Michael G. Malaghan
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: We continue Michael G. Malaghan’s serialized historical novel, “Picture Bride — A Family Saga,” based on the Japanese immigrant experience. Malaghan’s trilogy takes readers from turn-of-the-20th-century-Japan to Hawai‘i in the picture bride era; the Islands during World War II, highlighted by the exploits of the Nisei soldiers; and beyond.
The novel begins with 12-year-old Haru-chan, fleeing her home in Amakusa, Kyüshü, for Hiroshima, where she becomes the picture bride of a Buddhist priest in Hawai‘i.
Author Michael Malaghan is a retired businessman who divides his time between Hawai‘i, Florida and Japan.
“The war ending is bringing back questions of our loyalty, Otosan.” Haru reached for the half-folded Advertiser from the side of the table, opened it and pointed to Pafko’s headline.
Kenji lifted a spoon of ice cream to his lips. “That, again . . .” he sighed. “The war proved our loyalty. America and Japan are allies. Our navies exchange visits. Thousands of us volunteered for the American Army. Our schoolchildren bought more war savings stamps than the haole children. My plantation school teachers led liberty bond drives.”
“Yes, Otosan, but that’s not the point. Here is what I heard at lunch.” Haru’s narrative closed with a Mrs. Adams quote: “‘Your teachers are recruited from Japan and can’t speak English. They teach loyalty to the emperor, not the president.’” Haru’s voice ticked up an octave. “Otosan, your students memorize the same education rescript that I recited promising fidelity to the emperor, but they can’t recite the United States Bill of Rights. The haoles believe America and Japan will go to war some day. They are asking, ‘Whose side we will be on?’”
Kenji jammed his spoon into the ice cream. “Don’t waste time listening to Mrs. Adams.”
In a calm voice masking her rage, Haru replied, “That’s always your answer when I try to discuss the schools. It’s not just the Adamses’ and Bilkertons’ loud mouths — all the women are worried about our schools. That’s why they invited me. It means their husbands are worried. Read this . . .” She pointed to the editorial underneath the headline that she had shown him earlier.
Kenji read the first few paragraphs and looked up. “This is an old song, and not well-played.” Not waiting for Haru to refill his sake cup, Kenji proceeded to serve himself. “You read an editorial by that racist Pafko and listen to bigoted women attack our schools. You know the children attending our schools. Do you see any future Japanese soldiers amongst them?! Stick to running your nursery school and stay out of my language school!”
Haru’s shoulders tightened. It was her turn to sip sake. This was more than she was used to drinking. “Wakarimashita . . . I understand, Otosan. So why make it easy for them to pressure the Legislature to pass a bill outlawing our schools? Just because Mrs. Adams and that Bilkerton woman are bigots doesn’t mean the haoles lack real reasons to question our loyalty.”
Kenji opened his mouth.
Haru lifted her right hand, chin high, forefinger extended. “Let me finish, Otosan. Think of how the Americans look at our schools. The Filipinos, Portuguese and Puerto Ricans don’t have schools — only the Japanese.” Her middle finger shot up to make her next point as she detailed her argument. “You register the births, deaths and marriages with the Japanese consul, as if he is a government official.” Another finger out. “Our temple organizes half-a-dozen festivals celebrating Japanese holidays.” Up went her pinky. “Our children skip school on the emperor’s birthday, forcing Waimea to close the public schools because more than half the students don’t show up.”
Haru brought her hand back to the table. “The haoles visit your school, and what do they see? Pictures of the emperor and Japanese war heroes. Your textbooks don’t have a single paragraph on American heroes, except for George Washington and his famous cherry tree.”
Kenji shook his head. “Nonsense. They spend all day at haole schools studying American history. Spending a couple of hours learning their Japanese language, history and family values doesn’t turn our children into disloyal Americans.” In a calmer voice, he added, “Okasan, don’t forget that some of our children will be going back to Japan.”
Haru’s sake-fueled frustration swelled, spilling over her carefully laid boundaries. “Some?” She rolled her eyes. “Few, Otosan. No, very few. Hawai‘i is their home, our home. We aren’t going back and neither are they.” Haru pulled out a letter from the sleeve flap of her yukata, like an attorney addressing the jury with a surprise piece of evidence.
“Here’s a letter from Keiko Nakamura.”
“The family who returned to Okayama?” asked Kenji.
“Hai,” she said, and proceeded to read from it. “Ta-chan is bullied at school because he can’t speak proper Japanese or read his textbooks.” Haru put down the letter. “You issue certificates to your students for learning a hundred kanji characters. Even a primary school child in Hiroshima knows 700.” Her voice rose despite her resolve to keep calm. “You’ve been selling a false promise. You make the whites angry and don’t even prepare the few children who do return. What have you gained!”
Kenji’s eyes narrowed. “Look at the Hawaiians. The missionaries took away their gods, their language and most of their land. In Honolulu, lots of Hawaiians speak only English. Are they accepted? They are paraded at festivals like clowns and treated like second-class citizens in their own land. We Japanese need to maintain our culture, our respect.”
Haru leaned over and hit the table. “You just made the case for the haters. We need to teach standard English. Your students, our children, speak Japanese or Pidgin. All the Americans want is for our children to assimilate like the Italians and the Germans.”
