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An American Mishima: The Soldier and the Samurai

The year was 1965. Twenty years had passed since the end of the catastrophic war that left much of Japan reduced to ashes. Since that time, Japan had rebuilt with modern industries and towering metropolises. There, in a darkly lit room with gray carpet stood Soji Nishida now 40 years of age looking out his Tokyo hotel room window marveling at the cityscape lining the rainy afternoon sky. It reminded him much of his boyhood home before the war back in Seattle. Oh how he wished he could see Mt. Fuji! The thought of his grandfather peeking out of the rain washed window to awe the disappearing Mt. Rainier brought a tear from his eye and a nostalgic smile to his face. Tall and slender in stature like his father Makoto Nishida before him, Soji cut an impressive silhouette. He looked every bit the modern man at the helm of his industry for his era. Confident, and most conservative in appearance much like any Tokyo conglomerate executive. Yet, his American upbringing set him apart as much as his distinct accent.

Soji Nishida stood there with his arms folded marveling at the wonder of the new city below him that was rebuilt from the ruins of the Second World War. Oh what a different world it had become since his grandfather last laid eyes on Tokyo. Soji could recall his grandfathers countless stories of Japan during the Meiji Era. The thought made Soji teary eyed as he thought back to his days of his youth in Seattle. His grandfather told him many tales but it was the story of his grandfather’s remarkable wartime experience in Manchuria that appealed to him most. So much so, he had written a small account of his grandfather’s tale which that appeared in several publications that drew the attention of the Yomiuri Shimbun—a popular newspaper in Japan. Soji had come on the newspaper’s invitation to Tokyo to tell his grandfathers remarkable story though largely in part through an interpreter. Though he could pass for any modern Japanese businessman of 1965 with his slicked back hair, pressed black suit, white shirt, and skinny tie, his Japanese language skills were somewhat limited and tinged with a West Coast American accent. Yet despite this, he appeared as a spitting image of his father Makoto Nishida spending the last three days telling his story. But it was in one timely moment that something caught Soji’s attention.

It was a tiny glint of light that reflected from a pin in Miss Ishikawa’s classic 1960’s updo hairstyle that shined in his eye transporting him elsewhere. 'Yes. I’ve seen this before,' he thought. And then it occurred to him what it was that sparked a memory back to life! It was an event he had long forgotten about that took place one ugly morning on March 3rd 1942 during the last day of the forced Relocation of all Americans of Japanese Ancestry. Every Nikkei throughout the Seattle—Tacoma area including Bainbridge Island were being rounded up and sent off to what was conveniently called the “War Relocation Camps” which were nothing more than hastily built wooden barracks surrounded by barbed wire and machine gun nests situated in the middle of nowhere deep in the country’s interior. Such camps created by President FDR’s executive order 9066 were nothing more than America’s concentration camps. An idea born out
of cultural ignorance and wartime hysteria in which people of Japanese ancestry were believed to be sympathetic to Japan for some unlikely Japanese invasion of the US West Coast. It was a dark chapter for Japanese Americans and for America itself.

It was an ugly day of unbearable heartbreak and betrayal Soji could not understand nor accept. But as he revisited the memories of that day, they took life again as if happening once more. It seemed like yesterday that he had looked out the big picture bay window of the family home on Washington Street to that dark gray sky looming overhead befitting the mood of what had been taking place throughout Japanese-American communities all along the US West Coast and Hawaii. Through that window one could see the school bus waiting down the corner of lined with scores US Army soldiers and Seattle Policemen placing barricades. Everyone was ordered to tie a small vanilla tag with their names written on them as they awaited their turn to board the buses that would take them away from Seattle to some unknown destination for the duration of the war.

Young Soji Nishida was then a 16 year old teenager and his sister Makiko was 13 at the time. They had both been forced out of public school days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. These were dark days for the Nishida Family of Seattle as was for many Japanese-American families living in the “Land of the Free.” For Soji, a traumatic day he wished never happened. Everything he had been taught in US Government Class was now invalidated. He had been stripped of his rights as a US Citizen. He could no longer walk down the street without someone shouting 'Remember Pearl Harbor!” or calling him one of many racial slurs hurled at him and other Asian-Americans. Like his sister and the rest of his friends, he resented being called a “Jap” or an “Enemy Alien,” but there was nothing he could do. But if life was harsh for a teenager, the realities of the wartime hysteria were worse on the adults. While Chinese businesses were forced to put up signs reading 'We’re Chinese,' Japanese business owners were forced out of business. Soji’s father Makoto was forced to sell the family business to one of his suppliers. Everything they owned had to be sold or abandoned. It was a terrible time to be Nikkei.

