By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Author Shoson Nagahara probably never dreamed that his works would be celebrated, or even read, nearly 90 years after they were first published.
His 1925 novella “Lament in the Night” (Yoru ni Nageku) has been translated into English for the first time by Andrew Leong and published by Kaya Press, which recently held a book launch at the Japanese American National Museum, complete with readings by actors and screenings of trailers.
Nagahara, who was a day laborer, “reveals the dark underbelly of first-generation immigrant Japanese life — a life lived out in obscure alleyways and bar houses just beyond the bright lights of the big city,” according to the trailer, which proclaims, “An American classic has come to life.”
The trailer, which can be seen on YouTube, provides this sample of Nagahara’s prose: “If the souls of the dead are reborn from the graveyards of torment, suffering, and defeat, then what bright promise might lie in Sakuzo’s future? Only death. The only thing waiting for him was the dark, red specter of death.”
The book also includes “The Tale of Osato,” which is about an Issei woman’s struggles in America. It was serialized in The Rafu Shimpo during the mid-1920s, and in the last few months The Rafu has been publishing excerpts of the translation.
Speakers at the book launch included Prince Gomolvilas, associate director of the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC; Greg Kimura, CEO of JANM; and Sunyoung Lee, publisher and editor of Kaya Press. The event was also presented by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.
Lee said of the book, “It was published actually by a publisher that was located right here on First Street. It’s the very first time a book of Issei literature has been published in its entirety in English, so in many ways it’s a historic occasion as well as a historical work, and we are so excited to have brought it back here to Little Tokyo, which is where it started.
“The reason why we were so thrilled initially to bring this out is that there is very little Asian American literature that has been translated from original languages, so we think that this is really the beginning of a potential for deep excavation into our collective histories, the history of Los Angeles and the history of American literature, and we’re very proud to be a part of that.”
Actor Gedde Watanabe, whose credits include “Pacific Overtures” on Broadway, the movie “Mulan” and the TV series “ER,” did the voiceover for the trailer and gave a reading at the book launch. The excerpt showed the depths of the main character’s despair:
“Ishikawa Sakuzo was starving. The night before, he’d picked up a piece of watermelon from the floor of the public market. That must have been what had given him food poisoning. He’d been up since dawn, wracked by five or six bouts of gut-wrenching diarrhea. Sharp, unending cramps tore through his belly. As the day grew dark and turned to night, his hunger grew even worse. He would have swallowed anything just to fill his stomach.”
In Chapter 1, Sakuzo searches his pockets and finds he only has a penny, which even in those days was worthless. He ends up eating at a restaurant and, when the check comes, pretending that he has lost his wallet. Fortunately, the proprietors believe him and say he can pay them later. Sakuzo feels some remorse but also feels he has been given a new lease on life, at least for one night.
Actress Tamlyn Tomita, whose credits include the movie “The Joy Luck Club” and the TV shows “Glee,” “Days of Our Lives” and “Law and Order: L.A.,” provided the voiceover for the “Tale of Osato” trailer, which was also shown at the book launch.
“After the publication and success of ‘Lament in the Night,’ The Rafu Shimpo … offered Shoson Nagahara a six-month contract to produce a serial novel entitled ‘The Tale of Osato,’” she explained. “Published from 1925 in November to May 1926, ‘Osato’ appeared on the front page for every day of its publication. It tells the story of a young immigrant woman from Japan who has to fend for herself after being abandoned by her gambling-addicted husband.”
In the first excerpt read by Tomita, Osato and her husband, Ryosaku, have just arrived in San Francisco from Japan: “Osato started to weep. And why shouldn’t she? Her husband had completely ignored the fact that this was her very first day in America. Osato had been filled with hope that he would show her the sights around town … Even though Ryosaku was her husband, she couldn’t help feeling angry and resentful. The more she realized what a careless and inconsiderate person he was, the angrier she became. Her previous willingness to believe in Ryosaku’s good faith had been shattered.”
The second excerpt, in the form of letter from Osato to her brother, takes place many years later, during the Prohibition era: “Ryosaku left me, Taro was taken from me, and somehow or another, I ended up in this red light district, with no choice but to shower attention on perfect strangers … I am a stronger woman than one would expect. I even had the craven audacity not to kill myself. Still, I know my own strength. Thanks to this, no matter what happens, no matter what turns my life may take, I will survive.”
Born in Oakland, translator Leong is a fifth-generation Chinese American on his father’s side and second-generation Japanese American on his mother’s side. He received his Ph.D. in comparative literature from UC Berkeley and teaches English and Japanese literature at Northwestern University. He appeared at the book launch in conversation with Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin, who edited “Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology” and wrote the introduction to “Lament in the Night.”
