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 5
In the middle of Ryōsaku and Osato’s conversation, the Seiyō Maru drew up alongside Pier 1. The skin color of the people coming and going on the pier was completely different. Their eyes were different colors, too. And the words they shouted at one another were utterly incomprehensible to most of the people on board the Seiyō Maru. Everything was strange. Although they had traveled four thousand miles, it was still only one ocean. How could things be so different?
That difference was stranger than strange.
As Osato watched the movements of the white laborers coming and going along the pier, she couldn’t help feeling moved to tears.
When the ship finally docked, a loading crane began to deposit the cargo that had been brought all the way from Japan. The shrieking, rattling sounds of the crane echoed ominously across the nighttime harbor.
At two in the morning, the first-class passengers disembarked. An elderly woman dressed in a Japanese kimono stood out from the crowd—she seemed to be a traveling artist of some sort. Then there was a young man who looked like some kind of banker. He pranced about with a snobbishly affected briskness. The other twenty or thirty first-class passengers, wearing whatever clothes they pleased, also walked down the gangplank towards the customs office. And then, all of a sudden, calm returned to the pier.
The moment the first-class passengers vanished from sight, Osato felt a twinge of envy. It occurred to her that the only reason she couldn’t travel to America in first-class was because she didn’t have money. She also couldn’t help thinking once again that Ryōsaku was a timid good-for-nothing. She knew she was prone to falling into this kind of pessimism. She knew she shouldn’t give in to such thoughts. There was no use thinking so poorly of her husband. The more she reflected on her state of mind, the more she regretted her shameful thoughts.
At the same time, she felt a wave of ambition rising in her heart—someday she and her husband would have as much status as those other people. She was sure of it. As long as she and Ryōsaku worked with every fiber in their bodies, they too would join the upper crust of society.
Thoughts like these went through Osato’s mind, one after the other.
As “immigrants,” Osato and Ryōsaku—indeed all the second- and third-class passengers—were strictly forbidden from leaving the ship until dawn. They would not be able to step foot on the actual soil of America until the following morning.
Osato could do nothing but wait impatiently.
After arriving in San Francisco, Oriental immigrants were usually sent directly to Angel Island, but for some reason, officials broke with standard procedure and conducted the examination of third-class passengers on the Seiyō Maru itself. Worse, it looked as though the examinations would be even more detailed than usual. The eye examinations began at around nine in the morning.
The third-class passengers were divided into two groups, male and female, and each group was lined up single-file on the ship’s deck. Three immigration officers and two doctors examined each person one by one. It didn’t seem as if many people were failing the inspection.
When Osato’s turn came, she realized in terror that her eyes were still bloodshot from the morning. But showing no sign of her fear, she stood calmly in front of the doctor. He was a giant of a man. Without a word of warning, he pried open her eyelid with his enormous fingers and peered into her exposed eyeball.
Osato shivered in apprehension, but the doctor just turned and muttered something to the inspector before moving on to the next woman in line.
Osato felt a wave of relief, but she wasn’t able to relax just yet. Ryōsaku was pulled out of line and had to undergo a more thorough inspection, which took almost two hours. When the inspection was finally over, he came out to where Osato was waiting, a gigantic smile on his face.
“So, how did it go?” Ryōsaku asked affectionately.
Osato was pleased. “Well, it looks like I passed.”
“That’s great. Looks like they’ve got no complaints about me, either.”
They smiled sweetly at each other. Then they walked together towards the stern of the ship. “Now we just have to go in front of the immigration officer, and after that, we should finally be done,” Ryōsaku said cheerfully.
“Is he going to ask about anything in particular?”
“No, he’ll just check our passports.”
“Just the passports?”
“There’s no way anything could be wrong with our passports, right?” Osato asked in a sweet, half-joking tone.
“Of course not!” Ryōsaku declared confidently.
“He’s not going to ask me anything?”
“What would he ask you about?”
“What do you mean, ‘what would he ask me about?’”
“As long as you don’t say anything, it’ll be fine.”
“But I’m still worried.”
“Worried? Don’t be an idiot.” Ryōsaku laughed loudly.
Above the foreign harbor, a flock of seagulls cried.
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.