Shikata ga nai,” said his distraught father as he looked out the picture window with his colorful wide neck tie loosened. A term many of Soji’s parents generation repeated over and over meaning in what could be best surmised in translation as ’It could not be helped.' This angered Soji to no end for there was nothing he could do but stand there watching a world gone mad as he waited for the soldiers to walk up from across the street to escort his family to the bus. There was nowhere he could go without being called a “Jap.” This frustrated him as much as it made him angry. As Soji fumed, his mother Mayuko donned her best wool coat over her favorite dress with her hair affixed in high 1940’s rolls. On the other hand, his father Makoto stood motionless in his tan business suit with his loosened neck tie dangling from his shirt collar as if his heart had been torn out from him as his wife Mayuko looked around for her spirited daughter Makiko.

“Where’s Maki?” asked her mother. “I don’t know,” replied Soji. His mother Mayuko stood there at the entrance leading to the kitchen clenching her gloved fists placed firmly on her hips. “Well go find her!” she ordered. “Fine!” grumbled Soji as he marched on out the back. And that’s when it was. Maki was out back in her blue floral dress with her hair piled high in rolls looking indignant as she shoveled a deep hole next to a fence post. “Damn sis!” he exclaimed as he could see Maki had destroyed her mother’s entire garden. “They are not getting anything!” she cried. “We got to go sis,” he said. Makiko ignored her brother and continued shoveling in her brown court shoes making her white ankle socks covered with dirt. “Maki!” her mother called. Makiko stood defiant as she stopped shoveling. She looked up to her older brother and sighed. “Say, do you still have that old metal toolbox?” she asked. “Yeah, for now,” he remarked. “Well get it quickly!” “What the hell for? We can’t take anything that resembles a tool without them taking it away,” argued Soji. “Don’t be a big butt head. Just do it!” Ignoring his mother’s calls, Soji raced to the back shed and sifted through the discarded tools and junk that had been thrown around since the evacuation order was handed to them. Soji found the small metal toolbox and emptied its contents onto the sheds floor before racing over to his sister. “Here it is,” he said. Right then she reached up into her dress. “Maki what the hell are you doing?” “Don’t look you perv!” she said.“Gross! Seriously Maki! What are you doing?” he asked. “Don’t say anything but I had to hide this,” she said. And there! Wrapped in a black cloth was the treasured tanto knife. The very knife that once belonged to Harada Sanosuke.

“Maki! Soji! They’re coming!” cried their mother. Soji held open the metal toolbox as Maki placed the carefully wrapped knife into the toolbox before burying into the deep hole she had dug. “Listen: Ojiisan said it waited in the ground for Grandpa to find. It will wait again for another Nishida,” she promised. And with moments to spare she shoveled the hole with dirt burying Harada’s tanto knife once more. Soji used his feet to scoop in dirt into the hole and when it was filled they both jumped onto the dirt to pack it in. “Now Maki! Now!” cried Mayuko. With tears in their eyes, the siblings shook their heads in agreement before walking back into the house for the last time. Soji could see his father donning his best wool overcoat and stepping outside the door with his hands up to surrender to the soldiers awaiting him in their long brown wool field coats with pointed rifles and fixed bayonets. As Soji followed his weeping mother, Maki grabbed Soji’s arm. “Just remember, this isn’t the end,” she said. Soji shook his head in agreement as he stepped outside the front door. “Move along Jap,” said one soldier. “Hey I’m an American you Nazi!” rebuked Soji. Suddenly, one soldier instantly took offense and aimed his rifle butt ready to strike the angry teen in the head. “Who you calling Nazi? I’m Jewish!” Instantly, two other soldiers raced over to restrain him drawing the attention of his sergeant who watched from the sidewalk. “Stand down Herschel!” ordered Sergeant Bowers.

“But Sarge, didn’t you hear what this kid just called me?” protested Private Herschel. The older robust looking Sergeant Bowers walked up from the sidewalk and grabbed the indignant private by his necktie. “I don’t care what he called you. These people are losing everything they own. Hell, I’d be pissed too if this happened to my family. While I don’t agree with it, our orders are still orders and we still have to get this done. So you stand down and keep your mouth shut. Now that’s an order!” ordered Bowers.

Soji Nishida stepped past the restrained private and glared into his eyes with deep resentment. Makoto Nishida said nothing as he placed his arm around his son’s shoulder as they walked towards the awaiting bus. Mayuko came out next from the front doorway holding her teenage daughter Makiko’s hand. Mayuko stopped for a moment and looked with a tear into the eyes of Sergeant Bowers who shook his head acknowledging her pain before walking down to the awaiting bus. No sooner than Herschel was let go, Makiko turned her head and shouted; “We’ll be back!” “Yeah-yeah,” said one soldier. “This is our country too! You hear me assholes?” defiantly shouted Makiko at which point Sergeant Bowers stepped in to appeal to cooler heads. “Hey! Don’t make this any worse than this has to be,” replied Sergeant Bowers. “We’ll be back! We’ll all be back! You’ll see!” she shouted. It was the memory of that day Soji did his best to forget. But from his sister’s defiance, now came renewed sense of hope.

 

*This article is an American Mishima excerpt from the upcoming historical novel 'The Soldier and the Samurai' by Louis Edward Rosas.

© 2013 Louis Edward Rosas

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