Kenji stood up and leaned over the table. “Haole schools want our children to forget who they are, where they came from. World history? Hah! All about Columbus, pilgrims and Europe. Half the children attending school are Japanese, but the education board ignores us.” Kenji wagged his finger in Haru’s face. “That’s why all our Japanese parents pay tuition money from their meager earnings. You are the big American in our family. The Constitution guarantees religious freedom. We have a right to our schools. We are Buddhists committed to passing on our values to our children. Good values make for good citizens.” Kenji’s face flushed. “That’s why we’re here!”
Haru stood up. “Then use that right to help your son assimilate. Concentrate on those values. Show how they fit in with American values.” Her voice rose to soprano level. “Take down those sword-carrying pictures of Togo and Nogi and replace them with Washington and Wilson!”
Kenji swept his hand across the table, sending dishes crashing to the floor. “Where is the polite, soft-spoken wife my mother sent me? Once an Amakusan, always an Amakusan!”
Haru grabbed the sake flask and raised her arm like a baseball pitcher. She caught herself and, with exaggerated deliberation, returned the flask to the table. In a melancholy voice, she asked, “Where is the man of God who came to Waimea to protect his family and congregation? What will happen to our children with your stone-headed thinking about the schools?”
Kenji stood silent, his fists tightly clenched like a ball.
Haru dropped her voice. “I received a letter from Ume. She asked me to visit her. Something horrible has happened, but she won’t tell me what. I’m taking the car . . . I’m leaving tonight.”
“Tonight?! Are you crazy?”
“I’ll be in Kona by midnight.” Haru took three steps towards the bedroom to pack. Then, she stopped short. Her face showed uncommon anger. “I visited the doctor yesterday. I am pregnant.” She stomped off to the bedroom.
As soon as Haru began to pack, she regretted her outburst — but not enough to back down. She’d had enough of Kenji’s “I don’t tell you how to tend to your nursery” jibes every time she broached the subject of his school curriculum. Closing her overnight case, Haru realized that if she hadn’t received Ume’s letter, she would have walked off her anger and joined her children at the park. Instead, to the sounds of fireworks, she grabbed the keys to the car, marched pass Kenji, who was still sitting shocked-eyed, and stomped out the front door.
Haru laid her overnight bag on the back seat. She glanced up at the cloudless night and decided to leave the Ford’s canvas cover rolled up and tied over the ridge of the back seat. She picked up the crank handle from the floor, walked to the front of the car and stuck it into the mouth of the grill, connecting into the engine block’s crankshaft. Planting her feet solidly on the ground, Haru arm-muscled a vigorous twirl. The engine coughed to life on its first wind-up. Haru jumped back into the car, flipped on the headlights and looked back at the house, where Kenji stood on the porch.
Please say “I’m sorry” and ask me to stay, Haru prayed silently.
“I’ll call Irie,” Kenji yelled.
Stone-headed to the end, Haru thought, as she shoved the gearstick into first gear.
Inhaling the salty perfume of the Kona coast, Haru kept her foot on the brake as the plateau’s descent sharpened. Lucky Kona, she thought, as trees and brush began replacing the stark lava fields. Ancient lava produced fertile growth and new lava sealed the earth. The great lava flows of 1801 had laid barren much of the volcano plateau south of Waimea, but had stopped at Kona, as if Pele knew this strip of land had potential that mere humans had yet to discover.
The sight of the sign for the Kona turn-off reminded Haru of the moment Ume had told Judith’s class about Irie. “He has satisfied his five-year cane laborer’s contract. Now he is growing coffee on his own land in a place called Kona.” When the haoles’ big coffee plantations began losing money at the turn of the century, the owners offered sharecropping plots to immigrants coming off their labor contracts, in exchange for a third of the beans the renters produced. Some, like Irie, saved enough money to eventually buy the plots they worked.
Minutes pass Mile Marker 39, she saw a swinging light, like it was tied to the moon. In seconds, a stick figure took form. Must be Irie, she thought, making sure I didn’t miss the turn into his farm. It was Irie. As Haru pulled into the driveway of the farm home, Ume opened the door. Haru climbed out of the car, reached for her overnight bag and hurried over to the ground-level porch.
The two women exchanged bows.
Ume’s warm smile welcomed her friend, but her wary tone heightened Haru’s misgivings. “Haru-san, you are so good to visit. But when I wrote, I didn’t mean you should drive by yourself at night just to come see me.”
“I’ve been looking for an excuse to visit, and your letter arrived just at the right time.” She forced a smile. “I needed a break.”
“Excuse me, I have to get up early,” said Irie, heading off to the bedroom.
Seeing Ume’s curious expression, Haru decided to explain. “Kenji and I had an argument about his school curriculum.” She paused to hear the reason for her summons.
Frowning at the closed shoji doors, Ume sighed, “A Yokohama Specie Bank representative came by last week. He told Irie that the bank is eager to loan him money to buy a nearby coffee plantation. Mr. Big Shot is ready to sign.”
Irie might be over-reaching, thought Haru, but the news hardly qualified as a reason to send an alarmist note, so she waited for more. Instead, Ume rose and ushered Haru to her sleeping quarters. “We’ll talk in the morning . . .”
To be continued…