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It is August 10th, 1988, and everything is back to normal. The edge of my red velvet parlor chair has seen better days – and the last six minutes of crackly television alone have worn my perch down to a saggy acquiescence. My two daughters sit at the dining room table, collaborating quietly on a colored-pencil recreation of their mother’s favorite vase, and they do not look up to see their father cry. My wife is folding up white linen sheets in the bedroom with the professionalism and grace of one paid to do such things, and she does not see either. For these small mercies, I am thankful. I have grown skillful at muffling such outbursts to the point where one must not only be in the same room as I, but must be looking directly at or engaged in some measure of conversation with me to even notice the incongruity. I plant my elbows on the coffee table and sob, silent, into cupped hands. For today, right now, my people – and I pause, as old women and young men and senators and congressman embrace, rejoice, and applause pops like popcorn in throes on the screen - taken off-guard by the sudden realization that for the first time in my life I feel that I actually belong to the people of Japan, or else they must belong to me. My people become human once more.
And I realize that by the time I am through, and this broadcast is through, and Tide Detergent splays its logo and chirps its tune through the little perforations in the base of the wooden box across the room then this moment will pass, and life will go on, and Ada and the girls and I will eat Oreos straight from the package at the kitchen counter just like nothing is amiss or different, and nothing has happened. This moment, for them, will join the stream of tooth-brushings and breakfast crosswords in residence at the comfortable peripheries of their memory. For me, it shall forever stand alone and apart – a pop-up book in the reference section – and none will be the wiser. My wife and children have and shall likely never know true fear, grief, or loss, at least not as I have known. After today they will live unaware that in this moment, now, as President Regan smiles out from the screen like a new father and our noisy bird-call clock hits 7pm with a throaty trill of a California quail and tears roll down my fingers on their way to the carpet below, the three resurface in me from the muddy drudges of another time. The moment will pass; I will be glad to have welcomed it, glad to have enjoyed its company, and glad to see its departure.
And all that, for some reason, is okay. Oreos will never have tasted better.
It is February, 1942, and I am afraid. Not mortally, or desperately; I have not yet at this age been struck with that sucking puncture of terror that drains your insides from the base of your chest and leaks your trepidation for all to see. This is a young, self-indulgent fear. It is only when I summon the nerves to flip the face-down geography test with a grim finality upon my desk to see an A+ smile innocently back at me that I collapse in relief.
My father takes me to buy a funnel cake for my efforts at my favorite stand in Santa Clara, whose proprietor we both know quite well at this point. He is six foot seven inches, has a gaze that could split wood, and tattooed arms that could do similarly were he not more interested in the delicate weaving of cotton candy than displays of martial prowess. It is I who must tell the man my unvarying item of choice each visit, as father speaks only Japanese in all but emergencies.
“A funnel-cake if you please, Marvin,” I implore him, jingling coins and exhibiting the disaffected countenance of a man in a suit I saw make purchase in line before me.
I am 11 years old. I’ve been told that I am particularly well-spoken and opinionated for my age, and I am inclined to agree. Kenshin, I am called – from Ken, meaning modest, and Shin, meaning truth – and while I am admittedly neither particularly modest nor truthful at this stage in my life I believe the name fits, and sets a healthy precedent to aspire to.
I get home, and all is well. Mother is in the garden, tending a stout flower-bearing bush, and she and father chat softly at the doorway like strangers flirting. My parents speak in whispers at home, mostly, which people often mistake for coldness or grumpiness though I know it’s not. They do not like shouting, loud music, or horseplay in the house – but there is quiet love in everything they do. My clothes, when dirtied, are always washed, pressed, folded, and summarily returned to their place in my room with a different origami animal to keep watch over them. They take me to the beach on nice days to build passionate and heavily fortified sand castles with me like I’m a toddler again – and when I run ahead, I look back to see them holding hands and collecting shells together like toddlers themselves. There is always hot tea waiting for Father and me when we return home in the evening, and today is no exception. She takes the utmost care to prepare it just how he likes it. Just as the money he brings from the farm serves as his daily gift to her, hot, perfect green tea is her daily exchange. Most days I receive a small cup of my own. We drink, my A+ proudly flaunted, my hair ruffled.
