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What Pearl Harbor Wrought

A Soldier is a Soldier - Part 5

As he sat alone, Jo scanned the room. In the dim light of the room's lone bulb, he could see a scroll with Chinese calligraphy in the room's alcove with the Japanese word "Manzoku -- fulfillment." A rural work scene was painted on the screen which partitioned the room; the house's rough-hewn center beam -- more than a foot and a half square -- was covered with a dark stain, maybe from the soot of the open fire in the kitchen area.

As his eyes wandered, Jo wondered what his own life would have been like had his father not left the village. He could see himself toiling in the rice paddies; pulling carp from the pool in the yard Isamu and his family kept stocked; trudging up a mountain path to hunt wild boars, pheasants and other game, even bears, which seemed to abound in the region.

Then, too, with the war..., Jo was thinking, when Isamu came out from behind a screen with his uncle leaning on his right arm.

Jo got up from the hibachi immediately.

For a moment Jo and his uncle looked at each other. The old man's eyes, deep-set, first registered some confusion, then filled briefly with tears as Isamu gently lowered the old man to the tatami. Once lowered, the man got on his hands and knees and bowed. Jo did the same.

"O kaeri-nasai...welcome home," the old man said, then, with his head moving up and down, continued with further words of formal greeting.

Jo, his head bowing in unison with his uncle's, just mumbled -- the words didn't really seem to matter. As the old man bowed, his head wavered. His cheeks were squeezed in because of a lack of teeth; the bone structure of his face was sharply outlined through thinning flesh; his face protruded; the head was bald. Jo could see no family resemblance with his father.

When the initial greetings were over, Jo stood up and helped his uncle get seated comfortably at the hibachi; Jo taking one arm, Isamu the other. Through the cotton-filled housecoat, Jo could feel the frailness of his uncle's body; smell camphor.

Once seated, his uncle studied Jo's face. Like a blind man's touch, his uncle seemed to want to extract more than what his sight would allow.

"Yatto ... at last," the uncle said. "It's been so long. Just let me sit and look at you; feel your presence."

The old man then closed his eyelids, place his palms together in prayer, chanting, "namu ami dabutsu" three times to give thanks to Buddha. Then, with his eyes still closed, he continued his prayer in silence.

As they waited for the old man to finish, Isamu looked over at Jo to continue their earlier conversation. Uncle, he said, had no surviving children. Since Isamu's real father had two sons, he, Isamu, was adopted by Uncle to keep the hon-ke under the family name.

"He had children, then?" Jo asked.

"One," Isamu said. "He was a..." Isamu began, when Uncle, who, though his eyes had been closed, had been listening, cleared his throat.

"Hei-tai," the old man said, then went on, "A soldier is a soldier. Some had to die. When a soldier dies..."

The old man's voice broke before he could finish, and he began to cry, tears in large droplets running down both cheeks.

"It's his age and because of Masaru," Isamu said.

"Masaru?" Jo asked.

"Umm...," Isamu nodded, then explained Masaru was Uncle's only child. "For me, he was like an older brother."

Everyone had so much hope for him, Isamu continued. Masaru did well in school, excelled at both judo and kendo, was always level-headed, and was well-liked. He eventually was to succeed Uncle as the family patriarch. They got one letter from him after his last home leave, Isamu said. Masaru spoke of hardship but, of course, could not say where he was because that was a military secret.

"When the B-29s started coming over every day, we were all afraid because the military was preparing everyone, even women, for a final stand against the Americans," Isamu said. "But we also knew that the war had to be over soon. When the Emperor announced the surrender, many were glad. Though we had not heard from Masaru for some time, we all were waiting for his return."

Jo could see Isamu struggling to control his emotions as he talked.

"For months, nothing official came," Isamu said. "Somehow, we all had assumed he would be coming home, he mattered so much to the family. Finally official word did come. He was missing in action, presumed dead. Because they never recovered his body, some still can not give up hope."

"Kino doku deshita-- how unfortunate," Jo said as Isamu finished. That was all Jo could say. He didn't know; hadn't been told by his mother or father about Masaru; maybe they didn't know either.

In the silence that followed, Jo looked, first at his uncle -- the old man's eyes were closed, the tear streaks on his face broken by wrinkles -- and then at Isamu, whose face was now deadpan; his moist eyes avoiding contact. Jo wanted to share in their sorrow. But Masaru? Until his visit, Jo had not even known of Masaru's existence.

His uncle broke the silence.

"Ima ma de -- until now..." he said, he could not accept what he had been told. Though reason told him otherwise, he said, his soul kept hoping that somehow, maybe through some miracle, his son Masaru was alive and would come home.

"Gomen -- pardon my crying," he said. He said he could not help himself, that when Isamu helped him into the room, he was taken aback. His eyesight is weak and he knew it could not be, but for a moment, when he saw Jo sitting there -- the uniform, Jo's youth -- he thought he saw Masaru.

With that, the old man again closed his eyes as he repeated "namu ami dabutsu" in prayer.

Isamu, his composure recovered, leaned toward Jo to whisper, when the old man held up his hand. The old man had more to say. He sat up straighter, turned first to Jo, then to Isamu.

"Isamu," he said, "so there'll be no mistake, please explain to Jo in simpler Japanese if Jo does not understand." He would speak slowly.

He paused, looked at the lone stripe on Jo's sleeve, then at the brass insignias on each lapel of Jo's uniform. His eyes were clear now, free of tears.

"Before I go on," he said, "I want to be sure you understand how I feel about you. You are my youngest brother's son, thus part of our family. But you are also an American, and as a soldier, Beigun -- the American Army -- is the only army you should be in."

Then he went on. "Dai Towa Senso -- the Great East Asian War," he said, was a disaster for Japan and for the Kono family. "It had to be a tragedy, too, for the families of the Americans who died. The grief remains. For an old man like me, wishful thinking some times replaces reality, especially after wishing so hard for so long."

He paused, blinked, then added, "However, your visit to the family's ancestral home is like the return of a lost one," he continued. "Naze... why? I don't know. But somehow, thanks to your visit, I now feel better able to face up to the reality that my son, Masaru, is dead. May his soul rest in peace."

The old man then again prayed silently. In the silence Jo was conscious of Hiroko moving about in the kitchen area humming; the children in the other room playing and giggling; the warmth of the hibachi on his legs; the chill of the night air on his back. What ran through his mind, though, was what Sgt. Barfield has asked, "...a renegade? A traitor, even?" and his own annoyed reaction; the quizzical looks of the people on the bus; the quick glance of the river ferryman as he and Isamu left the ferry; the embarrassment and sadness showing on his widowed cousin's face when she mentioned the loss of her husband.

An American Japanese? A Japanese American? As Jo sat, it occurred to him that he could be one or the other, or both. But it no longer seemed to matter.

© 2010 Akio Konoshima

family fiction identity Japan Korean War racism soldiers travel

このシリーズについて

What Pearl Harbor Wrought is an episodic novel written by Akio Konoshima, an Issei who was interned at Heart Mountain during WWII. The stories within are based on the author’s observations taken from his youth in California, his time spent in Heart Mountain, and his years serving the United States Army. Discover Nikkei will be publishing a few select chapters from this work, starting with “Flo,” the story of a young woman in love and the effects of the war on her family. Look forward to “A Soldier is a Soldier” and the novel’s epilogue in weeks to come. Konoshima hopes that his words will help “give his children and grandchildren a sense of their heritage.”