voracious and reluctant readers."]

Kirkus , Sept. 1, 2014, 115. ["Written in short, rapid-fire paragraphs that move the plot along at a brisk pace, the story will leave readers spellbound."]

Schneider, Dean. Horn Book Magazine , Nov. 1, 2014, 108. ["There’s somewhat of a disconnect between the prose style, which is appropriate for younger readers, and the mature content."]

  1. "Graham Salisbury," Contemporary Authors Online (Detroit: Gale, 2009); "An Interview with Graham Salisbury," by Trisha, The Ya Ya Yas blog, May 17, 2007, ; Biography from Graham Salisbury website, , all accessed on May 26, 2016. Quote from "Graham Salisbury," Contemporary Authors Online .
  2. Gail Bush, Booklist , Sept. 15, 2014, 55; L. Lee Butler, School Library Journal , Sept. 2014, 131; Kirkus , Sept. 1, 2014, 115, accessed at on July 21, 2016.
  3. Dean Schneider, Horn Book Magazine , Nov. 1, 2014, 108. The other reviewer to make this point is Elizabeth Bush, Bulletin for the Center of Children's Books 68.3 (Nov. 2014): 173–74.