It’s the next day, and there is fear again as the US Army truck passes by outside and stops at the Toroto family’s house next door. Since January, Japanese on the West Coast have been required to report changes of address, name, or employment to the government, something that my family failed to realize before we relocated and settled in to our new home in Sunnyvale so that Father could get work at Salzo’s rapidly-filling garlic farm. Our residence is not registered, and we are afraid to make it so.
There is good reason for this. I could almost say that the Americans hate us, except the way they treat and regard us does not seem hateful – it seems childish, or scared. They call us names, and try to keep watch on us and keep us from doing ordinary things like marrying non-Japanese or becoming citizens. The Americans say that we, our people, our Emperor, (whom I certainly have never met, let alone coordinated any sort of joint military action with) are planning another attack like Pearl Harbor. At nighttime they plant themselves on the beaches and scan the water for Japanese subs. I don’t think they know that we are scared of the Emperor too. That bombs and bullets are the most equal-opportunity of assailants.
Ever since they arrived, Father and Mother have had it worse than I. I’ve read in the papers here that we Japanese are completely incapable of assimilating with American culture, and neither of my parents are even United States citizens thanks to some kind of government act passed in the 1920’s. My friend Kazuko says his parents had to attend a segregated school with Chinese and Koreans even though they are Nisei, second generation, whose family came to California in boats years and years ago. My parents are Issei, first generation, born in Japan and drawn by fate and desperation to this unwelcoming land. A preponderance of Japanese families arriving in the US this century has settled in California, and Mother tells me that the Americans do not like the competition they present to the scarce available farm jobs. The number of times I have witnessed trucks full of American labor-union workers shouting horrible things at weary Japanese farmers returning home from toil in the garlic fields does nothing but attest to this. I have been taunted and hooted at by groups of men bearing bold, violent signs and banners before I was old enough to read them.
Next door, the Toroto family is in trouble. The soldiers gruffly unload and escort the eldest daughter, Aina, from the back of the truck to the front door and rap upon it. She is in tears. Father and I hypothesize quietly the reason for the Toroto’s difficulties until Mother remembers a recent gardenside conversation with the Toroto mother Manami wherein she confessed that they did not take Aina to the post office for registration and fingerprinting as an “enemy national” when she turned fourteen a week ago. We agree on this likelihood, and eat our breakfast in silence as the soldiers become frustrated with the Toroto’s, and despite wails and protests from the house they take Aina back to the truck and drive her away.
It is March. The other boys in my school have decided that I am up to something, and act accordingly, keeping well clear of myself and other suspicious Japanese during lunchtime. We are “Japs”, “Mongolians”, and other names I don’t fully understand or care to transcribe here. Scheming rats in human guise. One boy brings in the boiled and polished skull of a Japanese soldier, sent back by his father from the Pacific front, and leaves it on his desk facing me, swiveling it like a sentry when I move from my seat for the amusement himself and any who notice. The teacher oversees these proceedings, but does not remark upon them. I see the boy in the yard showing off Jap knucklebones strung together with twine like Christmas popcorn. Hot tea when I get home stills my shaking hands. Father says not to worry, that the war will be over soon, as he pats my head.
And in less than a week he is gone. I return to a house half occupied by the silent, huddled figure of my mother in the front doorway. She rocks back and forth, from side to side like a bobbing watercraft, and tells me that the trucks came hours ago to take the Torotos away when they spotted him taking his tea in the front garden. There’s only a briefcase’s-worth of clothes missing to show that he was ever here at all. The entire Pacific coast has been declared a Military Zone, and all people of enemy descent, regardless of citizenship, are to be detained in camps for the remainder of the war. It is a miracle, perhaps, that Mother and I were not taken, that our family is unregistered here at this address, that the Toroto’s did not tell the American soldiers that we live here. Our entire block is now empty. It is like a ghost town.