Leong stressed that he did not really “discover” Nagahara’s work: “I found a bibliographic reference to ‘Lament in the Night’ in a work produced by historians working at UCLA. Yuji Ichioka and others composed a beautiful bibliography called ‘A Buried Past’ (1974), which contained records and small notes about various Japanese-language works that they’d come across in their research. And the note for ‘Lament in the Night’ was for me incredibly evocative.
“It was just 20 words. It was something like ‘A novel where the hero is a petty thief and penniless bum … A rarely mentioned example of Issei failure’ … That triggered me to want to really read this novel. What is this ‘Issei failure’?”
He didn’t have to go far to find the book. “I was at UC Berkeley at the time, and they happened to have a copy in open circulation. This is crazy because to my knowledge there are only five extant copies of the original novel … So I took it home with me … I just fell in love with the novel. It presented something that I’d never really seen before either in Japanese American history or in the Japanese literature that I was studying.”
Leong was fascinated by Sakuzo, “a migrant laborer [who] ends up in Los Angeles and starts living the life of a beggar. He picks up rotten peels of watermelons from the ground, he steals food from other Japanese, he panhandles. That was kind of the negative side of the American dream, so the myth of Issei success is also paired with the reality for many Issei of finding themselves in a position of abject poverty …
“‘Failure’ means that you fail to marry, you fail to have a family, you fail to succeed … A bachelor doesn’t produce Nisei, so that kind of got me thinking about this problem of generational transfer, what kind of stories got told and what kind of stories appear in literature. As far as I know, Shoson had no children. This is his legacy.”
Asked about what kind of reception Nagahara’s works got at the time, Leong said, “Because Shoson knew that he was writing for an audience that was suffering through the same conditions and saw people living in these conditions every day, that made it more possible for him to put it in literature. Actually, in the reviews that I also translated at the end of the book, he got a lot of flak for presenting this kind of very hard-hitting and gritty look at life in Little Tokyo … [Things like] thievery and intimations of prostitution and drinking and gambling … weren’t seen as literary because they were too real.”
Leong came across “Tale of Osato” at JANM’s Hirasaki National Resource Center. He was looking at microfilm of The Rafu to see if anything was written about the publication of “Lament in the Night,” and in addition to the reviews, he found the first installment of “Osato.”
“Because it’s a serial novel, I had to keep on going,” he recalled. Because of the difficulty of making copies from microfilm, he had to come back to JANM a year later to find three missing installments.
“Osato” was not a sequel to “Lament,” but Leong saw some parallels. He said that Ryosaku might be the person Sakuzo would become if he “finds some way to get his life somewhat back together, gets enough money in order to go back to Japan and marry … but then falls back into his same old habits of drinking, gambling and cheating on his wife … Although it’s not a direct sequel, in many ways it picks up on the same kinds of themes but extends them in a much broader scope.”
“We learned that he boarded a ship in Kobe, landed in Seattle, came to Magna, Utah, when he was about 17 or 18 years old. His father was already working as a mine worker or laborer for the Utah Copper Mining Company … He may have wandered through the United States, maybe as far east as Pittsburgh, as kind of a tramp … before landing in Los Angeles sometime in the early 1920s.”
Leong added, “There’s a real tiny note … on his immigration record which seems to suggest that he applied for a re-entry visa, so he wanted to go back to Japan and then return to the U.S., but that’s the last record. We don’t know when he died, where he died.”
Nagahara’s name does not appear in the 1930 U.S. Census or the camp records of the War Relocation Authority.
Some of his works have yet to be found, including two novels, “Tsubame no Ie” (Home of the Swallows) and “Arano” (Wilderness). He is also known to have translated Norwegian author Knut Hamsun’s novel “Pan” into Japanese. At the National Diet Library in Tokyo, Leong found a 1928 play by Nagahara, “Sariyukumono” (The Ones Who Leave), and is in the process of translating it.
“It’s about a family in the Central Valley. It’s a mixed-generation family — an Issei patriarch … sort of a 1.5-generation eldest son, two younger siblings who are Nisei,” he said. “And various sordid extramarital/premarital affairs that cause the destruction of the family. It’s very Tennessee Williams, done in a Japanese American Central Valley farming village.”
Leong finds Nagahara’s characters compelling because “they’re separated physically from their roots, but they can’t actually achieve the American dream of fully separating from their past and becoming wealthy, successful, full Americans. They’re haunted by memories of their life in Japan or memories of their failures in the United States.”
He is also translating a 1909 collection of three novellas by Shogyo Tamura, “Hokubei no Hana” (Flowers of North America), “which is in a much different kind of classical, pastoral mode … Hopefully it’s a little bit happier. When I was translating and writing the afterword for [Nagahara’s] works, I couldn’t really take more than two or three hours before really feeling the despair, so something lighter, I think, would be good …
“There are many, many other works from this period, so I hope that other people who are studying Japanese … will take up some of the slack and start translating these works, too.”
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo