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Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest VII

The Last Visit

It was in mid-August 1969 in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. Tokuji Yoshida, a first-generation Japanese American, was reading that day’s Rafu Shimpo while smoking a cigarette at the dining table. “The 28th Nisei Week Festival Grand Parade will be held tomorrow.” He crushed his cigarette stub in an ashtray and called out to his wife Hisae in the living room, “Hey, we should be going soon.” They were both in their late 60s. Hisae served a bowl of tea to the Bon altar and responded, “Hold on a moment.” On the altar, there were a horse made out of a cucumber, a cow made out of an eggplant, a mortuary tablet, and a picture of a young man in the center. "It’s been 25 years,” she murmured to herself thinking of their only son. He was not particularly handsome, but had a round face with a friendly smile.

Their son, Private Kent Yoshida, was 18 years old and belonged to the 442 Regimental Combat Team. He was killed in the Vosges mountain range in Northern France in October 1944. They received a telegram of his passing while in Manzanar. He dreamed of being a manga artist and read thousands of comic books including Superman and Captain America. He drew manga himself and once won a prize from a small publisher. He departed from the gloomy barbed wire encircled camp never to return. Tokuji and Hisae were left with tremendous sorrow.

Out of the window in the yard, a wall of bougainvillea was bathed in the summer sunlight. When they stepped out of their house, a wind circled around them. In the living room, the hair on their cat Taro’s back stood on end and the mortuary tablet on the Bon altar suddenly collapsed. Hisae abruptly felt Kent’s presence but did not take much notice of it. After arriving in Little Tokyo and finishing grocery shopping, they came across a Koyasan minister. Hisae had been thinking about what happened earlier and told him, “I might have seen my deceased son.” Tokuji rolled his eyes but the minister seemed to acknowledge something. “Little Tokyo is a spiritual place for the Japanese American community. Appreciate the memory you have of your son. Namudaishii-Henjoukongo.” He then quietly bowed and walked away.

The 442nd were known for being the most courageous unit in American history. Coincidentally, it suffered the most fatalities as well. Kent was not considered among the courageous members of the outfit. Not only was he never awarded a medal, but his record showed he disobeyed orders and was suspected to have fled from the enemy. He earned himself a nickname of “Fried Chicken.”

When Tokuji and Hisae returned home, there was somebody standing at their front door. Tokuji fearfully approached from behind. “Hello, um who are you?” The man in a military uniform turned around and said, “Dad, long-time no see!” Hisae was so shocked that she dropped her shopping bag on the ground. The young man smiled softly and Tokuji froze. It was Kent. He looked exactly the same as when he left Manzanar 25 years ago. “Are you alive?” Tokuji asked him. “Well, unfortunately not. But I was able to return back somehow,” Kent replied. When Tokuji glanced at his legs, Kent started jumping and showed his favorite dance steps, “I do have my legs.”

“I knew it was you!” Hisae hugged Kent. The early evening beamed soft sunlight into the living room and Taro the cat was peacefully asleep on the sofa. When Kent came out of a shower, Hisae gave him neatly folded loungewear saying, “This is your dad’s. It should fit.” While changing, he pinched its loose waistband and said, “Dad, you’ve gained weight.” The dining table was filled with tempura, sashimi, inari sushi. Kent’s eyes widened seeing his favorite dish, teriyaki chicken. He dove into the chicken without even stopping for an itadakimasu prayer. “We have plenty more so calm down and eat slowly,” said Hisae as she handed him a large bowl of rice. Kent replied, “This is delicious! Really tasty!” as he enjoyed mom’s homemade cooking.

Later that evening, Kent told them of his experiences in the European front. The corpses of both enemies and allies were scattered all over the place under the storms of pale white light flickering all about. “I should have never let you go. Our country was wrong!” Tokuji said with his arms crossed. The conversation immediately recaptured the fierce argument between the father and son from so many years ago. Kent wanted to join the military while Tokuji was adamantly against it. Kent tried to oppose him immediately as he could not simply agree with his father knowing many of his teammates were killed on the battlefield. But when he was about to reply, he saw the sorrowful expression on his mother’s face and quickly changed the subject instead. “I was always happy to receive your letters, Mom.” He was silent for a while and said, “Everyone in my unit hated me. My nickname was ‘Fried Chicken.’”

The unfortunate nickname came after an incident that occurred in Bruyeres, France. Kent encountered a German soldier in an abandoned residence located on the heated battlefield. After getting into a scuffle, Kent shot his enemy in the chest. Unexpectedly, a girl suddenly appeared. She had been hiding behind a wall where the German soldier stood. The wall was now covered in the fallen soldier’s blood. With all the loss of blood, it was too late to save him, but Kent found a photo of a girl in the soldier’s chest pocket. She looked similar to the girl that was hiding behind the blood covered wall. The German also had a line drawing of the girl’s face on a postcard. Kent assumed the man was going to mail it to his family and realized that the German soldier was trying to save the girl’s life, perhaps because the girl reminded him of his own daughter.

Kent brought those belongings back home out of indescribable guilt. He could not get his mind off of the man and his daughter in the picture. Logically, he understood that the battlefield meant there was going to be killing, but he couldn’t help think that the man he killed could have had a future and be reunited with his daughter if it wasn’t for his actions. As the war became more intense, Kent became more reluctant to fight. Eventually his attitude was perceived as disobedient and his fellow unit members became skeptical of him, leading to them calling him “Fried Chicken.”

Kent had a dark expression on his face as he talked to Tokuji. Hisae poured tea into his teacup. “I did have anger toward our enemies for my fellow members who were killed in battle. Guys in my unit did call me shameless and a disgrace to the unit, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened to that German soldier.” Because of his attitude, Kent was occasionally bullied by his fellow soldiers. One day he was even beat up and left with awful bruises and a bloody nose.

He tried to draw the German soldier’s daughter on the postcard, but he couldn’t. “I can’t draw her properly. I just want her to smile.” He lowered his head in front of Tokuji and sobbed quietly. Tokuji put his hand on his shoulder and said, “All right, you don’t have to say any more.” The rain drizzled outside the window. “By the way, how long do we have left with you?” Tokuji changed the subject. Kent looked at the Bon altar in the living room and squinted his eyes. “Looks like ‘till tomorrow.” Tokuji responded, “That’s it?” As Kent nodded quietly, Hisae paused a moment while clearing the empty plates from the dining table.

The next day was blessed with such fine weather. Little Tokyo was crowded with people for the Grand Parade. This year’s parade became an irreplaceable memory for Kent. After the parade, they went to Kawafuku restaurant. As expected, the restaurant was packed with patrons. Kent and his parents sat in the corner of the second floor. His eyes sparkled with pleasure when sukiyaki was served in front of him. The family talked and tried to catch up with everything they could possibly think of.

Time slipped away before they knew it and the sun began to set outside the window. Kent said quietly, “It is time.” They all became silent. Although they were prepared for this very moment, it was excruciating for Tokuji and Hisae. “Can you not stay a little longer?” Kent silently shook his head. While Tokuji desperately tried to hold back his tears, Kent’s eyes were filled. “I wish I could.” They were overwhelmed with gut wrenching emotion. His body gradually started to fade just like the sunlight behind them. Tokuji was speechless but tried to find words, “We are very proud of you, Son.” He started to sob at last. “Thank you for returning to us, we were happy to see you again.” Hisae cried. His upper body gradually vanished into thin air and his face also began to fade. “You too, be healthy both of you! Thank you for your tasty meal, Mom!” Kent smiled and finally disappeared. “He is not coming back, is he?” Only a bottle of stale beer and a wrinkled five-dollar bill were left where Kent sat.

A week later, the Japanese American Veterans Association received a letter from a woman. The sender was Karen Schmidt, the president of the France Italy War Orphan Support Association. She had been looking for the Yoshida family so that she could return Kent’s belongings to them in person. Another month passed and Karen visited Los Angeles. Karen, a German in her mid-40s, visited Evergreen cemetery for Nikkei in East LA alongside Tokuji and Hisae. As Karen stood in front of a gravestone that read Kent Yoshida, she took out two items from her bag. They were an aged postcard and a small journal, carefully wrapped in a cloth.

“These postcard and journal were sent to me from Kent after the war,” Karen explained. Tokuji and Hisae realized the postcard was what Kent emotionally told them about during his brief stay. The journal contained a few pages of very simply drawn manga. The story was about a soldier who was lost behind the lines and encountered a girl that was separated from her parents. He managed to find his way back to his platoon with her help, but later realized he was the one who killed her parents.

“When I received these, I realized that he was the man who killed my husband. The girl on the postcard is our daughter. She passed away from an illness before my husband was deployed.” Tokuji’s and Hisae’s shoulders drooped as they felt remorse for the family. “My husband probably wanted to draw our daughter to remember her,” Karen said. She placed the manga journal and postcard on the gravestone as an offering. “At first, I could never forgive the man who killed my husband. I thought not only did he kill my husband, he also sent me this ridiculous cartoon. But over time, my feelings softened. A cold-hearted man could never draw such a regretful manga, especially in the field of war where people are routinely killed.” Hisae’s eyes were filled with tears. “I can see from the worn-out paper that Kent was certainly struggling and this postcard is proof that he was as kind-hearted and as courageous as any man.”

Tokuji tried to hold back his tears. Hisae went down on her knees crying and said to her son’s gravestone, “This is the reason you returned to us.” They told Karen how Kent visited them in August. While Karen stood in disbelief, she found that the fact she was here with them explained the miracle. All three were filled with intense emotions. They laid flowers on Kent’s gravesite and put their hands together to pray. The breeze blew and shook the leaves, creating ripples on the surface of the lake. As the pages of the journal flapped in the light wind, they saw the little girl, now grown up, appear next to Karen. The postcard flew upwards and smiles of her daughter and husband appeared in the sky.

Actor Eijiro Ozaki reads “The Last Visit (Japanese title: Senjō no Mangaka)” by Junzo Arai. From the 7th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest: A Virtual Celebration on July 23, 2020. Sponsored by the Little Tokyo Historical Society in partnership with JANM's Discover Nikkei program.

 

*This is the winning story in the Japanese category of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s 7th Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.

 

© 2020 Junzo Arai

442nd fiction little tokyo war WWII

Sobre esta série

Each year, the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest heightens awareness of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo by challenging both new and experienced writers to write a story that showcases familiarity with the neighborhood and the people in it. Writers from three categories, Adult, Youth, and Japanese language, weave fictional stories set in the past, present, or future. This year’s winning stories captured the spirit and cultural essence of Little Tokyo. This year the 7th Imagine Little Tokyo brought the awards ceremony online on July 23. Actors Tamlyn Tomita, Derek Mio, and Eijiro Ozaki performed dramatic readings of the winning stories from each category.

Winners


*Read stories from other Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contests:

Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest I >>
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest II >>
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest III >>
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest IV >>
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest V >>
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest VI >>