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 first installment here: 1
The night of the storm, Osato barely got any sleep, and before she knew it, it was almost sunrise. Just as the bit of sky in the small, round porthole started to turn a faint purplish-gray, Osato sat up in her bed and spent a moment gazing around the cabin. Everyone was still fast asleep, exhausted from the previous night’s ordeal. In the dim light cast by the electric lamps, which flickered eerily over the pale, travel-weary faces of the sleeping passengers, not a trace of movement could be seen. Everything was weighed down by an overwhelming sense of gloomy silence.
Osato sighed heavily. Her bloodshot eyes ached painfully in the brightening light, and she felt uneasy, as if something strange was clinging to the walls of her chest.
“What should I do? What should I do?” These words shrieked and echoed within her mind. But there was no use carrying on like that.
She gathered her courage and stepped out of her bunk. The other woman was still sound asleep. Osato could not help feeling jealous. After slipping into her kimono, she walked out of the cabin and climbed the stairs to the upper deck, a trek she had made countless times before. When she finally arrived at the top of the stairs, she cracked open the thick door, and her face was blasted by a cold gust of ocean wind. She shivered. The darkness of night had all but vanished. The sun was just about to rise. Osato leaned forward, wobbled toward the starboard cabin, and crouched down beneath a window.
The morning after the storm seemed much calmer than usual, but they were still on open water, and the seas remained rough. The cold north wind whipped relentlessly across the surface of the ocean. Each dark swell sent sea spray dancing into the air, and the dozens of pale gray seagulls that trailed the ship filled the sky with their piercing cries. Off in the distance, across the vast expanse of ocean, the sun began to rise.
Osato fixed her gaze to the east.
The red, red sun was rising.
The eastern sky turned purple, then amber. The deck of the ship looked as if it was covered in reed mats woven with yellow gold.
Osato clasped her hands together. After whispering a few words, she stared across the deep blue sea, continuing her pious morning prayer.
The sky was stunningly blue and clear.
But the north wind blew like the devil, and the fearsome waves of the Pacific Ocean still beat relentlessly against the hull. Exhausted, Osato was no longer able to keep her eyes open, and they began to flutter shut.
Just after sunrise, two men from the third-class cabin appeared on the deck. For a while, they didn’t speak, but then they began talking to one another. They would occasionally cast backward glances in Osato’s direction. She did her best to look as if she wasn’t paying attention.
“Any day now, huh?”
“Yeah, probably tomorrow morning.”
“No, even earlier. One of the crew told me we’ll be there at around one in the morning.”
“One o’clock… Is that so?”
“That’s what the man said.”
“If we get there at one, it’ll be the middle of the night… Well, better late than never…. At least we’ll finally get to San Francisco… If all goes well.”
“That’s about the size of it.”
The first speaker, a cheerful-looking man in his forties with a tanned face, stood up from the deck and turned to smile at the other man, a dignified-looking fellow who was perhaps five or six years older. The dignified man was leaning with his back against the cabin doorway, staring out at the eastern sky. Their eyes met for a moment, and a flush of merriment appeared on their dark, salt-weathered faces.
“I brought my son with me this time. We’re planning to work together as hard as we possibly can. We’ll stick it out for three years, and after that I think I’ll probably head back to Japan,” the dignified man said.
“That’s great. I envy your good fortune. It must be wonderful to have such a fine son.”
“Heh, heh, heh.” The dignified man had a small, strange-sounding laugh.
“And how old is your son?
“He’ll be eighteen this year. Being poor is a horrible thing… He’s all grown up now, but his mind hasn’t caught up with his body. Makes me worry all the time. He’s so self-centered, and not really good at anything, so even after taking the trouble to bring him along with me, I still worry about his future.”
“Don’t worry. Nothing bad will happen. You’ve just got to hold it together.”
“Heh, heh, heh.” The dignified father laughed with pride.
“No matter what happens, things will end up all right. If the two of you work as hard as you can for three years, you won’t have to worry about starving.”
“That depends on my son…”
“Stop it already. I’m sure everything will work out.”
Osato was completely absorbed by their conversation. The shadows of five or six more passengers were already flickering about the deck.
View next installment here: 3
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.