There’s nothing left to do but wait, and live, and see what happens.
We venture out to other nearby neighborhoods, eventually. We need to; we have no food and no notion as to the extent of the Internment. For all Mother and I know, every Japanese in the United States has been taken, killed, worse.
There is not as much danger as we first thought, of exploring, that is. Neighbors’ houses provide adequate provisions, and passing traffic does not bother us. The only danger now, it seems, lies in the crushing loneliness of being left behind.
The days pass slowly, and differently than before. Time begins to have less meaning, and we do not count the days. Soldiers come by to search our house. Mother hides us under a loose panel behind the woodstove, and that is one day. It rains in buckets while mother boils thin soup, and that is another. A friendly white couple passes through the catacombs of Japanese houses, knocking timidly on the doors, and against Mother’s wishes I open it a crack. They tell us that anyone with a drop of Japanese blood on the West Coast has been marked for placement into Relocation Centers. Germans and Italians too, but fewer of them for some reason. The wife keeps us up to date on this kind of thing, and she tells me that a general named DeWitt made a speech to Congress about how there is no way to determine our people’s loyalty, and how the Americans would have to worry about us until we were “wiped off the map.” I ask them where Father might have been taken, and they have no idea. No idea how we are treated in the camps; no idea how long it will last.
“Till we beat the Japs, I would think,” the husband says, and apologizes under the dark glance of his wife. “Ehh…you should run along now, sport.”
Small rituals remain intact through all of this. They are quite likely the only thing that pulls us through. Astute papercraft bears and dragons still keep careful watch over my folded laundry in the mornings. Maybe not so much has changed, I tell myself. School’s out. Father’s gone. That’s all.
When I was learning English, near the beginning of my short 57 years, the term “marriage” confused me. Not the act, or the implications, I was a smart kid and got all of that – just the semantics: the mechanics of it. I found ways to avoid saying the word; I simply did not understand how it worked within a sentence. I’ll try to explain, and forgive me, I’m not a teacher, but in English you say that two people are “married” like you would say that they are Russian or they are pregnant. It’s an adjective, right? It’s different in my language. Kekkon means marriage, but we do not really have a word for “married.” In Japanese this concept is in fact expressed through a verb. One is not married, once, statically, one does marriage for the entire duration of the relationship. Kekkon Shiteiru. ??
All of this did not produce a figment vaguely resembling good sense to me until those few months that Mother and I lived in Sunnyvale, all alone, waiting for Father to return.
When I ask, (and I do ask – entreat, like the sad and confused child that I was) when this thing will be over and Father can return, she simply smiles like she knows a secret, and tells me “soon.” I believe it. There are gasping, sorrowful cries from her room some nights, and pounding on the floor, and still I believe it. Every day Father’s favorite flowers are watered and trimmed, his bed sheets changed once a week like always. His things, my things, what few we have, are dusted, maintained, loved. She boiled Tamaryokucha green tea at 4:30 every afternoon, like he will be home any minute, and maybe she believes he will. Even though the tea is poured into the dwindling garden every morning, it is done so with a knowing smile and caring grace, and the conviction that the world will soon put itself back together even as Mother falls apart inside. Whether he will be home to take it or not, it is there for him regardless, and it leaves the whole house smelling like fruit and grass.
Marriage, Mother does it every day. It is her tea, her hope, and the unwavering conviction in her smile. Without it, we would have nothing, and Father would be truly gone. Kekkon Shiteiru.
I learn that we are running out of food from the thinning soup and my mother’s respective figure. Something must be done: a young, desperate, dangerous, self-indulgent, hopeful thing. I sit on the dirt by her side as she gardens, cock my head like a curious dog, and ask her one more time when we will see Father again.
“Soon,” she says. Soon. And I believe it, again. I believe it so much that I want to make it true. And when I go on a walk today, by myself, I wander farther than I usually do, and bumble into a group of policemen by the café.
“I’m lost,” I tell them, and I’m not lying.
It is late August, 1942. We go to a camp in Arizona, and we are not killed. The guards are cruel and businesslike. The camp is hot, and dry, and packed. It is not hell. There is poor medical care, and poor yet adequate food. We are fed, and clothed, and given some space, and none of this changes the fact that Father is not here – that we are not home, and I am not on the pier eating funnel cake and mimicking the gulls.
1945 is a long way away, and when we are finally released without the intimation of guilt or apology from the Gila River Relocation Center my family shares a long embrace, and we move on. Three years have passed; I am a different person. We all are. It’s nice to return for a moment in that embrace, but life doesn’t wait for one to catch up.
We move on. This massive, unwarranted, unexplained imprisonment of our race footnoted by the government and quarantined to fact bubbles in the back of textbooks. More than eighty thousand Nisei, American citizens like me, taken from their homes and repaid for their patient acceptance of years of intolerance and distrust with three years of safety within equally cruel and distrustful fences. The Japanese are not real people; they cannot be – given the brutality of stories which trickle in from the Pacific front. The bones that American soldiers collect from their fallen foes serve as a cruel counterpoint to respective atrocities. Just as dogs are not due comeuppance for detainment in the pound, we are not considered for reward or apology for our endurance of these trials.
We move on because it’s all we can do, and it’s all we can expect of anyone else.
But now, in my living room, August 1988, something changes. Maybe everything.
“Distinguished guests, my fellow Americans, we gather here today to right a great wrong.”
The president’s little speech, the applause, the onscreen hugs and tears of old Nisei and older Issei do not take back the deed. They do not begin to make it acceptable or right.
“More than 40 years ago, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, one hundred and twenty thousand persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in makeshift internment camps.”
We were imprisoned for the sole crime of being Japanese. Even the newspapers at the time said that America waged war with our race itself, as if we all had committed separate and equally terrible offenses and could strike again at any moment. No ten-minute TV spot will make up for this injustice.
“This action was taken without trial, without jury.”
What happens in this moment is that our government, our beneficent Big Brother, the great and powerful Oz, opens its ponderous eyes wide enough to see that it made a mistake. More than four hundred thousand Circassians were massacred by tsarist forces in the Russian–Circassian War of the mid nineteenth century, and despite overwhelming evidence and pressure this goes unacknowledged by the Russian government to this day. America is a nation unafraid to face its failures and stand with no excuses. I am proud of our nation for standing before us to ask for our forgiveness, and for giving us the power to forgive them. For making our people human once more.
“It was based solely on race. For throughout the war Japanese Americans in the tens of thousands remained utterly loyal to the united states.”
The TV flicks off, and I wipe away my sorrow because Ada is coming in and she is shepherding our children to bed. They are Sansei, the third, most human generation of all, and they shall never know the world in which their parents and grandparents lived. They will never face the eyes of a Jap skull, endure daily scorn and fear, or have the three worst years of their lives glazed over by those who made it so. Ada and I munch on the remaining crumbly black cookies on our way up the stairs, and hold hands and laugh like toddlers in love.
“What will you read tonight, dad?” our 12-year old, Chinako asks as she suits up in pajamas.
“We’ve read all our books a thousand times,” I’m warned by Norkio, and Ada playfully messes up her hair and agrees.
“Tell them a story, Kenshin,” Ada suggests, and I nod in thought. My Sansei will never live in the old world, of Ada, and Kenshin, and Mother and Father, and I would have it no other way. And as I pull up a chair to their bunk beds while Ada files taxes and listens in, I decide that they will never forget it.