Research spotlight: Professor of History Dr. Naoko Wake 

By: Patti McDonald 

Before becoming a historian, Naoko Wake had dreamed of becoming a fiction writer. 

“I was close to completing my Bachelor of Arts thesis in Kyoto, Japan at Kyoto University and I wanted to be a fiction writer, and I was publishing a few short stories.” 

Before graduating, Wake submitted one of her pieces to be considered for a prestigious fiction writing award. Although she did not win the award, she knew she had a passion for writing. 

“I thought, I love to write, I’m a writer no matter what. I thought, history writing is probably the closest I can get to fictional writing; at least I can write and do research about things I enjoy learning more about.” 

Now, a Professor of History at Michigan State University, Dr. Wake has significantly contributed to research that focuses on gender, sexuality, and illness in the 20th century United States and the Pacific Rim. She has written several articles and books on these subjects.  

In her first book, Private Practices: Harry Stack Sullivan, the Science of Homosexuality, and American Liberalism (Rutgers, 2011), Wake explores the history of psychiatric and psychoanalytic approaches to homosexuality. Her second monograph which centers around Japanese American and Korean American survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, is titled American Survivors: Trans-Pacific Memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Cambridge, 2021). In this book, Wake explores gender, racial, and cross-national identities that emerged in Asia and Asian America in post-colonial contexts, and a range of grass-roots activism that took shape in response to the nuclear destruction: patient rights, civil rights, anti-war and anti-nuclear activism. 

Wake’s current research is focused on Asian American history of disability. Wake has recently served as a guest editor for the Journal of American Ethnic History, the official journal of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society. The JAEH addresses various aspects of American immigration and ethnic history, including background of emigration, ethnic and racial groups, Native Americans, immigration policies, and the processes of acculturation. Each issue contains articles, review essays and single book reviews.   

In addition to serving as the journal’s editor, she contributed her own piece, “Asian American Disability,” which was published in March in Vol. 43, No. 4 of the JAEH. 

“It’s really about a multitudinously marginalized people and their history of how their voices weren’t heard or were underrepresented in everything that we can know around us. So, because Asian Americans are a racialized minority, they often do not even show up in historical studies, but also in media and popular culture representation of American history, they are severely underrepresented.” 

“To find any historical records that are about them is very much a challenge. So, to put together different articles written by different historians in this special volume was quite the task, but I enjoyed doing so and I made sure to represent Asian Americans as fully as possible. I wanted ethnic diversity within the volume. If you look at the Asian American community, it’s a lot of different people from different cultural backgrounds who are identified as Asian Americans. That can include Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Chinese Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Indonesian Americans, Cambodian Americans, or Pacific Islanders, you name it, it’s a very diverse community. That’s true among scholars who study Asian America history.” 

Wake hopes her JAEH piece will eventually evolve into her third monograph. While Wake is on sabbatical until January 2025, she plans on travelling to Seattle, where she will attend the Association for Asian American Studies Conference as well as spend time in the archives of the Filipino American National Historical Society.  

“Again, because of the incredible diversity that really characterizes the Asian American community, I think it’s important that I study not just East Asian Americans but also Southeast and South Asian Americans including Filipino Americans or Korean Americans or Chinese Americans, Vietnamese or Cambodian Americans. I am trying to look into those different archives so that I can enrich Asian American History of Disability, a subject that I would like to write a book about.” 

In addition to conducting research for her third book project, Wake has recently been featured in various publications where she offers her historical review of the Oscar-winning movie, Oppenheimer, and how the narrative of that movie fails to include voices of Asian and Asian American survivors. Wake has been featured in the L.A. Times, The Conversation, Vox, and other publications.  

In addition to her role as a professor, Wake served as Director of the Asian Pacific American Studies Program at MSU in 2020-23. She has also received multiple awards during her tenure at MSU including the Oral History Association’s Best Article Award in 2018 for her article “Surviving the Bomb in America: Silent Memories and the Rise of Cross-national Identity,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 86 No. 3, August 2017 (pp. 472-509) and the Excellence in Diversity Award, from MSU’s Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives in 2015. 

Wake said the early support she received when she initially came to MSU is what has helped her elevate her career into where it is now. 

“When I was just beginning my career at Michigan State 19 years ago, I came here in 2005, as a fixed faculty member, and I really was welcomed into the GenCen {the Center for Gender in Global Context} community,” Wake said.  

“It meant a lot to me that there was somebody who paid attention to how I was interested in studying women, gender and sexuality history. That type of exposure really made me realize how deprived I was and how much I was not able to speak my mind in communities that were male dominated. Without the support of my colleagues, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish the things that I have during my career so far.”