FICTION: The Tale of Osato, Part 1

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Originally published on December 5, 2012

By Shōson Nagahara

Osato illustration by Patricia Wakida

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 (beginning this Wednesday, January 16) 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.

(Osato-San, 1925-1926)

Part One

1.

“Oh! What a horrible storm! How frightful!” Osato’s voice trembled as she peered down at the bunk below. The young woman in the lower bunk was from Aizu and seemed to be around eighteen years old. Osato wasn’t quite sure what her name was, something like Fujiko… or Fusako… Anyway, that was what her husband had called her.

The young woman thrust her head out from her bunk and looked up at Osato.

“It really is…and it’s getting worse…just when I thought the worst was over… I think I’m going to be sick.”

The young woman grimaced, causing her swollen cheeks to take on a strange, twisted expression. Sweat streaked through her thick white make-up, exposing yellow patches of skin. Her enormous coiffure drooped down in gloomy disarray, making it seem as if her neck no longer had the strength to support her head.

“This is even worse than being on the Bōshū Sea!”

Osato’s voice was sharp with fear.

“It’s horrible… The Bōshū Sea is always bad, but running into a storm like this out here is even worse. There are still two or three more days before we reach America.” The young woman’s voice was filled with terror.

“I can’t stand it. Just thinking about what would happen if we sank out here… Oh, how awful!”

Osato shivered, her teeth chattering uncontrollably. She felt as though someone had poured ice down her spine. Her mind froze in terror.

The two women fell silent. As if by mutual agreement, they pulled their heads back into their bunks, shutting their eyes in a desperate bid to calm their growing anxiety.

But the storm outside grew even worse. Violent gusts of wind buffeted the ship, sending volleys of rain like sharp arrows against its steel hull. The Seiyō Maru listed until it seemed on the verge of capsizing, but every time the ship tilted to one side, an enormous wave would slam it back to the other.

Some of the passengers were thrown out of their bunks and forced to roll and crawl their way across the floor. A woman in the first-class cabin let out a piercing shriek. She was a mother of two. Her children squealed and cried as if they’d been set on fire. A pall of terror fell upon every single woman on the ship, but time, as always, continued along its ceaseless path.

2.

The storm lasted all evening.

However, right after midnight, the rain suddenly stopped and the winds died down. The dark and heavy clouds parted slightly to reveal occasional glimpses of the mid-September moon through the thin veil of mist that remained. The ship’s passengers, who had been consumed with fright for hours, finally let out sighs of relief. After turning to each other and exchanging a few smiles, they lay down their exhausted bodies and let their heads fall to their pillows. A deep silence fell over the women’s cabin. The mother of two yawned deeply as she lay upon her bed and nursed her young infant.

Even the light cast by the ship’s lamps seemed to have brightened a little, but the ship continued to sway violently, and the sound of the waves outside echoed just as loudly as before.

Osato was wide awake. No matter how hard she tried, she could not fall asleep. Even with her back turned against the dim light of the ship’s lamps, her eyes still itched. Worse, the fumes from the freshly white-washed boards in front of her face made her feel sick to her stomach.

Osato’s hair was in complete disarray. Her head felt like it was about to split open from all the wild thoughts going through her mind. Every muscle in her body felt strangely stiff, as if she couldn’t move anymore. She tossed her head hysterically from side to side, desperately trying to calm down. These efforts only made her feel more anxious.
Osato lifted her head and called down to the woman below her. “Sorry to bother you…”

There was no answer. Osato tried again in a less polite tone of voice. “Hey. Hello?” But it was no use.

Annoyed, Osato boldly leaned over the edge of her bed to look at the woman below. There she was, curled up, head half-covered by her blanket, sound asleep.

Osato couldn’t help feeling irritated. The sound of the waves outside weighed on her mind even more.

“If this ship were to sink in the middle of this ocean… if it really did sink…what would happen? What would happen to the ship? What would happen to this body of mine? Oh, stop thinking about it. Don’t think about it. Once you start thinking such terrifying thoughts, you won’t be able to stop.”

But the menacing sound of the waves beating against the hull of the Seiyō Maru continued. Osato curled into a ball and trembled.


View next installment here: 2

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.

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