By Shōson Nagahara
Some 87 years ago, Japanese American writer Shōson Nagahara serialized a novel, “A Tale of Osato,” in the pages of The Rafu Shimpo. Now, for the first time ever, Nagahara’s writings have been translated into English and published by Kaya Press in a collection called “Lament in the Night.” To commemorate, The Rafu will once again serialize Nagahara’s work, translated by Andrew Leong. Stay tuned for weekly installments that follow the life of Osato-San, a young Japanese woman who makes the treacherous journey to America and struggles to survive in 1920s Los Angeles. View previous installments here: 1 2 3 4
It had been almost half a year since Ryōsaku had returned from America and asked for her hand in marriage. Of course, since they were cousins, there was no need to show any reserve. When Ryōsaku asked for her hand, Osato was bound by duty to accept.
As far as she was concerned, Ryōsaku was far from the most attractive man in the world. On top of that, he was nineteen years older than she was, and he had the kind of face that wouldn’t stick out in a crowd. His build was definitely not on the strong and manly side either. Still, he seemed like an extremely good-natured, if somewhat faint-hearted, man.
That Noda Ryōsaku is a shy one, a real quiet type.î Everybody said the same thing. For her part, Osato didn’t mind that he was the quiet type. As long as he wasn’t perverted or violent, it was fine. Even if a man was a little on the lazy side, if the woman kept her act together, the man would follow her example—that’s what Osato thought.
They had been married for only two months before they boarded the ship in Yokohama. The short period of married life they had shared in Japan had been surprisingly enjoyable. Ryōsaku was extremely kind and considerate to her, and Osato also became fond of him. When he told her that he would take her with him on his next trip to America, it was clear that his heart was overflowing with joy.
Their hearts were tied together through their shared dream of settling in a glorious new world—
America. They couldn’t be any happier. At bedtime, Ryōsaku would her tell stories about all the things that she didn’t yet know about America. Osato never tired of asking him to tell her more stories about that strange land. She couldn’t control the excitement beating in her chest. It felt almost like a dream. America! The land of freedom! The land of wealth! Ryōsaku’s stories could hardly satisfy her sense of curiosity.
Osato had been born and raised in the heart of Tokyo, so from a very young age, she had been accustomed to the sights and smells of downtown. Tokyo, the Emperor’s capital, was the liveliest city in all of Japan. But all the excitement of Tokyo and all the beauty of the capital were nothing compared to what America had in store for them.
Thanks to all the stories she’d heard from Ryōsaku, Osato’s heart had already flown off to America.
It didn’t matter that he was almost twenty years older than she was. As long as they went together to America and earned their money, everything would be all right.
Osato was barely eighteen years old.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon when it was announced that the ship would arrive at the Port of San Francisco two hours ahead of schedule.
The announcement caused a stir among the passengers. Since departing from Yokohama, they had spent eighteen long days with nothing to see but the dark blue swells of the open ocean. Now, an indescribable sense of vitality returned to their tired, worn faces. Even the way the passengers spoke became more animated and lively. Young women, their faces covered in thick make-up, happily went about gathering up belongings that had been thrown about during the long journey. Cantonese men peeled off their greasy Chinese garments and proudly donned neatly tailored Western outfits.
On that last day of the long sea voyage, the ship was a chaos of activity from noon to dusk. The passengers were floating on air, their hearts dancing with happiness. They were thrilled to be free from the endless monotony of life on board, the weeks spent with nothing to see but sky and ocean. They were even more excited by the prospect of finally setting foot on that shining, shining promised land that awaited them.
Some of the young men whistled and danced to a song from the Obon festival. Someone else had picked up a violin and was playing it clumsily while singing a made-up tune. He was even wearing a kimonoÖ
ìWell, this is the last day we can wear Japanese clothes,î the young women said to one another. ìNo matter how nice they look, they’re just going to end up being pajamas, so let’s not waste the chance to wear them one last time.î
Although the rest of the passengers were in high spirits, Osato was relatively calm. Lost in reflection, she could not help feeling a little lonely. Though she couldn’t precisely define what she was feeling, the truth was that she often worried that she had no one to rely upon. Apart from her one conversation with her husband that morning, she hadn’t gotten another chance to speak with him all day. She had tried speaking to him countless times, but good-for-nothing Ryōsaku had spent the whole day fast asleep, never once coming out from beneath his blankets.
Osato couldn’t help feeling frustrated. She couldn’t discuss anything with Ryōsaku. Whenever she tried to talk with him, he would just tell her to shut up and leave him alone before she could even get a word out.
Osato was lonely. Lost in thought, she barely paid attention as she packed up her belongings.
The enormous hull of the Seiyō Maru slowly drew near the mouth of the Golden Gate.
It was late at night.
In foreign ports, the nights are cold. The lights of San Francisco shone upon the ocean, dancing on the waves. Enormous ocean liners, black and huge, passed alongside the flanks of the Seiyō Maru. The sounds of ship horns from deep inside the harbor echoed over the bay. The countless stars of mid-September shone brightly in the sky above, and a cold mist had risen from the dark waters of the ocean.
San Francisco! The harbor of hopes and dreams!
The passengers on the Seiyō Maru gazed out over the ocean, their eyes transfixed by the sight of San Francisco at night.
Osato and Ryōsaku stepped onto the deck, pointing to the lights that hovered in the darkness. Osato’s mood began to brighten as she spoke with Ryōsaku. It was as if all the troublesome thoughts and worries that had occupied her since that morning had disappeared without a trace. Really, this was no time to be worrying about such things! The land she had always dreamed of was right before her eyes, drawing closer and closer. Osato’s heart was so consumed by this vision that nothing, no tiny dissatisfaction, no nagging concern, could distract her.
As that shining land unfurled before her, Osato felt a limitless gratitude for her bright future.
She could barely contain her excitement and happiness. She wasn’t alone that evening. Surely others felt the same way. Her Ryōsaku certainly did. No, not just the two of them. Surely every single passenger that had crossed the ocean aboard the Seiyō Maru felt this same feeling. And surely, every one of our countrymen now living in America remembers what it was like to have felt this way.
Osato clung tightly to Ryōsaku’s arm.
“Tomorrow we’re really going to become Americans, aren’t we?” Osato tried to speak with confidence.
Ryōsaku nodded vigorously and smiled. Osato continued to chatter away.
“We’ll work hard, we’ll earn money, the two of us together. If we work as hard as we can, soon we’ll be rich. In one year, we can save ten thousand yen. That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?”
Ryōsaku, who knew the reality of America, felt like bursting into laughter. He didn’t have the heart to say, “Oh, Osato, you don’t have a clue.” It would have been a pity to spoil her good spirits, so Ryōsaku had no choice but to try his best not to laugh. Osato seemed so happy.
View next installment here: 6
Come celebrate the publication of “Lament in the Night” (Kaya Press, December 2012) at an event featuring readings and discussion with translator Andrew Leong, Los Angeles Times Book Critic David L. Ulin and special guests, on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013 at 2 p.m. at the Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave. (at First Street), Los Angeles.